Wednesday 5 September 2012

A debating club funded by taxpayer's money: the democratic process, as seen by Barnet's Tory leaders

Well then: Mrs Angry's attention was drawn today to a very important story from 'This is the West', a report which offers yet another warning to us all, all the way from Cornwall, on the subject of One Barnet and large scale privatisation of our council services ...

"A move to sell off huge swathes of Cornwall Council's services has hit a major bump in the road, after the plan was rejected by a majority of councillors at the authority.

A meeting yesterday heard a motion calling on Cornwall Council to scrap its decision to enter into a partnership with the private sector to deliver a range of support services.

This was supported by a majority of councillors following a three hour debate at County Hall.

A bid to have the discussions held in secret was also rejected, after calls that the council's much trumpeted dedication to "openness and transparency" should apply on such an important decision.

The council’s cabinet had already voted to issue formal invitations to tender for the new £300m contract at a meeting on July 31.

Today’s motion, which was proposed by Andrew Wallis and seconded by Andrew Long, was aimed at halting this process, as, “in view of its far reaching consequences, including its potential impact on Council governance and elected member accountability, this council believes that it is not in the best interests of the people of Cornwall for the council to enter into the proposed strategic partnership for support services and procurement”.

Members had serious concerns about the potential risk and governance, as well as queries over the savings which would be generated and the number of new jobs created.

Cllr Wallis said: "Before the debate started there was a move to put the whole item, debate and vote into closed session because it was claimed from officers that some of the information, and questions could be commercially sensitive. I really struggled (as did many others) with this, as the information the councillors had been supplied with, was already in the public domain.

" The impact on the Strategic Partnership has such far-reaching consequences to the people of Cornwall, that it should be fully debated in open session and the vote in full view of the public. Not behind closed doors. Thankfully, and it was a close vote, the councillors decided not to go into closed session.

"My points came from too many unknowns, losing democratic accountability on so many services and pie-in-the-sky predictions on job creation. These ‘aspirational’ jobs were a concern for the scrutiny panel looking into this plan, If the scrutiny panel is worried, you have to get worried, too.

"A main selling point of the Strategic Partnership is the ability to ‘buy’ other services from other council’s. I however, pointed out what I believe is a massive flaw in this plan. For example, imagine if there was a motion to handover all these services to another council to run, and therefore create jobs in that authority. There would be uproar, and claims the jobs must stay in Cornwall. So you can hardly expect other councils to allow jobs to go to another council at the expense of their own. It just would not happen. I believe the market is already flooded with many sellers of shared services, but not many buyers."

Mr Wallis added that a good question is what happens now as the ultimate decision lies with the cabinet.

"Will the Cabinet change its course on this? To be honest, I do not think it will drop the proposals completely. However, it could postpone the decision to after the elections in May 2013. Then the new council has the democratic mandate (and possible will) to enter into some sort of strategic partnership."

Steve Double, the Council’s portfolio holder for environment, waste management and shared services, said that the proposal would bring together the best of the private and public sector in an innovative partnership which would enable the Council to protect frontline services from the impact of further Government cuts at the same time as creating up to 500 new jobs in Cornwall.

“All the concerns which have been raised today have already been considered by the Cabinet” he said.

“I cannot believe that a proposal which protects frontline services, creates 500 new jobs and reduced costs by £10m a year is not in the best interests of the people of Cornwall.

“This is a very complex proposal and unfortunately the decision by Members not to move into private session meant that we were unable to share the detailed confidential information they needed to make an informed decision”.

Mebyon Kernow and Lib Dems on the authority have also come out against the plan.

Speaking on behalf of Mebyon Kernow in the debate, Cllr Long told councillors much of the evidence used to support the joint venture was “pure conjecture.” He rubbished the claims about savings and the creation of jobs, describing the promises as “pie in the sky,” adding we are more likely to see “bacon-clad flying mammals.”

He also slammed the lack of democratic accountability in the proposed arrangement and condemned the proposal as “full of risks” and urged the Cabinet to “reverse its decision.”

Also speaking at the meeting, fellow MK Councillor Loveday Jenkin (Wendron) blasted the transfer of staff and huge budgets into a private sector company, which she said would “inevitably result in worse terms and conditions for local workers."

It may well be that the pretty disastrous experience Cornwall has had with its out of hours doctors' service, run by the massive outsourcing company Serco, has had a chastening effect on the enthusiasm of the councillors for an even bigger commitment to privatisation.

Very interesting, anyway. And Mrs Angry thought perhaps our Tory councillors would be very grateful if she were to pass on this interesting story, so she wrote to deputy leader Councillor Dan (John) Thomas, (who at least has the courtesy - and courage - to respond in detail to her emails, unlike leader Richard Cornelius, who is too scared.)

"Dear Cllr Thomas

I would like to draw your attention to the following article which reports on the decision of Cornwall County Council to withdraw from plans to outsource £300 million of its services to the private sector:

As you will read, the proposals were rejected after a three hour debate amongst councillors.

What a shame that such an opportunity has been denied to the full council here in Barnet or to the residents and tax payers of this borough, who have never been properly informed or consulted in regard to this issue.

One of the Cornish councillors commented as follows:

"Cllr Long told councillors much of the evidence used to support the joint venture was “pure conjecture.” He rubbished the claims about savings and the creation of jobs, describing the promises as “pie in the sky,” adding we are more likely to see “bacon-clad flying mammals.”

He also slammed the lack of democratic accountability in the proposed arrangement and condemned the proposal as “full of risks” and urged the Cabinet to “reverse its decision."

I think it is clear that there are lessons here for Barnet, to accompany the warnings indicated clearly in all the many other strategic partnerships and joint ventures which have already failed. If there ever was a time when such hugely over ambitious projects were appropriate, that time has certainly gone. Perhaps it is time the councillors in Barnet took back control of this council from the vested interests of the private sector, did the right thing on behalf of the residents of this borough, throw One Barnet out of the window, and think again.

Yours sincerely

Mrs Angry"

Cllr Thomas replied:

"Dear Mrs Angry,

Thank you for your thoughts and for sharing an article regarding a different authority whose journey down the route of outsourcing we are unfamiliar. (sic)

There was a motion at full council recently which was tabled by the Labour Party and called for a halt to One Barnet and the outsourcing. The motion was debated and defeated (after, if I recall, some members of the public made so much noise that a motion was put (and won) not to conduct the debate further as it was difficult to hear the speeches of elected members).

Councillors will be briefed on proposals and a decision will be made by members who were elected to take such decisions in due course.

Kind regards,

Cllr Daniel Thomas

Finchley Church End Ward

Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for Resources and Performance

London Borough of Barnet

Ok. Mrs Angry replied:

" Dear Cllr Thomas

I'm not sure which meeting you mean, but perhaps you should take the level of antagonism which is evident at such events as an indication of the anger and anxiety that residents feel towards the council, and in particular the current Tory administration. You will try to dismiss such a reaction as the behaviour of 'activists' but I can assure you that it is entirely representative of the way in which the majority of residents perceive their elected members.

If there is such behaviour at council meetings it is largely due to the frustration people feel at being alienated from any meaningful discussion over these hugely significant issue. The censoring of any discussion of council 'policy' at Residents' Forums is just one example of the lack of respect for, and indeed interest in, the views of the community you and your colleagues are meant to represent.

It seems clear to me that most Tory councillors are dangerously ill informed about the One Barnet programme, and many I know have grave reservations about the scale and implications of the project. Due to the decision making process being in the hands of a small minority of councillors, the rest of the group is effectively powerless. This is not how local democracy should work, in my view, and I am sure in the view of most sensible people.

If you and your Cabinet colleagues are so convinced of the decision you are making to committ our services and financial security to the One Barnet programme, I wonder if you would care to take some personal responsibility, by offering to undertake some sort of limited liability should the project fail? If councillors were subject to financial surcharges in the event of such a failing, I doubt that you or any of your Tory colleagues would be quite so enthusiastic in your endorsement of this idiotic gamble with £1 billion of residents' money.

Yours sincerely

Mrs Angry"

And back came the answer:

"Dear Mrs Angry,

Once again, thanks for your thoughts and feedback.

I was referring to the council meeting where One Barnet was being debated by elected members and where some members of public tried to disrupt that open debate to the extent it was cut short.

Yes, you pre-empted my response regarding activists (its the always the same faces in the public galley) and your opinion regarding the majority of residents being against the outsourcing is interesting.

As you know the Labour Party have set up a campaign against One Barnet and outsourcing, which has been publicised by local press. So far this has generated a total of three 'copy and paste' emails from residents of my ward and I gather the numbers are quite similar across all Conservative wards which is a good cross section of the borough given their number.

I am therefore not convinced that the public are as against outsourcing as you would like them to be, indeed, discussions I have with residents illustrate their focus on outcomes not the delivery of services.

If residents would like to debate issues that is their right but the council should not be funding a debating club with taxpayer's money, it never has and I doubt it ever will. The public are free to contact, lobby and question councillors to give them their thoughts, that is how a representative democracy works. All councillor groups will have a briefing regarding the bids after which they will no doubt discuss them."

A debating club funded by tax payers' money?

Oh dear, John Thomas: a red rag to a red bull.

Dear Councillor Thomas

Thank you: it is good to be able to discuss these issues, and I appreciate your taking the time to respond. However:

A debating club funded by tax payers' money?

That is, I would suggest, the perfect definition of democracy in local government, as it should be enacted within the council chamber and in a process of engagement with residents. And that free exchange of views, and the reaching of a consensus, is exactly what is missing from the deeply dysfunctional relationship between the current administration and the people it is supposed to represent.

Our council has entrenched itself behind a wall, and fears honest debate.Such a position is encouraged by the senior officers of the council, who have their own reasons for doing so.

The same faces that you see at meetings are in fact the faces of concerned residents who really care about their community, and feel deeply frustrated by the lack of consultation over these issues, which will have such an impact on all our lives. They include elderly, non political residents, residents with disabilities, or with young children. You cannot dismiss people who take an interest in their own lives as worthless activists. If only your own Tory backbenchers showed as much spirit.

Regarding the perceived lack of interest by the wider community in One Barnet, that is largely because they do not understand it. Yes, they are focused on outcome, and when, as is undoubtedly going to be the case, a declining level of service, increased charges, lack of savings, and loss of accountability become clear, that outcome will then become focused on the councillors who voted for the privatisation. If you are still here, you will be held accountable.

I note that you have evaded the challenge of putting your money where your mouth is, and offering to back your faith in One Barnet with your own personal investment.

Easy to be reckless with other people's money, isn't it?

Yours sincerely,

Mrs Angry

Well, clearly Mrs Angry is always right, and always likes to have the last word, so let's hope he shuts up now & doesn't spoil things.

Maybe he's nipped out to place a bet at William Hill. £1 billion of our council tax ... on a three legged horse called One Barnet.


Oh dear: more bad news for Barnet on the old outsourcing front: the Southwest One fiasco is getting very ugly, with partner IBM threatening to sue Somerset Council over payments, and the council responding in kind: see this BBC story here:


Mr Mustard said...

It is rather worrying Mrs A that Cabinet Members don't know what is happening in the rest of the country as if Barnet is some sort of state apart from all the rest............. what,oh it is, it is the only one still following the commissioning council route, how silly of me.

Mrs Angry said...

Hmm: the laager mentality, Mr Mustard. I said laager, not lager. Mine's a sauvignon blanc, chilled, thanks.

Mr Mustard said...

Of course Mrs A,

laager - a defensive encampment.

Glass of Sauvignon, no problem.

Charlie said...

While I appreciate the sentiment behind it, I'm not sure that making councillors personally financial liable for the outcome of their decisions is the way to go for broader democracy and representation. Barring them from ever holding office again - that I could buy into (although even there, one could argue it should be for the electorate as a whole to decide).

I am, however, aghast that they appear to know nothing of previous schemes similar to that they are considering. While I'm no fan of the One Barnet idea anyway, it might be reassuring for them to at least pay lip service to the idea of learning from others' mistakes (whether by changing some aspect of their idea or indeed ditching it entirely).

Mrs Angry said...

Interesting, Charlie. I think there is a reasonable threshold whereby responsibility of some sort should apply. In the private sector, do directors not in certain circumstances, have to hold shares in their companies? Not sure but there must be some accountability when an investment of £1 billion is at stake.

Charlie Bavington said...

As I said, I can see where the sentiment is coming from. My concern is that introducing your idea could ultimately perhaps exclude those without piles of cash (or access to legal resources to fight liability claims, which is what would happen, I'm sure) from involvement in local govt if they are made personally liable for decisions. It's bad enough as it is!

In terms of the problem you seem to want to address, though, obviously councils and private companies are very different beasts, with very different aims and objectives, both legally and more broadly. Directors are basically legally bound to act, in good faith, in the interests of the company (equating to "make £££ for shareholders" in essence) and are, I think, only personally liable when they fail to act in good faith (or commit fraud & suchlike). If simply "losing money", no matter how stupidly, were the test for directors' personal liability, there would surely be an ex-director begging on every street corner in the land!

Councils play with "other people's money" for different reasons, however (and defining a threshold for losing money to incur this liability is fraught with problems). Misuse of it makes me annoyed. Ill-considered schemes like One Barnet make me annoyed. I'm impressed by the time and effort you spend on highlighting the issues and trying to hold the council to account. I would merely seek to advise against pursuing that particular line of attack, since I think a) it would get nowhere and b) it is not in the people's broader interest, and direct your energies elsewhere.

Keep up the good work.

Mrs Angry said...

mmm, thanks Charlie: you know much of the problem with the Tory administration in Barnet is that they want to bring market values into the public sector, although with little real experience of it, if at all, and of course being entirely insulated from the consequences of their management, which in the real world they would not be. This applies to councillors, but very much also to the senior officers. Unfortunately the catastrophic result of their grandiose ambitions is borne by us, and will be, long after they have lost their seats, or cleared off somewhere else.