Friday, 6 July 2018

A Potential Realignment, or: Easycouncil is No More


A deserted Barnet Conservative group room, Hendon Town Hall, watched over by Margaret Thatcher

The end, when it came, came creeping in, like a bad smell; a whiff of something like death, or decay.

It hung over the London Borough of Broken Barnet, a cloud of toxic fumes on a sunny day, like the foul air hovering over the North Circular, unnoticed by those passing through it, at first, and only visible from afar. 

An odour of something like death, or something rotten. Something they are trying to bury, before you see the body. 

Too late, too late. The End is no longer Nigh. The last breath has been drawn, and now, after the election is all over, and the Tory members are safe in their seats, look: it is here. It is finished, at last.

That beginning of the end began, and ended, with the last Audit meeting of the previous Tory administration, in April. You can read about that here.

Then last Friday, an interesting announcement was made. 

Or rather not made, but mis-made, in the time honoured tradition of Broken Barnet, slipped out, the stench of it hastily covered in corporate spin. 

Barnet Council proposes review to realign Capita partnership

Barnet Council has today published a report which proposes undertaking a review to enable a potential realignment of the council’s partnership with Capita. 

A potential realignment.

The council has two major contracts with Capita, to deliver back office services and development and regulatory services. The partnership has delivered significant financial savings since their commencement in 2013, as well as efficiencies and improvements across a range of services. However there are other services where performance improvement is needed. 

Aha. Just a bit of tweaking needed then?

Well, no. 

This is a massive admission. An admission of abject failure by Barnet Tories, on an unprecedented scale.

It is the endorsement of everything we have warned about, since the idea of a mass outsourcing of local services was first explored, and everything we have protested about since the Capita contracts were signed, five long years ago.

It means at last, in the face of a complete disaster for our local services, the threat of total collapse by contractors, the loss of so much money, the ever widening deficit - at last, our Tory councillors, always refusing to listen, until now, now have given in, and thrown in the towel. They know it is all over. 

Even Cllr Antony Finn, the eternal optimist, former Chair of the Performance committee, the Mr Micawber of the Barnet Tory group, who always thought everything would work out fine, was just about to be 'hunky dory', who thought scrutiny should never be negative - even he can no longer look in the other direction. His successor, Finance and Performance chair Peter Zinkin, normally so ebullient, was visibly shaken, this week, at the new finance committee's first meeting.


New Barnet Finance Chair Peter Zinkin listening to Duncan Tessier, commercial director, flanked by the Section 151 officer (right).

Tory leader Richard Cornelius's saturnine smile may now be ever so slightly fixed - and Cllr Peter Zinkin may very well find himself no longer able to 'shoot the messenger', and blame the auditors for bringing bad news.

Don't expect them to do the right thing now, though. They are going to choose to tinker with the contract, rather than chuck it out altogether, as they should. Read what Mr Reasonable has to say about their plans here. As he has noted, the bits they are retaining are the ones that give Capita the most profit, and us the least good value. An attempt at face saving, and damage limitation, for both parties then? 

Makes no difference to one undeniable truth: what it all means is: Easycouncil is over. 

To all intents and purposes, anyway.

It has ceased to be: expired and gone to meet its maker. Or rather will now hang forever and a day, not so much a dead parrot, as perhaps a dead albatross, around the neck of its maker, MP for Finchley and Golders Green, and former council leader, Mr Freer - a grim omen for his acolytes in the Barnet Tory party. Remember this interview, from 2010? 

We were told Easycouncil was in part - "an attempt to have a different relationship with local residents, a part of what Freer calls a "relentless drive for efficiency"."

A relentless drive for efficiency.

Well, certainly they managed to create a different relationship with local residents. One of mutual contempt, it seems. If only the truth about the state of the borough had been published before the election, then local residents would have had the proper information necessary to end that relationship. 

Poor Freer. He probably thought he had at last shaken off the association with the Icelandic Bank disaster ... and now this: his beautiful Easycouncil dream, all in pieces ...

Local activists with shares in the company attended a Capita shareholders' meeting last week, and reported back on what had clearly been an angry and revelatory discussion. According to a press release from Chipping Barnet Labour party:

"Jenny Brown (a member of Hendon Labour Party) raised concerns around Capita profiting from gainshare – a method whereby employees are rewarded for improving the profits of a company. Brown argued that this approach has led to Barnet residents being considered a source of profit, rather than a service user group. Effectively, this system means that there are financial incentives to remove entitlements, for example a reduction in the number of people claiming a single person discount on Council Tax. Given that Capita are already being paid for these contracts, they should not be seeking to use Barnet residents as additional revenue, she claimed".  


"Capita CEO John Lewis initially assigned the blame to Barnet Council, stating that some points raised did not lie within Capita’s area of responsibility. After further pushing from Brown, Lewis conceded to arranging a meeting with Barnet Council to look at the contract, but remained non-committal when attendees requested that Capita provides feedback on the outcome of this meeting to Barnet residents."


Shareholders leaving this meeting were reportedly doing so 'in disgust':

"The Capita CEO was blaming Barnet Council for the poor quality of service.” Others expressed concern for Barnet residents, with one shareholder commenting “They’re hopeless, you have our sympathies, you really do”."


Easycouncil, though. What is it? Or what was it?

What did it even mean? 

Mrs Angry was asked this, not so long ago, in an interview during the election. It took a few moments to remember what the answer is. Was.

Because it was just another meaningless tag: a soundbite, nothing more. Dressed up as a new 'model of local government', actually just a variation of one that was being deployed in every corner of the public sector.

When we went to the High Court with a Judicial Review of the council's bid to impose massive outsourcing of local services, the judge was perplexed by the (Future)shapeshifting nature of the authority's proposals. Futureshape, Easycouncil, One Barnet: what was it? How did it evolve? No one seemed sure what it was, even then. Because it never really existed. It began as an attention grabbing headline, dressed up as a concept - no more than a vague idea of making residents pay more for services, according to their choice. 


Barnet bloggers at the High Court in 2013, for the One Barnet Judicial Review

But even then, there was little detail on how this would work. Soon enough it became something else - or the cover for something else, as Freer departed for Westminster, and his former colleagues on the council became the easy prey of the outsourcing companies hovering over the then fertile landscape of Broken Barnet. Easy prey, in the easycouncil way, allowing their natural inertia and lack of scrutiny to allow the influence of senior officers and external consultants soften the borough up for the plundering of our local services.

Futureshape, One Barnet, all of them brands as poisonous as the air we now breathe, all of them discarded, one after the other, until we reached the stage where as Barnet was given over, as they so cringingly phrased it, to be'Re-Barneted',  invaded by Capita, and run as the last outpost in a dying empire. 

After so much controversy, and bad PR, branding itself became such a toxic process that it was abandoned, in favour of denial. One Barnet became ... nothing. It was de-recognised. It was a non policy. It did not and had never existed. What we had in its place was ... nothing. Discreet nods in the direction of 'the change programme' or 'the transformation agenda'. 

Names and language are important, in any dystopian society, for the purpose of exerting control, and imposing force. 

Amusing to see in this fascinating post by LCC Municipal what other names were once considered for our borough, at the time of its creation: 

The borough of Noresex has a certain appeal, I think, don't you? A nod to the future, and some of our more popular outdoor pursuits, perhaps. Barfindon, Finchelee, and Finchenbar: all have a certain charm. 

Or perhaps, more fittingly, as things have turned out, we should have gone for Norlon, a name fully compliant with the demands of a corporate culture fluent in Newspeak.

Instead of which, we have ended up in the London Borough of Capita.

But not for much longer. The title will soon be up for sponsorship deals, and all the clever money says best odds are on us becoming the London Borough of Saracens, with new council offices at Allianz Park - and of course putting all those newly insourced services back in the library spaces stolen by Tory councillors from the borough's children. 

Oh yes, they will have to insource. And already they were making plans to use library space - at East Barnet, for example, as often predicted in this blog. But now they will have a huge logistical problem, finding ways of returning services where they should be, in house, and locally accountable. If, as we warned them, to no avail, until the current crisis, they had considered that they needed a Plan B, in case the Capita contracts fail, or the company falls apart, this would not be such a disaster. But their arrogance drove them to assert with absolute complacency that such a thing could not happen. It has happened. Yes, we told you so.

Well, in fact who did tell them so? 

Last week, as soon as the 'alignment' was announced, Barnet Labour was quick to try to take the credit. This was completely unfair, in fact, to those campaigners who have worked so hard for so long, often with little or no political support, to oppose the outsourcing, and the signing of the contracts. Who have continued to argue against the mass privatisation, exposing the failures in performance, scrutinising the accounts, asking question after question. 

From the very beginning it has been Unison who led the fight against the outsourcing, campaigning, lobbying, commissioning academic reports - which always went ignored. They begged councillors to take action: ignored again, time after time. Sometimes reports would go to committee meetings, and no member of either party would ask questions about it. John Burgess, in particular, should be singled out for praise for his determined campaigning, persistence, and perseverance.


Barnet Alliance fought with tooth and nail against the mass privatisation. They organised, leafleted, attended meeting after meeting, showing huge commitment from a grassroots campaign, a campaign that should really have been led by Labour. 


Local bloggers not only reported in details the crashing disaster of the contractual bondage councillors had so lazily approved, but took an active role in trying to prevent it: with local residents and campaigners we spent months of our own time advising a legal team in the pursuit of a Judicial Review of the outsourcing. The outcome was infuriating: we would have won, if the challenge had been in time. The lawyers asked why the opposition party did not seek advice within that time: it was a fair question.

Once the contracts were in place, the Labour group leading members were less than active in pushing for any termination of the contract, or in promising to do this, should they come to power. This equivocation was not what residents needed to hear, let alone campaigners, and council staff members. 

More latterly, since the reality of imminent failure became unavoidably clear, there was some shift, and a commitment in the last election's manifesto to try to bring back some services: still - too little, too late.

Other Labour members knew exactly how bad things were, and did their best at audit and performance meetings - but the most probing challenges always came from residents , the unions - and local bloggers. 

One blogger: Mr Reasonable, John Dix, without whose dedication, forensic auditing, determination and great patience, the crashing reality of how and why the contracts are failing would never have been exposed: if credit is due to anyone for holding Capita to account, over the last few years ... it is to him. A highly experienced and astute management consultant, an astute analyst; a modest man, patient beyond words - and continually ignored by Tory councillors and auditors, throughout the years of warning from him of the looming financial disaster.


The leader of the Labour party listening to John Dix, just before the local elections in May

Well, then.

Monday night saw the first meeting of the new Finance and Performance committee. We sat waiting in the public seats, in a room whose muted colour seemed to be fading even further, in the late summer evening light, like a coloured photograph in a family album, turning to sepia over the years.

As they failed to appear, for a joke one of the Labour councillors sat in the Chair's seat, and started the meeting. This was an echo of another evening, long ago, when campaigners did take over: a meeting in 2012, where the Tories were about to approve the contracts. We sat at the table and refused to budge: the Tories packed themselves into a tiny room next door, and hid. They approved the contracts: but they were given a reminder that in this borough, residents would not, and will not, be complicit with their pimping out of our public assets, and our public services.




The council meeting in 2012, where councillors approved the contracts in a side room, chased from the committee table by residents and campaigners, here sitting in their places.

The Tory members filed into the room, also drained of colour, visibly ashen faced, and embarrassed, almost shrinking before us in their chairs. Most of them ageing, with the exception of a new boy councillor who appeared utterly out of his depth, ill prepared and asked only two clanging questions: if there is any sort of internal audit process, and another in which he confused last year's AGM minutes with this year's. 

The responsibility for a billion pound budget, and the massive Capita contracts rests in the hands of a few failing old men, and one boy. Feeling confident for the future?

Mr R had submitted no less than 34 questions. Fellow blogger Roger Tichborne had submitted three. None of the questions received the answers that they deserved: the responses were dismally inadequate, and evasive. 

And Mr R addressed the committee, wearily: he told detailed the shape of the hole they were in, and told them they were in denial:

I have not one ounce of confidence in this committee and will not do so until you start answering straight questions with straight answers. Get a grip, stop spinning, and start sorting out this mess.

They looked on, bemused, but not disagreeing. It would appear, in fact, that they are all in a state of shock, rather than denial. They know Mr R is right, was right all along: we were all right all along, right from the very beginning, with our warnings: unions, campaigners, bloggers, Labour: but they did not listen. 

One notable circumstance is the absolute silence of Tory members: terrified, avoiding all social media, in the hope, no doubt, that by the time summer is over, the worst will have come and gone, and they can carry on as normal. Well, that is of course absurd.

Anyone heard from deputy leader Dan Thomas recently? 

No. Thought not.

Mrs Angry understands there is - yet another - division amongst the Tories now, between those who think it is time simply to cut their losses, and dump Capita outright - and those who refuse to show any admission of weakness, and insist, on the basis of their blinkered sub-Thatcherite dogmatism, that the show must go on. Face-saving, for political reasons, rather than hard realism, and the prioritisation of the best interests of those they represent.

At the next Audit meeting, later this month, further details will come to light of the extent of the financial mess we are in. There will be no possibility of carrying on in the way they have: they know it. We know it. They should put residents' interests first, and bail out: they won't, because it would mean the already tawdry reputation of Barnet Tory politicians, both here and in Westminster, would be damaged beyond repair. It already is: but they refuse to see it - and their attempts to stave off total collapse will be nothing more than a temporary patch up job: as one Labour councillor remarked - papering over the cracks. 

Those cracks are widening every day, as we pay more and more money to Capita that we cannot afford, and raid our rapidly diminishing reserves, for failing services. This is not sustainable, or defensible. 

It's going to be a long, hot summer. 

Shut your windows, and pull down the blinds.