Sunday, 14 October 2018

Hey, hey, Theresa May: How many women have you robbed today? The Great Pensions Robbery protest reaches Parliament.


'BackToSixty's Yvette Cooper and Joanne Welch (second and third from left) in the road outside Parliament with other protesting women facing pension loss

Over the last few years, in my role as roving reporter for this blog, I have, I suppose, found myself in many interesting situations: including some in which perhaps, in respectable middle age, and beyond, one might not expect to end up. 

Situations in which 'direct action', rather than theoretical activism, has been required; civil disobedience, if you like - but being there to observe and report, as well as take part. All of which raises the risk of my long suffering children, at any moment, expecting to find themselves called to collect their errant mother from a custody cell. (That could never happen, could it, Jacqui?) ... Some examples:

Stalked, barred from a public meeting, & illegally, covertly filmed by jackbooted thugs masquerading as licensed security officers, casually employed by Barnet Council. (Not the current ones, who are very nice ...)

Taking over a council chamber, & chasing the feckless Tory members about to sign up to ten years of bondage to Capita, contracts almost unread, into a tiny side room, quivering with fear.

Sitting in a 'reclaimed' library, in a circle, on children's stools, while members of Occupy taught senior council managers, speechless with indignation,  to speak in turn, respecting the rule of democracy, and using jazz hands, to show approval. Not that they wanted to.

Visiting a house squatted by local tenants being made homeless, & discussing tupperware boxes with Russell Brand, who was gracing the protest with his presence, like Jesus visiting the apostles, post death, to gee them up a bit.

Ok, not up there with the Suffragettes, exactly, in terms of daring and commitment, but interesting all the same.


But thinking about the Suffragettes exactly, was what I was doing doing earlier this week, outside Parliament, in the course of another occupation: a blockade of the road outside the House of Commons, causing chaos, hopefully, as far back as Downing Street where, possibly  PM Theresa May was sitting in her limo, unable to leave, while her less fortunate sixty/fifty something sisters were stopping traffic, and bringing Westminster to a standstill. 

You might have heard about the 'Waspi' campaign: Women Against State Pension Inequality, and recognised the purple branding, borrowed from the Suffragettes, of an issue now rapidly gaining attention from all but those who don't want to hear, at Westminster, and elsewhere.

At a time when austerity, despite Mrs May's claims of abolition, has reduced so many to an unprecedented level of poverty, that women are expected to cope without six years of pension for which they had already paid, throughout their lives, in work, and in times of childcare, is nothing less than a national scandal. 

And the resistance to this injustice, rapidly increasing as more and more women discover that the financial security they had believed was theirs by right has been quietly removed, is now part of a wider campaign, including other lobbying groups, notably BackTo60, led by Yvette Cooper and Joanne Welch (seen above), as well as We Paid In You Pay Out.

Backto60, backed by human rights barrister Michael Mansfield, and lawyers Birnberg Pierce, has now secured a hearing in the High Court in regard to its application for a Judicial Review, based on an argument addressing the unfair and hasty implementation of an imposed rise in age qualification for women, failing to inform those affected, and leaving them with little time or ability to prepare for the loss of as much as six years of pension support. 

On Wednesday this week, there was a rally and day of protest organised under the 'One Voice' movement - a body which unifies all groups campaigning to put right the injustice of so many women robbed of so many years of National Insurance contributions.

This event began at an appropriate place: the Reformers' Tree in Hyde Park, a point of memorial commemorating an oak tree used as a meeting place for members of the Reform League, in 1866, when demanding the right to vote for all adult men. The tree was burnt to a stump in the course of one protest, but its location became a symbol of the right of the people to assemble - a tradition maintained to this day, and marked in 2000 by a mosaic, unveiled by Tony Benn.




In 1866, demanding the vote for all men was seen as a desperately radical and dangerous proposition, but the question of universal suffrage, and the inclusion of women, was unthinkable. 

Here we are, only a hundred years after the right to vote was given to some women, and still we struggle to secure our rights to equality. But although in the cartoon above the only woman is looking on from a safe distance, it is her great granddaughters now taking the axe to the rotten trunk of an establishment still dominated by male power, and an institutionalised indifference to the rights of women.

Some people - mostly men - would argue that the increase to 66 for the pension age is in itself a mark of equality, in that it applies the same level of qualification in age to both sexes. But this is to ignore the gross economic inequality that women of that generation have had to endure in their working lives, and also in their traditional roles as caregivers, not just in terms of childcare, but with family responsibilities to ageing parents, unpaid duties often taking them out of employment, and leaving them unable to make full NI contributions, or pay into any private pension fund.



Women reaching sixty on already low pay - and of course women are still paid less than men - exhausted after years of juggling work, and family responsibilities, perhaps unable to find work in a world in which older women are seen as virtually unemployable, are now in many cases facing the most extreme levels of hardship, with no hope of the pension they had paid for, and assumed would be there. In many cases, they received no notification of the change in age entitlement, and those that did had little option for saving enough money to help mitigate the loss of entitlement.

Some women have been left dependent on their husbands for financial support - but many women of that generation who have become divorced have had unfair settlements that ignored or minimised the loss of future pension income. 

As one woman at the protest on Wednesday explained to me, showing the scars from an operation to reconstruct her broken arm after an assault by her former husband - a frail, prematurely aged woman, who often goes without food, or relies on the generosity of a neighbour for a shared meal - she fears for those women of her age or younger still caught in an abusive relationship, because they do not have the economic independence of a pension, that would at least enable them to escape. 

Another serious consequence for women thrown into financial difficulties at this stage in their lives is in terms of their physical and mental health. Not only has improvement in life expectancy for women dropped by an appalling level of 91% since 2011, there is evidence of an unacknowledged impact on older women facing poverty as a result of pension loss, as Yvette Cooper explained to the assembled crowd in Hyde Park, with deeply troubling findings of a survey on depression and suicide amongst this group.

At the Reformers' tree, several other speakers addressed the gathered assembly of women. 

Sophie Walker gave the campaign the backing of the Women's Equality Party:



Sophie Walker

Investigative journalist and former Guardian Westminster correspondent David Hencke also spoke - he has written extensively about the campaign, for example here - and uncovered the previously unknown audit trail of treasury led appropriation of funds meant to cover the stolen years of pension: he also recorded a contribution to an item on that day's 'World at One' on BBC4 on this topic.



David Hencke

Off to Westminster next, where an even larger crowd of women was waiting, gathered around the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett - the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square - only placed there this year. In her arms she holds a banner proclaiming: 'Courage calls to courage everywhere'. 

Around Fawcett's statue now were members of a generation of women who perhaps have not been particularly politically active, until now: quite a few of them probably quite conservative by nature, and perhaps formerly Conservative voters. 

Not any more.

The crowd moved over towards a place directly opposite the House of Commons, now shrouded in scaffolding and protective wrapping as the hugely expensive renovation programme continues. No amount of protective wrapping, however, could possibly insulate those inside from the racket the women were making: with trumpets, drums, bongos, whistles, and a fair amount of less than respectful comments chanted in their direction:

Hey, hey, Theresa May: How Many Women Have You Robbed Today?

We Paid In, You Pay Out.

We're Pissed Off! We're Pissed Off! We're Pissed Off!

They were.

Some resorted to making a cacophony in the form of a more domestic method of protest: banging saucepans with kitchen cutlery, cacerolazo style. It seemed appropriate.

At one point, one of the men who had attended the protest, dressed as a Town Crier, read out a list of women who had died before receiving their post 60 pensions. He struggled to maintain his composure, and who could blame him, as he bravely read out the name of his own wife.

Others brought family members and supporters: 



Some bought dogs (his third demo, said this one's owner, proudly) :




Some attended in wheelchairs. Some carried pictures of those who could not afford the journey to London to attend - or who had also died before reaching their pension age.

Some MPs had already agreed to speak to the crowd: it was almost impossible to hear what they were saying, but it was significant that they were now keen to be associated with what is only now being recognised as an issue worth talking about. 




SNP members arrive at the demo.




Chris Williamson MP

All parties have been slow to recognise the importance of this issue - Labour has so far failed to grasp the electoral significance of providing the huge number of women affected by pension loss with a pledge to provide the full transitional support that they so desperately need. 

Curiously, however, I found myself standing next to someone who ... surely not? Someone who bore a distinct resemblance to the wife of the Labour leader. 

We can only hope, if it was her, that she went home and gave Jeremy a good talking to, over dinner. Come on, Jezza: you know what we need - and it could make all difference in constituencies like those held by the three marginal Tories here in Barnet, where there are thousands of women hit by this injustice. 

Earlier this year we made a documentary film, shot outside the Town Hall, on this very subject, and included views from a couple of local councillors, including former Tory Sury Khatri - deselected for daring to criticise the Capita contracts - who was also present on Wednesday.





Gratifying to note one right wing Labour MP who came over to take a look at the protest change his expression from one of mildly patronising amusement to one of distinct unease, surrounded by a surging crowd of women in such foul mood, and in no way inclined to move out of his way as they suddenly headed across the pavement, and on to the road outside Parliament.

Within seconds, the traffic ground to a halt. More and more women moved onto the road. After a while, the police response arrived. This consisted of one middle aged officer who politely asked, with genial wink, if we would move back to the pavement. We thought not. 

The women stayed in place, and eventually sat down in the road, obstinately refusing to budge, even when the only four spare policemen left in the Greater London area, after Tory budget cuts, were found and summoned to help. Protests at Parliament are common occurences, of course: sitting down in the road and stopping traffic for more than an house most certainly is not.



One of them, who looked young enough to be the grandson of most of the women there, appeared at something of a loss in terms of what to do, and instead wasted a lot of time talking importantly into his phone, probably asking for a transfer. Two of the older officers tried persuading the women sitting down to shift, telling them we were all creating a Public Nuisance, which was gratifying. 

The women sitting down stared back at the policemen and ignored them, knowing full well five officers could hardly arrest more than a thousand women outside Parliament. Where would they take the ringleaders, now that Holloway is closed?

The whole day was an inspiring moment, in fact, for anyone whose passion for political activism might be in danger of flagging. Empowerment is an overused term, but seeing women seizing the moment, and making their voices count in this way, using direct action, and political protest, to seize control, even temporarily, was something our suffragette mothers would have understood, and approved. If the political establishment refuses to engage in debate, and take action, how else can citizens force them to listen but in this way?

Courage calls to courage: now let's hope our parliamentary representatives are wise enough to listen, and brave enough to act to right this wrong. Whether through the High Court, or by  persistent lobbying, and organised protests like this, sooner or later, change must and will come.








Sunday, 30 September 2018

Rue Morgue: the strange story of Barnet's missing Heritage Collection





An archival storage facility, in the age of outsourcing


Time now for a detour through one of the back lanes of Broken Barnet: a meandering stroll that in itself reveals, in grim metaphor, a larger story: the long history of betrayal, by Barnet Tories, of this borough, and this community. Yes, a wander along Rue Morgue.

This is the curious tale of the corporate heritage collection, which, as a Freedom of Information request now confirms, our hapless councillors gave to Capita for safeguarding and - well. Can you guess what happened next? 

Yes. It has mysteriously disappeared, without a trace.

(This FOI request has at least, unlike others over the last few months, not been delayed and obstructed by Barnet, on a variety of pretexts. The ICO has now told Barnet off for this, and further posts will explain why they are so reluctant to respond to two other particularly 'sensitive' requests ...)

The council had been rather keen to keep quiet about the following matter, but a number of Mrs Angry's network of spies have been in touch tell her about it, and to express their fury over what can only be seen yet another failure of duty to residents.

Barnet has now confirmed exactly who was tasked with the care of the heritage collection, or at least the building in which it was so carelessly stored:

The company responsible for securing the site as a whole was Ad Hoc Property Management, who were appointed by CSG Estates. (Yes, CSG being one of the two Capita contracts).

Is there a contract with this company, and has it been renewed, asked Mrs Angry?

Ad Hoc Property Management and other guardian / caretaker companies are periodically utilised by the council to provide guardians / caretakers to secure vacant assets but there is no overarching contract. Each occupancy arrangement is an individual agreement. Ad Hoc still have guardians in the Barnet Mortuary flats and also in the following additional premises:


1. 80 Dawes Lane 2. The Flightways Centre, the Concourse. 3. The Lodge (at the Mortuary site), 1 Dolman Close 4. Rosa Freedman Care Home, Claremont Way.

Barnet Mortuary Flats? More of this later. And: despite what has happened, Barnet seem happy to continue to use Ad Hoc. 

The 'artefacts', we were told, were not insured, but they are trying to get some sort of compensation. From whom, is not stated. Nor why it is taking so long.

In February, the matter was referred to the police. At the end of March, they concluded there was no evidence of criminal activity.  According to the FOI response: It was established that the items were disposed of as a result of human error.

Ah. Human error. Whose error, though? And then: a somewhat puzzling development. After police concluding no criminal activity, and it being established (by whom?) that the items had been accidentally disposed of, Barnet decided to launch an investigation by the Corporate Anti-fraud Team, CAFT. Why? 

This was in early April. But then: Following an investigation, no definitive information as to the location of the artefacts was established.

Dear me. What happened to it then? Not stolen, or - no proof of being stolen. Thrown in a skip? Apparently no line of investigation to follow: no audit trail. How odd.

Well then. 

Over the last few years we have seen our local heritage used by Tory members as yet another asset to take to market, or more opportunity for the predatory developers who circle the skies of Broken Barnet, looking for more and more profitable sites. At the same time, the privatisation of planning and enforcement, thrown in the lap of Capita Re, is enabling more and more development, and increasing the risk of harm to our legacy of historic buildings. 

We have seen so many of these buildings sold, like the Lodge in Victoria Park, demolished without warning, like the White Bear pub in Hendon, or lost through quietly re-arranged plans, like the National Medical Institute for Research in Mill Hill. (Below).


At the moment there are two more pubs of huge significance in terms of local history at risk from planning applications - the Midland in West Hendon, and the listed Railway Hotel in Edgware. The Midland * has been targeted for development - and the Railway *, after years of neglect, and no effective enforcement action, has a retrospective application for the location of a proposed car wash. No one seems able to confirm whether or not the listed interior features of the latter are still intact: which might well be reason to believe at least some of them may have been lost.

* See below at the bottom of the post for links to object to these applications.

Does it matter if these buildings disappear, or lose their historic features? Who cares? Well, I do, and I think most residents do too. Why does it matter? Because all of these properties tell the story of our borough, and of the people who have made it what it was. 

I've written a lot about the Lodge, which is near my home, and I've tried to lobby for better protection for the Railway Hotel, as I grew up in Edgware, and it is a part of my own past. I went to school next to the NIMR in Mill Hill, and was aghast to see it ripped apart, after being assured it was going to be retained and modified.

The Midland has its own story, as part of the coming of the railway in the nineteenth century - as well as serving the local community now, and providing a much needed venue for live music, here in the 21st century, as fellow blogger Roger Tichborne will tell you.



The Railway Hotel

The fabric of these buildings holds our history: but our local history holds little value in the estimation of our Tory councillors.

You may recall the scandalous closure, a few years ago, of the Church Farmhouse Museum in Hendon -  the ransacking of its local collection, mostly donated over decades by residents. What wasn't thrown in a skip was sold off at auction. Tory Leader Richard Cornelius had said the collection was of no value. In fact it raised quite a lot of money: perhaps what he meant was - it was of no value to him.

Social history is of no consequence, in Broken Barnet. The story of ordinary people, and their daily lives, is of no interest. The only use for a museum is in terms of property value, and the potential for development. 

Worse still, a museum, like our library service, now effectively destroyed by the Barnet Tory war on culture, serves as a point of focus and information for the community, and reinforces a sense of identity: one which might interfere in the best interests of developers, and their profits. 

What remains of our corporate heritage? 

Not much.

Even the Town Hall has been pimped by its corporate owners: the civic function wrenched out of most of the building, much of the freed up space given over to Middx Uni to use as they wish, and some of it now available as, of all things, a wedding venue. Council meetings have been squeezed into smaller rooms, and even the Heritage Room is up for rent.

Ah. The Heritage Room. 

A room that holds a special place, in the history of Broken Barnet: the place where, forced out of the neighbouring committee room by a protest by residents, who sat in members' places around the table, our Tory councillors defiantly signed the Capita contracts, unread, and in the face of all reasonable arguments not to. Reasonable arguments that, five years later, they now realise they should not have ignored.


People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, taking a bow in the Heritage Room, Hendon Town Hall

This room was the sometime depository of the Mayoral bling so loved by our Tory members, who scheme and lobby all year round to take their turn at sitting on the throne of lies that is the centre of the council chamber of Broken Barnet, dressed up in the grubby velvet robe of office, trimmed with mangy fur - that looks as if might just be skinned from the carcasses of feral foxes scavenging among the now discarded waste food bins littering the borough.

Not just golden chains, and silver medals, the corporate bling. There is - or was - a wealth of other holdings, much of it commemorating the formation of the boroughs of Finchley, Hendon, and Chipping Barnet, in the 1930s, later combined as the dark entity that is now the London Borough of Barnet. 

The collection included a large number of gifts offered to the borough, since its inception, marking visits, or thanks for funds raised, or civic events and achievements - gifts from different faith groups and cultural associations - as well, of course, as presents donated to demonstrate the bonds of friendship with the towns around the world with which Barnet is twinned. 

Mrs Angry imagines that former Tory, former Mayor, and lover of all things bling, Brian Coleman, will be beside himself, reading about this ...

Because, as we now know - it's all gone. They lost it.

Given to Capita for safekeeping: and what did Capita do? Pass it over to another contractor, which then, displaying an admirable grasp of ironic justice, shoved the whole lot in a disused mortuary in Finchley - just across the road from Mrs Angry, as it happens. Perhaps it was some sort of gesture, from our colonial masters. A last offering to the gods of the underworld, to fend off the impending collapse of their last outpost.

As a part of the mass outsourcing contracts -  a lure added as as 'sweetener' late on in the tender process -  your Tory council handed over all the profit generating opportunities offered by Mrs Angry's dead grandmother, grandfather, great uncles, and cousins, at the former Hendon Crematorium to Capita. There is a lot of profit in death, but sadly the EasyCrem facility, with promised live streaming of funerals, fast tracked funerals, funeral dvds, & full catering for 'post life' functions - and discounted, pre-used graves for local bloggers - has proved to be less than successful and may well be taken back in house. There will no doubt be much rejoicing in heaven, if not in Capita HQ. 

What they were doing with the mortuary, however ... heaven only knows. 

When Mrs Angry first moved to her present home, it was hard not to notice,  on a regular basis, a disconcerting series of rather sinister dark transit vans, with revolving ventilators, always driven by two grim faced men in black, exiting on to Squires Lane from the side road opposite. It then transpired that, until recently, they were making regular 'deliveries' to - and presumably collections from - the council's mortuary at the end of Avondale Avenue, where post mortem examinations were made. 

This mortuary building, it seems, is where, once upon a time, the pioneer of forensic pathology, Bernard Spilsbury, examined the bodies of a number of famous victims of murder, such as Lord George Sanger, the circus owner, and Margaret Lloyd, one of the women killed by the 'Brides in the Bath' murderer - and even possibly (part of) the exhumed body of Mrs Crippen.


Bernard Spilsbury

A fitting place, then, to stash the last remains of our corporate heritage, now the building itself has been commandeered by Crapita.

And what was sent there?

In truth, the collection of items is, at first glance, unutterably banal. 

So banal, in fact, that by very nature the sequence of humble and sometimes rather bizarre listings has an air of poignancy: the sense of worthy citizens (as they once were) trying to do their civic duty, and build a feeling of pride in the newly formed boroughs.

Ephemera: a record of events whose significance is now largely forgotten: certificates, trophies, shields and badges, all marking some small achievement by people no one remembers; objects given as an expression of affirmation, marking the fleeting moments of someone's life: of the life of a community.

Relics of abandoned interests and former enterprises: clumsy but well meant gestures of goodwill, and encouragement.

Some of the contents, it must be said, are so absurd, it is hard not to laugh, sifting through the listing. 

Here are some favourites: most of these are supposed to have links to photos, but along with the items themselves, have disappeared, so we will have to use our imagination:

Item 7: a Top Hat, and box, dated 1878.

Item 11: a cartoon by Ken Pyne, to commemorate the opening of a new car park at Brent Cross, in 1996.

(Ken, of course, is a regular contributor to Private Eye, which takes a keen interest in the work of Barnet Tory councillors, and has given many a Rotten Borough award in recognition of their corporate folly).

Item 19:  a desk set presented to a Mayor in the 1970s. Tersely worded note added in 1996: 

 2 x pens put in Mayor’s Parlour to replace one that was lost/stolen during Cllr Palmer’s mayoral year.

(That would be Councillor, now Lord Palmer, a Libdem peer. And by implication, a 'collector' of municipal biros. Tssk. Surprised the former Chair of Audit wasn't investigated by the Corporate Anti Fraud Team, as they seem to have so much free time on their hands).

Item 26: a picture from 1906 of the Rev W Reason, former Chair (frame smashed). 

Item 75: a book of paintings by Paul McCartney (Note to thief: please keep, with my best wishes).

Item 242, a copy of the Freedom of the Borough given to Margaret Thatcher (Likewise).

Item 288: a gold crown from Korea, 24k gold, National Treasure #188. What?

Item 295: a box in which there is a pair of black gloves, scarves, fabric pin badges etc in red letters (for OP BRIDGE). 

(Oh. This puzzled Mrs Angry, until she realised it means - shhh, TOP SECRET - it is in reference to 'Operation London Bridge', which is what will happen when the Queen keels over, and our councillors will immediately rush to the Town Hall to put on black gloves, scarves, badges etc, and engage in national weeping, Korean style (see Item 288, which will be worn by the Dear Leader, Richard Cornelius).

Item 360: a pencil drawing of an owl. (Suspect this is wrongly catalogued, and is a portrait of the current Mayor, and serial library cutter, Cllr Tombstone).

Item 507: oh hang on - stand by, Brian, trigger warning: a large silver plate, in presentation case, from the Morphou Municipality, on the occasion of the designation of Brian Coleman as the Worshipful the Mayor of the London Borough of Barnet, from the Mayor and Councillors of the occupied town of Morphou, 19th May 2009. 

(This is from the Old Days, when it was compulsory to worship Brian Coleman. Things have moved on since then). 

Item 568: a picture of The Bridge, Walsall - given to Cllr Finn by a visitor trying to meet every Mayor in the country. Listing explains, in case you were wondering, and of course it does help put things in perspective: The man was from Walsall.

Item 584a: a picture of former Chief Executive Max Caller - in a gold frame. Of course. 

Item 617: a picture entitled 'Ploughing', by David Shepherd - presumably not the David Shepherd, People's Mayor, seen above, pictured in the Heritage Room.

Item 621: a pencil drawing of Prince Phillip, from 1965.

Item 632: a nude female idol, Cypriot, 1400-1200 BC (note says it is a fertility 'ornament'). 

Item 643: Ah yes. A trophy, listed as 'returned' to silver fox, octagenarian Tory councillor John Hart, to commemorate the annual Petanque competition between Barnet and Chaville. 

12 and a half inches long, and in the shape of a tulip. (The trophy).

Returned to Cllr John Hart. 

Not the only councillor to have custody of some of this stuff. 


Several items are listed as being 'held' by one former Tory Councillor, Joan Scannell, who was so ruthlessly deselected by her fellow Tories in Edgware  - some Wedgwood jasperware, and bone china - and another currently serving member, Cllr Wendy Prentice, is stated as having custody of a curious selection of objects: an ash tray, a cat tray, (?) and a wooden deer in a box. 

Just as well they appear to have taken them home for their mantelpieces: they may well have preserved the last remaining items of the collection.

Oh: one other mention of a councillor's interest: 

Item 533: a boxed trowel, in silver, from a Regent Street goldsmith with a Royal Warrant, given by East Finchley library, in 1938.

Well, of course there used to be a lot of silver trowels, and a fair amount of trouser rolling, at the Town Hall, not so many years ago, when Tory councillors used to hold their Lodge meetings in one of the Committee rooms (source: Mrs Angry's brother, who used to work in what was then called Democratic Services, before they removed the Democratic bit, and then the Service). But these days there is no room in the Town Hall for that sort of fraternal mullarkey. 

And yes, that would be the East Finchley library that has lost staff, and space, and was going to be pimped to a 'Wannapreneur' business renting out desks, rather than provide study space to local children. Until library campaigners stepped in. Presumably the trowel, rather than a masonic one, was meant to mark the pride the community felt in laying the foundations of this beautiful, now listed building, so well loved by local residents. What would they have made of the council's current destruction of their work, and their library service?

A mysterious note says: Leader to Polish and relocate to the Heritage Room.

Of course Cllr Cornelius is a busy man, and one might have thought he had better things to do than spend time on buffing up a shine on selected items of corporate bling, but still: as a matter of public interest, Mrs Angry has made enquiries of the Mayor's secretary, to see if the Leader has been polishing his trowel.

No reply, as yet.


And apart from the more bizarre objects in the collection, there were items of genuine interest: boxes marked 'important documents', to do with the early years of the three boroughs; coats of arms, seals; memorabilia related to HMS Fantome, the minesweeper bought by the people of Friern Barnet in WW2, and also material to do with HMS Tartar, a naval vessel adopted by Barnet - endless sports awards, photographs of former Mayors, Town Clerks, long serving officers of the council. Numerous presents from Morphou, Le Raincy, Ramat Gan, Siegerland, Montclair, from Hindu, Sikh, and Bahai communities - a plate from the Neasden Mandir, one from my local Catholic church, even a video of Sathya Sai Baba. 

There is hardly a faith group or community group in the borough, in short, whose gifts have not been tossed aside, into the hands of our feckless contractors, in an act of corporate indifference that tells you ... everything you need to know about the state of Broken Barnet.

Many of these things represent something far more important than material value. 

Not just gestures of goodwill, or tokens of friendship - a recognition of the need to make connections, and build relationships. They are an acknowledgement of the need for inclusion and community: all the things current Barnet Tories think are so unimportant. 

By discarding them so casually, and so thoughtlessly, the council has turned its back on all of this, and demonstrated, with perfect clarity, the utter contempt it bears for the people of this borough, in all its diversity, and its history, as well as all the fragile relationships built over so many years with other communities both in the UK and the rest of the world. 

While the Corporate Anti-Fraud Team were busy not finding out what happened to the heritage collection handed over to Capita for safekeeping, as it happens, they were doing so only weeks after they were shown to have also missed a rather larger loss: the swindling of Barnet taxpayers by one of Capita's managers, to the tune of more than £2 million, over a year and a half, in the course of 62 incidences of fraud. 

There could perhaps be no more complete demonstration of the state we are in: our heritage collection in hoc to Ad Hoc, Ad Hoc left to their own devices by Capita, Capita left with open access to our money and our services, with an in house detective team that arguably couldn't solve a game of Cluedo, let alone spot the biggest act of corporate fraud this council has ever seen.

Barnet Tories have sold us, and our inheritance, body and soul, into bondage to Capita, let them to do exactly what they want, and now, like a bunch of impotent old men, are standing back and allowing them to believe they can still retain all the lucrative services they want. 

As reported by the BBC, the company maintain that the Grant Thornton report into the fraud case and its immediate implications presented a "limited and highly caveated review". They are not going to let go easily: they have too much to lose. 

In the meanwhile, they have us in their grip, another abandoned box of trophies shoved in the back of the mortuary. 

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Broken Barnet, September 2018


* If you would like to object to the Railway Hotel planning application, please use this link:


* If you would like to object to the application regarding the Midland Hotel, use this link:




Sunday, 23 September 2018

Project Rose: the devastating report Barnet Tories didn't want you to read

  
Barnet Tory leader Richard Cornelius at a recent residents' meeting

Summer in Broken Barnet has always been a dangerous season. 

A time when devious council strategists quietly slip out any awkward political announcements; when developers submit any awkward applications to demolish yet another piece of our built heritage (more of that in the next post) - but increasingly now it serves as a lull in the storm: a time of desultory Tory inaction, some of our more privileged elected members sitting idly in the garden of their French summer homes, safe in the knowledge - or so they think - that nothing much back home is happening, can happen, and if it does happen: no one will notice.

This year, this summer, before our Tory councillors packed their bags and headed off to the sun, something already had happened - and the long break until September offered them a welcome respite from the gathering clouds that now have broken over their empty heads, only this week, in the form of further trouble, and the publication of a damning report that exposes, in visceral detail, the extent of failure in the corporate management of this borough.

Only after the elections were safely over was it revealed that the authority's pre-election financial statements were wrong, and predicted deficits actually on a catastrophic scale, far worse than previously given. The council also now admitted that the mass privatisation of council services, thrown in the hands of Capita, in the form of two enormous contracts, was failing - or rather, as they put it, required a 'realignment'. Capita itself, of course, is struggling to survive: all of which together has left the borough in a perilous state, at unprecedented risk of financial collapse.

At the same time, again, shortly after the elections, rumours emerged of a scandalous story involving a massive fraud alleged to have been committed by a Capita employee. A fraud said to be more than £2 million in value, and one that had gone undetected until the employee's own bank had reported it to the council. Little could be said, as the matter was going to court, and although the authority had commissioned a report by auditors Grant Thornton into the wider issues raised by the fraudulent activity, they would not publish it yet, claiming that it was not 'in the public interest'.

On Friday this report was quietly made available on the council's website, spotted only by fellow blogger Mr Reasonable - no announcement was made, of course. Why would there be? It would be in breach of their policy of denial, and counter transparency.

But let us set the scene for the latest developments.

A couple of weeks ago, Tory Leader Richard Cornelius returned from his long break to begin a set of three low key public meetings with residents. These engagements, clearly reluctantly undertaken, are lip service to the statutory requirement to consult the public about forthcoming budget expenditure, and the corporate plan. As such, of course, they were given little publicity, in the hope that almost no one would turn up.

Some of us did turn up.

We trailed along, in the dismal early autumn rain, up the steep slope from the tube station to the venue in Chipping Barnet, passing on the way a discarded copy of one of the many leaflets local Tory MP and Brexit enthusiast Theresa Villiers has been stuffing through residents' letter boxes, in the frantic hope that she can, in the event of a snap election - any election - retain what is now a desperately marginal constituency, and one that is staunchly Remain.
 

Poor Mrs Villiers, marginalised, and digging her own political grave

The venue chosen was the Old Bull theatre: once an inn, so named for the Bull's head drain that used to spout water from the roof - an inn dating back perhaps as far as medieval times, when Barnet itself was a venue for a battle that was one of the pivotal moments in the War of the Roses. 

In the window was a poster for a local society's talk on Richard III, who was of course present at the Battle of Barnet, as a young man. His beady eyes gazed out on to the street that he once must have passed along, after the battle, on his way to London. 

Inside the theatre, another Richard stood waiting on the tiny stage, about to give a soliloquy not on our glorious summer, or the looming winter of discontent, but to expand upon a vision of life as it never is and never can be, in Broken Barnet, where everything, as he put it, is Nice, or at least, parts of it are Nice, and in defence of which he intends to make sure the Nice parts remain Nice.

Sat in the audience were some well heeled residents of Chipping, relics of the days when Barnet was still a Tory stronghold, awash with fundraising strawberry teas, and Pimms on the lawn, and Brian Coleman in a deckchair, and residents' wishes instantly accommodated by local party representatives. 

The sense of entitlement was palpable: two women vied with each other to be the most outraged over the council and police failing to remove homeless people daring to sleep in shop doorways, and spoiling the high street with their poverty and mental health needs, urinating in public and Worse, as one enraged woman at the back hissed across  the auditorium. Defecation! 

No shit. 

No: shit happens, even in Chipping Barnet. And it isn't at all Nice.

The Tory leader promised to 'clamp down' on such unspeakable acts, and said they were all foreigners, anyway, theses homeless people - as some of us looked on in horror, and instantly objected.

Another resident objected to investment in the less advantaged western side of the borough: why should they have 'so much' rather than Chipping? This was a step too far even for the Tory leader, and for one shining moment - a theatrical moment as breath taking as anything ever seen on the boards of the Old Vic - Mrs Angry and Richard Cornelius agreed with each other, and remonstrated with the woman. 

An event so unexpected, in fact, that he stopped to inform the audience it that such a thing had never happened before. 

It is unlikely ever to happen again.

The event was meant to be a consultation on the corporate plan.  Fellow bloggers Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne and Mrs Angry all tried to bring the discussion back to this point, and raise serious questions about the massive deficit, and the damage from the failure of the Capita contracts, but to little avail. Cornelius seemed, under any difficult questioning, to cringe, and even shrink in stature: less of a Shakespearean performance, than a puppet whose strings have been cut. 

He denied that successive Tory administrations had been guilty of financial incompetence. He insisted the Capita contracts were making savings. He blamed all financial shortfalls on funding shortages, without attributing this to the policies of his own party in government. Yes: a load of old bull, spouting forth, at the Old Bull. 

In short, Cornelius, and Barnet Tories generally, are in a state of absolute denial. Or at least that is their public facing approach - to deny to others what they must know to be the truth - that the borough faces financial meltdown, and may well end up in the dire straits facing Northamptonshire and other council authorities. Stare it out, deny it: bad news is fake news. 



A twitter follower spotted something rather alarming about the photo of Barnet's Tory leader at his recent stand up/sit down roadshow ...

In order to maintain some sense of equanimity, they have adopted a defence mechanism of total silence - a sworn allegiance to the code of omerta, defiantly maintained in the face of the earlier revelations - immediately after the local elections - of the gravity of our perilous financial position. This was inadequate then: after what has now emerged in the course of Friday's revelations, they find themselves with no cover at all, and exposed for all to see as they really are.

Eventually the Capita fraud case was brought to court, and the culprit pleaded guilty to 62 incidents of fraud, involving payments for non existent cases of Compulsory Purchase Orders of properties in regeneration schemes -  to the value of more than £2 million. He was given a five year prison sentence.

The council had commissioned a report from Grant Thornton to look into the circumstances in which this incredibly serious fraud had occurred. But they refused to publish it, or disclose the contents to members, citing as an excuse - preposterously - that it was 'not in the public interest' to do so. Why not? 


Tory leader Cornelius, Chief Executive John Hooton and senior managers earlier in the summer

Because, they said, it 'contains financial and business information about Re and Capita'. 

Quite clearly public interest is not the same as the commercial interests of Capita: but such is the extent of power, the inversion of power, between customer and contractor in this perverse relationship that Capita has been allowed to move into the more dominant position, leaving Barnet Tories too frightened to hold them to account. And of course the contract requires the council to promote the reputation of its own contractor, making it even harder to hold them to account. 

What sort of fools would sign up for such a contract, you may ask? 

Ask them yourselves: most of them are still sitting at the committee table.

By September, the report had still not been published. 

On 3rd September, Mrs Angry had decided to submit a Freedom of Information request for the report: 

Please give me a full copy of the report of the investigation undertaken by
Grant Thornton into the recent £2million+ fraud perpetrated by an employee of
Capita.

Please do not claim it is not in the public interest for this report to be
published, as quite clearly that cannot be true, and the ICO will not allow such
a pretext.

Please do not refuse publication on the pretext of future publication as the
report should already have been published, in the public interest, and anyway
no date has ever been given for publication.

There was nothing to lose by formally requesting the report: and it would force the authority, if refused, to explain itself to the Information Commissioner, a body which has always been very supportive when dealing with complaints about Barnet's attempts to obstruct the disclosure of material that is demonstrably in the public interest, and indeed has put the authority into 'special measures' when found to be in breach of statutory requirements.

And it was a timely test of Barnet's culture of counter transparency, as over recent months, almost every politically sensitive FOI request made to the authority by me and others appears to have resulted in delays, delayed demands for 'clarification', and other difficulties.  Last week patience ran out, and a complaint was made to the ICO about two such requests, on two matters that are of serious significance, and should most definitely be put in the public domain. 

This seems to have had a beneficial outcome in one way at least. Within days, the Grant Thornton report was - with no public announcement - at last published on the council website, and Mrs Angry informed that her response had been supplied - and five days early - albeit, as we know, with some redactions. The timing may or may not be coincidental. 

It is now clear, however, why it has taken the authority so long to release this document. 

The report - which you can find here - commissioned under the code name 'Project Rose' - is a devastating exposure of both contractual failings, and the failings of the commissioning side of the council to manage with any measurement of competence, the safeguarding of its own financial investment in services, and the process of privatisation. 

Ultimately, of course, it is an absolute indictment of the Tory group, and the Tory leadership. 

It must be noted, as observed within the report at several points, that Capita does not lend its endorsement to the contents, and that the report had to be redrafted no less than seven times. One hesitates to guess what the original version was like, bearing in mind the state of the final one.

'Project Rose', then.

O Rose, thou art sick.

Where to begin?

First of all it is confirmed that the massive fraud, perpetrated over an eighteen month period, was only detected by the employee's own bank. It was not spotted, throughout this period, by any manager, in either of the two Capita organisations: CSG, or the joint venture Re, or anyone in the commissioning side of the council, or in internal audit, or CAFT, the Corporate Anti Fraud Team. 

The way in which 'the Individual', as he is referred to throughout the report, managed for so long to perpetrate this series of fraudulent acts, was by taking advantage of the inherent vulnerability of a privatised council with complete disregard for basic accounting safeguards,  let alone any adequate system of financial control - or indeed any proper mitigation of the risk of fraud.  

This open larder of opportunity was made all the easier to access, due to something we have so often reported in this blog: the multiplicity of roles played by Capita, the conflicts of interest so deeply embedded within their range of functions - and the double contract system that increases the risk of fraud or corruption, with a lack of protocols guarding against any potential for such activity. The interaction between Capita CSG and Capita Re has been effectively unregulated, or insufficiently regulated. A failure that has been compounded by another, overarching role in which the same contractor is responsible for overseeing the authority's accounts - and reporting on its own financial performance. 

Above and beyond this mess, there is something which goes right back up to the highest levels of governance, and accountability. Something noted repeatedly in a phrase used throughout this truly shocking report, and that is -'insufficient oversight'. 


(Part of) the Capita contracts that Tory councillors did not read fully before approving

The story of the Barnet Capita contracts has been chronicled in detail here, over the years, and elsewhere. 

Go back five years, if you like, and follow the genesis of this reckless process, right from the beginning, and the ineffably vacuous 'easycouncil' model of local government promoted by former Tory leader Freer, now MP for Finchley & Golders Green, one which was fostered and developed by a succession of neo-Thatcherite councillors, senior management officers, and consultants, in order to soften up the ground for the mass outsourcing of our local services. 

Read how Barnet Unison, and anyone with any sense, tried to warn Barnet Tories what would happen. Remember the reports that were submitted to committees, and ignored, unread.

Remember the staff who lost their jobs, the services moved out of the borough to all around the UK.

Remember how the Tory councillors allowed the tendering process to develop, with only one contender, in the end. 

How they were not 'allowed' to read the full contract, and how the same lawyers who worded it approved it on their behalf, and how the Tory councillors voted to approve contracts they had not read.


Richard Cornelius signing away direct control of our local services in 2013

How after they had done so, some of them allowed themselves to express grave doubts about the whole process - too late.

How in the years that followed, one man - fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable - has continued to scrutinise the performance of the contracts, and explain, in forensic detail, the reasons for his serious concerns about the risks of failure that were evident to anyone with even the least critical eye.

Think about the consequences, for our least advantaged residents, of any serious failure in the local services on which they rely. Combined with a self inflicted lack of funding from council tax frozen for purely ideological reasons, by Barnet Tories, who at the same time were happily endorsing the most brutal cuts in those local services, magnified by a policy of further slashing of funds from central government: and we have a disaster on our hands.

Who will take responsibility for this? 

And has anyone been sanctioned in any way for the gross failure of the authority to prevent the fraudulent activity and widespread financial incompetence uncovered by the Grant Thornton report? 

The line of accountability goes right up to the top. The Tory leader, the Chief Executive, the senior management team; the Chairs of council committees - have any of them accepted responsibility, or lost their posts? 

No chance of the Tory leader standing down: in fact it is rumoured he has only recently seen off a challenge for the leadership. So we must accept that his captaincy of the ship that is now hitting the iceberg somehow equips him to lead the rescue mission, must we? 

What will happen now? 

What has the opposition said about this completely avoidable disaster?

Hard to tell, as there has been no statement on the party website, they say because they have lost access to it - and there is little to see on twitter. Some members have tweeted part of a statement emailed to them, in which apparently the local party is calling for the resignation of the Tory leader and the deputy leader, Dan Thomas, (who has always been the strongest supporter of the Capita contracts, but now appears to have been struck dumb: and who left twitter, by chance, earlier in the year, when the stuff now appearing in the shop doorways of Chipping Barnet began hitting the fan).

Barnet Labour are also now calling for the termination of the two Capita contracts. Better late than never: but really, far too late in the day to have any impact.

Since the contracts were signed, Labour in Barnet has largely failed to communicate successfully to electors the significance of the contractual bondage, or to express any effective condemnation of the continuation of the arrangements, citing the potential financial penalties that might accrue should we threaten to make an exit - without fully exploring whether or not this is correct. (In regard to this, it is also significant that it was a team of local activists - including the local bloggers - who sought legal opinion, backed by Labour lawyers, about the One Barnet outsourcing programme, and saw it through to a Judicial Review, whose judgement found the contracts to be based on flawed consultation, and would have been won if not deemed out of time). 

As to Cornelius's ship of fools, sailing full steam ahead towards and over the edge of the horizon, what is there to say? 

Denial, evasion, and a refusal to accept a duty of accountability will not stop the inevitable conclusion to their years of folly. They will struggle to free themselves of Capita: Capita will desperately try to retain as many services as possible, despite everything that has happened. The Grant Thornton report, incidentally, says very carefully that they 'understand' the £2 million stolen from Barnet has been 'reimbursed' - but where is the proof? Has it been paid in cash, or will it be deducted from fees?

Well: let the Tories sink their own political lives, and leave the careers of the three local Tory MPs clinging on to the wreckage: but let's not allow them to take us with them.

Time for the Labour party in Barnet to shape up, step up: show real opposition, effective strategy - and real leadership. A radical, robust fight is what is needed, not a consensual approach to politics, and an indulgent relationship with senior Tories, and senior officers - the latter habit often excused to Mrs Angry on the basis of having to work with them in the future. Friends, there is no likelihood of gaining power for the foreseeable future, and there never will be, if we carry on like this.

It is not enough to call for an end to the contracts, when in the meanwhile there are largely still the same senior officers in place, the same management structure, the same dependence on hugely expensive agency staff and, unaccountable consultants. Heads should, and must roll: and cuts made in a top heavy, hugely over rewarded senior level of management.

There are also many unanswered questions that emerge from any reading of the Grant Thornton report. 

The failure of the internal audit process, and CAFT, to identify the CPO fraud. The possible occurrence, in the years since the contracts were signed, of other fraudulent or corrupt practices, as a result of the absence of proper safeguards. Planning and enforcement clearly needs a closer look, and regeneration: has there been any wrongdoing in any of the the previous CPO programmes? 

All of these areas clearly require review, and an independent investigation - Project Rose was limited to the scope of immediate impact of the CPO fraud, but the implications go far wider, and in my view that is why we must all now demand a fuller inquiry - for the reassurance of residents and tax payers that their money, and their services, and the community in which we live, are safe from further exploitation, and further financial loss.