Thursday 30 June 2011

Mr Pickles puts it about a bit

Eric Pickles: Street Fighting Man

If someone had told me a couple of years ago that I would be reading articles in Public Finance Journal - and finding them interesting, God help me - I would not have believed it. But there you go, we live in an age of wonders ... in fact, if you are reading this, Miss Bender, my old maths teacher, who spent years lecturing the young Mrs Angry about her disruptive behaviour in class and the dreadful dangers of leaving school without even a rudimentary grasp of the basic skills of numeracy: well, ok, you may have had a point. But look what's happened now: Mrs Angry, armchair auditor. Ha. See?

So anyway: now that I am a fully qualified accountant and financial advisor to the public sector, I do like to keep abreast of developments, and was browsing the latest articles in Public Finance online when, hello: a piece by deputy editor Judy Hirst caught my eye,

"Easy councils. Remember them? They were meant to be the no-frills, low-budget authorities that supplied only the most residual services – and outsourced everything that wasn’t nailed down.Love them or hate them, these outriders for a government with a privatising mission certainly sounded radical. One year on though, it all looks anything but easy.

Barnet – one of the most gung-ho of outsourcing councils – is bogged down in embarrassing disputes about its procurement procedures.

Suffolk has put its ‘virtual’ council plans on hold (experts say they would not make the savings intended). A survey by Unison reveals that more than half of town halls are taking outsourced services back in-house."

Judy Hirst describes the direction from the coalition government as performing a screeching hand break turn'. She explains:

"In the wake of the NHS ‘pause’ – and the debacle over care-home provider Southern Cross – private provision of public services has come under sustained scrutiny.

Barnet’s travails show some of the pitfalls of private contracting – and the perils of inadequate audit. Relying on a US-style ‘small state’ model for local government is starting to look less attractive. The government has told the CBI there will be no ‘wholesale outsourcing’ of services."

Himself, Mr Pickles, was interviewed for Public Finance this week: see Lucy Phillips' article:

This piece dares to raise the issue of Uncle Eric's Localism bill being criticised by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, and the 142 powers that the bill wishes to endow on the Secretary himself, in order to er push power 'outwards, downwards, as far as possible' - what? Something wrong there, Eric, isn't there? Thought you wanted our elected representatives to take over, acting in our best interests, as they do so demonstrably well, here in Broken Barnet? Ah, but even Eric realises he has to back peddle a bit now.

Mr Pickles says he knows he has been very hard on local authorities, but only in the context of a 'loving relationship' , and now, he says, (watch out, ladies): ''I suppose I'm going to start putting more love about ...'

Is this why today he is quoted as declaring he was abolishing the Audit Commission, because he did not want to become their 'tool'? Eric has other plans, as we now know.

London Government Association Labour leader David Sparks sees him in a different light altogether, however, and fails to be seduced by his charms . He describes him as 'more street fighter than statesman', in fact.

Mr Pickles also tries in this interview to wow us with his literary knowledge, and cheekily refers us to the work of Orwell's Animal Farm in order to criticise what he sees as too much of a similarity between councillors and senior council officers. True, both animals, as found in Broken Barnet, are, like the inhabitants of Orwell's farm, natural born troughers, but I disagree that they speak the same language and have the same cultural attitudes, at least not in this borough. There are a few hardline Cabinet members who are insistent on pushing through their idiotic One Barnet plans, and are on the same wavelength as the senior management team, the rest of the dopes don't know what time of day it is, and don't care as long as they get their allowances, a free buffet, and a turn at dressing up as the Mayor of Toy Town.

In this interview, Pickles declares: 'The vibrancy of local government is not the local management of services, it's democratic control of those services ...'

Aha. Democratic control. So we are back to the same question: how does Eric define democratic control?

Here in Barnet, the Tory administration has done everything it can to wrest the democratic process further and further away from the electors it is supposed to represent. The councillors tried to vote themselves a whopping pay rise, took a hatchet to the local constitution in order to prevent the expression of criticism by the opposition councillors and residents in regard to its policies and actions, and defied Pickles own new guidelines on allowing citizen journalists to film and tweet reports of council meetings. Add to that list the stinking mess that is MetPro, and the refusal properly to investigate all the murky background which led to the debacle. Where is the democratic process at work? Where is accountability to the local community?

All of these issues have been raised with Pickles by residents of Barnet - what has he done about it? F*ck all, that's what. His Pontius Pilate attitude is that such things are the business of the local authority, and nothing to do with him. The flaw in his view of localism is that there is no mechanism through which the electorate can influence any decisions made by their representatives, once they are in power.

Here in our borough we are told by Councillor Tom Davey that any decision his party makes in power has been given a mandate simply because they were elected last May: the fact that their manifesto contained none of the outrageous changes they have made is apparently irrelevant. Of course Eric Pickles does not actually believe that the residents of any local authority's area should be further empowered, and more directly involved in government: he wants more power to be given to Tom Davey, and Brian Coleman, and all those Tory councillors who know better than me, or you, and can be trusted to look after us, in their benign, paternal way, in a retro feudal system of social responsibility.

Here's some advice for the pugnacious Mr Pickles:

Hey! think the time is right for a palace revolution
But where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Well, then what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n roll band
Cause in sleepy london town
There's no place for a street fighting man ...

Looks like compromise solution might be in order, after all, Eric, do you think?

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Burying the bodies in Broken Barnet

News has just reached Mrs Angry of an interesting development in the long running MetPro saga. According to the agenda of tomorrow's council General Functions Committee, our councillors will be considering a proposal to get rid of no less than nine officer posts in the Corporate Procurement team, as well as six others in the related Information Services team.

The proposed redundancies will be handed out by Mr Craig Cooper, Commercial Director, salary £132,480 per annum.. You remember Craig Cooper? Hiding behind Andrew Travers, on the left hand side of the MetPro audit committee meeting, as shown in Mrs Angry's few minutes of fame on youtube. Freeze frame: that's him, staring at the table.

You may recall that it was the spectacular failure of the council's procurement systems that allowed the five year 'arrangement' with MetPro to continue without the benefit of any tender process, or contract, or job specification, or supervision, or properly authorised payments. And as we were told by Lord Palmer's report, MetPro clearly was only one example, the tip of the iceberg. The ship may have sunk as a result of disastrous navigation, but it is the ordinary ratings who are being punished, instead of the Captain and his senior officers.

If any individual employee is guilty of say, fraudulent activities or misconduct, or failing to perform his or her duties, then he or she should be investigated, or disciplined, and the issue properly resolved.

But that is not how they do things in Broken Barnet. In Broken Barnet, senior officers never leave in disgrace, they are paid off and slip out of the back door. Ordinary officers are sacked or are made redundant, as a sacrifical offering to the corporate Gods.

Mrs Angry particularly enjoyed reading the passage of the sacred text, the Corporate Plan, which accompanies this report into the committee meeting. It reminds the faithful:


3.1 The three priority outcomes set out in the 2011/2014 Corporate Plan are:
  • better services with less money;
  • sharing opportunities, sharing responsibilities; and
  • a successful London suburb.
The overarching aim of the One Barnet programme is:
  • to become a citizen centred organisation
3.2 The Council has committed to place the citizen at the heart of services and to
drive for relentless efficiency in everything it does. In relation to our Commercial
Services, this means transforming the way we deliver services to get the best
from our commercial relationships and achieve more efficient and effective use
of Council resources.


4.1 Risk: Failure to take action as set out in this report would impact the Council’s
ability to deliver against its corporate and One Barnet priorities, to address
known weaknesses in its support services through successful delivery of the
Procurement and IS transformation plans and would have significant financial
consequences for the Council.

So our beloved council, holding the citizen at the heart of services - well wherever the heart would be, if our council had one - with relentless efficiency has decided that in order to improve the management of procurement, and deal with, ahem - 'known weaknesses' - the answer is to get rid of a load of ordinary officers and expect the lucky few who survive the cull to do all the work the council didn't bother to do before. Oh: before procurement is handed over to an outsourced company, of course. Marvellous.

And we can only hope that the money saved will be used to create some new, much needed One Barnet friendly posts elsewhere, perhaps in the Insight team, or assistant to the head of Transparency? After all, this council may not be able to run anything with any efficiency, relentless or otherwise, but if they keep telling us often enough that they can, we might start to believe it, mightn't we?

Monday 27 June 2011

Breaking: Andrew Dismore demands action on MetPro

Mrs Angry has just received the following press release from Andrew Dismore, the local Labour candidate for next year's GLA elections.

Andrew Dismore, Labour candidate for the London Assembly for Barnet and Camden, has today submitted to Barnet Council’s District Auditor a request that the auditor conducts a section 8 public interest inquiry into the Council’s contracting arrangements, both generally and with specific reference to the MetPro scandal ( copy reference to auditor attached)

Mr Dismore said:

“Like most Barnet taxpayers and residents, I have been following with growing alarm the revelations concerning both MetPro and the underlying lack of proper contracting procedures more generally that the scandal has identified.

Having been at the Council meeting when the Robocop style of security used by MetPro at the request of the Council first came under criticism, the consequent investigations have revealed a catalogue of catastrophic failures by Barnet Council and its leadership.

This poor contracting and lack of financial control is not a one off, as the Iceland investment fiasco and cost overruns of the Aerodrome Rd bridge confirm.

What is especially worrying, is that the internal audit found there were inadequate systems to ensure the same thing did not happen again. The “One Council” initiative will create dozens of opportunities for more to go wrong too, with consequent mammoth losses to Barnet’s long suffering tax payers, if immediate corrective action is not taken.

I therefore believe it is vital that the external district auditor now uses his powers to conduct a full public interest inquiry into Barnet Council’s contract procedures and I have today written to the auditor, seeking such an intervention on his part”.


As a Barnet Council council tax payer I request Barnet Council’s district auditor to conduct a public interest inquiry into the Council’s procurement processes, with particular reference to the “contract” with MetPro.

After problems at a recent council meeting due to heavy handed security arrangements, local people and journalists stated an investigation into this security company. These investigations revealed major failings both in the company and in the Council’s procurement processes.

There has now been an internal audit of these arrangements, which has found, in summary, that:

  • There were no checks that MetPro was licensed with the Security Industry Authority
  • There were no checks that MetPro staff had undergone Criminal Records Bureau checks
  • There were no checks on MetPro’s insurance and financial status
  • The council had not followed basic contract procedure rules
  • There is no complete register of all corporate contracts
  • Auditors could give no assurance that the same thing wouldn’t happen again

For the full internal audit report see:

Local news coverage of the issue includes:

External audit is an essential element in the process of accountability for public money and makes an important contribution to the stewardship of public resources and the corporate governance of public services.

Under Section 8 of the Audit Commission Act 1998, the appointed auditor is required to consider whether to issue a report in the public interest on any significant matter coming to his or her notice in the course of an audit, to bring it to the notice of the audited body and the public.

I would ask that you now consider a public interest investigation under S8, not just into the issue of MetPro, but into the wider issues this case has identified, concerning failings in the Council’s contracting systems, controls and recording mechanisms. Without urgent reform, there is a present risk of repeat in relation to contract letting and indeed there may already be as yet unidentified similar problems with other council contracts.

I await to hear from you.

Andrew Dismore

Barnet Council Tax payer.

Mrs Angry is relieved to see at least one local politician taking action to demand a full investigation into the extremely serious issues that the MetPro scandal has raised. The whole affair has been marked by a shameful silence from all three of our local Tory MPs. Theresa Villiers, Matthew Offord and Mike Freer have all ignored this appalling mess. Why? What a gutless bunch they are.

In the case of Matthew Offord and Mike Freer, of course, both MPs are closely associated with the Tory administration which first employed this illegally operating company. Offord was a Cabinet member and Freer was Leader.

The current Tory administration of Broken Barnet is so fearful of the toxic qualities of the MetPro issue that it has retreated into a state of absolute denial, with councillors told to make no comment, and the only official statement an insultingly dismissive remark from Councillor Daniel Thomas, agreeing only that contract arrangements needed tightening up. Pathetic. We have seen no response from Richard Cornelius, no official statement, no apologies. This is a shabby way to start as Leader, and he ought to be ashamed of himself.

We have also heard absolutely nothing whatsoever from someone who normally has no problem in expressing his opinion on any given subject under the sun: yes, our current London Assembley member, and local Cabinet member, councillor Brian Coleman. You might think that Mr Coleman might like to express some interest in this stinking issue, and tell us what he thinks for example, of the failures in safeguarding which have exposed children and vulnerable people in his constituency to risk from unchecked employees, or what he thinks of the astounding level of financial incompetence Lord Palmer's audit report has revealed. You might also want to ask him how he feels about this company, in its latest incarnation, still operating in his Totteridge ward, despite the data protection breaches which are the subject of investigation by the Information Commissioner.

I suppose the Tories imagine that by sticking their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes and humming very loudly, all this unpleasantness will somehow melt away, and all will be forgotten.

How wrong can you be?

In Broken Barnet, if you are a Tory, you can be very, very wrong indeed, can't you, citizens?

Saturday 25 June 2011

Swinging in the wrong direction -the Big Society and localism in Broken Barnet

Tory councillor Andrew Harper, seen right, swinging, (but in the wrong direction - see below) is, as I am sure you will know by now, a man with an enormous portfolio - he is not just the representative for the downtrodden masses of Hampstead Garden Suburb, but also serves as Cabinet member for Education, Children and Families, and, most importantly, still clinging to the wreckage as deputy Leader of Barnet Council.

Sadly, Andrew failed in his bid to become Leader this month, due in no small part, perhaps, to an excess of enthusiasm, and running a campaign that peaked rather too soon: the day after the resignation of ailing former leader Lynne Hillan, in fact.

Andrew has not allowed this setback to deter him from all political ambition, however, and only recently he addressed the Tory Reform conference with a wonderfully stupid speech, 'The Big Society in Barnet', happily published on the Conservative Home website for our further edification.

Mrs Angry thought it would be useful to share with you some of the highlights of this speech, and Andrew's thoughts on localism, and the Big Society.

Andrew tells us: 'In Barnet, we have been talking for some time about how we open up our services to greater localism, greater involvement ...'

Got that: greater localism, greater involvement ... Sounds good, doesn't it?

Oh, but what do we mean, here in Broken Barnet, when we use the word localism?

Please do not jump to the wrong conclusion. You may be under the misapprehension that the purpose of localism is to enable local communities to have easier access to the democratic process. This is misguided.

As Eric Pickles has stated, the move to localism will require the cutting of red tape, and the severance of 'the leash' of central government. It is, according to Eric, about 'pushing power outwards, downwards as far as possible' but not in the direction of the communities so much as their elected representatives, 'to act in their residents' best interests'.

Unfortunately, as we know only too well here in our beloved borough, elected representatives assume the mantle of responsibility for their residents' best interests without bothering to consult them and gain their approval for the course of action they pursue.

The limited agenda that is put forward at the time of election fails to give any real indication of the policies that will be enacted once in power, and once in power, the same elected representatives truly are a law unto themselves.

Here in Barnet, for example, almost the first act of our greedy little Tory councillors was to try to sneak in a proposal to increase their own pay, despite the savage budget of cutbacks in frontline services they gleefully informed their residents were on the way, and the number of job losses planned for council staff.

Another item which failed to make it into the election propaganda was the plan to take a hatchet to the council constitution, cutting off the rights of opposition councillors to engage in debate over council policy, and preventing residents from raising issues of their choice at the local forums.

Mrs Angry was present at the special committee where these wicked proposals were voted through by the Tory majority, and heard Councillor Tom Davey agree that such a move might be undemocratic, but as the voters of Barnet had elected into them into office, anything, absolutely anything that they decided to do now was with their approval.

Er, yeah. The furious reaction of residents at this week's newly censored forums shows only too well just how much they approved of the council's contempt for their opinions, and exactly what they thought of the Barnet Tories' demonstration of localism in action.

As for the Big Society, well, according to Mr Harper:

'we feel the balance of social responsibilty has swung too far in the direction of the state - many of us in Barnet quote a headline in one of our local papers about changes in support for residents in sheltered housing :('changes in support' meaning callously removing the wardens) - "The neighbours forced to care", it read. The article went on to say that outraged residents complained that they were now checking on their elderly neighbours each day to make sure they were OK. What can I say but "Good". I think it is worrying that our society has ever felt that caring can simply be a fiscal action - and that it can be delegated in its entirety to the state.'

Look at the attitude this extract inadvertently betrays: 'outraged' residents having to be forced by the council to care for their neighbours. The Big Society must take over much of the responsibilty for caring: and of course not because of the savings to be had in getting rid of luxuries like sheltered housing wardens, no, no: because it is morally incumbant on people to step in and provide such services on a voluntary basis.

Hmm. Well, I'd like to think that Mr Harper is always rushing up and down the leafy lanes of Hampstead Garden Suburb, delivering home cooked meals for elderly neighbours, doing their laundry, and giving them blanket baths. Perhaps he does. He certainly worries a good deal about some of his neighbours, whose empty multi million pound properties are at risk from the plague of squatting he claims is blighting our lives. Mr and Mrs Saif Gaddafi, of Winnington Road, for example.

Alright. Let me introduce you to Mrs Angry's neighbours ... (no, not the ones from hell, now safely removed, no thanks to Andrew Harper). Next door lives eighty five year old Padraig, and his middle aged son Kieran. They are like an Irish version of Steptoe and son: Padraig is a naughty, charming, blue eyed old devil who somehow always triumphs over the romantic ambitions of his son, who rages against the old man's intransigence and mischief, but cares for him, as well as working full time, with great patience and devotion.

Padraig came from Sligo, just after the war, and settled here, working as an engineer on the railway for more than forty years. He came from the same part of Sligo, in fact, as some of Mrs Angry's distant family, from a village at the foot of the Ox Mountains, a place to leave and never come back to. Visiting the village, a couple of years back, Mrs Angry teasingly told Padraig that she saw a farmer drive past on a tractor, who looked just like him. He was of course, said Mrs Angry, a very handsome farmer. 'Ah. That would be my cousin Sean,' said Padraig, nodding, not batting an eyelid.

He has a rich and colourful vocabulary, of eye watering rudeness, and an interesting, if somewhat intolerant world view, with a particular contempt, for example, for the indulgences of celebrity culture. I can't tell you, for example, which politician he describes as 'nothing but a big bag of shite with a piece of string tied in the middle', or the botoxed celeb he claims has had, oh dear, 'more pricks in her than a dartboard' ... He once appeared at Mrs Angry's door, scarlet faced, holding up a copy of The Sun, and jabbing at a particularly silly photo of Elton John. 'Have you,' he spat, incoherently, 'EVER seen the feckin' like?' 'You are a wicked old man', said Mrs Angry, trying not to laugh, as he hobbled home, beside himself with rage.

Padraig's wife Rosie died a few years ago, in a Barnet nursing home, suffering from dementia, around the same time as Mrs Angry's father. And as in the experience of Mrs Angry's father, Rosie's treatment was less than caring. She was found to have suffered a broken arm in unexplained circumstances, deteriorated quickly, and died. He visits her grave every day, to tell her what mischief he has been up to, and every night he still lights a lantern and leaves it at the end of the garden for her, so that she will remember where her home is, and where he is.

Both Rosie and now Padraig have relied heavily on support for their needs, their health. Padraig spent much of last year in hospital having a series of operations, and has become much frailer as a result, and less independent. He is as obstinate as an old mountain goat, and refuses to acknowledge his declining strength, of course.

At this time of year, he will often appear at the door with a bunch of roughly cut, beautiful, scented red roses from his garden, which he shoves in your hands, without speaking, and usually scuttles off before you can catch him and give him the big hug he deserves. He used to give the flowers to Rosie, I suppose. Sometimes he puts them in a Tesco carrier bag and throws them over the fence, or lays them on the recycyling box for you to find when you get home: and to Mrs Angry, no romantic gesture could be more lovely. (Sadly, this is about as good as romance gets, in her experience) ...

The last time he did this, she called round to say thank you. He was in a tetchy mood, having just read the paper. The conversation moved to politics, and the Coalition government. What did he think about the way things were going? Uh oh. His face contorted with fury. He jumped up and grabbed Mrs Angry's arm, leaving a bruise that took a week to fade away.

'I tell you what ... I tell you what, boy ... (he calls everyone boy) and excuse my language ( he always says this, before launching into the most appalling, foul mouthed rant, so caustic it could strip paint at a distance of twenty yards) them f*cking b*stards are all a bunch of f*cking a*seholes, and I don't mind telling you that each and every one of the lying, f*cking sh*ts is an absolute f*cking c**t - if you will please forgive me for sayin' so ...'

I forgive you, Padraig.

'I worked for over forty years, and never once had I a day off sick, and how much tax did I pay, and what now, after all that? What good has it done me? Or Rosie, when she needed it? They don't want to keep me alive, do they? I'm costing them too much ...'

'Yes,' says Kieran. 'You've outstayed your welcome. Look at all these pills you have to take to keep you going, all the operations, and trips to the doctor - an absolute bloody fortune, David Cameron's not going to keep paying out for that, mate ...'

For a fleeting moment Padraig's eyes betray a fear that there is more than an element of truth in what he is saying. He knows how bad things were when Rosie was at the end of her life, and he knows that things now are about to get a whole lot worse.

'Dig a hole and throw me in it,' says Padraig.

'Give me a f*cking spade, and I'll start digging, then, ' says Kieran.

Mrs Angry decided at this point to make a tactful exit, before the old man was in need of hospitalisation again.

Kieran is at work all day, and travels away from home from time to time. When he is not around, do we keep an eye on Padraig, and make sure he is ok? Of course we do. Do we have to be told by Andrew Harper to do this, as our duty on behalf of the Big Society? We do not.

Doesn't it tell you all you need to know about our heartless, selfish Tory councillors, here in Broken Barnet, that they assume that the residents they represent think 'that caring can simply be a fiscal action'? They are so engrossed in their own dysfunctional, selfish world views that they cannot appreciate how the majority of ordinary people live, as part of a community, and relying on relationships that sustain each other. They reduce everything to monetary worth: in short, they know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. This is the real face of the Big Society, especially here: an excuse to cut costs, and to hand lucrative business over to the private sector, no questions asked - and localism?

Oh please.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Telling it like it is: A Residents' Forum bites back

Mrs Angry has just returned from the very first meeting of the new Finchley And Golders Green residents' forum.

What an evening of entertainment it turned out to be.

Mrs Angry is still wiping away the traces of her smudged mascara, caused by laughing so helplessly as the meeting descended into chaos, with scenes of seething discontent from the mutinous residents, provoked by a ludicrous demonstration of iron fisted, One Barnet dictatorship by the new Chairman, a po faced antipodean councillor by the name of Reuben Thompstone.

This Forum was the first to be played by the new rules of engagement laid down by our Tory councillors in the recent constitutional 'reforms' which have effectively killed any process by which political issues can be debated by residents - or even opposition councillors - in what passes for the democratic process here in Broken Barnet.

According to the new rules, only a very limited range of issues may be discussed at any resident forum, and no questions may be raised at the meeting unless previously approved. If a matter is discussed, no resident may raise the issue for another six months. And to discourage attendance at the Forums, the already early starting time of 6.30pm has been moved to 6pm, thereby preventing workers and parents with young children from being able to take part.

When we arrived at the hall, we were given a sheaf of papers listing exactly what we, the residents, may or may not speak about at our meeting. In brief, we may not mention anything other than 'local, street based issues' - things like trees, refuse, pavements. We may not raise any matter relating to planning, licensing - fair enough, there are other meetings for those - ah and 'policy'. No matter of 'policy' can be alluded to - no political debate, no consultation in order to formulate policy. If an issue of concern that fits the narrow limitation of approved subjects happens to touch on the sacred ground of policy, it will be quarantined, and removed, like a virus on your pc. Ideas, and thoughts, and above all dissent: these are dangerous things in Broken Barnet, and must be controlled.

Councillor Thompstone and his willing accomplice, the complaisant Councillor Graham Olds, sat at a table with stern composure as we took our places. The chairman read out a summary of the new rules, and perhaps it was his accent, but the manner of his addressing the twenty or so residents reminded Mrs Angry of the governor of Botany Bay greeting the latest batch of convicts to arrive on the transport ships from England.

The residents were stunned into silence and Councillor Thompstone launched into the agenda, with the first item, a petition to save Hampstead Garden Suburb Library, with 422 e signatures and 2,125 in hard copy. For procedural reasons which were unclear, this was not being debated, and the proposer was not present, and so the Chair wanted to move on immediately.

A very sweet, very elderly lady, let's call her Mrs Green, who always attends these Forums, interrupted at this point. What are you saying ... exactly? she asked, in her wavering, but determined manner.

The unsmiling chairman replied tersely: Madam, you are not to interrupt ...

She persisted. But I don't understand ... this is not how we are used to doing things ... all I've heard from you is a lot of 'no s' to everything, and what we are not allowed to do ... but you, what are you going to do?

Mr Thompstone's face darkened. He was not happy. He moved on to the next item, a petition to save North Finchley library, 790 signatures. Again, the proposer was not present, and the Chair would have moved on again, but for a mother in the audience who objected to his haste and wanted to speak. She pointed out that anyone with young children would find it very hard to get to the Forum meeting at such an awkward time, and spoke about the library as a parent and local resident, and referred to the cuts in sure start facilities. No comment. We were then rushed on to the next issue, a plea to retain a lollipop team at a school, oops: treading on dangerous policy ground, so on we go and - Mrs Angry had had enough.

Can I just point out, she began ...

No, you cannot. You must not interrupt, said the councillor.

Mrs Angry ignored him ... That it is only 6.15, and you are already on item 5. This is ridiculous, there is no debate at all ...

Labour leader Alison Moore was in the audience and reminded the Chair that when the forums had first been introduced the intention was to listen to residents, and to the whole range of their opinions. Thompstone was not going to tolerate such wishywashy pandering to the populace, however. He informed us in no uncertain terms that the new forum rules had been decided by a council committee, and that was that.

Oh dear. This did not go down awfully well. Other residents raised their objections to the new format of the forum, and demanded to know what exactly they could discuss, and why must they have restrictions imposed on them. The chair tried to retain control by a humourless display of authoritarianism, silencing people and forbidding them to speak out of turn, which of course exacerbated the situation. By now, Thompstone's chin was jutting forward in a grimly determined manner, and he was becoming rather red in the face as he tried to hold back the tide of rebellion. His unfortunate tendency to speak to any resident as if he or she were some sort of impertinent pupil did nothing to improve relations.

Local resident and activist Julian Silverman had distributed a sheet amongst the residents and now stood to ask that the forum suspend the new regulations to allow as an emergency question about, ha: MetPro, safguarding, possible fraud, and the risks of proceeding with the One Barnet outsourcing programme with a council whose procurement processes have been revealed by the MetPro inquiry to totally out of control.

Reuben Thompstone refused to consider this.

Another resident proposed that we take a vote to see how many people wanted to consider the item, and of course almost everyone put up their hands. Democracy in action: and after all, it is our forum - but this holds no sway with the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, and he simply ignored the wishes of the meeting.

Could you please explain, asked Mrs Angry, how the format of this new forum is compatible with the concept of localism, and empowering the community, when in fact the effect of the new rules is to completely stifle any meaningful debate that residents might want to have?

Councillor Thompstone glared at Mrs Angry and simply refused to discuss her point. Which is a great shame, isn't it?

A gentleman from Hampstead Garden Suburb had a long and complex question about a traffic issue caused by a local school. He was at times interrupted by the Chair: have you finished? Is that your question? All said in a particularly charmless, high handed way. The lack of humility, and courtesy, that Tory councillors in our borough show towards their electors, speaks volumes about their attitude to their own positions, of course. We elect them, we pay their allowances, but we must do as they say, and abide by the rules that they set to facilitate their governance of us.

A resident called Mr B stood up to speak about his question, which sounded rather dull, frankly, a problem of blocked access in a cul de sac. But how wrong can you be? I will have to paraphrase as much as I can remember, because I was laughing too much to take full notes.

Mr B stood at the front, his back to the councillors and council officers, and let forth, slowly building, in a performance surely worthy of Olivier or Gielgud, delivering to the assembled residents of Broken Barnet a monologue of sheer brilliance, spitting with fury, and dripping with splenetic disdain. It started calmly enough with road signs, and emergency services, painted lines and warning notices, bollards, and stanchions, and ended up with cry God for Harry, England, & St George, via a searing indictment of the utter contempt shown by the councillors for their voters: and as for that fool, councillor Brian Coleman, who had the nerve to inform him categorically that he would not be able to have any lines painted because the paint would cost thousands of pounds (maybe he was thinking of asking Damien Hirst to tender for it, suggested a sniggering resident at the back) ... who on earth did he think he was, who was he? Nothing but an arrogant popinjay ... (imagine the hoots of laughter and applause) or maybe, maybe more like a creature out of Gormenghast (Mrs Angry was howling with laughter, by now) ... turning to the councillors present this evening: how dare they remain sitting whilst insisting that every resident stand when they address them (no, not Mrs Angry, in case you're wondering). You, chairman, should stand to attention when a resident is speaking. How dare they speak to us as if we were badly behaved children, and they were the governing board of the school? We are their masters, and they are our servants!

Mr Bailey received not one but two ovations for this magnificent address, and deservedly so: it was simply the best speech, the finest, most eloquent piece of invective I have seen aimed at any members of the miserable bunch of small time dictators that masquerade as our elected representatives.

Thompstone had blown it, and he knew it.

When the meeting wrapped up, Lord Palmer came over to say hello to Mrs Angry. Did you know, she said, poking him in the arm, there's film of you and me on youtube now ...? For a fleeting moment, a look of panic slipped over his face. The MetPro meeting, she explained. Ah yes. We talked about the forum, and the ridiculous, shameful new rules. Monroe mentioned ruefully that he had just been in the House of Lords debating the localism bill. Ha, said Mrs Angry, have the Tories worked out what it means yet?

Because here in Broken Barnet, they certainly haven't, have they?

Wednesday 22 June 2011

MetPro: residents at risk - why is Barnet refusing to act?

Mrs Angry has just looked (through her fingers) at the footage of her turn at the MetPro Audit committee last week, now online courtesy of Roger Tichborne over at t'Barnet Eye blog.

If you are desperate to see the back of Mrs Angry (ha, you and the Tory group and senior management team of the London Borough of Broken Barnet) you can look here - if the link works: and see her trying to wing her way through her supplementary questions.

Watching this played back has been very interesting, noticing many details missed at the time: Mrs Angry particularly enjoyed the urgent need of one of the auditors to drink lots of water, and the other one to grab hold of his face, while the Director of Corporate Governance, normally the master of mandarin like inscrutability, resorts to biting his nails and pulling on his moustache, watching the clock and visibly willing it to move to the time limit. And what is Craig Cooper, Director of Commercial Services, whispering so urgently to the head of Audit?

Listening to the responses again only reinforces my original reaction of disbelief to the reply given to the question of safeguarding. The reply stated that despite the incontrovertible evidence that for five years, children and vulnerable adults have been put at real risk by close and regular contact with unlicensed male security employees who were not subjected to CRB checks, Barnet refuses to hold any inquiry to establish the extent of such a risk, and to ensure that no children or other vulnerable residents came to any harm as a result of this negligence.

The justification for this decision by Barnet is that there have been no reports or complaints of 'inappropriate' dealings by the company's employees.

How can anyone not find this a truly reprehensible position for a local authority to take, in the circumstances?

Barnet has a duty of care to children at risk, or being cared for, and to vulnerable clients, especially in the case of Barbara Langstone House. It is quite clear that they have failed their duty to check the credentials of staff working in close proximity with these groups. According to the company's 'compassionate steel' document, supplied to the committee, employees worked with children at risk, in situations relating to child protection and one photograph shows an employee with close physical contact with one young girl, in a highly inappropriate manner.

Until recently, Barbara Langstone House has had an appalling reputation for crime, anti social behaviour - and persistent drug dealing. Since a new company has been in place, the local police have reported a huge improvement in the hostel. Throughout the period of trouble, the hostel has accommodated young homeless residents, and families too. Again: vulnerable residents have been at risk, and living in extremely difficult circumstances, and there must be closer scrutiny of the impact that the use of security company employees in this period.

Having failed these vulnerable clients once by failing to address the need for safeguarding, Barnet is continuing to fail them, by refusing to investigate any potential case of inappropriate behaviour in the past five years. It is simply not acceptable for the authority to absolve themselves of all retrospective responsibility - by the very nature of being identified as 'vulnerable' these residents cannot be expected to be in a position to report their concerns. How can a small child, already at risk of harm, be asked to take full responsibility for informing the council of any incident? And surely, if any complaint is made years later, when that child is an adult, the authority will be asked to explain why it so obstinately ignored the need to identify the individuals put at risk?

The other response which must be robustly challenged is the assertion that the illicit filming of bloggers and other residents at the budget meeting should not be investigated as it is not the responsibility of the authority. Barnet stated, ridiculously, that as there is no evidence that MetPro was asked to film residents, such an inquiry is unneccessary. The response then contradicts this position by admitting that the company was given no specifications as to the nature of its work for the authority.

Mrs Angry would imagine that the denial of reponsibility in this case has no real basis, and that by failing to monitor the company's activities or even provide any specification for its range of duties, the council has failed to prevent the breach of data protection regulations, and the gross intrusion of privacy that this covert filming represents.

Worse still is an aspect which has perhaps been overlooked, combining the last two concerns: should the authority not investigate the real possibility that the company has regularly filmed and retained images or footage of other residents, including children and vulnerable adults, in the course of their employment?

In any other borough, we might expect our local MPs to take an interest in the wellbeing of residents affected by these issues, and we would hope that they would be demanding an urgent, independent, public inquiry into these unanswered questions. Instead, we have seen our local Tory MPs this week busy themselves with much more important matters.

Hendon MP Matthew Offord has been making a fool of himself - and his dog - by complaining that he is being banned from taking his poor mutt to work at the House of Commons. He invoked the Human Rights Act in relation to this outrage, and then claimed he had been joking. Most amusing.

Finchley and Golders Green MP and BT vital visionary Mike Freer has been busy recently too - worrying himself to distraction over the finer points of Whitehall's mobile phone contracts, and the endemic problem of squatting in - in where? Hampstead Garden Suburb - poor old Saif Gaddafi's had to recarpet the sitting room, apparently. Good man, Mr Freer. Your constituents will be overcome with gratitude for your grip on the issues that really concern them, back here in Broken Barnet.

You can't altogether blame this pair for wanting to disassociate themselves from the toxic matter of the MetPro scandal, of course. Because until the elections last year, Matthew Offord was a prominent member of Barnet Council's Tory Cabinet - oh and Mike 'easycouncil' Freer?

He was the Leader.

Have you ever wondered how Barnet got broken in the first place, citizens?

Tuesday 21 June 2011

MetPro Audit: a statement

Barnet residents respond to Barnet Council’s MetPro audit report

On Thursday 16 June 2011 the Audit Committee of the London Borough of Barnet met to discuss the internal audit report into the MetPro scandal.

The report was commissioned as a result of pressure from Barnet residents, who alerted the Council to problems with the MetPro companies that the Council’s own procedures had completely failed to identify.

While the audit committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Monroe Palmer, did an excellent job of identifying many serious problems with this vendor account, many issues which residents were concerned about were deemed out of scope of this investigation. Furthermore, the committee has no powers to impose any remedy, and can only aspire to “inspire the executive to do better” (to quote Maryellen Salter, Assistant Director - Audit).

In addition to the serious concerns about Barnet Council’s relationship with the MetPro companies, there are wider implications of this affair for the Council as a whole. The problems which remain to be addressed are:

A) Legal issues. The Council’s Internal Auditor cannot exclude the fact that fraud may have taken place. The Director of Corporate Governance Jeff Lustig indicated that since there was no evidence of fraud, there was no need to investigate. This is a highly unsatisfactory response and appears to be in breach of the council’s own policies and procedures.
The Council’s financial regulations are clear on this point:

“Any suspected irregularity involving any asset, or the exercise of any function, of the Council must be reported by the appropriate Chief Officer to the Chief Internal Auditor to inform the overall assurance that can be delivered and to the Corporate Anti Fraud Team (CAFT) Manager for investigation.”

B) Contract procurement and monitoring. Barnet Council are pushing forward with the One Barnet Programme, a major outsourcing scheme, even though the audit team has identified serious and fundamental flaws in the Council’s contract procurement and monitoring processes.

The audit report into MetPro confirmed that there had been a breach of EU procurement laws which ensure fairness and anti-discrimination as well as best value. The internal audit report is silent on compliance with procurement law; however, given that only the largest 180 contracts out of 9,700 vendors are audited, it is likely that there are other legal breaches. In view of the shocking findings of the audit report and the recognition by the Audit Committee that the focus on change and the One Barnet Programme had been a contributory factor in these failures, we believe that all but essential contract renewals should be put on hold until an effective system of contract procurement and monitoring has been put in place and tested.

The multiple failings detailed in the MetPro report and in the Internal Audit Annual Opinion must be addressed, and Council staff working in procurement fully trained in the Council’s own Contract Procedure Rules before the Council can even consider embarking on an expansion of outsourcing.

The chair of the Audit Committee said that the audit department is unable to perform its duties owing to lack of resources. Barnet Council’s audit team should be strengthened and ways found to ensure that its recommendations are carried out.

C) Project management. In 2006, Barnet Council launched a SAP system to manage procurement, at an initial estimated cost of £8 million. This was done to modernise the control of payments and purchasing.

The cost of this project has spiralled to £25 million, more than three times the original estimate. Not only has this system failed to prevent the problems demonstrated by the MetPro report, it seems that the promised benefits of automation have not materialised. MetPro invoices have had handwritten numbers and notes on them. Payments have been made to non authorised accounts, and it seems that no proper audit trail exists. How can a system that cost £25 million have failed to address all of these issues?

The SAP fiasco shows that Barnet Council cannot manage large projects, cannot control costs and cannot implement outsourcing projects that work. They should not be considering One Barnet outsourcing until they fix the problems with their project management that the MetPro scandal has highlighted.

D) Safeguarding. The issues of safeguarding raised by MetPro have not been addressed. In light of the contact with vulnerable adults and children at Barbara Langstone House by MetPro employees who were neither SIA licensed nor CRB checked, Barnet Council should investigate in conjunction with the police whether there was the potential for or actual incidents of abuse, not only in relation to MetPro, but also in relation to any other security firms engaged by the Council. In addition, Barnet Council should keep central registers of all CRB, SIA and other required checks for all people working with the Council. This issue should be addressed immediately.

Barnet Council should work with residents who were illegally filmed by MetPro at the Council meeting on 1 March to address any data protection issues that arose from that episode, and possible other actions of this nature, instead of, as it has done up until now, trying to wash its hands of all responsibility.

E) VAT and invoicing. The Council do not have procedures in place to ensure that invoices meet legal requirements. The example on the Council’s own website is deficient. It is clear that staff are not properly trained in dealing with payments. A training programme must be instituted as a matter of urgency, to ensure compliance.

F) Culture. It is of great concern that the Audit Committee has made similar criticisms in the past, yet there has been a further deterioration. This should be a disciplinary matter for senior management, since it is accepted by the CEO, Nick Walkley, that this is a widespread problem resulting from lack of proper operational management. It is clear that attempts to inspire an audit culture have failed.

There is a culture of complacency at the top of Barnet Council. Senior officers know that they will not be held to account for any failings that take place under them, and that they can expect huge payoffs if problems are detected. Senior posts are filled by contractors on short contracts, with no vested interest in the future of the Council. No effort is made to replace these interim appointments with permanent staff. Until this culture of complacency is eradicated, nothing will improve. Senior staff should not be contractors on temporary contracts with no vested interest in improving the procurement culture, since it is clear that a root and branch review is likely to uncover more issues which will require addressing.

As concerned residents, we call for all of the issues above to be dealt with immediately. We want an action plan to be drawn up, with short timescales, and published for residents’ information. Without this, the residents can have no confidence in Barnet Council, its executive or its leadership


Derek Dishman
John Dix
Adam Langleben
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne