Friday, 10 August 2012

Barnet Tories: punish the poor, reward the rich, cosset the consultants: welcome to One Barnet

One Barnet: year round entertainment from our Tory councillors

Updated: see below

Yes, it's August, the silly season, and the holiday season, and the sun is shining, at last, and - look, on the telly, lots of people have been running around & jumping over things, and - quick, while no one is looking, let's slip some terrible, shameful, policy proposals past the noses of unwitting residents, shall we?

Yes: this is the latest trick by your Tory councillors, citizens, here in Broken Barnet: gold medal winners in corporate scheming, of course: losers in every other sense.

Bearing in mind the sheer ghastliness of what the Barnet Tories are prepared to push through when all eyes are on them, an even better time to bury bad news, here in the golden afterglow of Olympic triumph, offers the opportunity to get away with something really, really bad.

So here it is, then, something really, really bad. An assault on the most vulnerable residents of our community, from three different directions.

First of all: according to a report in the local Times paper, our council is planning to charge disabled residents for the privilege of being granted the blue badge they need in order to park in our borough.

Ok: a charge of £10 for something that has always been free may not seem a lot to everyone, but if you consider the limited income of most disabled residents, set against the new level of benefit cuts being implemented by the government, this is surely unfair, and an unnecessary step to take.

Further to this plan, according to the local Times website, the council wants to withdraw other forms of support that allow disabled residents some form of access to transport suitable for their needs:

"The council’s Travel Voucher Scheme, providing reduced taxi rates for people with limited mobility, will also be scrapped under the plans.

Although 342 people are signed up to the scheme, the council says just 95 regularly use the service.

In a bid to reduce the number of people using statutory mini-bus travel, the council is also looking to train volunteer services to assist people who have difficulty using public transport.

The Conservative administration hopes the volunteer-led assistance will encourage more people to use public transport and relieve some of the burden on its own transport services ..."

95 people use the service regularly, and 257 others less regularly. Barnet is trying to present this as some sort of underused service, a waste of taxpayers money, with no real evidence that this is the case. How do you quantify the benefit of such a scheme? Is the service even properly publicised, in such a way that all potential users are made aware of it? This is Broken Barnet - what do you think?

And worse still, and Mrs Angry can hardly believe she is writing this, our lovely Tory councillors want to reduce the number of disabled children and vulnerable adults who use the statutory - yes, statutory - mini bus transport provision. They want such residents to use public transport in order to 'relieve some of the burden on its own transport services'.

... and when you get home, sonny, please relieve the council of the burden of your transport costs, and get the bus to school ... & now sod off, I've got a taxi waiting ...

Mrs Angry was present at the infamous council meeting in which Brian Coleman expressed his wish that the authority could divest itself of this duty, the need to support disabled and vulnerable residents, whom as you may recall, he casually and insultingly referred to as 'these people' ... subsidised transport, as you should know, should be provided by the public purse only for councillors and Assembly Members on their way to another banquet at the Guildhall, or lunch at the Ivy, not residents with mobility problems or special needs shamelessly sponging off the taxpayers.

And why are our Tory councillors now targeting residents with disabilities in this way?

Well, perhaps the answer lies here , in a neat piece of 'work' by our borough's One Barnet implementation partner, Agilisys, the consultants whom you may remember are having, each month, around a quarter of a million pounds of our hard earned cash flung at them. Why, you may ask? And you should ask. What do they do that is so vital to our well being that might require such a huge amount of money diverted in their direction?

Well, the plain answer is that we do not know, because the matter is all shrouded in mystery.

When some of your local bloggers went to inspect the Barnet accounts recently, and found themselves presented with a load of censored documents, Mr Reasonable objected in particular to the ludicrously over redacted contract with Agilisys. Mr R wrote about this issue in July, and I am going to quote his post in full, as I think it is all relevant:

"Back in August 2010 Barnet Council issued a Delegated Powers Report, 1134, for the award of the Implementation Partner Contract for the One Barnet project and was awarded to Agilisys/iMPOWER. (Mysteriously that report is now missing from the Council's website). In that report the value of the contract was estimated to be in excess of £500,000. I raised this contract award at Business Management Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 13 September 2010 and it was also picked up by Cllr Jack Cohen who asked for the report to be called in. At the meeting Cllr Cohen asked for the maximum value of the contract but because this was declared to be exempt information, the public were forced to leave the meeting.

Subsequently the Barnet Bugle submitted a Freedom of Information request to ascertain this maximum value. Following an initial refusal and a request for an internal review, the response which came back eventually stated:

"The establishment of an Implementation Partner contract enables the provision of consultants for specific assignments based on end to end process of phased delivery requirements. This means that the forecast cost of the contract cannot be fully predicted it will be in excess of £500,000 [in the first year of delivery with circa £2,000,000 identified as potential contract delivery cost over a three year period.]" The section in brackets is the important information which was originally withheld.

The call in was reviewed by Cllr Dan Thomas who had originally signed off the DPR and he said he had decided to retain the contract without amendment - so from his point of view Cllr Thomas was happy with the contract as it stood.

Now just two years on, the bill for Agilisys at at 31 May 2012 is a shade under £3 million (£2,972,667.37) £1 million more than forecast and there is still a year to run on the contract.

I don't know who is keeping tabs on this spending (other than me) but if I had signed off a contract that was running 50% over total budget with a third of the contract term still to run, I would be kicking up merry hell asking what on earth was going on.

During the Inspection of Accounts I did try and review the details on the invoices submitted by Agilisys and reconcile them to the contract but according to Barnet Council that information is commercially sensitive so both invoices and contract were excessively redacted to the point that I could not see how many days they have billed or what daily rate they have applied.

I have raised this matter with Grant Thornton, the Council's external auditor, as I wonder if this additonal £1 million should have been spent on this contract without any subsequent authorisation or if any further spending with Agilisys is ultra vires. I will have to await a response from Mr Hughes but irrespective of the outcome it illustrates that the Council's "relentless desire for efficiency" doesn't appear to extend to monitoring supplier payments.

Well, we do know now where some of the millions paid to Agilisys have gone.

They have been busy little bees, producing this marvellous study - how to cut costs by, no, no, not ending our contract with them, but yes, targeting the least advantaged residents of our borough ...

Take a look. Wade through the swamp of One Barnet corporate shite, and sentences like this:

"The entire programme was built around customer needs and expectations, to ensure the benefits of channel shift could be realised."

This means, in essence, that elderly and disabled residents must be 'encouraged' to apply for badges online, even if this is a medium with which they are unfamiliar, or to which they have no access. Barnet is, we are always being told, a ha ha, 'customer centric' organisation. But by customers they mean only the ones who want to do things the way the council thinks they ought to. The rest they are happy to ignore - the old, the very young, the disabled, the disadvantaged.

Hmm, so 'encouragement', in One Barnet double speak means forcing people to do something they do not want to do by making it virtually impossible to do it any other way. Residents are going to limit application for blue badges by phone, and reduce paper applications. How? By only answering one in ten phone calls? Or throwing every other application in the bin? Not sure. Oh, and then look: hidden neatly in this study is the following suggestion:

Introduction of an issuing fee for Blue Badges (subject to consultation)

As of course 'consultation' in the London Borough of Broken Barnet is an utter farce, you may be certain that this fee will be introduced, and that will be that. The decision has already been made, and most probably was made before our friends at Agilisys came up with this supposed justification for such a policy. So not only is application for a blue badge going to be made more difficult for those who are most in need of them, they will now have to pay for the privilege,

But there is another aspect to this issue.

Barnet Council: free parking permits for Tory councillors, but not for disabled residents

Most residents probably do not realise that our Tory councillors are able to park wherever they want in this borough, free of charge, simply by displaying a permit issued to them as a perk of their position. No, they will not be asked to pay £10 for their permits, of course.

Please note that the Labour councillors of Broken Barnet refuse to avail themselves of this favour.

Our Tory councillors, on the other hand, see it as a natural right, and in some cases, use these permits however they see fit - the permit is meant to be used only when the councillor is on council business ... but at least one of the Tories has been caught using his permit at other times, and been obliged, after the story became public, to return it, and there have been allegations regarding another, and, well: do you really think that the rest of them are all paying through the new credit card system at all times, like the rest of us, or using the privilege of free parking for their own advantage?

The disabled residents of Broken Barnet must now pay for the use of a blue badge in order to claim their right to park where is easiest for them, whereas our lazy Tory councillors are able to use their free permits, and in some cases openly misuse them, in order to avoid the catastrophic effects of their own parking policy. Is this right?

Hold, on: not content with sneaking these new proposals by here comes another nasty little wheeze, courtesy this time of our ice cool deputy Tory leader, Councillor John Thomas. Thanks to a new coalition government decision, the current council tax benefit scheme is being scrapped. This a means tested benefit intended to help those on low incomes, and in future the provision of this support will be the responsibility of local councils. Uh oh. There is a shortfall in funds available, so of course we must prepare for cuts. Of course the shortfall could be covered by the amount of money being paid to the likes of Agilisys and thrown into the One Barnet money pit, but naturally they do not see that as the wasteful profligacy it surely is.

Here comes another opportunity for our kind hearted Tory councillors - John Thomas tells us that those claiming the benefit in Barnet, other than pensioners, will be 'asked' to pay '10-25%' more in council tax. Where someone whose income has already been assessed as being so low as to need this benefit in the first place is going to find an extra 10-25% is an interesting question, isn't it? And curious, when Barnet Tories are always so proud of not raising council tax ... Ah: except that rasing council tax for the poorest residents will be ok, as they are unlikely to be Tory voters, Mrs Angry.

Quoted in the local Times, and exhibiting a commendable depth of compassion towards the less fortunate members of society, young Councillor Thomas remarks:

“I believe there are people whose benefits are too generous for their situation. Of course there are people worthy of claiming benefits but I think the system is far too generous.

“Too many people are dependent on benefits and these cuts encourage people to get back to work.”

Ah yes, the feckless poor again. The particularly charming quality of the younger Tory councillors of Broken Barnet is their ideological war of attrition on the disadvantaged, based on absolutely no experience of the real challenges of life, the difficulties of raising children on a limited income, dealing with hardship, disability, loss of employment, the real, terrible struggle to keep going when you have no money, and heavy responsibilities. Mrs Angry imagines, or fevently wishes, that one day soon the law of karma will teach Cllr Thomas, Cllr Davey and their colleagues a lesson in humility and to empathise a little more with those whose lives have not worked out in quite the way they would have wished.

Of course moralising and lecturing the undeserving poor is a kind of a new, retro, vintage Tory thing, isn't it, and one perhaps less appealing to the more mature Conservative, the gentlemanly, laisser faire, non interventionist. Hmm. Which brings us neatly to a new interview, in this week's Barnet Press, with Tory leader Richard Cornelius, thinking aloud, as he often does, although apparently without too much thinking before he actually opens his mouth - here on the subject of One Barnet:

“I’m a natural conservative. I don’t want to do anything – I feel it is a good idea,” he said.

“Outsourcing is driven by a need for greater efficiency. If we do not do that, what are we to do to meet the budget requirements?

Oh dear, Richard. And with unfortunate timing, look at this on the Local Government Chroncicle website:

Cockell sounds outsourcing warning

LGA chair dismisses ‘council as commissioner’ model

Eric Pickles is not awfully keen on massive outsourcing projects, as he stated last year. And now even the chair of the Local Government Association is having serious misgivings ... of course, here in the backwaters of Broken Barnet, we are always several steps behind the current line of thinking, but even the empty headed Tory councillors who are in charge might have some doubts, no? No?

In an interview with the Financial Times, Sir Merrick, a very influential figure in local government, has made some hugely significant criticisms of the type of outsourcing model that Barnet is still intent on following. He refers to the Suffolk example, which has many similarities to Barnet, albeit on a less grandiose level, and which has been curtailed by the panicking Tory council, in a falling out with the now departed CEO, Ms Andrea Hill. As the LGC reports:

" ... Sir Merrick sounded a note of caution against such an approach, with the paper claiming he was “sceptical” about Suffolk’s experiment.

“My belief is that revolution is very difficult because you’ve tied yourself to a… set of principles as being the right ones. So if you say ‘we will commission everybody, we are simply commissioners’ then you can get stuck in that mantra,” he said.

Adapting services to changing circumstances was also easier if they remained in-house, he said. “If you’ve got IT in-house, actually you can be very responsive to change. If you’ve got IT outsourced… every time you want to change it, you have to renegotiate and that takes time.

The interview made clear that Sir Merrick was speaking in his role as leader of Kensington & Chelsea RBC rather than as head of the LGA. However, the interview was ‘tweeted’ by the LGA’s official account on Friday morning.

The writing on the wall could not be more clear, could it? When is Cornelius - and the rest of his head in the sand Tory colleagues - going to man up, admit his party has put us all on the road to ruin, and call a halt to the One Barnet madness? Because madness it is: an irrational, unaccountable, manic attachment to a complete delusion, a dangerous delusion.

a time for reflection for Barnet's leader?

Come on, Richard: if even Merrick Cockell is trashing the idea of One Barnet, you need to sit up and listen. You ask where else you can find the 'efficiencies' you need: he is telling you where to look - in house, where you should have looked in the first place. Stop listening to your overpaid senior officers, start listening to your own conscience, and then begin a dialogue with the people who can get you out of this mess - the staff and services you already employ.

Update Wednesday:

Since writing this it has been announced that Alf Morris, the former MP and campaigner for disability rights has died. More than a campaigner, in fact: a pioneer, the first Minister for the disabled and the man who did so much, over so long, in terms of legislation and the creation of benefit support for the most vulnerable members of society. As a piece in the Guardian's Comment is Free section yesterday said, 'In praise of blue badges' - The disabled person's car blue badge stands as an icon in the slow civilising of British society.

How fitting it is that the slow undoing of what was a brief period of civilisation is beginning to come apart here, in Broken Barnet.

Bearing in mind what is happening to the rights and benefits of disabled people in this country, both here and nationally, the death of Alf Morris would seem to mark some greater loss, and one which we are only just beginning to understand.

Mrs Angry has written to Barnet Tory cabinet member Councillor Sachin Rajput, to ask him why he thinks it is morally justifiable to charge disabled and chronically sick residents for their parking permits, when he and his colleagues enjoy subsidised free parking, with no 'administrative' charge, and through a scheme which as we have seen, is open to abuse. He has not yet replied.


Mr Mustard said...

I am not sure that Richard has enough little grey cells Mrs A so this message might take a while to sink in. Like with Poirot it will probably be a chance remark that does it, something like "Please can you sign this contract with Agilisys for £20m for wave 2" when Cornelius suddenly dabs his lips with a folded hankerchief and says "Merde, but I have been so stupid, all the time the answer was there in front of me and I couldn't see it"

Mrs Angry said...

Mmm. I suspect the tipping point with him will be when at last poor Richard and his chums realise there really are no longer any safer Tory seats left in this borough, and the voters' rebellion is not going to go away before the next election. Only then will the empty headed Tories begin to make huge retreats on policy, and some very, very scary grown up decisions, without asking their own officers. Ooh, er just imagine that ...

baarnett said...

Could the 'Central Intelligence Angry' come up with an analysis of how safe each cabinet member's seat is, using 2010 election results?

Mrs Angry said...

Hmm, yes, Baarnett, as you know, as well as a trained auditor I am of course an expert political and statistical analyst. I imagine this projection would involve a fair amouunt of research.

I'll get back to you.

Mrs Angry said...

Ok: yep, have the answer.

Based on an in depth consideration of the electoral impact caused by a steady but incrementally more damaging series of politically suicidal policies, the Tory cabinet members of Broken Barnet are going to lose every last f*cking seat.

And it serves them right.

Mrs Angry said...

Note to Barnet Tory cabinet members: Mrs Angry is available, on an interim consultancy basis, for a more detailed analysis of where you are all going wrong and selling us down the river to the highest bidder with no sense of morality or your own impending doom.

Payment in brown envelopes only, back of NLBP, no questions asked.

Mr Mustard said...

I would like to predict the Rajput answer for you Mrs Angry. It will waffle on about the £50m that has to be saved from the budget, we all have to play our part (well nearly all, not him of course) and hard choices bla bla bla and not answer your actual question.

There, that has saved some time.

Mrs Angry said...

I doubt that he will reply. I hope I am wrong. Let's see.