So, yes: about Tuesday night - and absent friends: a face missing at the committee table, and a new one, slightly red in the face, looking as if he wished he were back in what must seem like the parish council tedium of Westminster City Council: here is Mr Large, the new, secondhand, seconded, pre-used, part-time, interim, temporary Monitoring Officer.
Mrs Angry greeted him cheerfully, when it was her turn to sit at the table, recognising his face from a long search on google image, looking for a nice pic for yesterday's blog, and finding a suitable shot of him sinking his weary head in his hands, which may well be a position with which he finds himself familiar, in the time he spends here, in exile, in Broken Barnet.
Not that he will spend much time here, as we discovered: but we are jumping ahead of ourselves.
This meeting was the Policy and Resources Committee, to which had been submitted the condemnatory report into Barnet's governance and legal service, written by Claer Lloyd-Jones.
No public statement had been made by the council about the findings of the report, or indeed that the investigation had been concluded: it was hidden in the agenda of this meeting, as if it were just another routine matter, of no consequence.
The significance of this report, of course, is immense, and no amount of obfuscation and denial by our Tory members can disguise the devastating consequences of the failures identified by Ms Lloyd-Jones.
But denial is, predictably, perhaps, the tactic adopted by Cornelius and his colleagues, in the face of all reason.
There was clear indication of this line of defence at a meeting the night before, held to discuss the renumeration of senior officers. The Labour leader tried to raise a point about the post of Monitoring Officer, and ask that the role should be filled by a qualified person. A reasonable, if somewhat restrained suggestion to make, one might think.
The Tory leader bristled at this unwarranted exhibition of political challenge.
This will be, he muttered dismissively, something we discuss tomorrow night. He unbent a little, and graciously admitted that he had 'some sympathy with what you are saying'. Further comments provoked a tut-tutted response: we must not assume what tomorrow's committte will decide, he said, pursing his lips.
There are, he observed, rather mystifyingly, levels of sophistication here ...
Are there, thought Mrs Angry, looking round the room?
The Labour leader ploughed on dutifully, pushing for clarification over the qualifications of the next MO.
There was, she sensed, a certain amount of turbulence, around that role ...
Turbulence, thought Mrs Angry. Indeed there is.
Or you might go further, if you were less polite, and say there is a sense of being f*cked over, good and proper, by a conniving, lazy, incompetent Tory administration, being led by the nose by their own senior management team. Around that role.
But, see: this is why Mrs Angry did not pursue a career in diplomacy, or the hospitality industry, and prefers to be in the eye of the storm, rather than standing by with a clipboard, at the edge, noting the change in weather.
Cornelius may have hoped for a similarly oblique exchange of opinions at P&R. If so, he must have been gravely disappointed.
Public questions he attempted to deflect with his usual assumption of innocent misunderstanding, or by a tight lipped refusal to comment. Not much he could do about questions from opposition members, especially the new ones, whose approach is somewhat more direct than he is used to, but he had carefully prepared the ground, or so he thought, by demanding absolute silence from his own Tory colleagues on the committee.
There they sat, deputy leader Dan Thomas, a sullen faced Tom Davey, Reuben Thompstone, and the inscrutable Sachin Rajput, trying to stay awake, but failing, all of them bound by the rule of omerta, agreed, and signed in blood, no doubt, at the Tory group pre-meeting before the main event.
A trio of uncharacteristically silent Tory councillors: Rajput, Thompstone and Thomas
The older but no wiser Anthony Finn was unable to keep his mouth entirely shut, sadly, and sometime actor/councillor David Longstaff also blurted something out at one point, but generally the feeling from the Tory side of the table was one of a sulky agreement to close their eyes, swallow hard, and pretend they were not there, in the hope that the ordeal would soon be all over.
This is never going to be over, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: at least, not until we say so, see. Open your eyes: yes - it's all going horribly wrong, isn't it?
Public question time is meant to be for, well, the public: but reporter Anna Slater, from the local Times, used her initiative, supported, on the night, by new information for supplementary questions, and submitted queries that, for some reason, she felt would not have been answered through the usual press channels.
She was probably right, and in fact the information chiselled out of the Tory leader and his officers by the range of questioners was pretty surprising, especially in relation to the interesting chain of events which led to the hiring and then the - not firing - but departure of the former Monitoring Officer on a basis of, what was it again ... mutual consent?
We learned from the questions submitted that Ms Salter was one of only two people who applied for her post. Both were internal applicants. Only two were shortlisted. Both were 'assessed' at an ''assessment centre' through a process involving 'a meeting exercise, written exercise, behavioural interview following Wave and Hogan psychometric testing and a technical interview'.
Mrs Angry would like to have been a fly on the wall, during the behavioural interview, wouldn't you, readers?
Following this process, we were told, one candidate withdrew and the other was deemed suitable to move through to the officer interview panel.
Oh. Deemed suitable. Doesn't say on what basis.
The ability to use a pencil, that sort of thing, probably.
Wonder why one candidate withdrew? And then: how many were invited to a final interview panel? One, of course. Hmm.
How many of these people had a legal background?
Ok, so we know that was not Ms Salter, so the person who withdrew was someone who did have a legal background, and was better qualified for the post. What a shame this person withdrew. Especially as it was now confirmed, rather startlingly, by Andrew Travers, the Chief Executive, that that person was none other than the former head of governance, and Monitoring Officer, Jeff Lustig.
Mrs Angry was amazed that the Chief Executive was happy to name this person so openly, but of course he must have taken legal advice before doing so, and - oh.
Why did the former Monitoring Officer suddenly withdraw from the process of application for his own job, a job which he clearly has undertaken for many years, with admirable skill, and for which he was very obviously the only really suitable candidate?
Could it be related to the modification of the post as one with no legal requirement?
Why would you remove that requirement, anyway?
All a great mystery, is it not?
But a lucky outcome for Ms Salter, or so it must have seemed at the time.
Back to the public questions. Mrs Angry had bunged in three, at three minutes before the deadline. The art, for the lazy blogger attending committee meetings, of course, is really in the supplementary questions, and in trying to disturb the composure of the chairwoman, in this case, the Tory leader. Pointless, but satisfying, as a form of sport.
Mrs Angry tries her best to disturb the composure of Mr Travers and Cllr Cornelius
Q: In view of the unprecedented level of criticism levelled at the standard of governance and legal services in this authority, does the Chief Executive still retain the full confidence of the Chair, and the Conservative administration, and if not, have they asked for his resignation, or has he offered to resign?
Oh dear. Rather short on information, wasn't it? Mrs Angry took her place at the table.
She confessed herself to be rather astonished by the fact that the Chief Executive - no offence, Mr Travers, she murmured, soothingly, in his direction, in case his feelings were hurt -that the Chief Executive still enjoyed the full confidence of Councillor Cornelius.
What would happen if, say, it was discovered that the caretakers of the Town Hall had, since April 2013 or thereabouts, been in the habit of leaving the doors and windows of the building unlocked, and open to intruders, every night (which they would not, and here Mrs Angry must take the opportunity to say how very polite and conscientious they are). Would they not be instantly dismissed?
And yet: here we were, with a Chief Executive who had allowed the authority to proceed without the protection of an adequate legal service, or rule of governance, and still he retained his job, and the support of the Tory leader. And despite the fact that, as the response to Q 35 makes clear:
As Head of paid Service, the Chief Executive is ultimately responsible for all officer activity.
He is surely responsible, ultimately responsible, for all serious failures by those officers, therefore, and yet ... Maryellen Salter carries the can, and the more senior officer, who has a legal duty to ensure compliance with all statutory requirements, goes scot free.
Hmm. Cornelius made one of his pained faces, the one that looks as if he might be suffering from prolonged constipation, but usually signifies a determination to avoid answering an awkward question.
In this instance, he decided to go further than merely avoiding a response, and produced an observation which was quite breathtaking in its display of indifference to the significance of Ms Lloyd-Jones' findings:
Mistakes will happen, he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Very expensive mistakes, observed Mrs Angry primly, eyebrows raised over the rim of her glasses.
Meh. What does expense matter, when it is the poor taxpayers of Broken Barnet who will pick up the bill, and not R. Cornelius and the gang of eejits sitting around the Tory end of the table?
Worse was to come.
The consequence of all this of course, said Cornelius smugly, was that there were more Conservative members on committees ...
Mrs Angry throught she must have misheard this comment, but no: he repeated it later in the evening, and it is captured on film, for your benefit.
In other words, the Tory leader is not at all bothered by the findings of the Lloyd-Jones report, or the failures that are identified, because as a result of the whole cockup, the Tories emerged with a stronger political presence on all committees, and are able to push through their shabby agenda of further privatisation and cuts in vital services. Result.
Q: The report has very serious implications for a long sequence of decisions sanctioned by the Monitoring Officer and HBPublic Law: since the findings of the report were known, has the authority taken steps to ensure the legal basis of any of those decisions, but in particular:
• all decisions made by the new committee structure which were said to be lawful, despite the non constitutional basis in which they were made?
• the dispensations Tory members have arranged from the Monitoring Officer to hide their pecuniary interests rather than declare them at council meetings
• the constitutional basis of the working groups and failure to extend the rights of members of the public in regard to council meetings
• the dismissal of certain allegations made before the decision to put other charges before the Mayor's panel hearing
A: Decisions of the Monitoring Officer were supported by legal advice, including external legal advice from leading counsel. There is no intention to revisit those decisions.
Another pretty extraordinary response: no intention to check that no other serious mistakes have been made?
Mrs Angry suggested to the Tory leader that this was absolutely incredible. This damning report, she said, confirms that you have exposed the authority to considerable risk as a result of serious failures, and your incompetence.
What was described as the 'shambles' of the full council meeting is only one instance: what about, for example, the dispensations that you required an unqualified Monitoring Officer to give Tory members so they could hide their pecuniary interests?
Was he happy that that was lawful advice, and that some of his Tory colleagues might face criminal investigations, if not, bearing in mind that failing to declare a pecuniary interest can be a criminal offence? (Earlier in the year, incidentally, Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard were surprised to hear from the MO that councillors were apparently not required to notify her of interests accrued after 28 days from the date they had been elected, when it was discovered a member had not added such an interest to their own register entry. A declaration was subsequently made, however).
Perhaps 'hide' is an exaggeration: or perhaps it is not - a nominal admission is made, but certainly by allowing those councillors to then take part in proceedings, the impression will be given to most onlookers that there was no personal benefit that might raise a conflict of interest.
Cornelius made another face, and interrupted to say that the dispensations did reveal that people 'had a property', that the point of the dispensation was to allow members to take part in debate, and to - ha ha - 'use their experience wisely' ...
That remark, as you might expect, was met with a certain amount of ribald laughter amongst the public seats. And of course the current Mayor, Hugh Rayner has plenty of experience as a landlord that he feels enables him to do just that, does he not?
Ah: so the dispensations were not so as to ensure Tory members could take part in votes and decisions from which they would, ordinarily, in the absence of such dispensations, automatically be barred, but merely so as to bring a deeper level of experience to the heady intellectual debate that we enjoy in the long moments of any Barnet committee meeting.
One would hope that no member would willingly mislead residents as to their own interests, but the question here that must be addressed is whether the authority's own advice on this matter is sufficiently robust and will protect members from accusations of wrongdoing, by taking part in such meetings.
Mrs Angry reminded Councillor Cornelius that it is on record that Ms Salter stated it was only assumed that the dispensations were constitutional, and that no one knows if they are indeed lawful, and the authority therefore may have been exposed to serious risk.
Oh: hello - here is the new Monitoring Officer (interim, on loan from Westminster) Mr Large, who thought the Localism Act did allow for dispensations, but interestingly, he said 'he would be looking at that', which suggested that there was, at the very least, an element of doubt as to the lawfulness of the use of these waivers, and he stated he would not allow any member to 'hide' any interests. Hiding, or setting to one side: one must keep asking the question -how can the granting of dispensations to cover these interests not be in conflict with the principle of full disclosure?
What is the point of the localism act requiring members to make declarations of pecuniary interests, or risk prosecution, and yet allow them to opt out of the restrictions that should apply once they had done so, in some form - simply because they want to?
How does this serve the notion of transparency, and probity in public office?
We don't know, and we need to be told, and we should have been assured of the legal status before any were allowed.
And the point is that this is only one of the many questionable decisions sanctioned in the period scrutinised by Ms Lloyd-Jones's report: how many other dubious actions approved in this time now lie open to challenge?
And on the subject of transparency, Mrs Angry's last question:
Q:The findings of the report by Ms Lloyd-Jones, commissioned in June, have been known since August, yet no public statement was issued in the form of a press release, and nothing known until October, when the matter was slipped into a report to this meeting. How is such an action compliant with the requirements of transparency and accountability to the residents and taxpayers of this borough?
A:The full report of Ms Lloyd-Jones is being presented to the first available Policy and Resources Committee meeting.
Mrs Angry came back to the table to ask about, yes, that thing again, the concept that is so hard for our Tory members to understand, the principle of transparency, and how it is best served by sneaking this report into the meeting and not making any statement beforehand to the residents and taxpayers of this borough? It seems to me, she continued, that is not what transparency is meant to be. She did not see how any of the Nolan Principles were being served in the way they had conducted themselves in the course of the last two administrations, and it seemed incredible to her that they could regard such a serious report to be of so little relevance it doesn't deserve a formal statement to the press.
Cornelius, again, wasn't bovvered. The report should be presented to councillors first, of course. Councillors could then ask Ms Lloyd-Jones, (who was sitting in the front row, next to Mrs Angry) about the report. As it happened, it would appear that for the Tory members, this was a complete waste of time, as they had nothing to ask, which is pretty astonishing, you might think.
Mrs Angry suggested that residents would therefore have to make up their own minds about the whole matter, and sat down. As she did so, you may note from the footage, the Chief Executive, arms gripped defensively across his chest, made some sort of disparaging remark to his boss. (He is his boss, is he? Sort of.)
After the public questions, it was time for Ms Lloyd-Jones to address the committee. She explained her background as a lawyer, and part time judge, and said that she had been a Monitoring Officer and worked with non legally qualified MOs, and was open minded on that subject - although later she agreed that the majority of MOs were indeed qualified lawyers.
Her job, she said, was to hold a mirror up to the council. Mrs Angry had a horrible vision, then of Medusa, and being turned to stone, rather in the manner of the Tory councillors sitting around the table, rigid with unease, looking on, in brooding silence.
We heard about the risks raised by the recent arrangements in law and governance: the loss of corporate memory, and the development of a state of ignorance in which the council could be described as one that 'doesn't know what it doesn't know'.
Time for a contribution from Andrew Travers, the Chief Executive in whom the Tory leader, as Mrs Angry was assured, retains the utmost confidence, so why he now was prevailed upon to make a somewhat limited, ritual form of 'apology' at all, is rather mysterious.
He accepted the conclusions of the report, he said. Big of you, thought Mrs Angry. And then: he would repeat the previous apology in regard to these 'shortcomings'. Not sure what previous 'apology' had taken place, or where, but his comments now did not really conjure up the impression of a man overwhelmed with regret, or any sense of personal failure.
Shortcomings, of course, are nothing serious, and besides ... mistakes will happen, as the Tory leaders so blithely informed us.
Back to questions for Claer Lloyd -Jones. The sole contribution from the Tory ranks consisted of a couple of barking comments from Anthony Finn, the sometime chairwoman of various committees, who believes that the point of scrutiny is not to be critical, but to make 'positive remarks'. The very idea of a report like this must be anathema to him, therefore.
Finn thought that all sorts of people had held the post of Monitoring Officer, including, he claimed, surveyors, and ... communists. Erm? All that was needed in the post, he said was A Clear Head.
Oh, how we chortled. We can only surmise that in the course of those behavioural interviews, Ms Salter was identified as having A Clear Head, and Mr Lustig began to wonder what the hell he was doing there in the first place. Am I right, Jeff?
Labour's Ross Houston was not convinced by Councillor Finn's suggestion. He thought that perhaps, were he to be having his tonsils removed, he might prefer to have a qualified doctor, rather than someone with, yes, A Clear Head.
A clear headed Councillor Finn
One interesting remark by Ms Lloyd Jones suggested that the fiasco over the wrongly designed committees, which required a legal opinion, which may or may not have been conclusive anyway, proved the value of an in-house legal service. she also observed that sharing legal services with Harrow could create conflicts of interest.
Cornelius reminded everyone that we had, at taken external advice. Indeed: and it is hard to see how the current arrangements, buying in legal advice from HBPublic Law and from external counsel, can possibly be cost effective, compared to in-house provision. It is rather like a family in poverty demonstrating their commitment to austerity measures by deciding to abandon their kitchen, and live on a diet of takeaways, isn't it?
Perhaps the most telling performance from the opposition councillors came from new Labour member, Paul Edwards. Paul may be a new member, but is a former union convenor of many years experience, and well versed in the art of politics. He is also refreshingly direct in his approach, and unlike some of the longer serving members, has not been brainwashed into the misapprehension that senior officers must not be challenged by councillors, because it is 'not fair'. The truth that has escaped some of the more traditionally minded members is that the council is being run by the senior management team, to their agenda, and any resemblance to the ideological idees fixes of the elected Tory group is entirely coincidental.
Councillor Edwards had a question first of all for Claer Lloyd-Jones. He produced two documents, two reports from 2013, one of which had been submitted to an Audit Committee, and both of which addressed the need to have in place a system of contract monitoring in regard to the issues now highlighted as being of concern, but these reports had not been implemented. Had she seen them? She had not.
Claer Lloyd-Jones, left, and Councillor Paul Edwards, right
How very odd, that officers had not thought to present these documents to her.
The questions - from Labour members only - continued at length. Ross Houston noted that it was crazy, in his opinion, not to have in house resources. Claer Lloyd-Jones reminded us that the deputy Monitoring Officer (yes, apparently there was one), ie Jessica Farmer, from HBpublic Law was legally qualified. Ironic, you might think, that the deputy MO had the qualifications her senior lacked.
But here is an even more interesting conundrum.
The opposition members tried hard to tease out the timeline of events leading to the departure of Maryellen Salter. Mrs Angry is not awfully confident that the timeline presented as the official version is entirely credible. Yes, shocking, is it not?
Ms Salter's employment with Barnet finished, we are told, last Thursday, the 9th October. Yet she had not been at work since some time earlier in September. Her absence was not due to suspension, nor gardening leave. During her absence, which was apparently only leave, a range of dispensations in her name was presented to Full Council, on 23rd September.
Why was Jessica Farmer's name not on that report? If, as Travers claimed in response to a public question, that Ms Farmer was the nominated deputy (which is a statutory requirement), should her name not have been on all such documents? Were those dispensations valid?
When did Ms Farmer take over as the duties of deputy, in the absence of Ms Salter? Why did Ms Salter's out of office response not explain that Ms Farmer was currently acting on her behalf, or give a return date? As another new Labour councillor, Alon Or Bach explained, her out of office message as late as 5th October gave no mention of any delegation of her duties.
Why is Ms Farmer not acting as deputy now, and why did we, in a sudden panic, last Thursday, have to acquire the part-time services (only two days a week, we heard) of Mr Large, from Westminster Council?
Why did the Chief Executive of Westminster Council say Mr Large's role in Barnet would have no impact on his responsibliities in Westminster? Is his role then purely nominal?
Back to Paul Edwards, and the issue of the withheld documents: why did officers not share these with Ms Lloyd-Jones? They raised issues of serious risk which were really pertinent.
Well, said Andrew Travers ... they tried to make sure all relevant documents were available to her. There was no attempt to conceal anything.
Councillor Edwards said he was not suggesting there had been concealment, but why had they not shown them to her? These recommendations had never been implemented.
Cornelius remarked that he thought Paul Edwards was making a statement, rather than asking a question.
The annual meeting, he conceded, had been 'a poor show'. He admitted that he originally had not considered that the MO would be someone who was not legally qualified.
Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor, could contain himself no longer. He tried to help the Tory leader out, in his own way.
You can always be your own doctor, or solicitor, he suggested, suddenly keen to think about the benefits of self-help, and keeping A Clear Head. Like Mr Shepherd himself, who has perfect clarity of thought, and could make a fair stab at being a Monitoring Officer: especially as Cllr Finn has spoken so warmly of a former communist in the role.
I know a fool when I see one, he said, monitoring the group of Tories sitting like sulky schoolboys at the far end of the room, and there are plenty of them sitting round the table.
Cornelius was feeling emboldened now, and launched into a further preposterous rebuttal of the findings of the report.
The arrangement with HBPublic Law, he said, was working very well. Yes, there were shortcomings, but, he observed, standing on the bridge, saluting, like Captain Edward Smith, as the icy waters rushed into the third class quarters down below - we must keep this in perspective.
All that's happened, he repeated, as the rest of the room looked on, wondering where the lifeboats were, and how many of us would fit in, all that's happened is that there are more Conservatives on committees ...
In life, in death, O Lord, muttered Mrs Angry, her hands clasped in prayer, Abide with me.
Resting thespian, and grateful councillor David Longstaff was singing from the same hymnsheet.
He wanted us to admire the recent award handed to HBPublicLaw by the Law Society. Councillor Longstaff was apparently unaware of this article in the Barnet Press, in which it is reported:
After being contacted by The Press, a spokeswoman for the Law Society said it had been contacted by Ms Lloyd-Jones and was in the process of reviewing her report on the council.
Alon Or Bach queried the timeline of events, and the circumstances in which Mr Large had come to be appointed as an interim MO. Andrew Travers was obliged to come up with an explanation, of sorts, and as he did so, Mrs Angry noticed the mutinous Tory councillors regarding him with close attention. One might easily have concluded, from their body language, that they were as much in the dark as anyone else.
Alon Or Bach
The Labour leader proposed some suggestions to go down as amendments to the Tories' proposed recommendations in response to the report. These were all perfectly reasonable amendments:
- That legal services are brought back-in house
- That the vacant Monitoring Officer post must be filled by a legally qualified person, and this must be specified in the job description and job advert
- That pending legal services being brought back in-house the recommendations of the external report that strengthen Barnet’s legal and governance arrangements are agreed
- That high-level in-house legal support is introduced in Barnet pending legal services being brought back-in house
- That all decisions taken since Barnet ceased to have a legally qualified Monitoring Officer are reviewed
Well, what a surprise!
Alison Moore reminded them of issues such as the dispensations, the leaders panel: all things that must be reviewed, and so for that reason, she said, she would ask her colleagues to move the report to Full Council.
Cornelius looked less than pleased, because of course he has difficulty in forcing all his Tory colleagues to turn up to Full Council, and sooner or later, he is going to find he has not got a majority present, and Labour will be able to vote through their own motions and amendments. Oh dear.
Which is why the next day it was announced that the extraordinary council meeting to consider Labour's vote of no confidence in his leadership will take place at the end of Full Council, when there might be a chance all his members have managed to stroll along to the Town Hall.
Providing, that is, that all of them do vote against the motion, ... otherwise - we could end up with a new leader, altogether, couldn't we?
Always useful, of course, to have a nominated deputy, just in case.