Sunday, 23 June 2019

Barnet As It Never Was: another week in Broken Barnet

Barnet as it never was ...

Last year, immediately after they had been safely restored to power, the Barnet Tory administration admitted that the borough's finances were in a state of crisis. 

Not only were the Capita contracts failing to perform, there had been a massive fraud by one of their managers, which had not been spotted by anyone either within Capita, or by the commissioning side of the council. 

It was only discovered by the culprit's bank, who had to inform Barnet that they were being defrauded. 

This in turn led to a truly shocking exposure of a total absence, within the contractual relationship, of any adequate system of financial controls.

It was then agreed that action had to be taken to bring back in house many of the services that had been outsourced. 

Time passed, and nothing happened.  

Capita's Chief Executive made an unpublicised visit to the borough, and an offer was made to offer a token repayment of £4 million - a slap on the wrist, in terms of punishment - after which it became evident that the Tory administration was now back-peddling on the reclamation of services.

Even when the abysmal record of Capita's administration of pensions became critical, with the revelation of a massive catalogue of data errors, as well as all the other breaches, there was no move to end the arrangement and return the scheme into the hands of the council. There will be no return of the scheme, unless it totally collapses, it seems. And the contracts will now more or less continue as they have been, left in the hands of Capita.

Even when, as this local Times report explains, resident satisfaction is so poor:

Dismal user ratings of services provided by Capita have led to fears councillors are not being given the chance to hold the firm to account.

The outsourcing company, which runs a range of Barnet Council services from IT to finance, failed to meet all its user satisfaction targets – and its performance worsened in three areas.

Capita has never met the contracted user satisfaction levels since two major outsourcing deals were struck with Barnet Council in 2013 – although the council says there have been “incremental improvements” in some service areas.

Clearly then, the continuation of the contracts, to any sensible person, is a totally irrational reaction, and puts at even higher risk the investment of residents' hard earned council tax, thrown with such generosity into the hands of Capita, and is a feckless gamble with the services upon which we all depend. 

A change of Tory leader has only confirmed the decision to carry on, despite everything that has happened. 

That decision was due to be approved this week, at a Policy and Resources committee meeting. 

Before the meeting: People's Mayor Mr Shepherd inspects the 'Barnet Pot Hole of the Year Competition', sponsored by Crapita Re Highways Service

Fellow blogger John Dix, ie Mr Reasonable, and other residents had submitted a number of despairing questions about this inexplicable decision, (one resident doing so by proxy, as she was, as she pointed out, with grim irony, in a message read out at the meeting, stuck in another country, thanks to an Easyjet cockup, - that is to say thanks to the business annexed by sometime Leader of the council, now local MP Mike Freer, for his so called 'Easycouncil' model of local government, which we were now watching bleeding to death on the carpet in front of us in Committee Room One. And Two.

All the residents, in their different ways, asked the same question: Why? 

Why are you now doing this, in the face of all reason, turning your back on the disaster you acknowledged last year?

Questions. There have been too many questions, from residents, it seems. 

After the day of the meeting we were informed of a proposal, to be discussed next week, to once more attempt to stifle the voice of any residents intent on holding their elected representatives to account. This grossly illiberal proposal is yet another sign of the deepest fear of this rotten administration: fear of exposure, and further damage to their already tattered political reputation.

New Leader Dan Thomas, keeping his head down, watched far left by the Monitoring Officer, whose report next week proposes to limit residents' participation in meetings

If you don't like so many questions, councillors, perhaps attempt to fulfil the role of scrutiny you are paid to undertake with some level of competence? 

Questions were raised last week by Labour's Kathy Levine about the number of scrutiny committee meetings that have been cancelled this year: an astonishingly high number, in fact: twenty two in total. I note that at this crucial point, with such a high level of concern about the Capita run scheme administration, next week's Pension Board Meeting has been cancelled too. 

New leader Dan Thomas was the Chair at the Policy and Resources meeting last week, but seemed curiously subdued, and not at all his usually ebullient self - and markedly not talking up the contracts he has promoted with such vigour since they were first proposed. Deflated, in fact, and offering no defence of the continuation of the partnership: most curious.

It was left to two Tory members to try to rebuff the criticisms.

Gabriel Rozenberg, son of Joshua, the legal journalist, tried pretending he was at the High Court, and suggesting that the plaintiff, m'lud, ie residents and campaigners, had failed to submit documentation central to its argument. He saw no evidence presented, he said, 'in this session' that proved the Capita contracts had not saved money. Despite flailing his arms around in histrionic fashion, and despite being one of the more decent and vaguely sensible Tory members, it was an unconvincing performance for the defence. 

Sorry, Gabriel. You ain't no Michael Mansfield, bruv.

Cllr Rozenberg was advised, loudly, and at some length, both 'in court' and later on Twitter, of the years of evidence collated by fellow blogger John Dix, that other than the core contractual savings - a strictly limited number of agreements, the services were continuing to mount in cost at an alarming rate. 

There have also been endless submissions (ignored) by staff unions, reports by academics (ignored), and numerous examples from around the country, eg Sheffield and Birmingham, of authorities who have pulled out of their own contracts for exactly the same reasons Barnet should be acting here. 

Gabriel and fellow Tory councillor Peter Zinkin (who, as Comrade Mr Shepherd, the People's Mayor, never fails to remind him, in case he has forgotten, or would like to forget, is the namesake cousin of the former editor of the Daily Worker), did their best to bang on about the core savings, while failing to acknowledge that any thing saved from those agreements is massively outsized by the monstrous scale of fees, gainshare payments and mounting bills generated by the rest of Capita's succubus like power over the prone body of Broken Barnet.

Why is Capita able to do this? Because the many thousands of pages of the contracts were never read or properly scrutinised by the feckless Tory members who approved them. That chore was left to the same firm of lawyers who erm, drafted the contract. But hidden in those thousands of pages were sleeper clauses, contract variations which, as noted by one of their own former colleagues, Hugh Rayner, who accidentally deselected himself at the last election, are where the contractor always makes the most profit.

Mrs Angry, over on the Twitter, tried to explain to Cllr Rozenberg how the 'core savings' claim displacement activity works, in terms he might understand:

He didn't quite grasp the comparison, possibly because he has never bought a tin of baked beans, or visited Tescos, and lives on a diet of oysters and champagne, like all Barnet Tories, especially the ones who live down the posh end of my road, across the border, in a Tory ward, where the pavements are laid like fitted carpets, and the road surface is as smooth as silk, and potholes are filled within minutes of their birth, by a special team of Capita Highways managers in top hats and tails, bowing in the direction of North London Business Park ...

Gabriel's (ill advised) gambit now was to suggest that we were so averse to outsourcing, that we likely believed we should make our own laptops. 

My neighbour in the public seats hissed something unpublishable, at this point.

Oh dear.

Labour members brought up the terrible state of the Pensions scheme administration. The best that Cllr Finn could come up with - that would be Councillor Anthony Finn, who is for no reason I can understand, a member of this committee, and suggested that the data errors in my case could not be serious because I had not shot myself - a suggestion for which he later had to apologise - was the consoling thought that it wasn't all bad news, as Capita only controlled the administration of the scheme to members, and had nothing to do with the investments: well - thank F*ck for that. Can you imagine?

The other point that puzzled Cllr Rozenberg, and his colleagues was, even if there was a need to exit these contracts, well: how? Again he flung his arms up in the air, and again members of the public howled suggestions, on the lines of well, try following the well trod path taken by other authorities, like Birmingham, who gave Capita the order of the boot.

Here we must return to Mrs Angry's favourite metaphorical reference for use at times of Barnet Tory inertia: our Tory councillors sitting around helplessly, unable to find the exit clause for the Capita contracts, like the dinner party guests in Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, abandoned by their servants, and inexplicably unable to leave the room ... (just for you, Jack Cohen ...).

The newly edited version of Dan Thomas, post Leadership promotion, did his best to move on, with an understated summary of the meeting so far. The discussions, he thought, had been 'helpful and healthy'. Mrs Angry looked on, worried that Cllr Thomas was perhaps feeling a little light headed. 

Now he continued, trying to remind us of the successes of the Capita partnership. Call centres, he suggested - (yes, that labyrinthine hell you enter at your own risk, should you foolishly try to contact any Barnet Council/Capita department). Here he ran out of ideas. There were others, he added, lamely. We didn't believe him. Nor did he. 

Name them, I asked, unasked, from my seat in the public gallery. He didn't. He couldn't. 

Labour's Alison Moore brought up the crashing disaster that is the administration of the Pensions Scheme, which is so bad the Chief Executive has had to draw up contingency plans to take over, in the event of complete failure, a circumstance which you would think no one with any intelligence would even contemplate and would bring the service back in house immediately should this even be a possibility.

Labour members also reminded the Tories that they had deliberately excluded  any in house option from the original tender process for the mass outsourcing. They asked for an undertaking that in the future, at the next options appraisal, the in house case would be included. 

Let's put on record now, for the purposes of this future process, that the Leader, Dan Thomas agreed to this, the inclusion of an in house case - at 8.22pm, on the 17th June, 2019. Check the minutes, when published.

We left then: nothing more to see, or hear. 

In the lobby of the Town Hall, as we left, before stepping over the confetti from the wedding taking place in another room, one of the activities the pimped out building must host, in place of its former role as the seat of local democracy, and whose guests were wandering about the building in a state of well lubricated curiosity, I noticed there was a small display, from the borough archives: 'Barnet as it Never Was'. 

The main exhibit was a lovingly detailed, watercolour mock up of a town hall for Finchley that was proposed, but never built; from an era when extending the role of community engagement in the democratic process seemed important, fished out of the archives, to be seen, or unseen, in the remaining space of the lobby, whose function now is to be the loveless backdrop for a myriad of state sanctioned weddings. 

Whom Capita hath joined together, let no man, or corporate legal adviser, put asunder. 

No need for a location dedicated to the function of local government anymore: the Battle of  Barnet is over, and we are just an outpost of the last days of the empire of Capita.

The last comment has to go to one of the few remaining humans of Late Capitalisation, in Broken Barnet - Barbara Jacobson - and the conclusion of her address to the assembled Tory councillors, already resolved, for reasons best known to themselves, to continue with the Capita partnership:

You got screwed - and unfortunately so did every resident in this borough.

Nothing else to say, really, is there?

No comments: