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 ...

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