Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The Tail Wagging the Dog: Capita and Barnet - a joint post.



The Tail Wagging the Dog: Capita and Barnet


Barnet's Conservative led administration has never been so divided.

Since the local elections last May, new members of the Tory group have been confronted with the legacy of their longer serving colleagues’ failure in office: the crisis over the Capita contracts, a massive budget deficit, and the exposure of fraud by a Capita manager, enabled by a failure to put in place any adequate system of financial controls.

Members of the previous administration appear not to have grasped the seriousness of the situation, or at least are reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the problems facing this borough. 

After receiving payment of a paltry £4 million from Capita in ‘compensation’, Tory councillors have now voted to delay any immediate severance of ties, in favour of a long drawn out process of assessment, during which time Capita will continue its contractual partnership with this borough, and our services will continue to be left in their control. 

We believe this is quite wrong, and so, it seems, do some Tory members.

At last week's Audit meeting, for example, it was revealed that BDO, the authority's external auditors, are now obliged to visit Capita's offices in Darlington, where their administration of Barnet's Local Government Pension Scheme is based. This extra work will incur an additional charge on top of the audit fee. Capita continue to administer this scheme, despite very serious concerns about standards of performance. 

Also at last week's Audit meeting, there was discussion about why new systems that should have been implemented following the £2 million fraud by a Capita employee were not in use. 

Grant Thornton, Internal Audit, Senior Council Officers and Capita’s Partnership Manager in Barnet had all agreed these control systems should be implemented immediately. A Capita employee, however, based in Chichester, where these payments are handled, had taken it upon themselves not to implement this critical system, a failing only identified when Internal Audit carried out a follow up check. 

At least one of the Tory members had grave misgivings about the continuing partnership with Capita. 

Councillor for Hale, Laithe Jajeh, said at the meeting, “I find it really worrying that someone from Capita (can do this)..it’s almost the tail wagging the dog …’ He also commented on twitter that assurance from Capita on implementation of Grant Thorntons’ recommendations was ‘not reassuring whatsoever …’ 

He added that Capita’s performance was not good enough and that he was not confident that promised dates for completion would be met.

At a further point in the audit meeting it was identified that 51% of the internal audit recommendations were not completed, the majority of which were the responsibility of Capita. Labour councillor Alison Moore suggested that such a high level of actions not implemented was a sign of an unhealthy organisation. The Head of Assurance said it was a very serious matter from the officers’ perspective. 

The Committee Chairman wanted to take a ‘positive’ view of the situation and suggested that we do not look at criticisms. There was a clear consensus, however, that Councillors, both Conservative and Labour, were not satisfied. 

At last there is an acknowledgement, at least from councillors who were not involved with the original outsourcing exercise, that the partnership with Capita may not be the great panacea we were promised, under the lure of ‘Better services for less money’.

We are facing a review of the contract in February, yet there is a very real concern that decisions have already been made. 

The dispersed structure of the contract, with Capita offices situated all around the country, makes it hard to implement change, hard to control, and hard to monitor. Different reporting lines in different organisations mean that it is difficult to pin down responsibility for actions or inaction. This exacerbates and complicates the failure in accountability between the management of local services, and the local community itself.

We call upon the council to make the outsourcing review as open and unbiased as possible, held in public, with full and meaningful consultation with residents - and with key roles for some of the new Conservative members such as Cllr Jajeh, and Cllr Prager, who seem to have a more clear sighted view of Capita’s performance - and we urge all members to look at how quickly services can be brought back to Barnet, where they can be properly managed, monitored and controlled. 

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne




Friday, 1 February 2019

The Right Thing to Do: or - Heading off the Public Noise - Barnet Tories and a £22 million loan to Saracens


An example of the grudgingly released, and still redacted, Barnet/Saracens correspondence


Well, then. Time for a return to a story we followed last year, in the midst of Tory Barnet's financial meltdown: a curious tale whose unpicking, via the submission of Freedom of Information requests, has been slow, laborious - and blocked at every point by the council, despite, as you will see, this matter being very definitely a matter of public interest.

Is still being blocked by the council: but it has just been confirmed that the Information Commissioner is now formally investigating why that is the case ...

Yes: a return to the story of the £22 million loan to Saracens Rugby Club, a privately owned company, for whom we must act as brokers, we are told, so as to assist them find the cash to build a new grandstand at their ground. 

I say their ground: of course this is ours, a publicly owned stadium at Copthall, now renamed 'Allianz Park', which the club has the use of, for free - on the basis of a nominal, peppercorn rent. 

At a time when the Tory council faces the consequences of its financial folly in so heavily investing in the Capita contracts, throws bucketloads of money from its reserves at the whopping budget deficit, attempts to install, rather too late, some system of financial control in the aftermath of the massive fraud perpetrated by a Capita manager, what do you think was its priority? 

Pushing through approval to fund Saracen's expansion plans. 

Why? 

This is a question no one has been able to answer satisfactorily.

We are now committed, thanks to the efforts of the Tory members and senior officers who have arranged this deal, to borrow money on Saracens' behalf from the Public Works Loan Board, an archaic and obscure Treasury department - rumoured to consist of only four civil servants - and which sounds like a sub-committee of Dickens's Circumlocution Office. 

Created in the eighteenth century, and flourishing in the next, this Board was meant to provide funding for much needed projects then creating the basic framework of a new social infrastructure: funding for schools, clean water, sewers. It is meant to have been abolished, but these plans have been shoved to the back of the legislative queue, due to Brexit.

Not in the wildest dreams of the Victorian clerks of the Public Works Loan Board, sitting mutely at their ledgers, signing off bills for these noble aspirations, could there have been a glimmer of an idea that one day in the future, their future colleagues would be handing over millions of pounds of public money in order to subsidise the commercial activities of private companies: but that, effectively, is what is happening here, in Broken Barnet.



A hard day's work, at the Public Works Loan Board:


Our council demands the money from the Board. The Board hands the money over to our council. The council gives the cash to Saracens. Saracens is meant to pay it back, over thirty years. If they stop paying? We carry the debt. 

Does this benefit the borough in any way? Not much: certainly not in any way substantial enough to justify such a risky venture, you might think. A small amount of interest, if payments are maintained. 

Saracens is not a major employer, and, unlike Barnet FC, now driven out of its home territory, has no long history of association with the borough; its community work is hardly irreplaceable. One councillor involved with local charity groups told me that they cannot afford the rates charged by Saracens for use of their rooms. And it seems that even the use by the council of the stadium it owns for election night counts comes at a price. 

What price democracy, in the London Borough of Barnet? 

Quite steep, as it turns out.

So: why then, you may ask, have Tory members and senior officers gone to so much trouble, and spent so much time, funded by Barnet taxpayers, on promoting this loan? 

We don't know.

Why does Saracens not arrange its own commercial loan? 

It seems it can't, or won't, hence the generous offer from us to step in.

Why does Saracens not bear the risk of failure, should the loan repayments, over such a long period, not be honoured?

No apparent answer to that one, when public money is at stake, whether via the PWLB, or Barnet residents and taxpayers.

And all very reasonable questions. But there has been a concerted effort by the council to defy the duty of transparency and accountability to residents and taxpayers in the course of this curious arrangement.

A Freedom of Information request for all correspondence relating to the agreement that led to this deal has been consistently fought since last July, on the basis of various excuses, largely claimed as time spent considering the public interest implications: taken past the time of the committee which approved the loan, for no good reason, as the belated disclosure of material would suggest.

Please tell me when the proposed loan to Saracens was first suggested to the
council, and by whom.

Please give me all copies of all correspondence between council or Capita
representatives and all representatives relating to this proposal.

Please include all internal discussions between officers regarding the loan.

Please include all correspondence by any Conservative councillors regarding
the loan..

Quite clearly this is an issue of considerable public interest, and would be at any time, but at a time of unprecedented financial difficulty, it is even more so. 

Only after six months of challenge has some of the most telling material been released: months after the approval, and only after the ICO had become involved. 

Not all material has been published, including emails from the Leader of the Council. This is despite the Leader apparently not knowing, last year, that his emails had been withheld, and indicating to me at a committee meeting that he had no objection. A senior officer who has been involved in the negotiations also present at this meeting had to tell him that the emails had not been released. He had no idea. Whose decision was it, in that case?

Now we can at least see some of the correspondence that took place. And one can understand why they were so reluctant for this to be disclosed. 

The documents disclosed under FOIA are in the public domain now, however, and available to read below, but there are an absurd number of redactions ... and blank pages ...

Scroll down to the bottom and read from the end, (with some variation in chronological order):







Not only are the emails are littered with redactions - quite wrongly, I would suggest, in many cases - there is a confusing inconsistency in the choice of names blacked out.

Such anonymity is not appropriate if the individual concerned holds a senior position within any body in question and quite clearly in the context of the discussions here, that must be the case. 

Redactions may not be used simply to cover the identity of an individual who is a senior executive, simply because that disclosure might be embarrassing or controversial.


The key figures here, as revealed by the inconsistent redactions, are Cath Shaw, the Deputy Chief Executive, Wayne Butcher, Associate Director at Grant Thornton, (who were charged with producing a (still exempted) report covering 'due diligence' of Saracens' role in the arrangement), Mitesh Velani, CEO for Saracens. There are references to Stephen Mc Donald, Director of Capita Re, and a walk on part played by bemused Tory 'Leader', Cllr Richard Cornelius. Poor Kevin Bartle, Chief Finance Officer, and Section 151 officer, is piggy in the middle.

What does emerge from this correspondence is that the proposal for the £22 million loan to Saracens has been strongly supported and promoted by a small group of senior officers, and a significant amount of time and resources used to make sure this deal is made politically acceptable. Were they asked to do this by a Tory member? If so, why, and why at this time? 

One rather odd feature of this is the involvement of the absurdly titled 'Director of Place', for Capita Re, the Joint Venture that the previous senior management team decided to pursue, before the contracts began, a decision taken without the knowledge or participation of the Tory Leader, Richard Cornelius.

What, you might reasonably ask, are the Director of Capita Re and the Deputy Chief Executive doing, spending so much time, paid for by Barnet tax payers, organising a £22 million loan for a private rugby club? And at this time, of all moments in the dark history of Broken Barnet? Did the Tory administration have nothing better to occupy their interest?

Were there no more pressing issues in Broken Barnet to deal with, at the time? Well, yes there were.

In fact there has never been a time in which the state of the borough has been in a state of crisis more extreme than the one we are now seeing.

At this point, all was falling apart: the Capita contracts - due to be 'realigned' - and the huge budget deficit, temporarily plugged by bunging up the hole with money ransacked from our reserves. The knock on effect of the giant fraud by a Capita manager, and the catastrophic failure in financial control that this exposed. Within a short time we were also engrossed in Bingate, Brexit, and impending cuts to vital services - this is the reality we face, and nothing could be more serious, yet we had time to look down the back of the sofa for £22 million in spare change to lend a rugby club, did we?

Why does the Saracens loan concern senior planning officers, including the Commissioning lead for planning?  All mentioned in the emails, as you will see. At a time when resident dissatisfaction with planning and enforcement - all the remit of the Director of Capita Re - is at an all time high, this seems an inappropriate focus of attention.

There are no doubt perfectly valid reasons for the senior officers' roles in overseeing this process: but we hope that Tory members can explain what those reasons are.

Does Capita receive any contractual gainshare payment or fees from brokering this loan? We would probably not know, as so much of the contracts and its variations are shrouded in secrecy.

Should any senior officers or contractual partners, be putting so much effort into facilitating this project?  Would residents not reasonably expect, at such a time of crisis, that the council and their Capita partners, concentrated on the immediate challenges staring us in the face? Where is the political leadership from the Tory group, so easily persuaded to agree this loan?

Well then.

Here are some choice selections from the FOI material.

Let's start with one email that has the date redacted - it is hard to be certain, but the sequence suggests it is from October 2017, from the deputy CEO to the Tory 'Leader':



So a funding OR financing partner. Sounds like we were lucky not to be asked for the cash outright. Oh, but it must make commercial sense. And they were going to be hard nosed, not fall over and do as asked. Until the Tories fell over and did as asked, with lovely wet noses, and a lot of tail wagging. 

Again, to the Dear 'Leader':





Oh dear. It wouldn't have appeared superficially credible to suggest a commercial loan to a loss-making business

What a shame. Hang on though - Saracens have been convincing as to the reasons why all professional rugby  clubs operate at a loss

Mmm: and Stephen (remember, Director of Capita Re ....) well: his advice is that he thinks this is still the right thing to do ... 

The right thing to do.

Even so, getting this past the empty headed Members may not be - ha ha - the 'formality' we first thought ... The formality! 

There, readers, you have the democratic process of Broken Barnet laid bare.

If the loan goes ahead, our costs will be covered by Saracens (awfully generous), but if it doesn't go ahead ... it will be 'sunk cost' - ie at the expense of the taxpayers of Broken Barnet. Ah. 

And - payment for initial work on this deal , it is suggested, should come from the revenue element of the Infrastructure Reserve. 

Not sure what the Infrastructure Reserve is usually raided for, but one imagines it would have to be for vital projects necessary to the borough. Probably not intended for speculative expenditure of this nature, regarding a loan to a private company.

Read from the bottom up: 



Mr Bartle spells it out. 

The shareholders/board won't stand behind the deal themselves, so they are asking Barnet residents to do it instead. And the Tory leader starts to wobble. What a shame he did not follow his instinctive reaction, and drop the idea. Why didn't he? What persuaded him to ignore any misgivings, and take on such a high risk venture? 

We move on to the investigations and report carried out by Grant Thornton - which we are not allowed to see. Can't think why.

Saracens are not happy with the initial version, according to an email on 6th April, sent by their CEO. The summary contained a number of inaccuracies, he complains. By the 16th April, more dissatisfaction is expressed; Barnet's deputy CEO, Cath Shaw, confides in GT that Saracens think the report 'creates a misleading picture' ...



A sound commercial proposition. Hmm.

On 9th May we catch up on the plans now that the outcome of the election is clear: to the club's CEO, from our deputy CEO:



Oh: 

'the Leader was personally keen on a shareholder guarantee - I absolutely understand this is off the table, but if he continues to push it I wonder if we might suggest a meeting with Nigel Wray?


'if he continues to push it ...'

If the Leader of the Council expresses concerns about Barnet tax payers taking the risk, rather than the shareholders, ie the wealthy owner of Saracens, taking the risk of the loan for their new stand ...?

On the 30th May, we see our Deputy CEO, addressing a long black line of redacted names, asking: Is there a standard list of reasons for making a report exempt?

(According to Mrs Angry's Standard List of Reasons for Making A Report Exempt, from the same manual as: Freedom of Information Requests, How to Obstruct, Whilst Pretending You are Considering the Public Interest  Issue Over a Six Month Period': there is listed only one Reason - to prevent embarrassing material entering the public domain, but of course ... there may be a hundred and one others ...)


On to 11th June: this is illuminating - to 'redacted' again: (why?) & Mr Bartle:




Saracens need to 'get comfortable' with what they are funding, in regard to due diligence work on, erm: themselves. 

Of course they do. Sit back. Here's a cushion. Cup of tea?

By the 25th June, we learn that the Leader has met with the Saracens owner 'who has indicated a willingness to consider the types of additional security set out in the Grant Thornton Report'. Good oh.




Part of that security, of course, is the lease on the stadium that ... we already own, and that is hard to use for any other purpose.

Ah, and then, on the 10th July: to the Leader and - 'redacted', a reference to changes to a public report going to P&R committee: oh, including a mention of awkward points raised by blogger Mr Reasonable (John Dix) in regard to problems with similar deals at Coventry & Northampton; an acknowledgement that Saracens' £45m debt 'has been restructured to create a positive position' ... and: an undertaking to make it more explicit that Saracens' loan will be funded by 'PWLB on-funding', council costs covered, and 'risks mitigated',  to - haha - to head off some of the 'public noise'.

To head off some of the public noise?

That went well, didn't it?

As we know, the 'Leader' clearly was persuaded, somehow, to drop any objection to this deal, and then he and his Tory chums staunchly defended the proposal, even after every reasonable argument raised over concerns about the risk of failure, and the consequences for Barnet taxpayers.

You can't blame Saracens for asking for the loan, I suppose: if you don't ask, you don't get, do you, readers? And undertaking that sort of gambit is exactly how entrepreneurs and successful companies thrive, although in this case, surely Saracens must have been rather astonished to find the council, its officers and members so happy to oblige? 

This is ultimately entirely the responsibility of the Tory administration, the Tory Leader Richard Cornelius, and all his colleagues, for approving the deal, despite serious - and perfectly valid - misgivings. 

But then this is how they do things: taking gambles with public money without due consideration - and in this case, you won't see any of them for dust, should the proverbial stuff hit the fan. 

Barnet Tories are remarkably foolhardy when it comes to chucking money at massive projects like the ten year outsourcing deal with Capita, but usually studiously parsimonious when it comes to all else, and certainly ideologically opposed to the very notion of public subsidy,  supporting the needs of vulnerable residents, or those dependent on social care, or social housing. 

In other boroughs, all around the country, application to the Public Works Loan Board is usually made in order to support such needs; for housing, community centres; education. 

Not here: here we make use of this facility for the benefit of private enterprises unwilling to bear the risk of their own development plans. 

Instead of building new homes for social housing, we decant our poor into the backyards of other authorities, even if it means making other families homeless. 

We don't need community centres, when we do not recognise the value of community, do we? And new schools are something we want to be provided by private funding, in the new market place of education. 

New stands for rugby clubs though: a high priority.

Does any of this make sense? No. 

Is this the end of the story? 

I suspect it is not. 

Stay tuned.




Friday, 11 January 2019

The winter of our discontent, or: another load of old rubbish, from Barnet Tories




Tory councillors on New Year's Day

Let us return to happier days, to last September, at the end of a seemingly never ending summer made all the more glorious, for our Tory councillors, by the absence of meetings and council business: a welcome respite from the intensity of focus on their fiscal incompetence - the whopping budget deficit, the failure of the Capita contracts: the massive fraud by a Capita manager, oh - and the incomprehensibly generous loan to Saracens rugby club of £22 million of tax payers' money ... 

How glad they were, in July, when it was time to pack their buckets and spades, or flee to the genteel solitude of their second homes in the Dordogne. 

But there is always an end to summer, and a return to school: a return to grim reality.

Grim reality, for Tory Leader Richard Cornelius, meant kicking off the new term with a tedious duty: a nonsultation event, a one man show, for one night only, doing stand up at the Old Bull theatre, in High Barnet. 

Not many laughs, in the subject of setting a budget: but obligatory. And what was the Dear Leader's main concern, as a priority of council spending, you may ask? 




Was it perhaps to support the most needy and vulnerable residents of Broken Barnet? No. Was it to improve the provision of housing for those in need of a home? Nope. Safeguard social care for disabled residents? No. 

Tory members see none of these problems, in our borough. As reported then:


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.

Yes: to Barnet Tories, the only bits of Barnet which matter are the areas where, you know, their sort of people live: Totteridge, Hampstead Garden Suburb: Nice places, safe within the embrace of the Green Belt, or guarded by conservation law: the sort of restrictions which are irritating obstruction to development and profit, anywhere else but the areas where they choose to reside. 

Areas which are staunchly loyal Tory wards, and prioritised, as generally Tory wards are, as we have seen from FOI disclosures, and an independent investigation, for largesse from the Highways funds, in order to ... make sure they remain ... Nice.

Oh dear. 

Oh dear, because Mrs Angry, as you will have read, and with her usual clairvoyant powers, predicted this winter would be, as it has become, a winter of discontent: and here it is:




All over the borough, there is now an accumulation of uncollected rubbish: wheelie bins left unemptied, bin bags left in the streets, an epidemic of fly tipping ignored, residents struggling to cope with what is, without any doubt, a total failure in management of a vital public service. 

The council's own twitter account can barely cope with the number of complaints from those whose bins have yet again been left uncollected: the timeline is ahem - littered - with furious comments from residents across the borough. Here is one from an estate in Colney Hatch:





As Labour councillor Sara Conway reported: 



The story has now been featured on BBC news:


             
 
You will note that Tory Leader Councillor Richard Cornelius, as usual, when being filmed against a backdrop of social housing, sports a casually tied silk cravat, as a sort of 'up yours' gesture - or perhaps or like a 17th century dandy clutching a nosegay to ward off the Plague, here a talisman against the risk of infectious poverty, from one of those places that are - sharp of intake of breath - not quite as Nice as Totteridge, or Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Richard doesn't think the rubbish crisis is a 'disaster'. In fact he implies the most recent unpleasantness is only due to problems over Christmas, and New Year, due to workers insisting on having time off, to be with their families, or from sickness, that sort of nuisance.

The truth, of course, is that the fault is entirely his, and that of his fellow Tory councillors, and let us not forget the lead member for Environment, Cllr Dean Cohen, who seems curiously quiet, at the moment. Is he in hiding?

The service has been in meltdown for weeks, way before Christmas, for one reason only.

That reason is their decision to cut the service.

Due to their financial blundering, and despite trying to plug the gap in the budget by robbing council reserves, it has become necessary - or so they claim - to make even more drastic savings. 

They convinced themselves they could make £750,000 by cutting down on the number of days spent on collecting waste, and cutting out the collection of food waste - despite the environmental impact of such a retrograde step. To get round objections from the Mayor of London (the man all Barnet Tory members voted to label, in a motion that was excruciatingly shabby, even by Barnet Tory standards, an 'Enemy of the People') - they are now pretending that the measure is 'only temporary'. 

In the meanwhile, Barnet Tory Easynomics dictates that it is possible to collect the same amount of rubbish in a shorter amount of time, with fewer staff, so that is what they proposed.

Oh, except of course - it seems that doesn't work, after all.

Hence the total collapse of any pretence of efficiency in the delivery of this service.

And no - it isn't the workers' fault. They are not being lazy, or messing about: they simply cannot do the work in the shorter time allowed. It is physically impossible. 

At first it didn't seem to matter. Tory members tried shrugging it off. Christmas came and went: they carried on as usual, prancing about, doing what they do best, as seen on New Year's Day:



Alice in Tory Blunderland: new boy councillor Felix, in a lovely crown, and David "Mad Hatter' Longstaff

As you will observe, most of the worst areas, purely by chance, are in Labour wards: the poorer areas, where there are more flats, more estate buildings, more accommodation close to shops. 

So what if these areas are left as dumping grounds, literally, rather than, more typically, in a metaphorical sense?

So what, if the complete collapse of the clinical waste collection left Barnet residents with disabled or ill family members unable to see the back of weeks of bagged up incontinence pads, told, against all H&S guidelines, to dump them in the wheelie bins that were not being collected, offering all sorts of risk to householders and workers? 





Before Christmas, Labour members who complained about this were told by senior officers and the Leader that the service had resumed. This was not true. Only a couple of days ago was the collection of weeks of this resident's clinical waste taken away.

Oh. But then. The worst happened. 

People in Tory wards began to be upset. Oh no! 

Their bins were not collected on the allotted day: outrageous! 

Their bins were not collected the next week, either: simply unbelievable! 

Tory MPs were written to. 

Tory MPs had to juggle the impossible demand now: seem to be sympathetic, without criticising their chums on the council, whose ideology is their ideology: nice homes for nice people, and to hell with the rest. 

In three marginal constituencies, poised as we are at any moment on the brink of a snap election - what could be a more untimely reminder of reasons not to vote for any Tory political representative?

Because: oh dear me, yes: do you remember the last council election? Last May? What was it that our Tory friends decided to run as their main manifesto policy? Try and think ...





Ah.

Yep. Couldn't mention the impending exposure of the budget deficit, or the Capita contract failure, or the fraud, so: look, look over there! Let's have a game of #angryaboutbins (© Mrs Angry); the favourite dodge of any Tory candidate with nothing else on offer. 

Easy to scare Tory voters with the awful thought that rubbish won't be collected. The very idea! So here in Broken Barnet, our scheming Tory members, desperate for distraction from their own ineptitude, decided to smear Labour by inventing a threat that was simply untrue: that if elected, they would mess with the regular collection arrangments. Ha.

That went well, didn't it, Tory councillors? Hoist by your own f*cking petard ... 

As soon as the election was over, the true state of the council's fiscal peril was revealed. 

Figures were 'readjusted' - but no explanation was ever given as to why a mistake had so badly underestimated the deficit, pre-election, and no one lost their job, or resigned, of course, even when the disclosure of the Capita manager's fraud exposed an entire network of council processes left with virtually no effective financial controls in place.

The next step we should have expected. Having centred their manifesto on the grim warning of rubbish mountains created by wicked Labour, wicked Tories created one of their own. 

But the cost of this folly is in line with the rest of their nonsensical financial policies, as seen in the mythical Capita 'savings'. 

In order to begin to address the accumulation of rubbish around the borough, the council has been forced to SPEND barrow loads of cash: estimated at £15-20,000 a week on overtime, extra staff etc. 

You can work out for yourselves how quickly the 'savings' promised from the cuts in service will be outdone by expenditure on fixing the damage. Easynomics, once more.

In the meanwhile, the landscape of Broken Barnet lurches into eternal winter: yes, a winter of discontent, erupting in a plague of festering rubbish, attended by rats, scavenging foxes, and a burgeoning sense of doom.

Happy New Year


Friday, 14 December 2018

A Matter of Regret: or - who runs Barnet Council, anyway?


The view from Hendon Town Hall entrance


Well. Another extraordinary few weeks in Broken Barnet.

Let us set the scene.

All around the borough, the scale of failure of the current Tory administration is impossible to ignore - unless you live in one of the more privileged wards, or marginal wards, where it is a matter of fact that Highways expenditure, by sheer coincidence, is rather more generous than others. 

In my road, which is half in a Labour ward, half in a Tory ward, can you guess which end was resurfaced, this year, while the same treatment for my end has twice been cancelled? 

Of course a Tory councillor lives in the other end, and we would not wish his journeys around the borough, to be impeded by the same sort of pot holes and loose gravel to be found in abundance on the wrong side of Long Lane, now would we? Nor would we wish to upset the Tory voters. If you live over the border: tough. This is the Tale of Two Barnets: know your place.

The state of decline, in the wake of failing services, is however beginning to become apparent even in the 'better' areas of the borough, or at least noticed by the better sort of (Tory voting) residents, which is why, and only why, the Tory councillors are beginning to panic. Failures in planning and enforcement, for example, are increasingly inciting normally loyal voters to mutiny against their local councillors.

Their property values, - and the built heritage of our borough - are under threat at every point: from the grasp of developers supported by a weakened planning system, that offers fee based advice to applicants, but shows little interest in impact on residents, or in the enforcement of measures meant to protect even listed buildings. Take a look at the Railway Hotel in Edgware, listed but left to decay and suffer damage from two fires in two years with no effective action by the council's privatised services. Only determined lobbying by local campaigners has resulted in any move to save this property from further risk.



As for the rest of the borough: weeds everywhere, broken pavements replaced, if at all, by tarmac: roads deteriorating daily, with massive holes left from the last icy winter: even the broken lamppost opposite the Town Hall (see above) has been left for weeks, leaning at a dangerous angle, unremarked.

Fly tipping left uncollected at street corners: wheelie bins left uncollected for weeks. Yes, weeks - and now it is impossible to travel around the borough without seeing overflowing bins, accompanied by dumped black bin bags full of rubbish. The open landscape of Broken Barnet, in short, is literally a tip. 

Ironically, the Tories have deployed a crack team of litter inspectors, who look like parking wardens, to patrol the high streets of Broken Barnet, to swoop on hapless residents who drop a sweet wrapper, or cigarette butt, and fine them on the spot, but they appear not to have fined themselves for leaving the entire borough festooned with bags of rotting rubbish.

You may recall that the absurd campaign strategy of Barnet Tories in May, aware of the looming revelation of their financial incompetence, post election, and seeking to distract voters with anything other than questions about their catastrophic mishandling of the Capita contracts, featured, rather more literally than usual, a load of old rubbish. 

Yes: the time honoured deployment of #angryaboutbins was put to use. Wicked Labour, they said, were going to cut your bin collection, if elected. 

The Wicked Tories were elected instead, and - cut your bin collection. 

At the same time, they 'readjusted' their budget deficit to a terrifying new level, admitted the Capita contracts were failing to deliver, and that one of their employees had stolen more than £2 million unnoticed, due to what was then identified as a catastrophic absence of any reasonable standard of financial controls and safeguards against fraud. How lucky they were that they had not realised any of this before the election! 

One week my bin was left forlornly on the pavement, unemptied. On the way to the Audit committee, I peered inside at the contents, & thought about taking them with me to the Town Hall,  and handing it to the nearest Tory councillor, but - couldn't quite bring myself to scoop any of it out. Still, it was playing on mind as an appropriate metaphor for the state of things, as I took a seat in the committee room, watching the Tory councillors insinuate themselves into the room, a room already packed with angry residents and campaigners.

In July it had been agreed that the council would seek to 'realign' their contracts with Capita, and that business cases for varying degrees of separation, and return of services in house, would be prepared to go for consideration.

It then emerged that the Chief Executive had submitted a report to the Audit meeting proposing - with no consultation, or further formal discussion - a retraction of this decision. Instead we should now take our time to consider the 'realignment' - or not - of each service, over a long period of time: over the course of which of course we remain in bondage to Capita, and any unpleasant consequences of their own failings shrugged aside, with no urgency over reclaiming the vast majority of services.



Many questions were submitted to this Audit meeting in regard to this report, and several people made comments to the committee: but the situation had been further complicated by the revelation, that day, of a hastily arranged Urgency Committee at which a most extraordinary deal would be considered - and no doubt approved.

A deal has been made, in secret, with Capita: they will pay us £4 million, in return for being allowed to duck the contractual obligation to provide £30 million of contract savings guarantees over the next 5 years. Well, the report itself has the clanging and grammatically cringemaking title of: Commercial Settlement of Historic Issues: flipping Nora, you may think: settlement of Historic Issues with Capita would require a report using up all the paper in Broken Barnet, and then some, would it not, as detailed in the annals of this blog? Indeed it would, but Mr Duncan Tessier, Commercial Director, has managed to whittle down his token compo wish list to these few items: according to my notes (not entirely reliable):

a) Mosaic (the Adults Social care system) – new IT system implementation that
experienced issues with timeliness and quality of delivery;
b) Development pipeline – delays in delivering housing on council land;
c) Increased monitoring associated with financial controls – to cover cost of Grant
Thornton and additional council resources (in addition to first payment made in
September 2018);
d) Procurement gainshare – settling of respective claims; and
e) Miscellaneous items – estates compliance (related to 2013 to 2016); and KPI failures related to the Re contract.
f) Expenditure on a big box of black felt tips, for redaction of details in council reports and FOI responses from Mrs Angry

Hmm. Of course that £4 million is not much to see, is it, as a result of such prolonged contractual intimacy? A tiny drop of honey on the couch, compared to the unending 'exotic spresm' of money ejaculated, with such enthusiasm, into in the ever welcoming lap of Capita, wouldn't you say?

Don't know about you, but I feel so used, don't you, readers? All the way from Storyville to Capitaville, and back again.

And: why did they not use the agreed contractual processes to hold Capita to task for the breaches now being paid off?

Ah. Ahead of you there, they are: because, apparently:

There would be a need to instigate a range of formal dispute resolution processes under both contracts. The contractual dispute resolution processes would be time and resource
consuming with the outcomes uncertain and always subject to the possibility of
appeal. This would not offer the certainty and clarity of the proposed commercial
settlement. Legal advice has confirmed that the settlement outcome is good value for the council when compared with these risks and uncertainties.

'Legal advice', see, unspecified, and unattributed. 

Could have been from anyone. Citizens Advice Bureau. The Chief Executive's aunty. Man on a bench outside the (unstaffed) library next door to the Town Hall. 

And they don't like risk, and uncertainties, do they? Oh, well: unless in regard to a whopping £22 million loan to a private rugby club. 'Certainty and clarity', that is what you expect, from the officers and members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. Along with transparency, and accountability.

Oh, about the massive Capita fraud. Why, asked one written question from a resident, did no one at Barnet spot what was happening?

It is a matter of regret that the fraud was not identified earlier, was the starchy knickered response. 

A matter of regret.

And all of this, by the way, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a visit to the borough, a couple of weeks ago, by the Chief Executive of Capita. 

Oh: no, hang on - it did.

One of the many questions to the committee was from me, on the subject of this meeting, which we only knew about by rumour: turned out to be true.

Question:

The Chief Executive of Capita recently visited the

borough, to see the company's last outpost for
himself. Since then the council has announced what is
effectively a retraction of its intention to 'realign' the
Capita contracts. What did the CEO of Capita offer
that persuaded the Leader and senior officers to pull
back from the brink? Please give full details of the
meeting: the date, how long it lasted, with whom he
met, and please provide the minutes of that meeting.

 Response:


Members and senior officers met with Capita’s

Chief Executive on 15 November for around an
hour. The meeting focused on settlement of historic
commercial issues the detail of which is set out in
the Urgency Committee report published today and
on improving the services provided by Capita going
forward.

Aha: those historic commercial issues again.

Going forward, as they love to say, so we do not dwell on any unpleasantness: why was this deal agreed? Because, as I pointed out in my comments to the committee, both Capita and the Tory councillors are so fearful of the damage to their reputations (such as they are) neither party can bring themselves to end the relationship. Like some warring couples, they prefer the hypocrisy of remaining in a loveless partnership, than the public airing of their disagreements.

Also in my comments, I pointed out the folly of having as Chair of Audit the Tory councillor who believes that scrutiny should not be critical - and asks for 'positive' comments only, in line with the usual rubber stamping exercise of Barnet Tory committees. 

The auditors looked on, only the new boy with the designer glasses making any effort to look as if anything mattered much, anyway.



Audit, in the age of Capita

One of the independent members of the Audit committee actually appeared to fall asleep, fairly early on in the proceedings: all part of the same problem, the lack of rigour, the lack of forensic investigation, until it is too late. Oh, and those minutes I asked for? No comment at the meeting. I ask the governance officers. Silence. Weeks later I find out from an FOI officer that this question has been magically transformed, without my consent or knowledge, into an FOI. 

This means it will now no doubt be treated in the same way as any other FOI now: subject to an eternal process of delay, excuses and prevarication, in the hope that I will give up. 

Note to whoever is organising this: I will not give up. 

Interestingly, after several people, including blogger Mr Mustard and I, requested unredacted copies of the exempted report by Grant Thornton into the Capita fraud, and its wider revelations (are you keeping up?) this week, in the middle of all the Brexit hoo ha, it was released. What was all the fuss about?  Perhaps this statement from Capita, previously suppressed:




Ooh, get you.

Some hope, however, emerged from the otherwise pointless exercise rolled out at this Audit meeting. 

My comment to the committee largely consisted of a plea to the newer Tory members to distance themselves from the shambolic history of their older colleagues, and think carefully about their duties, as elected representatives, to put the best interests of residents before political considerations. 

It emerged that Labour members of the committee had been - quite incredibly - given redacted copies of a report on which they were expected to vote. This was outrageous, and another sign on the increasingly ruthless, not to say undemocratic measures being used by the Tories to silence debate, and mask the extent of their culpability in the absolute shambles of the current administration. After protest by residents and councillors, Labour moved to demand access. 

Just imagine our open mouthed surprise, readers, when the two new Tory councillors refused to vote against this motion. Cllr Prager voted against, and Cllr Jajeh abstained. The motion passed. 

This is unheard of, in the long dark history of Tory Barnet: Tory members having the integrity - and courage - to take a stand on a point of principle, in favour of the democratic process. Hats off. 

As the meeting reached the point where the press and public are thrown out, for discussion of 'exempt' matters, I thought I would ask the Chair, while passing by the table, if there were any chance of getting my bins emptied, before Christmas? After the chortling finished, keen new councillor Jajeh followed me out of the room, and promised to make sure they were. And he did. Which is very nice of him, but: it shouldn't be necessary to make private arrangements to deal with the inevitable outcome of the Tories' cuts in service, should it?

This week, my bins were emptied, but - hello - a new strategy in #angryaboutbins has been deployed: leaving you with a bag of your neighbour's rubbish in return. Perhaps this is Nudge Theory, once again: encouraging you to see rubbish collection, like gritting, and looking after our parks, as a voluntary civic duty?




A load of old rubbish from your Tory council: taking away with one hand & giving back with another ...

But it is not just bins, and rubbish, and weeds that are having an impact on our daily lives. For many residents, the collapse in local services is affecting them directly, and acutely.

After the meeting at Parliament with John Mc Donnell to discuss the Capita issue, another session was arranged to take place locally. A room was taken at the Town Hall, in one of the committee rooms where public engagement and open debate is usually suppressed at every point: by exclusion, redaction, exemption and limitation. 

Holding a residents' meeting in the Town Hall was a symbolic gesture, meant to remind elected representatives that local democracy is only ever an expression of the will of the community, and not something to be controlled by them. 

It was also, by chance, the same room where five years ago, residents took over the meeting where Tory members were due to vote to approve the Capita contracts - unread. They were obliged to flee to a tiny side room, where they did the deed under siege, defiant to the last. 

Five years on, this meeting now followed a long sequence of testimonies by residents - and some Labour councillors - as to their experiences with the contracted out services. Others read the statements of those unable to do so themselves, or too upset to do so themselves.

Fellow blogger John Dix explained exactly how Capita made so much money out of these services, and how the claims that the contracts are making vast savings are nothing more than an elaborate fiction.



A resident read a statement from a young man with autism, who had been left stranded and in distress when his free travel pass was found not to work: it had been cancelled without warning by Capita. It was a 'heinous action' he said, in his detailed, deeply upsetting comments. This happened because Tory members and senior officers allowed Capita to demand an extra fee for taking over the issue of such passes: and of course the contracts allow Capita to receive gainshare payments for any 'savings'. Who cares if savings are made at the expense of disabled residents? Leave them at the bus stop, or tube station, wondering how they are going to get home. Kerching!

We heard from a resident who is a social worker, deeply concerned at the impact on elderly residents of the failure to maintain pavements and roads: the risk of falls from hazards left unaddressed, from leaves unswept as a matter of policy, leaving slippery pathways all over the borough.

Another read statement described how Capita had helped itself to £2,000 from a resident's bank account, and informed them of the withdrawal of their single person discount.

A resident of East Finchley told us about the local community centre now being 'marketed' by Capita: they have their hands now on all council buildings, including our libraries - what is left of them, unstaffed for much of the time: as one woman explained, leaving one mother no option but to take her little girl out to wee in the car park, as the loos are locked in these hours. Another speaker asked if the libraries were being deliberately run down, so as to free the properties for sale, and facilitate more unwanted development.

A resident of West Hendon exposed the conflict of interest in Capita's dual roles in both running the 'regeneration' of her estate, and the valuation of homes subject to the process of compulsory purchase. (You may recall the massive and sustained fraud to the value of £2m plus by a Capita employee perpetrated in the course of compulsory purchase of properties in another 'regeneration' area).

A Labour councillor furiously condemned the use of Capita bailiffs against the poorest members of her ward.

Another criticised the terrible council website, the first point of information for many residents, and a 'nightmare' to navigate, despite continual challenges to the contractors about the poor standard.

As you might imagine, there was much criticism too of the planning service, with many remarking upon the disadvantages for ordinary residents, and the balance in favour of rampant development.

And on, and on. 

But it makes no difference to our Tory members whose lives are barely affected by the result of their own blundering failure to hold their contractors' poor performance to account. 

They held an Urgency meeting, sneaked into the timetable, listed for 8.30 one morning, with only the Tory Leader, Cornelius, the deputy leader Daniel Thomas, and the Labour leader. Clearly they wanted to hold the meeting at a time when almost no one was likely to notice - or turn up. 

Unfortunately for them John Dix did turn up, to watch their shame faced capitulation to the deal 'offered' by Capita: a £4m quid hand out (or, the equivalent of the amount nicked by one of their employees, times two) and - now ... let's be friends. 

And by sheer coincidence, an announcement was then made that instead of honouring the decision made by the P& R committee - to order officers to present full business cases on all options regarding the future of the Capita contracts - the next P&R committee would only talk about bringing back Finance & HR, and throw the rest of the services into the long grass, some only to be reviewed on the twelfth of never, or Year Seven of the ten year contracts. 

Before the Policy and Resources meeting, Barnet Alliance members, residents and Labour councillors took over the downstairs lobby of the Town Hall and sang a medley of impertinent carols aimed at the Tory members about to wave the continuation of the contracts through, with minimal adjustments. They continued upstairs, in the committee room.



The antics of Kick Out Capita activists obviously met with the disapproval of the Capita officers  behind me, who had as usual commandeered the best public seats, and provoked the close attentions of security staff, campaigners broke through the fourth wall normally retained in the theatre of the absurd that is the average Barnet council meeting, where audience participation is definitely not encouraged. 

Father Christmas and his helper approached the table with presents, and crackers: the Tory leader was not amused and tried to speak over the singing, and ignore the intruders. It didn't work.

In the good old 'MetPro' days, the Tories would have deployed unlicensed thugs in jackboots to menace the public, and physically bar them from the meeting. Not allowed anymore, that sort of thing, so the members had to sit there with wan faces, in tacit admission, from their inaction, and their silence, that they have no defence of what they are doing. 

And of course, there is no defence of what they are doing. 

Another shameful act, to add to all the rest, was the last minute addition to the agenda of a proposal to cut vital housing benefit support to the borough's poorest residents. This report was published (as the document itself discloses) after the deadline for members of the public to exert their right to submit questions or ask to comment: a flagrant abuse of the democratic process.  The Monitoring Officer, when asked by a resident to explain the implications of this, however, was not at all perturbed.

Whether or not this decision is, in these circumstances, challengeable in law, it is most clearly in defiance of the entire spirit of the Nolan Principles. But then the Nolan Principles do not apply, in Broken Barnet.

Questions about who took the decision - officers, or members - to ignore the actions agreed at the earlier committee meeting, to prepare the business cases for all options in regard to the future of the Capita contracts, including Option Three - cutting all ties with Capita - were met with evasive answers. They would only admit that officers recommend the current position, of a 'phased' response. That admission is all you need.

You can view the 158 questions submitted to the committee by residents here.

 My comment to the committee, for what it is worth, which is probably nothing at all, except it was gratifying to see the Tory leader squirming in his seat:

To tell the truth, I find it harder and harder to watch the way in which, over so many years, the Tory members of this deranged administration have presided over the destruction of our local services, and our democratic processes. 

You were responsible for promoting the disastrous partnership with Capita, you refused to listen to all reasonable arguments as to why it would be a disaster, and at every stage, until it was impossible to hide the truth any longer, you have pretended that the contracts were working entirely in our favour. That was, and is, untrue. Some might even say it was a lie.

In the response to one of my questions tonight, you claim, with a truly mind blowing lack of irony, 

“the council will continue to apply a robust approach to managing performance under the contracts”.

Dear Councillors: you have NEVER applied a robust approach to managing performance, which is why we are where we are now, supposedly in the act of ‘realignment’ of those contracts, but in fact back-peddling as fast as the One Barnet, Future-shaped Pedalo from Hell will allow, in order not only to cover up your own incompetence, but that of your contractual partners. 

You once saw yourself as the flagship council for Tory policies, in a decades' long war on public services. You detest the very idea of public services, in fact. Public is bad, private is good. Except: you’ve managed, in your slapstick way, to demonstrate that the reverse is true. 

Not one of you is capable of running an enterprise with a billion pound budget: not one of you is capable of running the whelk stand that used to appear every weekend in North Finchley, across the road from Margaret Thatcher House. What on earth the Blessed Margaret would make of your abject failure even to empty the borough’s bins, let alone manage the massive Capita contracts, is anyone’s guess.

Whether due to incompetence, apathy, or sheer laziness, you have allowed consultants and senior managers to persuade you to swallow the idea of mass outsourcing, then sat back and accepted, in face of all evidence to the contrary, that all was well. Didn’t take much to pull the wool over your eyes, did it? 

Now here you are, about to let them and your hapless contractors hypnotise you with a £4 million pay off, so as to let Capita continue to milk as much profit as possible out of our failing services. 

No wonder the newer members of your own party look aghast at what you have done and what you have failed to do – and what you are about to do now.


Prove me wrong. 

Take a stand. Throw out this report and demand the full business cases you asked for. Or take the consequences, which will, as you must know, come in the shape of electoral failure on a scale you have never seen before, as services decline even further.


A waste of time, perhaps: but if we stop using the limited opportunity we have to speak truth to these dunderheads, what will be the result? 

And the Tories' body language throughout this comment told its own story: they know full well they have blown it, big time - damage limitation is the only course now, and the only consolation they have is ... that it is a long time before the next local elections. 

They are gambling that things will have improved by then. 

In fact it is quite likely that things will be an awful lot worse.

Although the real danger is not to them, in the short term: the immediate risk is to their parliamentary colleagues, should there be, as there probably will be, a general election any time soon. 

We have three Tory MPs, all of whom have overtly or tacitly supported Brexit in three marginal, Remain leaning constituencies, left in a borough whose Tory administration leaves the bins unemptied, the streets full of pot holes, weeds, and fly-tipped rubbish - and a plague of unchecked development adding an intolerable extra weight to our already overburdened services.

As things fall apart, and we slouch towards the holiday shut down, it is abundantly clear - the certainties of life in Broken Barnet cannot -  and never will be - the same. 

Merry Christmas.