Friday, 9 November 2018

Kicking Out Capita - an Inquiry at the House of Commons

A trio of Barnet bloggers

Arriving at Westminster, on Tuesday night, and being a little early, I thought I might park Mrs Angry on a bench somewhere, reading over her speech for the meeting, and laughing at her own jokes, as usual, and go and have a quick peek at the river below the Parliament buildings, now shrouded in discreet veiling during the period of renovation.

This was an entirely unrelated mission to the purpose of the evening - I thought I would take a look at the spot where, in the tradition of my family's spectacular tradition of sensationalised lives and deaths, my great-great grandfather managed to drown himself, in October 1864, falling over the edge of a giant caisson, a metal cylinder placed in the water in the course of work on the Thames Embankment, between the bridge and Parliament. He managed to get himself in the Morning Advertiser, (Shocking and Fatal Accident At The Thames Embankment) and the Evening Standard, anyway: probably the only incident of note in his difficult life, born by the river in Essex, married by the river at St Mary Lambeth, living by the river in the notorious slums of Waterloo. 

Poor forgotten Thomas Garnish's ignoble death by the river, in the murky waters below the mother of all Parliaments, happened because it had been considered necessary to create a massive new sewage system for London, after years of rising pollution - and notably as a result of the long, hot summer of 1858, the year of the Great Stink, when Parliament could not keep away the noxious fumes from the foul water of the Thames. The stench had been intolerable, for our elected representatives, whose upper class sensitivities were of course rather more refined than those of the workers like Thomas, who lived in extreme poverty, with no sanitation, and every risk of an early death from disease - or accident - as a result.

That was then, and here we are now in an era when our Tory politicians appear to want to reduce the less advantaged members of society to the same level of squalid poverty and dependency they would have faced in the nineteenth century: a thought that reoccurred with chilling impact once in the palace of Westminster, watching an icily disapproving Iain Duncan Smith glide past the crowd of Barnet residents waiting in the committee room corridor. A couple of those residents clocked who it was, and ventured a muted jeer as he moved on, his feet barely touching the f*cking floor.

The air that wafts into the committee rooms of Westminster, filtered through the billowing sheets draped over the scaffolding, may be more sweet smelling these days - or it may not: as the evening progressed, there did seem to be a distinct odour of something indefinable in the air, that was not entirely pleasant. 

Because we were in Parliament to take part in an meeting that wasn't exactly a meeting: an Inquiry into the impact of Capita on the London Borough of Barnet, an event organised by Barnet Unison's John Burgess, chaired by Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty, and attended by the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. Evidence to be given in the form of testimonies by residents, activists, councillors, bloggers.

McDonnell welcomed all those present, and introduced himself with becoming modesty as the man whose most important job was booking rooms for John Burgess. 

He is well acquainted with the state of things in Broken Barnet, as he reminded us, having visited our picket lines and protests over the years - including, with Jeremy Corbyn, the march for libraries that some of us foolishly went on, from Finchley to the occupied People's Library in Friern Barnet - in a blizzard. Local activist Tirza Waisel pointed out that blizzard actually took place in the Barnet Spring. Indeed it did.

He spoke about the business of outsourcing, conflicts of interest, and the need to reform the process, as well as the state of audit, shared out as it is, between the magic circle of four major companies. And Barnet? Barnet had been a testing bed for outsourcing, he observed - the Easycouncil model was of course considered a flagship policy for Tory authorities.

Time for the evidence: first up, three Barnet bloggers: Mr Reasonable, Mr Tichborne, and Mrs Angry. Mr Tichborne has written about the meeting here.

You can see our testimony here, if you're bothered: 


Mrs Angry's contribution (from about 16 minutes in) was about the creation of the London Borough of Capita, as the last outpost of their failing empire. 

In pleasing irony, the massive picture above our heads depicted King Alfred 'inciting the Saxons to prevent the landing of the Danes ...' 

Also pleasing to see the Shadow Chancellor guffawing at Mrs Angry's Crapitorial jokes for lapsed Catholics, of course:

A steady progression of speakers followed: Barbara Jacobson, from grassroots campaign Barnet Alliance, mentioned the recent £2 million fraud by a Capita employee - how many others might there be, she asked: a question Barnet's Tory councillors are keen not to explore - at least publicly.

Resident Nick Dixon told a shocking story about alleged malpractices within the planning service.

Resident Janet spoke of the appalling state of adult care in Barnet, and the lack of interest by members of the committees tasked with scrutiny of provision.

Holly Kal-Weiss, from Chipping Barnet Labour, who is hoping to be selected as the parliamentary candidate to stand against Theresa Villiers, told us about an extraordinary sequence of events involving a resident wrongly charged massive fees by Capita - twice.

Several Labour councillors made the effort to attend the meeting - although unfortunately not the group Leader, Barry Rawlings - and two of them now spoke: Ross Houston, who commented that the Easycouncil test alluded to by John McDonnell had failed, along with One Barnet and the 'Thin Client' model imposed on our local services. He criticised the lack of transparency and accountability, and most of all the gross mismanagement that had led to the wrong, understated deficit figures being published before the May elections, adjusted to a far worse level immediately after the Tories won back control of the council. 

He rightly commented that the only explanation for this was mismanagement, or something far worse. There can only be one of two explanations. Yet no action appears to have followed in terms of investigating how this happened. John Mc Donnell nodded as he suggested we needed to restore the scrutiny of an Audit Commission - abolished, of course, by Eric Pickles.

Labour member Kathy Levine also spoke: criticising amongst other Capita failures the truly awful administration of the local Pensions Scheme, the £2m fraud and the Grant Thornton report that was withheld from publication.

Aditya Chakrabortty, Holly Kal-Weiss, Cllrs Ross Houston and Kathy Levine

New councillor Sara Conway made a very good point, that Labour needs to communicate on the doorstep to voters the reality of outsourcing, and explain why it is that their local services are failing.

As the flow of testimony continued, the odour of something not quite definable moved about the room, not from the river, something we brought with us from Broken Barnet: something rotten, and dying.

Barnet Unison's John Burgess, a man who has worked tirelessly over the years, all too often ignored, to warn what would happen in the course of the mass privatisation of our local public services, wound up the meeting, with a notice of the forthcoming council meetings, such as P&R on 11th December, and the next Full Council a week later, where we expect the Tory councillors, despite all that has happened, to announce they intend to continue with the catastrophic coupling with Capita, both parties struggling in the water, dragging each other down to the depths, rather than admit their gross incompetence, and face up to the truth.

Residents are invited to attend these meetings, and make their feelings known: further details to follow.

John Burgess

Capita Inquiry address: 

I’ve been writing about the London Borough of Capita for five long years, and about the process of outsourcing for much longer: since the days of ‘Easycouncil’, Futureshape, and One Barnet. Which came first? Can anyone remember?

When we took Barnet to the High Court, to challenge the mass privatisation of our council services, the judge found it impossible to understand the ever changing shape of what became the One Barnet programme, or to identify the point of decision at which it could be challenged. But that had been a deliberate strategy: to invent a Trojan Horse, to enter the city walls, and win the war.

The truth is these shape-shifting concepts are all versions of the same thing, or rather part of the same process of metamorphosis: and they all have the same meaning, and significance, which is – no meaning at all. They are all an act of deception; smoke and mirrors.

Language, in corporate culture, which is now the culture embedded in our system of government, is not a medium of communication, but the reverse: an attempt to obstruct transparency, and accountability; to facilitate the exploitation of profit, even at the point of delivering vital public services, in a time of austerity.

Easycouncil was an empty, meaningless idea, deployed by a local Tory MP in search of a claim to some sort of political vision. It is the perfect testimony to his career. Unveiled as a new model of local government, it was in fact another version of the same model of outsourcing being rolled out by the same team of companies throughout the public sector.

It is impossible to write about Barnet, and Capita, without using the metaphor of empire: because this is what we have become; colonised by Capita: the last outpost, in a virtual invasion, and occupation. It is the twenty first century equivalent of the East India Company, perhaps: an incremental appropriation of land, and wealth, by stealth, for the commercial exploitation of resources.

By stealth, and not won by open battle or siege: Barnet was an open city, the keys willingly handed over by our empty headed Tory councillors, assured by a scheming court of senior officers, and a cabal of consultants - some of whom were moving in and out of Barnet and various would be tendering companies - that mass outsourcing was necessary, that mass outsourcing was the answer to all their problems.

They could provide better services, for less money. Did they really believe that? Hard to tell, as most of them lack the ability to scrutinise the most basic report, let alone a billion pound budget.

Barnet’s Tories are old school, unrepentant neo Thatcherites. They are an evolutionary anomaly: the last of their breed, still living in the days of glory when Margaret sat in their council chamber every election night to see herself re-elected and pretended to remember who they were. She was very good at that: the older members still recount, with moist eyes, the tiniest anecdote connected with her; to the younger ones she is a mythical figure from the past, but one whose spirit still haunts the corridors of Hendon Town Hall.

They were easily persuaded, then, that their instinctive distrust of the public sector should be reason enough to embark on the wholescale privatisation of our local services. They didn’t need much persuasion, in truth: their hands off approach to governance, and preference for an easy life, meant their approval was guaranteed, despite any reasoned arguments not to undertake such a risk laden venture.

And there were reasoned arguments, from every side: from unions, from grassroots campaigners like Barnet Alliance, from local bloggers, from Labour councillors. Reports were commissioned from leading academics, legal advice was taken, and acted upon: the Judicial Review would have been won, if not deemed out of time: and it was out of time largely because no one had spotted the moment when it had all begun, the shape-shifting of Easycouncil, Futureshape, One Barnet.

As we know, Barnet’s Tory members approved the contracts, five years ago, without properly scrutinising the details – the 8,000 pages of details. They were not allowed to, given only a few hours to skim through. The contracts were assessed and approved by … the same lawyers who had written them.

The members may not have read the contracts, but we did – which is how, incidentally, I came to discover that hidden within one section dealing with the enthusiastic commercialisation of our local crematorium, now the Crapitorium – literally making money out of my dead grandmother – Capita had proposed mitigating the risk of negative publicity by offering discounted, pre-used graves to the local bloggers! Yes: a Capita joke, and legally binding! An offer which I am not quite ready to take up. Still: in the midst of life, we are in death: and always we are in the hands of Capita. There is no escape. They own us, body and soul, & no doubt will pursue us in the after life, too, having won a contract for the provision of eternal torment, in the many rings of hell.

The Tory members had not spotted the many variations within the contracts that enabled Capita to maximise the opportunities for profit by way of extra fees such as ‘Gainshare’ payments: all of which means instead of better services for less money, we have seen a rapid decline in the performance of services, and rising costs.

One example of how this works in practice was the shameful revelation – by local bloggers – of the ‘opportunity’ taken by Capita to gain extra fees by taking over the provision of Freedom Passes to local residents with disabilities. Young people with autism and other difficulties were finding themselves stranded, unable to get home, and deeply distressed because their passes had been cancelled by Capita with no warning, and without any valid reason. Only after public outcry did the Tories intervene, and restore the passes.

Planning and enforcement is another area in which profit for shareholders is prioritised over providing a fair and transparent service for residents. Want to get your development approved? Pay a whopping fee, and you are fast tracked all the way. You can even pay to choose your own planning officer: now why would you want to do that? Where are the safeguards to ensure probity within the planning service? As for enforcement, there is no profit to be made there, so little has taken place. As a result, even Tory councillors are beginning to see the outcome in terms of electoral damage from their own voters, furious at the rampant proliferation of unauthorised development, now posing a threat to their own best interests.

Capita is in serious trouble now in regard to its botched handling of the Barnet Pension scheme: anyone like me who has experienced the level of incompetence and lack of adequate information given to scheme members will be in despair at the thought of their future financial security left in their hands.

From the moment the contracts were signed, the language changed once more: One Barnet disappeared. The word was never used again. No name was used at all. There were only coy references to ‘the change programme’.

And right from the beginning we knew there was no hope of any effective oversight either by commissioning officers, or Tory members. The committees tasked with this role were simply rubber stamping exercises. The Tory councillor who was Chair of the Performance committee actually said that scrutiny was not meant to be critical. He continually repeated the view, even as late as this year when all was falling apart, that he wanted only to hear ‘positive comments’.

And it is all falling apart now: but as in the last days of any empire, the rise and fall of Capita Barnet is a slow and painful process. It is politically expedient, however, for the Tory administration, and for the reputation of Capita, to keep face, and retain a colony in Barnet.

What’s happened here is only perhaps an extreme example of what is happening elsewhere, all over the UK, all throughout the public sector, and it raises a more fundamental question than our local concerns, which is the real point of significance here: the principle of the democratic control of public services.

Private profit cannot, should not, be made from these services. It creates a distance between accountability and the community, takes power away from that community.

Local services, local jobs, local democracy: let’s have these rights returned to us, and begin to rebuild a system of local government that works for us, and not for Capita, and its shareholders.

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