Thursday 2 February 2012

An above standard Standards committee, and some bad news for senior officers

Nobody really wanted the meeting to be going on this long. Councillors don't expect it: the senior officers don't like it, and the three bloggers were sitting shivering in the public seating, torn between pleasure at the unusual spectacle before us, and guiltily willing them all to shut up or agree to disagree so we could go home.

And yet, we were forced to acknowledge something rare and rather lovely: this was an event quite unique in the long history of Broken Barnet: a committee meeting in which - ssshhh - a policy promoted by senior management was debated, and considered, and challenged - and ultimately rejected.

The committee rebelled, and insisted on its right not to be a rubber stamping machine. Quite extraordinary. The Director of Corporate Governance was wrongfooted, for once, and had to summon all his powers to try to wrest back control where it belonged, not with the members of the Standards Committee, but with the senior management team, who must direct the council where it is going, and not be interfered with by outside forces, or the processes of democracy.

This was, of course, no ordinary committee, planted with a row of obedient Tory councillors.

This was the Standards Committee, a body necessarily filled with independent members: normal, intelligent members of the community with minds of their own, devoid of One Barnet programming, and inclined to question the preset agenda they were being asked to endorse. Oh, and Libdem councillor Jack Cohen, who always follows his own path, and is the only councillor in Broken Barnet who has any grasp on reality, or any visible signs of intellectual ability and a mind set to question the farthest reaches and idiotic processes of our Tory council.

Before the meeting began, Jack came over and took Mrs Angry to task for another grave error in one of her posts. The Einstein story. Oh no, thought Mrs Angry: have I got the whole theory of relativity completely the wrong way round? The universe back to front, and all my fault? The course of time itself turned inside out, undone by a flaw in one single blogpost? But no, this time it was not the rivets on the Titanic, or Le Chien Andalou versus The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but another crucial detail: Einstein went to the Ruges house, not the Ruges to Einstein's. Dear me.

He also was keen to tell us about the scandalous story just breaking on the evening news, concerning the CEO of the student loan company who works as an 'interim' consultant, and has been allowed such generous tax breaks by the government, while he supervises the future tax burden of my children, thank you very much. Jack realised that this story was broken by the Barnet bloggers' dear friend Mr David Hencke, who was on Newsnight last night, filmed next to a very nice fireplace, and whose story may well have great signficance for us here in Broken Barnet where half a dozen of our overpaid senior officers also work as 'interim consultants' with interesting and rather puzzling contractual arrangements.

Mr Ed Lester's arrangements, subject to the scrutiny of external auditors KPMG, were kicked over by them to HMRC for approval, but this approval will now, oh dear, have to be reviewed. Not because it was any more right or wrong than it had been before, but because someone has found out. What will happen, Mrs Angry wonders, to the arrangements of our own lucky long term 'interim' officers, whose payment arrangements are approved, one must assume, by auditors Grant Thornton?

Mr Lester was being paid £900 a day, with the promise of an extra £150 bonus, if he was a very good boy. Mr Andrew 'Blackhole' Travers, our deputy CEO and Chief Finance Officer, funnily enough, is paid £1,000 a day, no questions asked, and even if he isn't very good. Only joking, Andy: you're worth every fecking penny, as we know.

On with the meeting then.

Rather amusingly, the token Tory councillor present was Ms Wendy Prentice, who frankly looked as if she considered the whole business of no interest, and only spoke twice, once to complain that the meeting was going on too long, and that she had to be somewhere else. Somewhere in Hadley Highstone, probably. Not sure where.

Another Tory councillor, Andreas Tambourides, sent his apologies. He is the councillor who himself recently was found guilty, by the Standards committee, of a breach of the code of conduct as a result of an email he had sent to other councillors regarding their colleague Kate Salinger, the only member with the integrity and courage to refuse to vote for the scandalous allowance rise the Tories tried to award themselves straight after the last election, whilst delivering an austerity budget to the residents of Broken Barnet. Councillor Tambourides is appealing against the findings of his hearing.

There were only two items on the agenda. The second was dismissed in a matter of ten seconds. Almost. See later for an account of what happened.

The first item took more than two hours of debate. Yes: debate - a real discussion.

The Director of Corporate Governance was for once outnumbered, and flanked on all sides by a predominance of committee members who really wanted to hold him and the proposals he was putting to them to account. Let's name the independent members present:

Michael Barber
Tanya Ossack
Ron Rosenhead
Stephen Ross
Deborah Sanders
David Sparrow
Chair Bernd Koschland

Also present were two Labour councillors, Agnes Slocombe and Claire Farrier.

The proposals being put to the committee were in regard to the status and future role of the committee itself, in the form of a report entitled: 'Update of the Localism Act and Post-Standards Regime'.

Mr Lustig, the Director of Corporate Governance, began by reminding us that in July we wave goodbye to the present Standards arrangements that apply in local government and must come to terms with a frankly terrifying new reality: a world where our elected representatives can pretty much do what they want, how they want, in as obnoxious or outrageous a way as they like, without fear of the consequences. Just remember how some of the councillors behave here in Broken Barnet as things are now, with what is supposed to be a pretty far reaching system of disciplinary proceedings to deter them: think of the incidents of odious, bullying and openly contemptuous behaviour shown to other members, let alone ordinary residents, and try to imagine how much worse things will be in the future. Because from this summer onwards, there will be no effective sanctions to impose on any councillor who discredits his office by a serious breach in the code of conduct for members.

There will, in fact, be no standard code of conduct: authorities will be obliged to have one, and one supposedly based on the Nolan Principles, but each council will make up their own version. The essential values of the Nolan Principles, we are reminded, are as follows:


All of them qualities, you may feel, that are so very alien to the ethos of the Tory administration here in Broken Barnet.

In truth, Mrs Angry feels faint at the very thought of what the Barnet model will be like, bearing in mind the repeated acts of violent assault theTory cabinet has made on our local constitution, in order to prevent any real challenge or scrutiny from either back bench councillors or residents.

The 'over arching' concerns of the new reality, we were told (oh, how they love the term 'over arching', in Broken Barnet: think it means bending over backwards the wrong way, and hoping it will soon be over) are for everyone just to chill out - inflexibility, informality, are the new key words. Pass the dutchie on the left hand side. Yeah, Brian, whatever: you did what? No worries. All a misunderstanding.

Mr Lustig wanted to tell us that he saw this terrible fate awaiting us all as well, yes, terrible, but we could pretend it was not happening by having a powerless standards advisory panel, and a powerless panel of party leaders to hear any complaints about councillors. Because from July onwards, in lieu of any sanctions that ought to be applied to any member who breaches the local code of conduct, such as it may be, any disciplinary proceedings will be a matter for the political parties to decide. Or not.

In other words, if Councillor A,B, or C - especially Councillor C - emails a resident, let's call her Mrs X, and upsets her by say, off the top of Mrs Angry's empty little blogging head, threatening her with a visit from the police on a spurious pretext, well she might be able to make a complaint, but such a complaint would have to be in breach of the new Barnet Code of Conduct. The new Barnet Code of Conduct is likely to be rather short, and lacking in detail, and saying something like, oh I don't know, councillors may say or do whatever they like and unless one of them is caught robbing a bank or mugging old ladies in Victoria Park (especially when there is a corporate hospitality event being held there) then almost nothing they do will be considered reprehensible enough to warrant any proceedings, let alone require any sanction for such behaviour.

There is one saving grace to the new legislation: it will now be a criminal offence for members to deliberately withold or misrepresent a financial interest.

During the address by Mr Lustig, there was a fair amount of shuffling impatiently on seats by the independent members, and Jack Cohen. When the time came for questions: well, frequently in a 'normal' committee meeting, no questions are asked, and reports are nodded through in mute obedience. Not this meeting, though.

Michael Barber wanted to know if the Chief Executive had checked all these proposals? Where did they come from?

Lustig admitted that they had been 'initiated' by him.

The independent members struggled to make sense of the new proposals.

Complaints will be judged by a panel of three political group leaders. What if a complaint were about a leader, or the group only consisted of one member? Why was there no legal representation going to be allowed? What was the point of the complaints procedure if at the end of the process, there was no sanction?

Mr Lustig said that the authority for any 'disciplinary' proceedings would lie with the political groups, and that they would all have their own rules and system of discipline. Yes, thought Mrs Angry, thinking back to Brian Coleman's description of the ritual stoning of Kate Salinger at the infamous allowance rise meeting. That was the twisted Tory version of 'discipline', and an inversion of justice: revenge for 'disloyalty', the defence of dreadful behaviour by the group as a whole, rather than the punishment of morally unacceptable behaviour. In totalitarian Tory Broken Barnet, the only crime is to disobey, and to fail to follow orders.

The likely result of any successful complaint would, we were informed, range from - get a load of this .... a form of 'admonishment' - the removal from committees or withdrawal of the group whip and/or facilities. Well f*ck me, thought Mrs Angry - too harsh, surely. Imagine the terrifying prospect of being locked out of the councillors' buffet at full council meetings. Admittedly, this would upset most of the Tory councillors who only turn up to stuff their faces and collect their allowances.

Jack Cohen said the legislation is 'bonkers'. No one was prepared to disagree. What will happen, he continued, if, in this new system of flexibility and informality, a complaint of the most serious nature is made, perhaps an accusation sexual harrassment, racism - or even bullying? This all needs to be thought through - and he knew it just would not work in practice. He said the while thing was barmy ... a joke. No one was laughing.

It was pointed out that the new arrangements, quite astonishingly, bore no requirement for any system of appeal.

The body language of the independent members became increasingly restless, and disapproving.

Tanya Ossack asked Lustig bluntly - were they being asked to endorse his suggestions? Because she could not support the absence of legal assistance. She then made a reference to a principle which is hardly compatible with the ethos of Broken Barnet: that of natural justice.

Mr Lustig was prepared to agree that of course, the rights of natural justice are very important. He needed to emphasise that these proposals were just, well, proposals, and not simply laid before them for rubber stamping. No, Mr Lustig, thought Mrs Angry, these are not just proposals, they represent the decisions of the senior management team, who are not used to having their recommendations challenged in such a robust manner, and in such a way which appeared to be moving towards a rare defeat in the face of real opposition.

Ron Rosenhead queried several parts of the report and its 'suggestions'. He said they were in danger of rushing into a decision. Lustig tried to address his points as best he could, but clearly the independent members and Jack Cohen were not satisfied.

By now it was clear that the committee was not going to roll over and do as it was told. Pleas about the shortage of time 'in the calendar' fell on deaf ears. There was a consensus amongst the members that they could not agree to anything at this meeting, that further thought and discussions were necessary. Mrs Angry and fellow bloggers looked on at this unprecedented rebellion in awe, and some unseemly amusement at the discomfiture of the Director of Corporate Governance. But that was the outcome of the two hour discussion, and it was the only possible conclusion.

The second item on the agenda was something very important, and timely: a report on 'Registration and Declaration of Interests by Members.

There is an interesting summary below this title, beautifully phrased:

This report provides the Standards Committee with assurance that Members are making in-year updates to their Register of of Members' interests and declaring interests at meetings.

Mmm. There are members who do both of these things, it is true. The real issue is whether or not there can be any assurance, limited or otherwise, that all members are doing these things.

This is not a matter of personal choice: elected members are obliged by law to comply with certain clear requirements in relation to declarations. Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard have evidence to suggest that compliance with such requirements is not being observed by all members, and after some investigations and a visit to inspect the full register at North London Business Park, we have submitted this evidence to the Director of Corporate Governance, in his capacity as Monitoring Officer.

No mention was made of this, of course. And no acknowledgement of this complaint has been made yet. And the report itself was about to be hurried with graceless haste through the safety of official endorsement, accompanied by an echo of the usual whimpering sound of submission: agreed, agreed, an obedient committee. We won't be spending time on this, we were told.

I wouldn't be so sure, remarked Councillor Cohen.

After some trouble catching the eye of the Chair and Mr Lustig, and a wink in the direction of Mrs Angry, he said he wanted to raise the issue of the publication of the declarations. He pointed out the ridiculous, heavily supervised process and immense inconvenience that was evidently involved for anyone wishing to view the register itself, especially the declarations of the six councillors who refused to allow their declarations to be published online.

The unknowing independent members looked bemused by the direction this item was taking and one asked if anyone ever actually made a visit to see these declarations. Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard waved in their direction and mouthed hello, yes, yesterday, as it happens. The Director of Corporate Governance looked uncharacteristically unnerved by this exchange, and quickly replied to Jack Cohen that the arrangements reflected a decision made by the council. Jack supposed, therefore, that he would have to submit a motion to council on this very issue. And that was that, the report was stamped and sealed, and everything dangerous -almost everything -safely contained.

The temperature in Committee Room last night seemed even colder than it was outside, when we left the Town Hall. As we sat there, fingers almost too frozen to write, it occurred to Mrs Angry that the Siberian temperatures promised more than the late arrival of winter: it was the cold reality of the wicked world to come, here in this borough, where one or two of the collection of petty tyrants and gibbering fools who call themselves our elected representatives will shortly be swishing through the streets of Broken Barnet like the Queen of Narnia, answerable to no one, and caring even less. A truly chilling prospect.

*Update Friday:

On twitter this morning, local MP Mike Freer appears to have agreed to look into the tax arrangements for our 'interim' senior officers, in order to yield more revenue to help the poor. Aaah. That's nice. Let's see if Robin Hood lives up to his promise, shall we?

Here is a recording of the meeting, stolen from the Barnet Bugle. Best bits an hour in.

Barnet Council Standards Committee 1 Feb 2012 from The Barnet Bugle Ltd on Vimeo.


Jaybird said...

I watched the film Barnet Bugle posted and, as you say, Cllr Jack Cohen was a complete star and made the most sensible proposal, which Mr Lustig appeared not to understand.

He suggested that the Standards Committee should make the findings on an alleged breach of standards and then recommend to the group leader what the sanction should be. If the leader of the relevant political group chose to ignore their advice the leader should be obliged to write to the committee with their reasons and this letter should be published, openly and transparently.

This would provide the strongest enforcement of standards possible under the new statutory regime, retaining independence and separating "judge" from "jury".

Very impressive thinking on his feet I thought.

Mr Mustard said...

I was left unimpressed by the performance of the chair in relation to the, in effect, second and final item, the members' declarations on which we had spent 2 & 1/2 hours the day before and the chair said would take only a minute, without even having asked the elected members present.

Luckily Jack Cohen had a question and if the independent members had not been so fatigued by the 10 rounds they had just been with Jeff Lustig they might have been ready to ask more questions on this item. Many elected members who have been slack with their declarations are about to find they turn into criminals; will that debar them from holding office?