Monday, 23 July 2018

(Not) Sleeping Easily in Our Beds, and - Who is Minding the Council? A week in Broken Barnet

Fellow blogger Mr Roger Tichborne, of the Barnet Eye, modelling this season's must wear t shirt.

Having tried very hard, over the last year or so, to avoid the ordeal of sitting through yet another interminable Barnet council meeting, it took no small act of forbearance to have to attend two meetings in one week - this last week.  

But these were two meetings which simply had to be witnessed, poised as we are on the brink of the apocalypse, and the end of days for Broken Barnet.

The decline and fall must be chronicled, and annotated, in the cause of history, as a warning to others, and ourselves, as we may be, in the future. 

It's not about one local Tory backwater council, clinging on to the days of glory, when this borough was the centre of the cult of Thatcherism, or even just the story, as it more properly should be, of local grassroots activism, fighting back, in the tradition of British underdogs, refusing to be bowed by bullying, tinpot politicians: although perhaps it is both these things. 

More importantly, hidden in the details of these accounts, we hope, is a more significant message - the story of something more universal, in a political sense: not just the failure of a model of privatised government, the utter failure of the market economy in public services. 

The end of Capita-lism in Broken Barnet is a useful lesson - for a wide audience. 

Until recently, council meetings like these would be annexed by the Men in Suits: the Men from Capita - agents of our contractual partners, taking over the public seating, not just manspreading, corporatespreading, with a droit de seigneur fully in line with the perception of their role as feudal overlords, an invading army moving on from the point of battle, to one of conquest, and the imposition of a foreign culture, and language.

The language of the London Borough of Capita, of course, is one of impenetrable meaning, deliberately created to ensure a lack of comprehension, and a virtual surrender to the colonial administration now overseeing every aspect of life in our rotten borough.

We submit, or have submitted, to the vocabulary of occupation: corporate newspeak, the inversion of truth, for the benefit of politicians, and private contractors.

As this administration loses its grip on our financial security, however, and the risks of their contractual bondage are now fully exposed, that co-opted language is itself beginning to lose its fluency, and its magic powers, as we shall see. 

Council officers and Capita representatives attempt the same tired phrases, to try to disguise the sheer awfulness of what is happening: but now their power is broken, and they are failing. 

We see you.

Ah but: the contracts are not being torn apart: they are being 'Re-aligned'. 

Senior officers talk about a 'Re-profiling'. 

Well, we live, as you may recall, in a borough that has been 'Re-Barneted' by ... 'Re' - the Joint Venture owned by Barnet and Capita, although dominated by the latter partner. 

The Chief Executive, and the Tory Leader Richard Cornelius, have of course now Re-signed as directors of Re, because they have suddenly discovered a conflict of interest occurring in such a position, when the contract is under review. They see no conflict in retaining their roles on the commissioning side, at this time, of course.

Tory leader Richard Cornelius, and Chief Executive John Hooton, at Thursday's meeting

Oh. Well, how funny, as Mrs Angry pointed out in questions to this Tuesday's Audit Committee*, because the entire process of outsourcing of services in Barnet has been fraught with conflicts of interest since before the tenders were put out, and despite constant requests for the council to do something to mitigate those risks, nothing was ever done.

* See here for link to full questions, from Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne, Mrs Angry and Mrs Jacobson.

Right from the point where officers were coming and going, as 'interim' consultants, or on the staff structure, from outsourcing companies to the council and back again, in a swing door movement, unstopped by any effective restraint, our system of governance has been broken and compromised. 

The multiplicity of roles played by the successful bidder for the two contracts, ie Capita, has provided a fertile ground for conflicts, and the perception of conflict of interest, and even the potential, as we have seen, for fraud, and corruption. 

Planning and enforcement has been rife with conflict, embedded in the very heart of processes meant to deliver an effective service for residents, but now prioritising the needs of developers, with special assistance available to developers, for a standard fee, that helps them gain approval for their plans, while the same company, the same officers - as proven in one local case in Finchley - then overseeing the consultation process - and the recommendation for approval. Where is the transparency, the accountability, or justice for residents?

Apart from a widely ranging portfolio of service provision, Capita was also responsible for presenting the council's accounts: comparable, say, to asking your local supermarket to take the money out of your purse at the check out, while you pack your bags ...

How the Tory members who approved the contracts failed to foresee the conflict here is impossible to understand. 

Only the catastrophic cock up revealed in last year's Audit process brought them to their senses, and made them Re-alise, too late, that they had to bring this service back in house.

Mrs A's supplementary question to the Chair of Audit here then: will they do anything to review the issue of conflict of interest?

After some bafflement as to why that might be a good idea, the response, of course, was -  No.

Another question had been about a crucial report that had been withheld from the meeting - the report commissioned from Grant Thornton on an alleged fraud taking place within the Capita run services.

Blogger John Dix (Mr Reasonable) attempts to raise his concerns at Tuesday's Audit meeting

Both John Dix (fellow blogger Mr Re-asonable), and I had asked about the justification for this exemption. The council's response was to claim it was in the 'public interest', yet in reply to a question to Mr R, admitted that the Re-quest to withhold the report had come from ... Capita. 

Important to note, before asking the supplementary question, that the excuse of 'public interest' was wrongly used, instead of what was quite clearly a commercial interest - that that is a shocking dereliction of the council's duties, as defined by the Nolan principles, in regard to transparency and accountability. Why, Mrs A asked, are you so frightened of confrontation with Capita?

The Chief Executive's face Re-arranged itself into an expression of sincerity, as he burbled his way through the usual sort of non response to any question put to any senior officer if the London Borough of Broken Barnet. It seems he thought that sitting on this report, at this stage, was a Re-asonable re-quest (ok, I'll stop now) from Capita. 

Mrs Angry's third question had been as follows:

There are many references within this report to
failings in the system of financial control but
ultimately the system depends on effective
scrutiny by the Chair and Members of the Audit
Committee. The most serious failure, therefore,
rests with those members who refused to listen to
warnings from union reports, external auditors,
residents, campaigners - and local bloggers,
especially John Dix. Will the Chair now apologise
on behalf of the Audit Committee to these bodies
and individuals, whose strenuous efforts to
defend local taxpayers' investment, and our vital
public services, have been ignored over a period of
several years?

Can you guess the response?

Yes. One word:


Well, of course not. Why would these fools admit their culpability for the Capita cockup, or feel any sense of shame for entering into the contracts, despite all warnings of the consequences? 

Fine. The art of getting one over the Tories at any meeting involves abandoning all hope of truthful answers and using supplementary questions as an opportunity for embarrassing commentary in the guise of working up to said supplementary questions.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Tory Chair of Audit, Cllr Antony Finn made a ridiculous statement, asking that there be a 'different attitude', a rejection of 'party politics' - to 'go forward positively'. He asked for 'bouquets, not criticisms'.

This was, and is, simply preposterous.

In his former role as Chair of the committee which monitored contractual performance, Finn had made similar demands. The purpose of scrutiny, he had claimed, five years ago, at the beginning of the period of contractual bondage with Capita, was  was not to criticise. It was 'to make a positive contribution'. 

Five years of this sort of attitude had allowed Capita to fail, unchecked, to deliver a performance that was simply inadequate, and has created a total crisis in financial management, and the delivery of services.

Mrs Angry reminded him of the failure of the Performance committee to hold Capita to account, and objected to the idea that Audit should be turned into a similar rubber stamping exercise. 

The reports coming to committee were explicit in their identification of the lack of effective financial controls which had led to the current mess we are in. A control system which ultimately ends in the democratic oversight of both Performance and Audit committees. Instead of a typically arrogant, one word response, could he explain why he - and councillor Zinkin, another Performance committee member, felt no responsibility for what has happened? 

Finn opened and shut his mouth, gasping like a stranded fish thrown up on the riverbank, while his colleague Cllr Zinkin laughed quietly to himself at the table. 

It's only a game, after all, all of this, to them.

No coherent response emerged - Finn looks increasingly tired, these days, and beyond the demands of the current crisis. It hardly seems kind to hold him to account, and let the others off the hook. Mrs Angry left the table, with the polite suggestion that if he was unable to undertake the responsibility of his role as Chair of Audit, he should resign in favour of someone else (preferably, as it should be, an opposition member).

It was a suggestion that found favour with the public gallery.

The meeting continued. What did the opposition have to say? The three Labour members missed the opportunity of a totally open goal, their innate politeness leaving them fatally disadvantaged. The Tories, of course, until recently, have never held back, and are utterly ruthless in tactics. They would not hesitate in going for the jugular, in any similar situation.

The former Labour leader Alison Moore described the failing model of outsourcing as 'creaking'.

It's sunk! observed Mr Reasonable, shaking his head. 

She said she actually found the report 'quite shocking'. 

Cllr Kathy Levine then quietly pointed out that the Chair had blithely reassured all members of the council, not so long ago, after concerns were raised about the state of Capita's health, that 'we could sleep easily in our beds' - but 'the next day Capita's shares fell through the floor' ... 

Barnet's external auditors, BDO, Leigh Lloyd Thomas on the right

The external auditors from BDO sat at the table listening. A grim faced Leigh Lloyd-Thomas gave guarded approval of some improvements, but made a curious reference to some of this year's accounts, saying that they 'didn't look right'. The pensions information from Capita, for some reason, had been late. In summary, there are still huge concerns about the council's expenditure, despite some belated recognition from the council that it needed to take drastic action to get a grip of its finances - it seemed that after some difficulties the accounts could after all be published in July, unqualified.

Which July? asked Mr Shepherd, from the public gallery, the veteran one man chorus of disapproval present at all council meetings. (The gravity of this meeting was marked by his accompaniment of three bags of cuttings from the Morning Star, rather than the usual two.)

One matter for the auditors that appears not to have been brought up, although Mrs Angry understands the matter will be brought to their attention, is one that will surely enrage one former Tory member of the council - yes, our dear friend, and erstwhile Mayor, Brian Coleman.

That is the curious case of the Town Hall memorabilia which has apparently 'gone missing' - believed to include not only Mayoral regalia, but other valuable items - an important part of our local heritage, corporate assets subject to the process of audit. 

It seems Capita Estates were meant to place these items in a place of safety: in an act of gruesome irony, they decided to shove it in the disused mortuary just down the road from Mrs Angry - and oh dear, it disappeared, never to be seen again. 

It was meant to happen, of course, to demonstrate, in a neat metaphorical package, the absolute surrender and loss of control of the local democratic process, and here we are.

The People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, locked out of Hendon Library, next to the Town Hall

Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor, and the funniest man in Broken Barnet, and without whose presence no Barnet council meeting is properly quorate, was back at the Town Hall on Thursday night for the special Policy & Resources meeting, at which it was to be decided how the council would proceed in addressing the crisis in the Capita contractual performance. The report going to this committee was frankly insultingly short, as noted by Labour members - and with an 'assessment' properly denounced by Mr Reasonable as utterly inadequate, being no more than a chart. The report offered three options: Option One, do nothing. Option Two, do something but not enough, or Three: #Kick Out Capita.

For some reason, even at this earliest stage in the process of 'Re-alignment' of the contracts, the report had chosen a preferred option, which was of course, Option Two.

Outside the building, a crowd of residents, campaigners and union members stood with banners demanding the choice of Option Three.

Residents, campaigners, and union members at the Town Hall

Inside the building, the ever scheming Tory members started the meeting ten minutes early, caring not one jot that many of the residents who had submitted questions, or were making verbal comments, might not have arrived. 

Resident Nick Dixon addressed the committee, rightly emphasising the dire state of the Capita run planning and enforcement service, accusing the contractor of 'poisoning' the council, saying: 

Capita/ Re has developed a fine service....for developers. But, it is a poor, dishonest one for residents. This turns the principle of public service on its head.

He urged members to pull the plug on Capita:

Services MUST be brought back in house, to be monitored closely by democratically elected, accountable councillors.

Get rid of Capita. Put the community first.

'Putting the community first' was also the theme of the speech from another resident and campaigner, Keith Martin. It is, after all, the stated motto of our council, fully in line with its dystopian inversion of language, and truth.

Resident and campaigner Keith Martin

Barbara Jacobson spoke next, criticising their refusal to listen when entering the contracts, despite the clear warnings - many people foresaw that what has happened, would happen. As she ended her speech, she asked deputy leader Dan Thomas, sitting at the table all evening in surly silence, if he was bored. 

Thomas, of course, has perhaps been the most outspoken supporter of the Capita contracts. He spent the evening in visible discomfort - and it was most enjoyable to watch. Here he is listening to resident Nick Dixon's speech.

Labour's Alison Moore listens attentively to resident Nick Dixon's criticisms of the Capita run planning service - while easycouncil enthusiast and deputy Tory leader Dan Thomas, to her right, appears rather less interested ...

John Dix, yet again, sat at the table, and told the Tories how things were. He pointed out the foolishness of leaving so many services with Capita, if they chose Option Two. You have this one chance, he told them, to issue a 12 month termination notice, and look at how services should be provided, in the most effective way. 

In other words: cut free now, take back control.

In response to Labour's Ross Houston's comments, and Mrs Jacobson's description of the report and recommendation being evidence of 'the tail waving the dog', John observed that the Tories are not having a proper, open review. Do it properly, he demanded.

Labour leader Barry Rawlings referred to Finn's remark about us all sleeping easily in our beds, despite the threatened collapse of Capita. We are sleeping in the backseat of the car, he said, having outsourced the driving to Capita ... 

The Tory leader seemed not to want to say very much at this point for some reason, and deferred to the Section 151 officer, Kevin Bartle, who seems to be the only one of them with any grasp of the seriousness of the situation. 

Senior officers must use the dissociative words of corporate culture, of course, and the evening's awkward interactions were generously lubricated with the use of 'slippage', and yes, re-profiling, and - eww, what sounded like 'the removal of skins'? Anything to avoid admitting we are up shit creek without a paddle, in other words. But as we have noted, the magic power of the language of occupation is waning, and it no longer serves, with any level of effectiveness, the purpose of counter transparency.

Labour's Kath Mc Guirk, thankfully, doesn't speak in code. 

(Earlier in the evening there had been a deviation from the main event to consider a grant to two local selective girls' schools, one of which, of course, as a mark of its excellence, has produced not only stroppy Cllr Mc Guirk, who was therefore obliged to make a declaration of interest, but also Mrs Angry, both of us trained by the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus in topical debate, unarmed combat, and advanced impudence).

Commenting on the lessons not learned from the Icelandic bank disaster, and the new disaster of the Capita contracts Kath now demanded to know: Who is minding the council?

There appeared to be no easy answer to this. Well, in fact, no answer, because - no one is.  

Ross Houston observed that it was incredible to find us learning about this crisis only after the recent election - it is scandalous he said, that it has got to this stage. He referred to the administration's incompetence, and made a curious remark - 'I hope it is incompetence ...'

Time for more soothing words from the Chief Executive, John Hooton, who appears remarkably unfazed, in the circumstances, and very keen to please everyone. 

He now described, using a suggestion from the corporate guidebook, Section 13b, Calming phrases to use at a time of impending Doom, and the Collapse of a New Model of Local Government, delivered in a cheery tone of voice, that we have been standing on a significant cliff edge, but now 'that challenge has come a bit forward' ...

 Barnet CEO: 'That challenge that has come a bit forward ...'

Well yes. A bit, Mr Hooton, a little bit. But of course:

You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off ...

And now look. In fact, let's be honest - we are over the edge of the cliff, in free fall, and there is no one down below to catch us.

The deputy Chief Executive, Kath Shaw, reminded members that 'all' they were doing this evening was to vote on whether or not there should be the provision of a full business case for any of the options before them.

Ah. Except of course there was already a preferred option, wasn't there? 

Should there be? asked Labour councillors, and attending bloggers? 

Oh, yes, it was a legal requirement, we were  told, more than once in the meeting.

Labour leader Barry Rawlings was worried - we need full consultation on all the options, and flexibility, but members only have half the figures needed to make any proper consideration of the options listed. 

Kath Mc Guirk reminded the Tories that an in house option had not been allowed, at the time of tendering. At this point the Tory leader, for some reason, tried to silence her. 

After more argument on this line, Tory councillor Finn, still trying to Accentuate The Positive, as the ship sinks swiftly into the sea - or as our fingertips are prised, one by one, from the edge of Mr Hooton's cliff, asked that we did not 'harp back' to all the horrid things that have happened while he and his colleagues have been ... well, supposedly minding the council. The public gallery instantly erupted into derisive laughter.

Step forward Tory councillor Peter Zinkin, who thought he might as well have a go at his party piece, which is to work himself into a sudden outburst of faux outrage, in order to leave his audience of jeering residents worried about his blood pressure. We have done wonderful things, he claimed, holding down taxes, and, and ... and services were maintained! This met with more derision, naturally, and as soon as it was apparent his performance wasn't working, he was laughing at himself, again. 

It fell to Labour members to try to navigate a way through this mess. Back to the issue of the preferred option - why not drop it in favour of properly assessing all options? The Tory leader maintained that he had been informed it was a legal requirement.

By whom? heckled Mrs Angry, suspiciously: Did you take legal advice? Independent legal advice?

Aha. It then emerged, after a certain amount of questioning, that no, they hadn't. The advice turned out to be merely the view of the deputy Chief Executive that it would be 'wise' to have a preferred option, with the implication that it might otherwise lay the council open to legal challenge.

Where to begin?

First of all, it demonstrated - yet again - how easily our Tory councillors are directed by senior management - (remember 'We have decided to form a Joint Venture' and the revelation that what was to become Capita Re had been agreed by officers, without the involvement of the Leader?). It too often appears that members cannot be bothered to question the advice given to them. Secondly, all this confusion underlines the perilous state of affairs now that Barnet no longer has an in house legal team  - and thirdly, it may well be the case that having a stated preference of option at this preliminary stage, with so little proper consultation, could itself make the council open to challenge on the grounds of 'irrational decision'. 

Labour members tried to get them to drop the preference. Officers wriggled out of this, and in the end, an amendment to assess all options was bolted on to the original proposal, as was. Mr Reasonable tutted loudly, commenting that all that will happen is officers will come up with the same preference. If so, it will be a disaster, as Capita is allowed to retain its most favoured services, including procurement, with all the extra cash we end up passing over to them in gainshare payments.

That was the end of that matter, for that meeting: but there was another proposal on the agenda, one ostensibly of a less serious nature, but still highly contentious - for good reason.

At the same special meeting where the crisis in the mass privatisation of council services, set against a backdrop of massive and increasing budget deficit, and the rapid diminishment of our reserves, the Tory leader and his colleagues wanted to approve a loan of more than £22 million pounds, over a thirty year period, to Saracens' Rugby Club, favoured partners of the council, and owned by Totteridge resident Nigel Wray. The club wants to expand, but is apparently unable to secure a commercial loan they want in order to do so, so we, the tax payers of Broken Barnet, are being tapped for it.

You might well ask why on earth the Tory leader would think it appropriate at any time to throw £22 million pounds worth of our hard earned cash at a local sports club - or indeed to subsidise the commercial activities of any company with public sector money - but to use it in such a high risk venture is nothing short of madness.

Where is the security? What happens if Saracens go bust? How risky must it be to lend such a huge sum of money when the banks won't do it? Why are we doing it, and at a time when we are in such dire straits? When vital services are about to be cut to the bone, due to the financial mismanagement of the current administration, and the total failure of their mass privatisation, and the least advantaged members of our community forced to carry the burden of cost of their incompetence, and profligacy?

Truth is there appears to most of us that there is very little that this administration would not do, for its own purposes, and there is nothing we can do to stop them wrecking this borough, and our local services, and our financial wellbeing. 

Or so they think.

The story isn't over yet.

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