Monday, 7 March 2011

Mr Travers and the Democratic Process

As you will have read in the blogs, and in the local press, last Tuesday's council meeting was a significant triumph for those of us who wanted to uphold the principle of the new instructions, from local government ministers Eric Pickles and Bob Neill, on the rights of citizen journalists to report from meetings by filming, photography or tweeting.

Despite idiotic threats beforehand by the Tory group leadership that we would be stopped, no one - no councillor, no council officer, and no black shirted security bouncer, was able to prevent those privileged few of us who made it into the public gallery from exercising our right to record the meeting by these means, and the results now are available for all to see. (By the way, Brian: I've got some lovely photos of you - er, as an expert and enthusiastic Blackberry user yourself, do you think you could let me know how to download them and publish them here? I've asked half a dozen people already - but I'm a bit stuck - do drop me an email, when you've got a minute. Not one of those emails, btw. Cheers.)

Apart from the defiance shown by residents in ignoring the filming ban, however, this meeting in every other respect, in fact, was an indictment of the failure of our council to understand their duty to the people whom they represent, who pay their taxes, pay for the scandalous budget that was being voted through, pay for the overgenerous allowances that so disappoint our greedy little Tory councillors.

The central, most grievous failure in the organisation of this meeting was the fact that the vast majority of the residents who wished to witness the meeting were deliberately prevented from doing so, for no justifiable reason, and, arguably, quite unlawfully.

Now, despite all evidence to the contrary, Mrs Angry is not always that angry, and in fact finds many of the unfortunate sequence of events that take place here in Broken Barnet rather amusing. She is not in the slightest bit amused at the moment, though.

Take a look at the comments about the meeting, written by Andrew Travers, and circulated to Barnet Council staff at the end of last week - thanks to Barnet Eye blogger Mr Roger Tichborne, from whose leaked copy I have nicked the quote:

"In stark contrast to other councils which saw violent protests and delays to meetings, Tuesday’s meeting, like Cabinet before it, went ahead at the allotted time and location with the public present throughout. The people putting together BBC London’s ‘council cuts’ coverage must have been thinking they had chosen the wrong place to send their political editor. Understandably there were some protests but these never got out of hand and the democratic process was able to take place with residents present in the public gallery.

I would like to put on record my thanks to all staff on duty at the Town Hall on the night, especially those in Democratic Services who did a sterling job in ensuring members of the public were able to either watch or listen to proceedings in the chamber or the nearby committee room. Thanks are also due to all those staff across the authority who have been involved with consultations over various parts of the budget over recent months. The very public way in which we have discussed our challenges and asked the public to contribute to the budget setting process has also helped to defuse criticism.”

Are we talking about the same meeting?

Let's remind ourselves who this Andrew Travers is, shall we?

Mr Travers is the acting deputy Chief Executive. Mr Walkley was on leave last week - although present at the council meeting - so Andrew had to suck the end of his One Barnet pencil thoughtfully and come up with a Good Idea for the weekly staff message. It's a relief to see he is earning his wages, anyway. Because for a temp, citizens, he gets paid quite handsomely, you know. Oh, yes, he isn't a Barnet employee: he is contracted through a company, Halliford Associates Ltd, and rewarded very nicely, thank you: the online expenses show payments totalling £63,000 in the last quarter. Not bad, eh? Now, as you know, maths is not my forte, but, er ... £63,000 divided by three is £21, 000 per month? Times twelve = hold on, um ... pro rata, based on these payments, £252,000 annual salary? That can't be right, can it? Quick: someone tell poor Nick Walkley, who is struggling to make ends meet on only £200,000 - he's being hugely underpaid ...

And there are other benefits to be had, you know, working in the deputy CE department. Like elocution lessons: Mr Travers is Now Speaking With Confidence, we believe, because at least £9,000 of our money was spent in the last quarter in his department for the services of Voice!Business Associates. Barnet apparently told the Ham & High (who read the story here first) that some of this training was for the many officers who are being made redundant. Mrs Angry would like to hear from any of these alleged lucky officers being booted out of the back door, but with fabulous deportment and newly acquired presentation skills. It will be such a comfort, won't it, standing meekly in line at the job centre, cap in hand, but talking like Rex Harrison?

Mr Travers apparently thinks Tuesday night was a marvellous success. Why? Because there was no 'violent' protest.

He tells us that 'the democratic process was able to take place with residents in the public gallery' Yes, Mr Travers: there were maybe oh, as many as twenty or so residents in the public gallery. The rest of them, perfectly ordinary, law abiding citizens, were either stuck under quasi military guard in an overflow room, staring pointlessly at a blank screen, listening to an intermittent broadcast from the ruling junta down the corridor, forbidden to leave the room even to visit the loo without explanation, and hugely intimidated by the presence of a private army of blackshirted bouncers, or had given up in disgust and left.

Triumph for democracy though. If we follow this principle, we could perhaps lock the doors of polling stations on election days, to prevent any troublesome voters yelling rude things about the candidates, or hold councillors' surgeries in secret locations, without telling anyone? Just a thought.

Apart from the staggering statement that Mr Travers considers that this meeting was wonderfully organised, he refers to the recent consultation process and tells us about 'the very public way in which we have discussed our challenges and asked the public to contribute' which he informs us ... 'has defused criticism' - you know, such as that open meeting that was cancelled and substituted by a controlled 'debate' with hand picked and unknown 'residents' - oh and the outstandingly transparent ideas website stuffed full of pro One Barnet 'suggestions' by the council itself, while the genuine suggestions which were highest in popularity were completely ignored ... the criticism is hardly defused, friend: more of a UXB, in fact, I would say.

About the meeting, Mr Travers: there was never any likelihood of violence. In fact the only aggressive and provocative factor was the statement that the council would seek to prevent residents wanting to assert their new freedom to report, oh, and the completely unacceptable and deliberately intimidatory aspect of the security itself.

I have been sent the following information - from a surprising source, as it happens - published on the Liberty website which clearly states in its advice on the law regarding public meetings: 'Stewards (in this case the role given to the security men) should be easily identified ... They must not try to take over the functions of the police ...'

This is clearly not what happened on Tuesday, and I believe that we should be demanding a full and open enquiry into how this meeting was organised, and the role played by security employees.

Many of the residents in the overflow room were important community figures, such as, I understand, the former local MP and GLA candidate, Andrew Dismore, and many others. Most were so appalled by their shabby treatment they simply got up and went home: those that stayed were eventually given the opportunity to move to the half empty public gallery, with the approval of the senior police officer present. These lucky few included the head of a local voluntary body, senior union officials, a middle aged citzen journalist, and a sixth former whose responsible organisation of a recent rally has been praised by Neil Basu, the Borough Commander. Hardly a bunch of rioting anarchists intent on setting fire to Councillor Coleman's trousers, but a group of interested residents wanting to listen to a debate on the most sigificant budget cuts ever imposed on this borough. They found themselves physically obstructed from the doors of the council chamber, despite the permission given by the police. Why? Is that part of the democratic process, Mr Travers? I don't think so.

As Mr Pickles reminded us, Margaret Thatcher gave citizens the right to attend council meetings. Here in her old Town Hall last week those rights were treated with outright contempt by senior council officers and by a militia of unidentifiable private security men.

Mr Travers, I think for the fabulous salary we are giving you, we might be entitled to a rather more honest analysis of what happened last week. If you and your colleagues, and your political bosses, cannot organise a council meeting without using a private army of henchmen to physically prevent a group of ordinary residents from exercising their lawful right to witness the proceedings, then you may not consider the evening to have been a successful enactment of the democratic process. It was actually the result of bullying and intimidation and another example of the present authority's attempt to smother the voice of the people it is supposed to serve.

Since last week, much criticism has been raised over the council's use of this private security contractor. Investigation has shown that there are very serious and urgent questions to be answered by the authority in regard to this issue. Some of these questions have already been submitted and are being ignored, or evaded.

Residents may wish to ask themselves why that might be.

Watch this space.

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