Friday 15 April 2011

The Usual Suspects: or how to silence dissent in Broken Barnet

Committee Room Two at Hendon Town Hall is a small, oak panelled room, with nineteen thirties decor, a long abandoned fireplace, and a nice old Persian rug on the floor. Quite cosy and comforting, in many ways. Indeed, you could not ask for a more genial setting in which to have to sit, as I did last night, and watch a group of Tory councillors calmly set about kicking the shit out of the frail old body that passes for our constitution, here in Broken Barnet.

Witnessing this atrocity with me were fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, Barnet Bugler Daniel Hope, and veteran local campaigner David Howard. These gentlemen had all applied to speak to the Special Committee which was reviewing the constitution. Best to take advantage of these opportunities while they still can. Because after last night's meeting, and its outrageous agenda of proposed 'reforms', the ability of residents - and most of the 63 elected councillors in this borough - to take part in the democratic process of our council will in future become almost non existant.

Of course these reforms, we are told, are necessary in order to demonstrate a full commitment to the idea of 'localism'.

Localism? Are you off your f*cking head, Mr Pickles: in Barnet? We can't even manage to grasp the basic principles of democracy here, Eric, let alone get our heads around whatever freedoms and engagement you pretend you want to extend to local government.

About last night then. Who did we have taking part in this disgraceful act of anti-democratic constitutional 'reforms'? Let us name and shame the culprits, our Tory councillors:

Step forward Chairman and Mayor Anthony Finn, Vice Chair Joan Scannell, Deputy Leader Andrew Harper, Cabinet members Melvin Cohen and Richard Cornelius, and Tom Davey.

On the losing team: Labour Leader Alison Moore, Barry Rawlings, and Alan Schneiderman.

Standing on the outside edge, looking in, LibDem Councillor Lord Palmer.

From Corporate Governance (now happily minus the Democratic Service bit in their title, which was removed after a complaint from the Trading Standards authority) officers Jeff Lustig, Aysen Giritli and Jeremy Williams.

Ten councillors, three officers, and four residents, whom I am sure felt as I did, like political prisoners being forced to watch the execution of a fellow party member, as a lesson in why all resistence is pointless.

When the meeting started, surreally, the sound system kept being interrupted by the intervention of an invisible speaker discussing council matters, in a One Barnet corporate speech, presumably in another meeting. It added to the inescapable sense of all council meetings being stage managed and controlled by unseen forces. Mr Lustig commented, in a rather ghoulish way, and as a cold draught swept throught the committee room, that during Question Time at the council meeting on Tuesday night, the lights had kept switching off, for no apparent reason. I imagined this was the desperate act of some dead mayor clanking about the chamber in his spectral chains, trying to make a point about the Tory proposals to cut down these questions, but who knows?

Question time, last night, was a contentious area of discussion. Non Tories pointed out how there was no room for 'spontaneity' or real debate. The Tories looked puzzled: why would you want dangerous debate that you cannot control? Move on. Non Tories point out that most of the 63 councillors have no chance to contribute and that at the last meeting hardly anyone other than executive & Cabinet members spoke. Executive & Cabinet Tories looked puzzled: why would you want anyone else other than themselves allowed to speak at a council meeting? Daniel Hope tried to elaborate on this point. For some reason this upset Andrew Harper, and we had a bit of a handbags moment. (To be fair, Mr Harper looked rather uncomfortable through out the evening, and I did wonder if he is still having trouble with his motions, which might explain his tetchiness.)

'I hope,' said Andrew, icily, to Mr Hope, 'that you are not implying any incompetence by Cabinet Members.'

In case you had forgotten, Councillor Andrew Harper is Deputy Leader, a Cabinet member, has a portfolio of immense proportions, and is Very Important. Last night, though, he seemed a little shy at times, and seemed to be hiding from Mrs Angry's loving gaze, positioning himself carefully behind Alison Moore, the cheeky monkey.

Alison stated that she felt a suggestion to eliminate questions to Cabinet members was quite inappropriate, that it was important to hold them to account, that it was after all, all about public accountability. Andrew Harper stared at the ceiling. Councillor Cohen, who excelled hinself throughout the evening with his determination to force through every mean spirited Tory proposal, disagreed with Ms Moore. Surprise.

Lord Palmer tried in vain to persuade his Tory colleagues that spontaneity and the input of other councillors in council meetings was a healthy and neccessary part of the democratic process. Ha. He was wasting his time, of course. Libya has lessons to learn from us here, in Barnet, he eventually observed, shaking his head. He has been a councillor in this borough for twenty five years, and as the evening wore on, frankly, he looked more and more distressed. Who could blame him?

Alison Moore tried to stand her ground over the right to retain a choice of a single guaranteed opposition motion to go to council meetings: incredible that such a right should have to be fought for, and incredible that there was an argument over the basis for any right for the LibDems to put motions or indeed engage in debate at all, as a 'minority party'. You know - LibDems - that minority party in government?

Lord Palmer pointed out that many motions, as seen at Tuesday's meeting, actually had nothing to do with Barnet at all. Ahem. Andrew Harper, whose squatting motion, brought on by deep anxiety over Saif Gaddafi's property rights, caused so much disgust in the public gallery this week, suddenly looked slightly embarrassed, but then had the gall to agree that perhaps that might be the case.

Alison Moore and Alan Schneiderman's protests about the retrogressive and undemocratic steps the council was taking to shut down opportunities for any councillors other than Cabinet members, and the executive, to have any say in meetings fell on deaf ears, of course. They just do not care: they want to shut down such opportunities, and have no sense of shame.

Here was one of the most gobsmacking Tory comments of the evening, from Tom Davey. He observed that yes, these proposals might be seen as 'undemocratic', but at the last local election, people in Barnet had voted Conservative, so it was ok. Yes. So: whatever our Tory masters decide now, Councillor Davey thinks we must accept it, as they have a mandate for any policy they might come up with. Just think of the possibilties, and be afraid. Be very afraid.

Oh, hello: something they could agree on, not surprisingly - to retain the break in council meetings. This is when they all go off to stuff themselves from a lavish buffet spread laid on at our expense: good news then for Barry 'Take the Biscuit' Evangeli. Mr Evangeli is one of those councillors whose voice I have never heard, and now you know why: they are paid allowances to come and sit in these meetings, but are not asked to take part in any activity other than to stick their hand up and vote when told by their party whip. And enjoy the buffet.

Next came the issue of the number of council meetings. With all his usual charm and committment to the democratic process Councillor Melvin Cohen was determined to push through proposals to cut down on the number of these meetings. Really, I don't know why they bother with them at all: most council policy is decided by a cabal of Cabinet members, behind the scenes anyway. Let's shut them down, too.

Alison Moore again protested about another completely unneccessary further erosion of of debate.

Alan Schneiderman declared the whole evening's set of proposals to be an absolute farce.

What did the Mayor think? He said: 'I like council meetings. I think they're lovely.'

Yes, he thinks they are lovely. Well, your colleagues, Mr Finn, think they are a damned nuisance.

Cutting down on the number of meetings has no financial benefit, and will serve only to obstruct the speed and efficiency of administrative council business, but of course that is the whole point. Oh hang on though, I do see one possible financial benefit: your councillor allowances can be cut, now, can they, as you will be doing even less work on behalf of the local tax payers?

Councillor Cohen then moved to try to stop late amendments to motions being made. Why?

Alan Schneiderman demanded to know what problems such an option has ever caused. Well quite. But as opposition motions and amendments never succeed in Tory Barnet, Alan, maybe it isn't worth worrying about.

Delegated Powers Reports: ah good. Looking forward to this one. A DPR is that thing we saw rushed out this week, belatedly, to legitimise the temporary use of Blue 9 security instead of oh, who was it now, the name escapes me, er MetPro, that's it, you know, the unlicensed company Barnet has been using to film me and other residents, but whose appears not to have been sanctioned by contract or by, oh: DPR ...

Mr Reasonable gave a magnificent address to the meeting on this subject, pointing out the necessity for a transparent and open audit trail. He noted the huge lack of consistency as to when these authorisations are issued, which of course lays the council open to accusations of all sorts of naughtiness. Oh, he mentioned as an example the use of certain contracted senior officers and er what was it ... oh yes, MetPro .... (it was interesting to see how the Tory councillors all fall silent, and stare at their shoes, whenever this subject is mentioned).

Unbelievably, yet again there were no questions from the councillors. Why should they bother?

A discussion about committees dealing with union consultation involved yet another senior officer working for Barnet on a contract. She sought to gloss over the fact that the unions had actually asked for a deferrment of the discussion. Again: why should their objections matter?

Ah, now we moved on to the debate about Residents' Forums and Area sub committees. (NB please note Mr Williams, the plural of forum is not foras, and committee is a singular noun. Are standards slipping since some recent staff departures?) The proposed changes will amalgamate the two bodies, starting at 6pm when most people cannot attend, and strictly outlining the subjects that residents may raise, and the many they now cannot, and will also prevent the discussion of matters already raised in the previous six months. Marvellous.

Mr Reasonable spoke again. He thought the objectives of these bodies, ie influence, localism and cost effectiveness would hardly be reached by the proposed changes. He noted the adversarial system of the Forums/Fora. He explained that in these meetings, 'we ask questions and you try to avoid answering them.' Mrs Angry laughed rather too loudly at this point and Mr Lustig gave her a very disapproving look.

Mr Reasonable suggested in his gentle way that it was perhaps necessary to try to rebuild a relationship of trust and mutual respect between the council and residents.

The Tory councillors looked on with barely veiled hostility.

Where, he continued, is your committment to listening to what people actually want to say?

The same Tory councillors still looked on, wondering why anyone would care what residents really wanted to say.

Mr R pointed out that the new Tory proposals will have the effect of closing the the Forums. Which of course is the whole point, as we know. He asked if instead they might like to use the Forums to engage with the local community, to listen. He pointed out issues which residents have recently raised and have been ignored, such as the strong resentment against the huge parking charge rises. Better explanation, some dialogue, might have led to less objection, and better understanding. We are adults, and want to have an adult conversation.

Andrew Harper did not agree with Mr Reasonable. None of the Tories can understand the concept of an adult relationship with their electors, in fact. It's a one way street with them. They have dysfunctional relationships within their own party, with an abusive relationship of power, a domination of the few over the rest, and of course they don't believe in committing to an intimate and sustaining partnership with residents. They are in charge, and we do as we are told. We voted for them. Or put it another way: we let these con artists in the front door, and now they can knock us about and steal our valuables, and no one can stop them.

David Howard spoke next. He said he was concerned for the future of democracy in our borough. He noted that the very limited research (two focus groups of sixteen people) was based on residents who had never attended a Forum. He noted that at the Forums, the chairing is awful, councillors try to say as little as possible, that all important decisions had already been made, all that we see is defensive stonewalling, to cover up the actions of councillors and council officers. He urged that the matter should be referred back and the opinons sought of people who actually have experience of the Forums.

Tory Richard Cornelius, who rarely opens his mouth without making some ineffably silly comment, asked if, as the report suggested, the real problem with the Forums is ahem, wait for it: 'The Usual Suspects' ...

I believe, citizens, he was referring to the implication in this report that some residents, officially labelled, in fact 'the usual suspects' ie such as myself, are guilty of the outrageous crime of asking awkward questions at these Forums.

Mrs Angry again laughed too loudly at this point. Andrew Harper came out from the rear of Alison Moore and stared malevolently at Mrs Angry, nodding gravely at her in a significant manner. Mr Harper sometimes attends our local Forum and has witnessed one or two of Mrs Angry's questions. (A naughty member of staff who has had to attend these Forums this week told Mrs Angry how they have often had to pinch themselves in order not to laugh or cheer when she raises these sorts of questions, rather amusingly. Not Mr Lustig, btw).

Let me just run through just a few of the issues I've raised at these meetings: the councillors' scandalous allowance increases, the failure to set up, as promised, a system of performance appraisal for councillors, the waste of our money on ludicrous expenses such as conferences in luxury hotels, voice training for senior officers, etc, oh yes, and the use of MetPro. All very challenging questions, and all perfectly valid. Asking such questions does not create a monopoly of the meeting's agenda, but it does cause political embarrassment, well deserved, for the Tory administration. I could not give a monkey's about that: these are serious issues of public concern, and this usual suspect will continue to raise such matters whenever she think it is appropriate. So there.

I didn't stay to watch the final death throes of the constitution, and left as they were still engrossed in pointless discussions about a foregone conclusion. And as I left, I suddenly found myself thinking about that film by Bunuel, the 'Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie', where a group of spoilt, affluent people are kept at a dinner party, finding themselves unable to leave the room, through no other reason, in fact, than a belief that they are unable to leave the room.

The Tory councillors in our borough, I think, have invented exactly the same conundrum for themselves, locked into a room by their own volition. All they have to do is decide to leave, and walk through the door. They don't have to accept the limitations that their own leadership is pushing onto them: if they stood up and opposed the dictators who are running the party, they would defeat them - all it takes is some courage and a sense of duty. Unfortunately it seems that most of the Tory councillors in Barnet have neither courage nor conscience, let alone a sense of accountability to their constituents. And until they decide to walk out of the room, we are stuck right there with them.

All the same,Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: you can shut down the Forums, and you can stop the majority of councillors from raising issues you want to avoid debating, or from speaking on behalf of their own constituents in a reduced number of council meetings, but there is one thing you cannot do, and that is to stop me or anyone else from watching what you do and holding you to account.

So this is Mrs Angry, then, holding you to account. Just one of the usual suspects, of course.


baarnett said...

"I hope," said Andrew, icily, to Mr Hope, "that you are not implying any incompetence by Cabinet Members."

That's another classic quote, Mrs A.

Let's remind ourselves of Lynne Hillan's previous comment at full council:
"You won't teach ME anything about incompetence."

Anonymous said...

No need to worry yourself Mrs. Angry - this isn't silencing dissent - it is really akin to being able to seduce a fine young filly or two without the need to waffle incessantly beforehand. So instead of endless waffle by the Labour Party and that other group whose name escapes me, we will be free to pass our motions onto the obedient people of Barnet unhindered!

Mrs Angry said...

I think you might be a bit of a bounder, Cllr Hart.ispence. But you are remarkably articulate for a councillor: a scholar, if not a gentleman - a student of linguistics, perhaps?

Jaybird said...

So let me get this right. If the Council accept this, the new Constitution will say:
1. Any resident in a Lib Dem ward has no right to have their views represented because the right of Lib Dem councillors to speak on any motion at all will be at the discretion of the Mayor;
2. There will be a reduced right of scrutiny Cabinet decisions;
3.Council meetings will be reduced to 7 a year, even though that reduces debate, effectiveness and responsiveness of Council. Some decisions require Council approval and can only be reached after consultation. Surely this builds in unnecessary delays and will mean some issues will be forced to go to consultation before proper scrutiny and thought can be given by officers;
4. There may be reduced accountability of delegated powers;
5. Residents' Forums will only be open to local residents, not to members of organisations who advocate on behalf of local residents, like Barnet Carers or sports club organisers.
6. Residents will only be allowed to ask questions on limited issues, which will not include the constitution, allowances for councillors, concerns of small businesses, adult or children's social services, education or free schools, licencing including late night licences or licences for lap dancing clubs, libraries, anti-social behaviour (unless it amounts to street crime)or housing?

I trust, given the wide scope of these changes, the council has performed an equalities impact assessment on these proposals.

I hope people realise that lobbying their local councillors mean that these proposals could still be blocked.

Civil liberties, once lost, are very difficult to regain.

Anonymous said...

My dear girl, you are indeed most astute. I am perhaps a sucker for good language and have spent many years perfecting the art of cunning linguistics to the delight it has to be said, of many.

Mrs Angry said...

Jaybird: I think you have summed up the situation perfectly. It is an absolutely, breath takingly overt assault on the local democractic process.

In regard to the LibDem's right to submit motions to council etc, there was some mention of a 'gentlemen's agreement' in which traditionally they were allowed a certain number of motions: if you believe that there are any gentlemen in the Tory Cabinet, you might retain some hope that such benevolence may continue to be extended in the future. Otherwise, everything you have suggested appears to be the direction in which we are heading, and I cannot tell you how disgusted I was to sit through this meeting and witness the behaviour of the Tory councillors who agreed to all this.

Mrs Angry said...

... and Cllr Hartispence, you silver tongued fox: you are a very naughty man.

baarnett said...

Is Lynne 'Back Among Us', after her absence on Tuesday?

Mrs Angry said...

who knows, baarnett, because of course, unfortunately, our beloved councillors are not subject to any performance appraisal or accountability as to the number of hours they dedicate to the 'responsibilities' for which they are paid generous allowances.

Mrs Angry said...

Ahem, rereading this in December 2012, I feel obliged to point out that according to clever clogs Cllr Jack Cohen, the Bunuel film was in fact 'Le Chien Andalou' ...