Wednesday 30 January 2013

Silos and umbrellas, elephants, bolting horses, and a bad smell: This is Broken Barnet

One Barnet: if the Judicial Review is successful? Mrs Angry and an elephant in the room  ...

*Updated Thursday, with footage: please scroll down

Mrs Angry's visits to the Town Hall are, as you may know, necessarily often followed by a post meeting meeting in the blogger's committee room, round the corner at the Greyhound Inn. This is usually the only reason she stays to the end of any meeting, frankly, not being naturally disposed to sit through hours and hours of turgid One Barnet arguments. 

Last night, however, she tried the interesting new technique of arriving already nicely anaesthetised for the General Functions Committee by a certain amount of champagne, provided courtesy of birthday girl Helen Michael, at Cafe Buzz, the home of Barnet activism.

The champagne had a miraculous, transformative effect, in fact: the meeting seemed to flash by, in about half an hour, and instead of being irritated beyond words by the smug faces of our Tory councillors and senior officers, last night they had seemed to her to be no more than a collection of small, sulky boys, kicking their legs under the table. 

Oh: hold on - Mrs Angry has checked her notes: the meeting did only last half an hour, and those councillors and senior officers were awfully sulky. 

Leader Richard Cornelius, deputy John Thomas, little Robert Rams: all in a very bad mood.

And acting interim CEO Andrew 'Black Hole' Travers - he sat throughout the meeting arms folded, grumpy, pursing his lips, and clearly wishing to be elsewhere.

Why is that, do you suppose?

Well, let's see. The first item, then.

Item 6 was about the restructuring of the Revenues and Benefits department, just as it is being trussed up, gagged, and handed over to Crapita for their own private pleasure. 

Labour's Barry Rawlings went to the committee room doors, opened them wide, and with the assistance of Mrs Angry, Mr Mustard, and some other helpful friends, pushed a large grey elephant into the room. .

'The Judicial Review ... ' said Barry. 

The room fell silent. 

'Does this not mean that everything is put on hold?'

The elephant reared up on its hind legs, and bellowed so loud, well: you could probably have heard it, say, as far away as the Strand, right in front of the Royal Courts of Justice.

Chair Joan Scannell is one of the few Tory women councillors who are allowed to have some token authority in Barnet Council, in deference to their matronly status, and as reward for their obedience to the dominant male ethos of the group, and she was clearly not keen to pursue this line of discussion. 

Leader Cornelius blurted out that it was difficult to be definite until the court decides: but if the Review is successful, he threatened, there will be 'devastating' redundancies ... (presumably these would be devastating in a new and special way, more devastating than the devastating redundancies he has already created ...)

The other Tory councillors looked on, in silence.

If the Review is successful ... the demeanour of our Tory councillors throughout the meeting suggested to Mrs Angry that now they realise they are in big trouble, that the JR may well strike out the agreement with Crapita, and the conspiracy of fools which produced the One Barnet scam will be exposed for what it is: hopelessly incompetent, uxoriously fond of the opinion of their privatisation friendly senior officers, endorsed by Tory councillors too lazy to do their jobs, and scrutinise the process which has brought them to this sorry state.

Already Cornelius and his Cabinet chums are preparing for defeat, and seeking not to accept responsibility for the failures which will have led to this, but to distract all criticism by frightening everyone with the threat of catastrophe should they lose. The real catastrophe, of course, is what will happen if they win, and we are consigned into bondage with Crapita for the next ten or fifteen years, our public services cut or irrevocably damaged, and our local taxes diverted into the subsidisation of private sector profit.

There is an alternative way, the one they refused to consider: a pragmatic solution based on an in house option, with savings made from greater efficiencies. Remember, for example,  that much of the promised savings from Crapita are in procurement: savings which are possible only due to the incompetent Tory administration of such financial matters over the last ten years. Properly managed, there is no need of a third party to administer such a role: but it provides healthy returns for Capita, if the company is allowed to take over - at our expense.

Libdem councillor Susette Palmer wanted to have a legal opinion. An officer at the table who was a new face to Mrs Angry, but may well have been a lawyer from Harrow Council, with whom we now share legal services, tried more than once to speak. Eventually she was allowed - by a curiously reluctant Chair - to respond, and pointed out, while Travers stared straight ahead, and gripped his arms across his chest, that the restructuring had already taken place, and until the JR process is completed,and until any decision is made, the programme continues.

Item 7 related to the new structure for Children's Services. Barry Rawlings could not understand the rationale for the division of responsibilities. In response, Director Kate Kennally produced the usual seamless corporate drivel about, God help us, being in the right place to go forward, umbrellas and silos, etcetera, etcetera, blah, blah, blah. 

Travers moved on from gripped arms and sneaking looks at his phone (were you reading my tweets, Andrew?) and then to a moving attitude of hands clasped together, pointing upwards, in prayerful gesture.  

We all closed our eyes, willed Ms Kennally to stop, and, praise the Lord: eventually she did.

Item 8, and the reason for Mrs Angry's attendance. 

A good administration? After the horse has bolted,  force the door shut: how we do things in Broken Barnet.

A report from the Director of Corporate Governance on the very interesting subject of the Code of Conduct. Ah. Yes.

This code is supposed regulate the behaviour of officers and councillors and ensure that a high standard of transparency, probity and ethical values is maintained at all times.

Significantly, the report includes a contribution from the head of CAFT, the Corporate Anti Fraud Team.

Get a load of this. Our Tory councillors and senior management team are seeking to update the Code of Conduct in order to: 

(1) reflect the increased complexity of the workplace post One Barnet implementation; 

(2) clarify standards of behaviour when working with colleagues and stakeholders; and 

(3) revise the process for recording gifts, hospitality and sponsorship. 

Nothing wrong with that, Mrs Angry, you may be thinking: admirable, even, that our council is taking steps to address this matter. 

Well, no, actually, reader, if you are thinking that, then clearly you have not been paying attention to Mrs Angry's most frequently raised objections, over the last couple of years, and in particular during the period of the tender process for One Barnet.

This report, rather astonishingly, is acting to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, requiring only now, as it does, amongst other demands, the introduction of proper procedures to mitigate the risk of conflicts of interest, regarding 'competitor organisations' or partner organisations, for example:

4.5 Soliciting or being solicited for employment – employees are explicitly prohibited from engaging in discussions about future employment with any partner organisation.

4.6 Restraint of trade – Rather than seeking to restrict employees from moving to competitor organisations for a period of six months, the council now reserves the right to take action where an individual’s activities on leaving are detrimental to its interests. 

The lack of such safeguards is a very serious matter which Mrs Angry has been campaigning  for a very long time: in this blog: see here, for example  -

to councillors, senior officers, and in submissions to committees, especially Audit questions to committees, through Freedom of Information requests, and to the external auditor, who has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that the matter was of any real importance. 

And it is, and has been, of real importance. 

We are just reaching the conclusion of a programme of outsourcing of £1 billion worth of public service contracts, the largest, most ambitious act of privatisation ever attempted by a local authority. 

We have just gone through this process with a completely inadequate management of the risks posed by, for example, a conflict of interest, or the risks posed by a vulnerability to corrupt practices.

The council and the auditor have been informed throughout the dialogue period about several instances of officers moving to and from companies involved in the dialogue process. 

In another case, officers were investigated following allegations that they had formed a company with the intention of securing contracts which were then purchasing financial services from the authority.

And what has Barnet Council's response to the issues raised by Mrs Angry?

Let's remind ourselves of her question put to an Audit meeting last September as reported here:

The question:

 "I would like to remind the Chair of the issue of conflicts of interest created by the movement of senior officers of the council to and from the authority and private sector companies supplying or tendering for contracts from the authority, with particular reference to officers engaged in One Barnet outsourcing. I have previously raised the very serious issue of the failure of the council to address the risks presented by such activity, raising my concern both at the audit committee and to the external auditor in person.

Over a period of more than a year,in fact, I have received assurances that these risks will be addressed. I simply do not believe that any effective measures have been introduced, or any retrospective investigation into potential conflicts of interest which may have occurred and compromised the integrity of the dialogues. Furthermore, I understand that another senior officer employed by the council in relation to a recently awarded contract is now alleged to be working as a consultant for that same company within a short while of leaving the council. Without implying any wrongdoing on the part of individuals, it would seem the council is still failing properly to manage the mitigation of this very real risk, and the perception of risk.

I have again asked the auditor to investigate this matter and he has merely responded by stating he would 'look into my point' over the next year. I have replied, on August 31st, that such a lack of urgency is inadequate. I have not, at the time of writing, 11th September, received any reply."

And what reply did Mrs Angry eventually receive, at this meeting, from external auditor Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton? 

He said he did not have to respond. 

Of the issues raised to him as an objection, he said: 'Meh': or in audit speak:

'We have dealt with it as we wish to'.

Mrs Angry is confident that that statement is entirely true.

So: a matter so important that it now requires the Code of Conduct to be written, to take effect immediately after the outsourcing contracts are agreed, was not at all important either to the auditor, or to the council leadership, or the senior management team, during the period of the dialogue regarding £1 billion worth of business.

It does not signify that senior officers have had undeclared or incorrectly declared interests during this period, or that some have taken posts with companies involved in the tender process.

In fact, Mrs Angry may well have imagined these examples of potential conflict, as the Assistant Director of HR responded to a question from Cllr Rawlings on this very point, and assured him that there had been no instances of concern. She also commented that officers had signed declarations during the relevant period. 

This is not correct: as revealed by a (late) response to a FOI request in 2011, the declaration process was not properly observed or monitored. See here: 

Does it matter, now? Yes, yes it damned well does - it mattered then, and it matters now. Without implying any wrongdoing on behalf of any individual officers, clearly if there was no proper scrutiny and transparency in regard to the issues addressed in the new report, the integrity of the entire One Barnet tender process, arguably at least, has been fatally compromised.

Sniff the air: can you smell that too? 

That's the putrid scent of of a truly rotten borough ...  the smell of Broken Barnet.


Now watch and admire your elected representatives and their senior management team in action. Of particular interest look around 23.46 onwards, where you will hear a very welcome assurance that there have been no incidences of soliciting of, or movement between, companies and Barnet Council officers, and declarations of interest were recorded 'once entered into the formal process' of One Barnet outsourcing ...

Sunday 27 January 2013

Truth or dare, in Crapita Barnet

Are you a scrounger? The man from Capita thinks he knows who is, and who isn't ...

Mrs Angry is a little late with this story, due to other distractions this week, but this is too good a tale to ignore: the story of Cornwall County Council, Capita, and an astonishing proposal to use a lie detecting service for phone calls from benefit applicants, the adoption of which has led to the resignation of the Cornish Conservative group leader Fiona Ferguson. Full story in Wednesday's Guardian, see here.

Mrs Angry is a keen follower of political events in Cornwall, for several reasons: a personal attachment to the county (if you need a stroppy blogger moving down there to take over one of those empty holiday homes, please let her know, as she is quite keen to escape the foetid air of Broken Barnet*) ... but Cornwall is also of no little fascination,  because of its parallels with the situation here in Barnet, and the battle we are having over the proposed outsourcing of our public services. Mrs Angry follows the tweets and blogposts of Helston councillor Andrew Wallis with great interest, and recommends that you do the same.

Cornwall's tradition of independent political activity leads to a refreshingly different and less predictable pattern of decisions and policy making than we are lumbered with here in Broken Barnet, where our empty headed Tory councillors blindly follow the party line, and show no interest in intellectual debate, or an approach to public office based on a sense of duty, principles, or even conscience. 

Whereas our own mass privatisation of services has been nodded through by an unquestioning, uninterested group of Tory councillors, the Cornish councillors have taken their role as representatives rather more seriously, listened to the deep concerns of their constituents, and thrown out the proposals.

Cornwall said no to their version of One Barnet, then, but some Cornish Tory councillors are still keen to avail themselves of the temptations offered by outsourcing providers, hence the enthusiasm by leader Jim Currie for the 'VRA' software offered by Capita,  'voice risk analysis' - a system sold to them in order, it is claimed, to prevent fraud and produce huge savings for the council.

How does this work? Capita says that VRA is 'capable of identifying stress and emotion in a caller's voice pattern'. Well: fancy that.

The Tory leadership in Truro is keen to avail itself of this software, and has knocked up a cunning plan to catch out the many scroungers they imagine are making false claims for single person discounts on their council tax bills. 

Telephone interviews will now be conducted with residents, using the 'lie detector' technology to spot potential cases of fraud. The council asserts that this screening of claimants, using a system delivered in a contract worth £50,000, 'could' repay its cost by returning 'at least' £1 million. Oh. 

Where have we heard of this sort of aspirational saving, here in Broken Barnet? Aha: yes ... scattered amongst the 8,000 pages of our own rather larger contract with Crapita, of course. 

Subjecting ordinary residents to such an indignity,  in the course of attempting to secure a benefit to which they are entitled: this is an absolutely outrageous course of action for any local authority to undertake, but it is what we must expect from a future whose ugly face leers over us, courtesy of our Coalition government, looking down with contempt on those of us who are poor, or vulnerable, or ill, or dependent in any way on support, a future where such citizens are necessarily becoming an object of suspicion, a scrounger, a member of an underclass: an outcast. 

How does the detection of stress or emotion in a phone call signify an indication of intention to defraud? Most of Mrs Angry's phone calls, if monitored, would be likely to exhibit high levels of stress, and emotion, especially this week: but this is not due to any interest in fiddling her council tax, or any sort of fraudulent activity ... And many people would naturally be rather uncomfortable in such a conversation, especially if they know they are being scrutinised in such a way - assuming that they will be informed of the detection system.

We are told that 'a number of claimants' will be selected for this humiliating form of assessment. How will this selection be made? On what basis?

We are also told that the new screening process is necessary because, Cornwall County Council asserts:

"research carried out in other areas of the country suggests 4% of single person benefit discounts could be false claims."

Hmm. Whose research? And in other areas of the country: which areas? Are they comparable to Cornwall? And this 'research' only suggests that 4% could be false claims. So unattributable evidence taken from a totally different context is being used as a pretext to pay Capita to subject a number of residents, the vast majority of whom are bona fide claimants, to a screening process which would seem to represent a clear infringement of civil liberties.

There is seemingly little to suggest that this process is effective, anyway: the Guardian article reports that a pilot scheme of this type used by our neighouring borough Harrow was not continued, but more significantly:

"the techniques used by Capita were used by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on a trial basis in 24 local authorities on the processing of housing benefit between August 2008 and December 2010.

A subsequent report said: "From our findings, it is not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP."

What has this to do with Broken Barnet, you may be wondering? Everything. Our Tory councillors are in the process of flogging off up to £750 million worth of our public services to Capita for their profiteering pleasure, and of course Capita is almost certain to get hold of the other package of DRS services as well.

And as we read in the Barnet Press here, despite the heading:

 'Council distances itself from scandal as Capita is discovered to use lie detectors', 

... and a statement from a council spokesperson that: 'there are currently no plans to use the technology in Barnet', our deputy Leader, Councillor Daniel Thomas, claims he has not heard of VRA but is quoted as saying:

'It is part of our contract that Capita will look closely at groups of residents where there may be an element of fraud. The council offers several million pounds of discounts and over the duration of the contract Capita would be able to save the council a lot of money by tackling fraud.'

If you are a connoisseur of Barnet Tory easycouncilspeak, this statement will set the alarm bells ringing: Thomas does not reject the possibility of using such technology ... so watch out, citizens of Broken Barnet: Big Brother will more than likely be listening in to you, in the near future.

You will note that lie detection monitoring software is not offered by Capita for the use of local taxpayers and voters when obliged to listen to the utterances of our Tory councillors.

Mrs Angry would imagine that a pilot scheme which offered this facility would prove to be highly effective here in Broken Barnet, where truth is a commodity in short supply, and so many corporate statements, so much false information, so much obscured information, are routinely used to mislead the residents of this borough.

Take for example the interesting statements made by senior Tory councillors at last week's Full Council meeting, and elsewhere, in regard to the Judicial Review. Leader Cornelius was reportedly informing the councillors on Tuesday that it was irresponsible to hold up the One Barnet programme by this legal challenge, that it would cost tax payers £1 million a month: how dare we, the plebs, question his judgement in consigning the next ten years of our lives to Capita, without any mandate, or consultation? 

Well, hard luck, Richard: we do dare, see?

And then deputy leader John Thomas has claimed that the council has secured an expedited hearing for the JR, which will take place in the second part of March.

Oh dear: Mrs Angry's patent pending crapitacrapometer is bleeping ... 

Naughty Councillor Cornelius: where have you found this £1million figure?

Ah: lost 'savings'. That is rather like the lost lottery winnings we all have on a Saturday night when we omit to buy our ticket: an aspirational fortune lost, no more, and besides, as blogger Mr Reasonable has pointed out, when he has previously asked the cost of any delay to implementation, he was assured that any loss would be made up in the course of the programme. 

So £1 million a month will not be billed to the taxpayers of Broken Barnet. 

Which is just as well, as we learnt a the same meeting that we are being forced to hand over the staggering amount of £50,000 PER DAY to external advisers in the course of this reckless programme.

As for the equally over imaginative John Thomas: the Judicial Review is taking place within the expected timetable, as all JRs do. 

And here is an interesting fact which Thomas chooses not to share with residents and fellow councillors: Mrs Angry is very reliably informed that up to 70% of all applications for Judicial Review are rejected as having no case to answer. 

The very fact that this application has been successful indicates the strength of the persuasive argument that this particular challenge presents. 

Our Tory councillors are worried. 

They should be. 

But it is an iniquitous statement to suggest that to dare to apply for such a review is irresponsible: this action has only become necessary because of the inaction of Tory councillors, and a serious failure properly to scrutinise and manage the One Barnet programme, and worst of all, their failure to comply with the statutory requirement for meaningful consultation with the people whose lives will bear the impact of this wholescale privatisation of public services.

When this case goes to court, the highest legal authority in the land will consider the arguments regarding this programme, fraught as it is with a risk of failure on the most catastrophic scale - so: if the judges have decided there is a case to answer - well, there is a case to answer, and whatever the outcome, the law which binds us all to the truth, and the cause of justice, must and will be obeyed.

*NB, Tory councillors: don't get your hopes up just yet - Mrs Angry still has work to do here in Broken Barnet ...