Thursday, 17 November 2016

A Mid Course Correction, or: Communicating the Journey We Are On - the Barnet Crapita contract, and a three year 'review':

Arriving in the committee room on Tuesday night, before the Performance & Contract monitoring meeting, Mrs Angry noted that senior officers from Crapita had already staked out their territory in what is supposed to be the public gallery, seating themselves in carefully chosen places, manspreading on a corporate scale - and watching one of the Labour councillors filling up a bottle of water from the now you see it, now you don't, water cooler. 

Now you see it, now you don't, because - yes, you guessed it, Crapita removed the water from the public gallery, not so long ago - why? Because it was free, and there must be no such things as a free glass of water, in Capitaville. Mrs Angry protested, and it was returned, eventually. But she warned the councillor she was being watched by the men from Crapita, and should probably expect an invoice, any day now. For the water, the cost of sending an invoice, and a gainshare payment for issuing an invoice. Kerrching.

The Chair of the committee came in and asked Mrs Angry where fellow blogger Mr Reasonable was, clearly hoping he wouldn't turn up, follow up his awkward questions, or speak to the committee. Here was Mrs Angry's own opportunity for profit: Please tell me, she begged, how you have come to the conclusion, as expressed in the local paper, and by your acceptance of these reports, that the Crapita contracts are ... 'a success'? 

He looked bemused. To be fair, it doesn't take much to bemuse Cllr Finn, which is why he has been put in charge of rubber stamping the approval of Crapita's contractual performance. Mrs Angry tried again. You say the contract is a marvellous success, because we save £6 million a year. Yes, he beamed, we do. But ... we are paying many, many times that amount back to them, in extra charges, and gainshare payments, so it isn't a net saving, is it? 

He looked flustered. 

And it is dishonest of the council not to give residents the true picture, is it not? And isn't the truth that you and your Tory colleagues will never admit you have made a mistake in signing up for these contracts, simply for political reasons?

His mouth opened and shut. Then he resorted to desperate measures. From manspreading, to mansplaining, and all in the course of five minutes. Lucky Mrs Angry. He would taker her out for coffee some time, and explain how economics and the market work. Hmm. Had plenty of interesting offers in my time, Councillor Finn, but that goes straight to the top of the list. No thanks. Although: for a silly woman such as me, it might be a good idea. After all: what do I know about such difficult matters? And good to see that although our Tory councillors are too busy and/or lazy to read all the reports given to them before crucial council meetings, they have plenty of time to patronise the lady bloggers of Broken Barnet.

Later on in the meeting, staring as Mrs Angry often does, due to her feeble, wandering woman's mind, at the feet of the senior officers called to the table, she could not help but notice that one of them was wearing a pair of eye-wateringly high stiletto heeled, black patent shoes, with the tell tale red soles of Christian Louboutin: very expensive, impossible to walk in - any further than a few rows in a committee room, anyway - and a daring expression of swagger rarely seen in any meetings of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. Wasted on the councillors of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, of course, but - a statement of sorts ... perhaps a warning. And useful material for Mrs Angry's purposes.

Clearly our senior officers (who come and go at a dizzying rate of speed) are now paid very handsomely for their endeavours. But it occurred to Mrs Angry, who of course being a mere woman does not understand economics, or the market, but can grasp the basic principles in terms of, say - buying shoes, that telling residents you are saving £6 million a year, while spending maybe ... £50 million a year on extra charges ... is the equivalent of feeling smug and telling your mother that you spent £6 re-heeling your old boots from last year to make them do for another twelve months, then going out the next day and blowing £500 on a pair of Louboutins. 

(This is a real example from the Miss Angry school of economic thought, in fact: although she favours Manolo Blahnik, as rather less - well: you know ... and even more expensive).

The level of payments to Capita, up to April 2013, pic courtesy Mr Reasonable

Well: we've put it off as long as possible, but now we must relate what happened at the meeting. 

With a look of resignation, and even sadness, on his open, honest face, Mr Reasonable (or Cllr Dix, as the Chair accidentally referred to him ...) sat wearily at the table and attempted to extract some sort of intelligent response to his questions. He knew it was a waste of time, as the officers who compile the answers don't give a monkeys about the points he raises, and nor do the Tory councillors - those that can understand what he is banging on about.

Mr Reasonable queried the process and basis of comparison used in the three year contract review, and the scope of oversight over the next few years. 

Why had the reports used the Agilisys contract as a point of comparison, when the cost of this had jumped from a projected £2 million spend to an astonishing £7.1 million? There was a response, but not a reply - one that made any sense. 

Why are council tax collection rates lower than they were in 2012/13? Not bovvered: it's guaranteed over a four year term, so Capita will generously top up the money missing as a result of their own inefficiency. 

Oh, and - remember that £16 million we paid Crapita as an upfront capital investment, at the beginning of the contract, instead of, as we had been told, being given £16 million as upfront capital investment from Capita? S'all gone now, see, spent on IT, and stuff, and now they want another £9 million. Why? Where did the £16 million go? Well, this story varies, every time you ask the question. This time, we were told it went on 'replacement of the council's HR and finance systems'. Not on the library IT, clearly, which so catastrophically failed, earlier this year. 

At one point Mr Reasonable gently reminded the Chair that his knowledge of contractual matters, comparisons, benchmarking etc was based on his own experience of many years in business consultancy. Would he like to name the company he worked for, asked Cllr Finn, in a rather narky tone of voice. No, smiled Mr R: not really. This was a shame, as Mrs Angry knows that Mr Reasonable used to work for one particularly high profile firm where his tea boy ... was one of our local Tory MPs ...

Speaking to the committee, he urged the councillors, if they had not already done so - and by the look on their faces ... they had not already done so - to watch the most interesting BBC documentary, 'Who's Spending Britain's Billions', by Jacques Peretti, on the subject of outsourcing and consultants, and how they are milking our public services for all they can get. Blank faces. Ok. Next: have any of the councillors looked at what their own officers had to say, in the course of the contract review? More blank faces. What you on about? 

The Chair asked Mr Reasonable to explain. He pointed out that they seemed to have overlooked a most interesting document, amongst the collection of papers sent to them in preparation for tonight's contract review. Really one has to wonder if anyone in the room, other than Mr Reasonable, had bothered to inform themselves of anything other than the outline of the reports in question. The Tory councillors didn't properly scrutinise the 8,000 page contract, of course, but then one or two mewled like babies, after voting to approve the deal, that they hadn't been allowed to. And so why should they bother to scrutinise the scrutiny handed to them by officers and Crapita of ... the performance of officers and Crapita, after three years of the contract being in place?

Part of the Capita contracts, carried in triumph through the Town Hall after approval, largely unread by your Tory councillors

The findings from the internal interviews with staff, in regard to the CSG Capita contract, are most interesting. Here are a few excerpts:

Both directors and staff raised issues with basic systems and processes, which are
perceived to be complex, slow and not user friendly.

Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend, and assuring value for money is being delivered, were consistently raised as concerns by directors and staff.

Meetings with Directors and Assistant Directors:

Transparency of costs, additional charges and project spend were raised as key

concerns. It was felt that CSG are often reluctant to go above and beyond the
requirements of the contract without additional charges. Directors reported that the
council needs to be more confident that solutions suggested by CSG, particularly for
projects and capital spend are best value.

Concerns were raised that CSG has a disproportionate focus on the delivery of

process and KPIs over outcomes, creating a more contractual rather than
partnership relationship between CSG and the council. Directors noted that many
KPIs are not relevant and their reporting does not reflect actual service performance.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera: in fact the whole document is a catalogue of serious concerns, which the councillors should have seen, read and investigated before arriving at this meeting. Frankly, it is an indictment of the state of governance in this borough that they did not bother properly to inform themselves, and inspect all the material included in these reports. 

The only positive observation in the staff report is that they are said to 'acknowledge' that savings have been made. That savings have been made is true only in the sense that the limited area of core savings are guaranteed; but beyond that fenced off area is a whole world of seemingly unlimited expenditure, courtesy of the contract variations which allow Crapita to pump more and more money out of the deal, to the extent that the core savings are negligible, when seen from the perspective of net expenditure.

What, asked Mr Reasonable, is your strategy going forward

Because, he pointed out, that is entirely missing from this review

Response? Yep. More blank faces. He sat down, with a sigh.

Time to look at the contracted areas of service delivery. Ah - first up: 


Here is Kylie to tell us about it.

Telephony. Such a mellifluous, harmonious sounding word for something so ... so f*cking awful : the crap Crapita phone system, as anyone who has been lost in the labyrinthine hell of this 'service' will testify. 

Consider the other week, for example, when it took six minutes queueing just to get to someone on the switchboard, only to find - after much effort - that the operator did not know who the Monitoring Officer was, denied there was such a post, or any need for such a post (might have a point, actually) and ... oh, why bother to continue? Or mention the endless dead ends, the disconnnections, the difficulty in making any complaint - or indeed, in the lowest circle of hell, making a complaint about the handling of a complaint.

But Kylie was feeling upbeat. 

She declared it was all 'really quite positive'. Yep. There was a - aha - 'a really positive direction of travel'. Hoorah. Although - oh: hang on: 'there are always challenges to keep us on our toes'. Good, good. Wouldn't want you to get bored, and we all like a challenge, don't we?

One of the ways we accentuate the positive, in Capitaville, is by ... well, this sort of thing, as Kylie explained. Instead of worrying about answering the phone in 60 seconds, apparently we, ie Crapita, now recognise that ... well, they can't be *rsed, because that would entail hiring too many operators, and training them, and a loss of profit, and so they 'emphasise a positive outcome' instead. 

In other words, look, here is Mrs Angry waiting in a queue for six minutes just to get the switchboard to respond, but we did in the end, and that ... that is a positive outcome. Target reached.

Moving on now to the awful Website, which was supposed to be less awful by now, but appears still to have challenges keeping Crapita on its toes, and looking for positive outcomes. The webforms, for example.

What, asked the Chair of the committee which oversees a contract that includes millions of pounds in payment to Crapita for IT services, is a 'webform'?

Mrs Angry looked on in disbelief. 

Let me take you out for coffee, Councillor Finn, and womansplain your website to you, and how it is supposed to work. Then tell me again what a success the contract is. 

A discussion about adult social care then, and the revelation of a huge overspend, due, as the Labour councillors pointed out, to the selfish council tax obsession of the Tories, hellbent on cutting or freezing for political purposes even though they know they have less money to spend on such vital support services.


Up to the table comes the man from Crapita. How's it going, asks the Chair? A lot better, we hear. Phew. That's ok then. Oh, hang on: it may not actually be better, but they are 'a lot better at communicating the journey we are on'. 

People may not be happy with the roads and pavements, in other words, but they will be bound to feel grateful to Crapita for sharing with them, and describing their journey, won't they?

When things go wrong in Broken Barnet - well, no: they do not go really go wrong, and no one is ever to blame - rather people are, like those involved in this year's election cockup, according to the 'investigation' merely, yes: 'on a journey, and we wish them well'. One of the senior officers involved in the election organisation, in fact, has gone on a journey on a one way ticket, destination unknown. 

This is the way the world ends, in Broken Barnet: not with a bang, but a whimper, as officers quietly disappear into the void, never to be seen again. Until they turn up somewhere else as a consultant, that is.

Highways now, we heard, are run on a new basis, of having ideas about stuff, and sort of organising them a bit. 

System driven messages, tracking every single job. Every single one: just imagine! How clever. Ward walks. Door knocks. Really? To be fair, we did have someone from Crapita knocking on the door the other week, on a Saturday, in fact, trying to snoop on a neighbour they thought was avoiding council tax, and expecting Mrs Angry to denounce them. A hint of what is to come, now we are back living in the nineteen thirties.

All sorts of wonderful things are happening in Capitaville HQ. A number of 'experts' were now advising Jamie Blake, (a senior officer on a six figure salary, responsible for the disabled travel card cancellations & other brilliant schemes), which Mrs Angry remarked, uncalled for, from across the room, was a very good idea, and better late than never, and she might tell you which officer sat behind her Laughed Out Loud at that point, but perhaps she had better not.

On to another subject of great interest to all, especially the Labour councillors, who go on about it all the time, ie tarmac. Crapita approves the use of a new flexible type of pavement, we heard. 

Mrs Angry tried not to think about the comic possibilities of this announcement, but it was hard. Well, not hard, flexible. 

Will it become Rutted, worried the Labour councillors? 

Mrs Angry tried not to think about the now permanently queenly Tory Cllr Lisa Rutter, who, in her head, was never deposed as Mayor, and the comic possibilities of her being used to assess the new surface, and its flexibility, but failed, and laughed quietly to herself, picturing the scene. 


Of time. Veteran Tory Cllr John Marshall, another of Mrs Angry's aged admirers, who has been a politician since the age of dust collectors, dung heaps, and chamber pots, is worried about waste disposal, twenty first century style, ie recycling: food recycling. How can we get people to do more of it?

The man from Crapita tried hard to use the opportunity to say the only solution was fewer collections, but his pitch was spoiled by Tory Cllr Zinkin boasting that clever foxes in his ward, ie Childs Hill, the poor man's Hampstead, were now able to formulate some sort of recycling strategy of their own, open the food bins, and help themselves to leftovers. Yes: very clever. No doubt they also know what a webform is, and have read all the reports on the Capita contract.

Web improvement.

Back comes Kylie, still very cheerful. Her positive, Pollyanna like spin on the truly terrible search engine was that it was 'not unhelpful to customers'. 

That is always a bonus, in a search engine, isn't it? Not to get in the way of searching for something, even if you can't serve any purpose. Not unhelpful, the search engine, but one might argue it is still not ... helpful, exactly. Stuck between two possibilities, caught in a state of inertia, like a Tory councillor.

Mr Reasonable poked Mrs Angry in the arm, and woke her up, and showed her a photo on his phone, of the Barnet website, earlier that day:

A less than positive outcome, but keeping Crapita on its toes

IT update now, with two officers, one of them the urbane Mr Brett Holtom, outsourcing's answer to Tom Cruise, who was flown in on a charm offensive, as ambassador for the church of Crapita, after the catastrophic library IT crash, which left the system out of action for months, and irretrievably lost a huge amount of vital data, raising huge questions about the risk to other IT systems used by the council, supposedly maintained by Crapita.

It had been 'quite a challenging year', he explained, with masterly understatement. 

According to his linkedin profile, he has quite a challenging role: roles 'Account Director at Capita local government, Operations Director at Capita IT Enterprise Services, Partnership Director at Capita'. What, all at the same time? 

'Following the disasters',' declared Brett smoothly, with apparently no sense of concern that there had been any disaster at Barnet, let alone a number of them, 'Following the disasters ...' yes? They had done stuff. 

Checked things. Thought about improvements. New project processes. New teams. And introduced something that sounded to Mrs Angry like 'death boards': hopefully not a list of local bloggers to be chivvied into an early use of their (pre-used) discounted Crapita graves at the Easycrem Crapitorium, as guaranteed in the CSG contract.

We do feel, said Tom Cruise, with a winning smile, that we are making progress, and are back on course. 

The man from Crapita: 'following the disasters ...'

Marvellous. Only taken three years, and an apocalyptic IT failure to get you there. And that is what we are paying for, making progress, on our journey, rather than arriving at a good place, is it not? Better to travel hopefully, than to arrive.

Labour's Arjun Mittra asked politely if, following this acknowledged disaster, we could please have our money back, ie some form of compensation.

There was a look of studied incomprehension on the faces of the men from Crapita. And the Tory councillors agreed there was no need for any repayment, just because we had paid them to undertake a service which had failed so dramatically, and with such serious consequences. 

Mrs Angry thought wistfully how different things would be, if Tory councillors were held personally accountable for the failure of contractual performance, and entered into a happy reverie on the subject of surcharges, and jail sentences.

As for the final views on the review of Capita's contractual performance? Labour's Geof Cooke pointed in vain at the number of commitments not delivered: how Key Performance Indicators do not measure the real state of service delivery; that the service credits which follow any acknowledged failure are miniscule in scale; the Chair then stepped in to silence any reference to actual figures, which were contained in the blue papers, in the exempt part of the meeting.

Finally it was time for Councillor Zinkin, the only Tory present with a modicum of political nous (from their point of view) and able to pull things together, and find a way to explain their decision to continue with the contract, in the face of all common sense. 

As the 'partner relationship manager' sat at the end of the table, resting his eyes, Zinkin, who is a nice enough chap, but clearly rather naive, told us the contracts were intended to save money, which they had, and although Mr Dix had gone on about the extra charges, well, he didn't think it had been proved that we were paying any more money than we would have done anyway, and yes, some things worked well and some less well, but you know, looking forward, we must focus on making things better, and look on this point as 'a mid-course correction' ... He looked over at Mrs Angry and smiled. Mrs Angry mouthed a less than polite word in return, smiling back, and wishing she could impose some sort of mid course correction on the Tory councillors.

Please understand this, reader. It is quite simple. 

Let us repeat it: the Crapita contracts are returning in one hand a nominal and small amount of 'savings' on a limited number of guaranteed areas. Beyond that, due to the variation opportunities hidden in the detail of the massive contract, most of which went unnoticed by your doltish Tory councillors, Capita is able to make vast extra profits from other charges - the spurious renewal and cancellation of some disabled travel passes came about this way - as well as demand whopping financial rewards in the shape of gainshare payments. 

As for the claim that there is no proof we are paying out for things we do not need, at a higher rate than normal: why are we paying out so much money, and an increasingly large amount, for consultancy and agency fees? Capita makes gainshare profits from these rising costs, of course.

As Mr Reasonable points out here, this financial year we are now likely to see the bill for interim and agency costs to rise to a staggering £20 MILLION.

How much of the council's work is now being done not by employees on modest salaries, but through hidden and unaccountable agency and consultancy arrangements, and at much greater cost? That bill gives you an idea, and directly challenges Cllr Zinkin's defence of the contract renewal. It also shows how extravagant the council can be, at the same time as cutting your library service to shreds, for a relatively tiny amount of financial benefit.

Why is there so much criticism amongst Barnet's own officers about the contractual performance - and why, Tory councillors, didn't you read that report, before making the decision to carry on as normal? 

And why don't any of these Tory members, many of whom privately have as many qualms about this as anyone else, ask such questions, in public? 

Because they lack the courage to do so, and care more about being re-elected than standing up for what is right, and what needs to be said. Those that know what is wrong remain silent, and those who don't too easily accept the excuses put before them at the committee table, over and over again. 

We are now on the run up to the next local elections: extra PR staff have been paid for, until then, to 'manage the council's reputation', at a cost of £800,000, and at a time when vital services are being ruthlessly cut, on the pretext of austerity. 

Nothing in Broken Barnet matters as much to this shameless Tory administration as retaining power, and nothing, but nothing - not truth, nor scandal, nor injustice - must get in the way of that, whatever the cost, literally, or metaphorically, to the people whose best interests they are meant to represent, and safeguard. 

Not to worry: only another seven years of this journey we are on together, Barnet and Crapita.

Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Ritual of Vengeance: Welsh blogger Jacqui Thompson fights for her home

If in the ritual
Of vengeance he live,
He makes perpetual
His failure to forgive.
No; to those arbiters
Of true behaviour
There is no strength but stirs
To honour its saviour.

Vernon Watkins

One of the more complex stories covered by this blog, over the course of the past few years, is a still continuing saga about another blogger; a Welsh woman named Jacqui Thompson, who writes under the name of 'Caebrwyn' - also the name of the isolated spot where she lives, in rural Carmarthenshire, and where her husband Kerry makes his living as a forestry worker.

A small, middle aged woman, quiet, and modest, yet fiercely intelligent, and brave: her blog has been outspoken in its coverage - and criticism - of the activities of Carmarthenshire County Council, including the behaviour of the county council's Chief Executive, Mr Mark James.

Mr James is now one of the most highly paid Chief Executives of any Welsh authority, earning around £185,000 per annum, but he started off, funnily enough, as a rather more lowly officer for ... the London Borough of Broken Barnet. There could be no better preparation for the career of any Chief Executive, of course.

The long running tale of the fight between Mark James and Jacqui Thompson first came to the attention of the media about five years ago, when, in a most extraordinary act, the Chief Executive had Mrs Thompson arrested in the public gallery of the county hall during a council meeting - simply because she was filming a few minutes of the proceedings on her phone. Jacqui was taken away in handcuffs, and kept in custody, in a police cell, for several hours, as a result of this innocuous, and perfectly lawful act.

Arrested for filming a council meeting on her phone ... pic credit Alex Murray Smith

By any standard of measurement, such ludicrous treatment was utterly unnecessary, but it was all the more shocking at a time when the idea of citizen journalism was beginning to meet with approval from the government, and promoted by no less than Eric Pickles, who wanted to encourage the scrutiny of local government by its electorate, and hoped that it would enable residents and taxpayers to hold their elected representatives to account.

Mark James, of course, was not, and is not, an elected representative, but the servant of that electorate and their representatives: an administrator. Yet he wields a power that is far beyond that of most Chief Executives, and enjoys a wide scope of influence within the process of governance in Carmarthenshire - and beyond.

To understand the background to this event, and the battle between Mark James and Jacqui Thompson, it is necessary to note that the early genesis of her blogging career came, as did many others, from a personal issue, and a sense of injustice over the handling of that issue, in this case by her local planning authority.

Caebrwyn's award winning blog, although it now covers a wide range of political matters in Carmarthenshire, still bears the title: 'Carmarthenshire Planning Problems, and more' ... and as explained so well in this piece published in the West Wales Review,by Patricia Dodd Racher, originated from a sequence of unsuccessful planning applications handled by the local authority.

Mrs Thompson was not the only person to have raised serious questions about the local planning department, as I reported from the later libel hearing in the High Court which occurred as a consequence of the #daftarrest incident, as it became known.

On the fourth day of the case, Jacqui's counsel asked:

"What about the action of local MP  Jonathan Edwards, calling for the Audit Commission to look into the planning department at Carmarthenshire County Council, the very same department that Mrs Thompson was so concerned about?

I'm sorry, said Mr James. I can't recall."

And as I also reported at the time, the case attracted a lot of attention in the national media:

"Legal blogger David Allen Green has described the judgement as being, in his view, 'illiberal', and Mrs Angry would have to agree. 

Nick Cohen remarked on twitter:

In democracies the public holds the govt to account, not the other way round. In Britain however.. #daftarrest… …

Campaigning journalist Heather Brooke commented on twitter:

 So @caebrwyn loses #daftarrest libel trial. Judge didn't seem to have a lot of time for her or her arguments so not totally surprised."

There was also a leader in the Times, on the last day of the trial, 20th February 2013, which was highly critical of Carmarthenshire County Council, accusing it of wielding 'excessive official and financial power against a lone citizen' and becoming a case study in how not to behave in an era of transparency and accountability': 

The reference to the Derbyshire judgment would seem to be significant, one would think - but this argument ultimately failed, despite the evidence offered that Jacqui Thompson's criticism of James was part of a wider and reasonable act of scrutiny of the council's activities.

In a second article in the 'West Wales Review', there are examples given of what are described as 'planning contradictions which have perplexed applicants and the public'.

Since Caebrwyn's blog was founded, it has grown in scope and depth of scrutiny, and covered many local issues, posing questions that may not be welcomed by Mr James or his employers at Carmarthenshire County Council, but which address issues and concerns that are most certainly in the public interest, such as the council's relationship with the local Scarlets' rugby team - and the curious tale of the evangelical bowling alley, to name but two.

Blogger 'Caebrwyn' - Jacqui Thompson ... pic credit SW Guardian

Among the outspoken critics of this local authority, perhaps rather surprisingly, we find the former Former Dyfed-Powys Police and Crime Commissioner Christopher Salmon, who is quoted in an article published this May in the South Wales Evening Post as comparing the council to a 'Sicilian cartel':

"... looking back at his time as commissioner, Mr Salmon said he wouldn't miss "online bores", Carmarthenshire Council and the "police mob".

After describing the local authority as a cartel, he added: "It's everywhere you look (thankfully only in Carmarthenshire – so far as I can tell).

"It extracts vast amounts of money from residents which it showers on favourites, hordes property, bullies opponents, co-opts friends and answers to no one, least of all local councillors."

After Mr James had had Jacqui Thompson arrested for using her phone in the public gallery, events had taken a rather unexpected direction: beginning with a completely unexpected move by Mr James, as explained by her fellow Carmarthenshire blogger, the masterly Cneifiwr, who has written a incisive post on the story here, and reminds us of the beginning of the libel action:

It is worth remembering that following the arrest, Mr James, the most senior officer in a local authority, took the extraordinary step of posting his thoughts on the Mad Axeman blog, written by someone who lives not in Wales but the north of England, and that it was those incendiary comments, attacking not just Jacqui but her entire family, which triggered the libel case.

Is it normal for council chief executives to attack a family living in his or her local authority area on a blog in their capacity as Head of Paid Service? It is a reasonable bet that Mr James is the only one ever to have done so, just as he was the only council chief executive ever to persuade his council to adopt an (unlawful) libel indemnity clause in its constitution allowing him to pay for his counter-claim using council funds ...

Yes: quite why James saw fit to make such remarks, is unclear, but this led Jacqui Thompson to feel she had no option but to take legal action to defend the reputation of herself and her family. James, backed up by the council's indemnity, was able to take a counter claim: after an astonishingly condemnatory verdict from Judge Tugendhat, acting on his own, rather than, as expected, the hearing being held before a jury, James won, Jacqui lost, and three years later, is now being pursued by him for the damages awarded. 

Mark James after his successful hearing at the High Court

As you may read here, at the libel hearing Mr James was not able to recall the details of a meeting at which the report approving the indemnity, later found to be unlawful by the Welsh Audit Office, was discussed, in his presence, as an emergency item.

Mark James is now determined to obtain the money awarded to him as a result of this council funded counter claim: due to an 8% interest rate, this now stands at £35,000. But Jacqui is also being pursued for costs by Carmarthenshire County Council, of £190,000. 

This story has now been picked up by the Rotten Boroughs' column in the new Private Eye:

Jacqui Thompson cannot pay either of these amounts, so a charge has been put on her home by the council - and Mr James will expect to receive his share of any capital accruing from the sale, should it be allowed, even though the action he took in the first place was unlawfully funded by his employers. As Cneifiwr has pointed out, there appears to be a lack of clarity as to whether or not the money James extracts from Mrs Thompson should be returned to the council, or whether he will keep the money himself.

Apart from the terrible financial punishment now being executed in the courts, this year has seen further attempts at action against Mrs Thompson by Mr James.

In April, she was informed that he wanted to return to the High Court and begin proceedings against her for contempt of court, and that he had referred matters to the local police, asking them, as she explained, to conduct an investigation 'with a view to considering criminal prosecution for harassment, relating to the blog'.

On the 12th July she was also told that an additional criminal allegation of perverting the course of justice had been made against her 'at some point', and that officers were investigating this as well. Months of anxiety passed, yet the police made no contact. She was left almost completely in the dark about the enquiries that were continuing, and had no way of defending herself from whatever allegations were being considered. 

Carmarthenshire County Council CEO, Mark James

In August, Matthew Paul, a barrister - and sometime local Conservative candidate - spoke out against this investigation in an opinion piece in the Carmarthenshire Herald, in no uncertain terms: denouncing the whole process, the lack of legal basis, and the apparent motives behind it. He pointed out that Mr James had himself been the subject of police enquiries, in 2014, (along with the Pembrokeshire CEO, over a matter of cash payments in lieu of employer pension contributions) but Dyfed-Powys police had passed the investigation over to Gloucestershire Constabulary 'like a primed grenade', because of  'the close working relationships and partnership arrangements that existed between Dyfed-Powys Police and Carmarthenshire Council'. This made it 'not appropriate for the local force to carry out the enquiry'.

Mr Paul commented that the relationship between the local police and council appeared not to have broken down since 2014, yet it was still able then to investigate James's own allegations in regard to Mrs Thompson. He also observed that in his view, 'with the worst will in the world', nothing published by her could be interpreted as harassment. On the 18th August, however, although the investigation into perverting the course of justice was dropped, Jacqui Thompson was issued with a Police Warning Notice in regard to the alleged harassment. She has tried to complaint about this, unsuccessfully. But then, as she commented at the time:

As this is not a legal notice nor a caution, there is no direct way to appeal it, or defend myself.

Matthew Paul is quoted in the Eye piece this week:

The high court's judgment (and that of the court of appeal) in Thompson v James was badly wrong. It would have been entirely possible to find that neither party had libelled the other, and that the case was an immense waste of court  time and public money.

It should be noted, incidentally, that the unsuccessful appeal, in April 2014, was only allowed on one ground, that of the infamous 'slush fund' suggestion.

It had taken four and a half months for Jacqui to receive a visit from two officers from Dyfed-Powys police, to tell her that the allegation of perverting the course of justice had been dropped, as the evidential test was not met. As she commented in her blog: 

As I suspected, this criminal complaint, which was also made by Carmarthenshire Council chief executive Mr James, related to the libel judgement of High Court judge, Justice Tugendhat, in March 2013.

The judge, in 2013, made this finding on a balance of probabilities, and in a civil court. 

The finding was simply a matter of whom the judge decided to believe, she said, and she believed it was a total miscarriage of justice, which led to the withdrawal of her legal insurance and led to the huge burden of costs she now faces.

Matthew Paul also raises the question of the former Police Commissioner's remarks about Sicilian cartels being left unchallenged, while Mrs Thompson's satirical allusions to 'Pinocchio', and 'slush funds' in regard to the council's unlawful indemnity were found to be libellous. The difference, presumably, is that the cartel remark was not made in regard to an individual officer, and therefore the Derbyshire judgment would prevent any action.

The blogger Cneifiwr has written about the political background to the Mark James - Jacqui Thompson story, and explained the way in which the absence of strong leadership in Carmarthenshire has led to a greater share of power resting in the hands of a chief executive. 

With the honourable exception of the courageous and independently minded Councillor Sian Caiach, almost no other councillor in Carmarthenshire has dared to provide any form of effective challenge to the status quo. Sian Caiach continues to express her criticism of the current regime, as you may read here. And read this post from 2014, on her attempts to question the issue of the unlawful indemnity:

Cneifiwr also points out that the continuing publicity emerging from the Mark James/Jacqui Thompson story is doing nothing but damage to the reputation of the council, and that the impact on the forthcoming elections next year will be incalculable. And what will have been achieved?

The only small consolations for the rest us are that he will ultimately fail to silence his critics, and that the libel saga, meant to protect his reputation, has had the opposite effect.

As Matthew Paul remarked in August:

In a democracy, the most precious freedom we have is the ability to say or write what we think, without interference from the state. 

In Carmarthenshire, it would appear, that principle is one that is held in little respect. And as the Private Eye piece says, the price is being paid by Jacqui Thompson. The use of the legal process, the courts and the police, to pursue and punish this woman, and drive her from her home, may be possible in law, but to most observers it appears both disproportionate, and unfair. 

Mr Mark James is apparently a man of strong Christian values: it might be timely for him to demonstrate that the tenets of that faith include the obligation to forgive our enemies their trespasses, and to call a halt to his pursuit of the damages: the case was won, his reputation was vindicated; and there is nothing further to be achieved, and only more unwelcome publicity for him, and his employers, by pursuing the legal process to secure this money - from someone who simply does not have it. 

Failing that, it may at least occur to those politicians - and any others who may bring their influence to bear on this sorry business - that now is the time to act, and intervene on behalf of all parties: before it is too late.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Remember, remember: the 5th November march for libraries

Barnet Unison Library convenor Hugh Jordan addresses the libraries demo

Yesterday saw a march in London on behalf of campaigners fighting to defend the foundations of our cultural life from death by a thousand cuts: museums, galleries - and most of all libraries.

The library, for so many writers, artists, academics, is where it all began, or at least for so many writers, artists, and academics from less affluent backgrounds, whose only access to education, beyond their school life, was from their local public library.

At the demo were several eminent children's writers, including the Children's Laureate, Chris Riddell, Phillip Ardagh, Alan Gibbons, and Michael Rosen. Michael spoke about the 'emancipation' of his parents, living in the East End, by their use of Whitechapel Library, and the Bethnal Green Museum, and he deplored the fact that similar access was being taken away from those who need it now.

Nothing has changed, from the days when Mr and Mrs Rosen depended on their local library and gallery in order to have a life enriched by literature, or art. Even in our grossly materialistic society, money cannot buy the pleasure and benefits that they bring. Yet our Tory politicians think that downloading a book or an image on a laptop, or kindle, creating virtual and remote ownership of a borrowed idea, or picture, can be an adequate substitute - preferably generating profit somewhere for someone. If the disadvantaged citizen is excluded from this activity: hard luck.

We didn't have many books in our house, when I was a child. 

Or rather, we didn't own many books: yet reading was for all of us, in our different ways, central to our lives - a refuge, an escape, and a passage to another world - different worlds, as many different worlds as the library could provide us with, for our own needs, parallel, and yet separate to each other, in our semi-detached, suburban isolation. 

Semi detached, emotionally as well as literally: a home where words were read, not spoken, and thoughts kept to ourselves, for fear of the exposure they might make, an admission of feelings best left unacknowledged, the dangerous thoughts of a household unsure of its position, aspiring to a place of middle class respectability, behind the privet hedges, in the pink blossomed, cherry tree lined avenues of Edgware.

My parents were both self educated; intelligent and thoughtful, forced to leave education in their early teens, my mother resentful all her life for the missed opportunity of the grammar school place she had won, but had had to refuse, as her impoverished family, struggling to survive on my grandfather's miner's wage, could not afford the expense of uniform, bus fares and all the other extra costs that this would have involved. The sort of hidden barrier which would seem to have returned in this age of inequality of access to education. She spent much of her time reading historical fiction, usually the better sort of bodice ripping romantic sagas that came in endless series, like Catherine Cookson, who wrote about the North East, and the close knit working class background she was obliged to leave behind, on marriage, and was disappearing, rapidly, in the post industrial era of my early childhood. 

And my father had left school at fourteen, a bright and determined child from south London, who found a job as an office boy in the City, and worked his way to a directorship, on merit, at a time when promotion was entirely dependent on a public school background, and a network of patronage. He took me to the library, every Saturday morning, and while he chose his own books, left me to my own devices, from the age of four or five, in the junior section, lost in the bookshelves, without a moment's doubt that I was safe, in a a nurturing environment, full of wonderful things to read, and to choose to take home. An experience made all the more more precious by the fact we were allowed to borrow only three books at a time. My father would usually borrow the sort of naval historical fiction written by Alexander Kent, acutely aware he was the first generation of his West country family not to go to sea, but fascinated to explore, from the safety of his landlocked life, what might have been, should have been his life, if things had been different.

Being at an age now when I can't remember any more pin numbers, or passwords, or what was on my missing shopping list, I am still cursed with a clarity of recall for the most trivial detail of my early life, and still can list many of the books I read as a child - can see them still: the covers, the illustrations; where they were to be found on the shelves.

The very first book I had, however, was a rag book, which I used to have in my cot, a sort of painted prison in which I seem to have been kept for hours at a time, even in day time - and which I can still remember climbing out of, out of boredom, when a toddler. 

The first proper book I had then, still in captivity in the cot, was one with pictures of dimple cheeked babies, illustrated by Mabel Lucie Atwell: did my mother read it to me?  I doubt it. She wasn't the sort of mother that snuggled up and read to her children, or at least to me: she would always say she was too busy. In fact that was so rare an event I can remember what seems now like the only occasion, a speedy and rather grudging indulgence, her resignedly reading one of my books to me, on a Saturday evening, me perched awkwardly on one of our horribly uncomfortable armchairs, designed, as they were then, for endurance rather than comfort. Well chosen, for our house. Neither of us were keen to repeat the experience.

Of the few other children's books in the house, there was one with which I developed something of an obsession, a Noddy annual, discarded by my older brother, with pictures coloured in the most alluring tones of bright pink, and red, acid yellow, green and blue, illustrating a realm of stories from which I was cruelly excluded, by my lack of literacy. 

No one would read them to me, so I resolved then to learn how to do it myself, and was reading before I went to school, aged four. School was a great disappointment, in fact, obliged as we were then to read out loud the interminably dull tales of Janet and John, and not annoy the teacher by outreaching the limitations of their strictly regulated vocabulary. 

Thank God, then, for the new library, in Edgware, and its fabulous children's section, developed in line with the vision of Eileen Colwell, the pioneering librarian: a haven with endless oak lined shelves of books to discover. 

I can still recall the shape and feel of the metal door handle, shaped like the burnished wing of a modernist era angel, which a child's fingers must firmly grasp, before pushing, with no little effort, on the heavy, unyielding door, to enter the room. It seemed appropriate, to be obliged to make that effort to gain entry to the privileged world of books waiting for you inside.

There was the counter, on the left hand side, at which you would stand, rather hesitantly, hoping not to have to engage with the fearsome librarian, whose fingers ran so lightly through the cardboard tickets kept in long, narrow wooden boxes. If you were foolish enough to bring back a book later than the three week limit: the shame would be too much to bear. But you would at least have the great pleasure of putting your fines in the brass edged slot in the counter, and listen to the coins roll down with a satisfying clunk, into the box below. My books were never overdue, as I was so desperate to exchange them for new ones, so rather to my regret, I never did have the chance to try this out.

Not having any guidance - or interference - from parents was a blessing, in fact. I would choose books by a process of serendipitous illogicality, usually doing what we are advised not to, that is to say, to choose a book by its front cover, or its illustrations, tempted by, for example,  the beautifully coloured pages of Orlando, the Marmalade Cat, (definitely the reason I have a ginger and white cat of my own ...) 

Or anything, like the Nurse Matilda books, with cross-hatched pen and ink sketches by an artist whose style I quickly learned to recognise, Edward Ardizzone.

Folktales and legends, in Edgware Library, had their own bookshelves: on the wall to the right of the door as you entered: a wealth of cloth bound tomes of the sort you would never publish for children now, as they would be considered too long, and too complex. Series of tales from all around the world, and every culture, from the Greek and Roman myths, to those of Egypt, India, Africa, Scandinavia: Hans Christian Andersen, the brothers Grimm: introducing children to the range of archetypal themes that populate all cultures, and symbolise the human condition - giving an insight beyond the limitations of a child's own developing mind, into the realms of something more profound, and eternal.

Some books, and their sequels, were favoured because of the possibilities of freedom and adventure they offered: the Narnia series, one of many works of fiction which appealed, I suppose, to a child whose own parents were so authoritarian, because they were about children at large in a fantasy world, without adult supervision, independent, and powerful.

This was also partly the appeal of so many books set in boarding school: Malory Towers, the Chalet School - and even the Jennings books, an example of the necessarily secret cross gender reading of a girl of that period, running out of her own books, at the weekend, or on holiday, and forced, in desperation, to borrow her brother's, and learn what it was to be one of that other species, a boy: Jennings, Just William, Biggles -  Rider Haggard, and Captain Marryat, then HG Wells, Sherlock Holmes, and so many others.

Another favourite genre as a child was biography: especially those issued in the exemplary series, published by Max Parrish, telling the story of the young lives of famous figures - including an unusually high number of women - writers, artists, musicians, reformers; Elizabeth Fry, Mozart, the Brontes - Charles Dickens.

Curious, in retrospect, that so much of the fiction of childhood featured a young protagonist that was an orphan, or a child living apart from family - like Oliver Twist, or Jane Eyre, foundlings like the girls in Ballet Shoes; Anne of Avonlea, Heidi, and so many others. 

The cruelty of early life displayed in Dickens, and Charlotte Bronte, in Jane Eyre, especially resonated, for some reason: for a particular reason, being sent to a Catholic school, at the age of six, whose merciless regime seemed designed to break the spirit of every child left in its 'care', beyond the intervention of family, and parental protection, if that had been offered, which it was not.

Perhaps I identified with those orphaned characters, those children left in the world to fend for themselves, because the emotional distance within my own family had fractured my own sense of belonging; or perhaps it is an experience common to all children, that they must explore and develop their own sense of self, as they grow up.

Reading so widely, and learning the ability to recognise the same feelings, and to feel a common bond with other lives, is an invaluable process for all children: but perhaps more important is the recognition, and understanding of difference - to learn the process of empathy: to understand the feelings of others. This is only possible by the use of imagination, that step away from the world of your own experience to a world inhabited by someone else, where the rules you live by no longer apply, and everything familiar to you has changed. How will you manage? And how does the world appear to the person standing next to you, or in another country, or from a different culture?

One of the leading organisers of yesterday's march and demo was the children's writer Alan Gibbons, who has been to several library protests here in Barnet. He came to the occupied library, in Friern Barnet, and made a very interesting speech on the subject of the link between reading fiction and empathy. How many children -  or adults, he asked - who become involved in violence, and acts of hate crime, for example, lacked that vital stage in their development in which the experience of reading would have allowed a sense of empathy to become embedded in their minds, and prevented a fatal degree of emotional detachment, and alienation, and the establishment of anti-social behaviour - or worse? 

Well written fiction, biography, folktales, poetry and drama: all help to show the way: they navigate a path through the unknown, and teach you how to survive: they encourage the development of resilience, of emotional intelligence, as well as academic proficiency.

What a tragedy it is, then, that we have turned our backs on the defence of the public library system: that future generations of our children, and grandchildren, will grow up without this precious resource. 

Of course the children and grandchildren of those implementing the cull of libraries will not lose anything. 

The children and grandchildren of politicians whose own lack of empathy endorses a government agenda of unjust and illiberal social policies are unlikely to be encouraged to learn to enter the world of imagination, and connect with the lives of those different from and less fortunate than themselves. 

But the children of the poor, the disadvantaged: those who, for a century or more, benefited from the provision of free access to a public library, are seeing the destruction of that vital means to education and empowerment.

In Barnet, as elsewhere, the lifeline offered by public libraries is being remorselessly cut: the right of access to a public library, for many of the borough's least advantaged children, is about to end. That right, which we always thought had been enshrined in statute, in the Libraries act, will become meaningless as the Tory council implements its new programme of devastating cuts, hidden behind the lie of 'reshaping'. 

Children will be banned from the new open library system: a system imposed through sacking half of the library staff, and introducing the as yet untested concept - on this scale, and in this urban context - of completely unstaffed libraries. 

The children of East Finchley: barred from unstaffed libraries, supported by Labour AM Andrew Dismore

Banned from the new DIY libraries, but if they manage to find a staffed library where they can borrow books, (or study), should they have problems returning them on time, perhaps because they live a long way from a staffed branch - their Tory councillors have reintroduced the idea of fines for children's overdue books, in order to generate income. And perhaps to deter children from borrowing them in the first place, which will in turn  lower attendance levels, and give the council more ammunition in the argument for shutting libraries. All utterly cynical: and very clever.

The truth is that the Conservative administration in Barnet has been deliberately running down our once exemplary library service - one awarded beacon status, and recognised for its value for money performance. The staffing structure has been cut, again and again, with a motive of de-professionalisation, and a deliberate abandonment of standards in service. The stock has been culled, and cut. The loss of specialist librarians for children, and information, has become evident in stock selection and the overall management of the libraries.

As part of the latest, most grievous assault on Barnet libraries, senior officers, from the council and Crapita, provided a series of pointless 'information sessions' about the new cuts, in which the exchange of information was diverted down a one way street. Residents were told how the 'reshaping' of their libraries would begin. There was no time for debate over the decision. There never was any possibility of choice. 

The libraries will become libraries in name only: buildings with a nominal library function, the buildings now given over to Capita to run. The carving up of space, and the loss of library functions within these buildings is about to be enacted: nothing will ever be the same.

I attended one of these sessions at North Finchley, and was appalled by what they are planning to do to the beautiful, purpose built library. The children's library at the front, designed with curved, low windows especially for the use of young readers, is to be emptied of its purpose, the children removed from their own designated safe space, and the rooms given over for renting to businesses.

Except of course, that excuse is nonsense. When questioned, the senior officers happily waved away any concerns about the lack of demand for such office space. It didn't matter, the lack of any business plan, or even the lack of any revenue from such fantasy rental options: the library budget, newly slashed, would not be affected. Why not? It seems because in fact the council is going to use the space itself. Will Capita earn income from renting the space to other council services? We don't know: but we do know Capita does nothing without charging a fee.

Looking at the children's library, about to be destroyed, was overwhelmingly sad, just as it is to visit the children's library in Golders Green, where I once worked: where bookshelves used to be overflowing, now there are many gaps, and empty shelves, and a dearth of variety or choice. 

So sad, all of this, because of the terrible injustice of what they are doing: but sad also because the children's libraries have been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent from the standard set by Eileen Colwell, all those years ago. A few paperbacks on sparsely populated shelves, in a run down room, with peeling paint, and a sense of decay, and a loss of spirit. We lost our libraries a long time ago: and we will never reclaim them, until there is a political will to recognise the value of reading, the value of access to information, supported by qualified staff: the need for quiet, safe spaces for children, the elderly, the less advantaged members of our community.

In a borough where the political administration abhors the very principle of public services, which refuses to acknowledge the idea of community, there is little hope of any long term future for our libraries. 

Unless, that is, we rise to their defence. 

Barnet library strikers before the march

Yesterday many Barnet council library workers, campaigners, residents, union members and Labour councillors marched through London, to show their support for our libraries. Many of the staff members present face the loss of their jobs, and many of the residents the loss of their libraries. 

During yesterday's march, I had the great pleasure of walking alongside a woman called Megan Charlton, from Durham: one of the spokeswomen for the 'Durham Lions' - a group of magnificent women from the North East, teaching assistants fighting the loss of a massive slice of their pay, in what appears to be a grossly unfair and arguably discriminatory cut by the local county council. 

Durham Lion & TA representative Megan Charlton meets Barnet's People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd

Fortunately the support they feel has been missing from the local Labour establishment, and the leadership of Unison, has been found elsewhere, including from the Durham Miners Association, whose late and much missed president Davy Hopper came to support a library march in Barnet, along with representatives of the fabulous LGSM.

No coincidence that Durham produces such strong women, like the indomitable women in my family, whose fighting spirit continues in a new generation, after the battles during the pit closures, and now with the teaching assistants' dispute, whose campaign is about so much more than a devastating cut in pay: it's about justice, and who will be counted, when there is a fight to be fought.

We talked about all sorts of things as we walked: the sense of empowerment that results from taking action over such injustices, and the need - the duty - to stand up for what is right, in order to set the right example for your children. And both my children, who work part time in libraries, were on strike yesterday, because both of them have been brought up to do the right thing: to stand up for what is right. 

For the sake of all our children, then, now and in the future, it is time for all of us to stand in solidarity with those fighting these terrible cuts in public services. If you want to fight the destruction of your local libraries - it's now or never.

And here in Barnet, as the library strikes take place, it's time for you to show your support for this service, and these workers, and stand in unity with them.

Labour councillors Alon Or-Bach, and Arjun Mittra, left & right, with Mrs Angry & son