Thursday 28 February 2013

Because they could: Playing House, the One Barnet way

Picture the scene. 

Look: it is just before Mrs Angry's fourth birthday, and her parents have taken her to the local toyshop to choose a present. Mrs Angry is feverish with excitement, and wanders about the shop with gleeful anticipation.

What would you rather have, Mrs Angry is asked: a lovely rocking horse - or this dolls' house? 

Mrs Angry immediately says yes, please - the rocking horse, as this was something she had always really, really wanted. 

Ah, well, Mrs Angry, say her parents: you are having the dolls' house, anyway. 


Well, thought the infant blogger: why did you bother asking me then? This is hardly a very good demonstration of the process of consultation, is it? Pretending to ask me what I want, and then telling me what I will have?

They won, of course, and the dolls' house came home, and has been well played with by Mrs Angry, and then Miss Angry, but still, all these years later: it rankles, frankly. (See above, with Mr and Mrs Green, the rather sinister squatter/occupiers of the house, recognised as licensees by Miss Angry. Yes, Mr Green is a serial killer on the run, hiding in the anonymity of suburban Broken Barnet. He is standing for council as a Tory candidate in 2014).

And here we all are now, playing with the One Barnet House of Fun. 

Did we ask for it? We did not. 

We were told we would have the House of Fun, and then when we said we did not want it, they ignored us anyway.

Now they are trying to tell us that they did ask us, and that we said we did not mind if we had to live in the house, and at the same time they also say that they did not have to ask us anyway, as they are our parents, and know better than us.

Such is life in the One Barnet House of Fun: not an innocent world of childhood play, of course, but a place of ill repute, a house of entertainment. And sitting on the sofa of the One Barnet House of Fun, and indeed, queuing in the street outside, there are, as we speak, a number of impatient gentleman callers from Crapita, tapping their feet and feeling rather frustrated. Oh dear. 

Since the reality of the Judicial Review has hit home, our Tory councillors and their senior management team have been in a state of shock. 

The arrogance which has allowed them to pursue such a massive programme of privatisation with neither mandate from the electorate, nor any consultation with residents, has led them to believe they were immune from the threat of legal challenge. 

They have boasted that they have no 'Plan B' should anything happen to prevent the £1 billion outsourcing programme from going ahead, because they simply do not consider it to be necessary: their decisions should not be challenged, and the consideration of an alternative strategy represents an unthinkable affront to their authority.

What sort of administration ventures so far, with a committment to such a huge undertaking, without the safeguard of a course of policy should the privatisation not proceed?

An administration that is desperate for the programme to proceed at all cost. And why, we must ask ourselves, should that be the case? What is the motivation behind such frantic propelling of our borough into the hands of the private sector?

The Tory cabinet members and the senior officers who have been promoting this policy will tell you it is because there is no alternative, that we need to make drastic cuts in spending, and One Barnet is the only way in which to achieve those savings. This is a lie.

First of all, One Barnet, in its previous existence as Futureshape, was never intended to be a programme of widescale privatisation. 

In truth, One Barnet is not Futureshape by another name, a rebranding, it is something else altogether, a changeling that has been supplanted in the cradle by the evil faeries of outsourcing. 

Whatever the purpose of Futureshape, it predates the recent crisis of funding, and yet the one ideological thread which links the two continues to wind us into the tangled mess in which we now find ourselves. 

The latest pressures to find 'efficiencies' in budget have been claimed as the primary motivation for the two massive contracts, and yet: the most logical, most pragmatic course of action which could be followed in order to make thes efficiencies has been studiously ignored: there has been no in house comparator.

The OJEU tender notice for NSCSO, the £750 million bundle of customer services, was rushed out almost unnoticed amongst the debris of the MetPro procurement crisis, in which a whole culture of contractual and procurement non compliance had been exposed. 

Countless millions of pounds have been paid out, in other words, by this council to private contractors and suppliers without proper evaluation of value for money, or performance, or rate of payment. We will never know how much of local tax payers' money has been squandered in this way.

No senior officer lost his or her position when this massive failure was uncovered: and instead of 'taking ownership' of this problem, and seeking to rebuild an efficiently run system of financial management, the council determined instead immediately to start the competitive dialogue process. 

Why the hurry, Mrs Angry, you may be asking? Why indeed? Why was it, nearly a year later, more non compliant contracts were being revealed, and the council voted through a 'waiver' to allow these to continue?

This was in case, they told us, it caused a delay in the outsourcing programme. A reasonable person, of course,  might well have thought that a delay should then have taken place.

As it happens, the lucky winners of the NSCSO bid, our new friends at Capita Plc, have won the contract with the promise that they will make lots and lots of efficiencies from ... what was it now ... ah, yes: procurement. Marvellous. And of course they will make big fat profit from this for their shareholders, at our expense, whilst doing so.

That reasonable person who thought a delay should have taken place once the procurement cock up was discovered might also now be thinking something equally reasonable: why did Barnet so quickly ignore the option of an in house proposal for making efficiencies, and in particular in the process of procurement? 

A properly run in house service would have retain savings for taxpayers, rather than the shareholders of Crapita, would retain local jobs, and retain the skills and local experience necessary to deliver an high standard of service for residents. Why has this option been so determinedly ignored, do you suppose?

Clearly the answer to this is because a commitment to the outsourcing programme, for whatever reasons, holds more importance for our Tory leadership, and our senior management team, than the need to consider an alternative policy, and they are obsessed with the need to pursue this objective, at whatever longterm cost to the borough, and whatever reckless risks are posed by such a terrifying degree of bondage, bound by a contract of perhaps fifteen years in length. 

A few weeks ago, in a speech to the New Local Government Network annual conference in Spitalfields, Eric Pickles made a very interesting and significant comment, in what might be considered to be yet another jibe at what clearly he views at the enfant terrible of Tory councils, the empty headed administration here in Broken Barnet - see here, as reported by Public

 "Eric Pickles has criticised some Conservative-run councils, claim­ing they are pursuing outsourcing at the expense of service quality.

The Communities Secretary told the NLGN annual conference that some authorities had simply outsourced services because they could, rather than out of any desire to provide better services.

He said: "I sometimes get very impatient with Tory authorities. It does seem to me that our job as councillors is to ensure we get what we expect in terms of public services.

"It's not about what the badge is on the van; it's about what the service is to the public. I have never minded whether something was provided in-house or externally, so long as the service was good and at a reasonable price."

But he added: "Sometimes I think we have overstepped the mark and tried to turn the public sector into a private sector ethos."

The truth is that government policy has moved away from the high risk, all encompassing  outsourcing programmes that have inspired the only begetters of One Barnet. Only in this borough, of course, wallowing in the stagnant backwaters of Tory ideology, would you find so much enthusiasm for embracing an outdated concept like this, and one designed on such an unprecedented scale.

In their fury over the suspension in the One Barnet programme caused by the pending Judicial Review, Barnet has responded in predictable style, seeking to denigrate the action taken by the claimant pursuing the challenge. 

Maria Nash, the disabled resident in whose name the review is being taken, has been the subject of a rather unbalanced article in the local Times paper last week, described as 'a protestor and member of the Barnet Alliance for Public Services', and accompanied by the claim, uncritically reported, that:

'Budget papers published this week show the council expects to lose £2.2million in savings even if the appeal is unsuccessful but will be forced to find £15million-a-year if its decision is found to be unlawful.'

The claim that £2.2 million will be lost by the delay involved in waiting for the JR is totally untrue, as demonstrated by an earlier response given to a question by Mr Reasonable on this point, and the attempt to frighten people with a £15 million annual sum to be found is of course another red herring: they are also making random threats about the huge levels of redundancies that will ensue should the JR be successful. 

If the council's failure to engage with residents over this immensely important issue has taken them to the High Court, that is their responsibility, and there most certainly are alternative ways of making savings without huge cuts to services or massive redundancies. And indeed if they were to resort to such actions, it would be a demonstration of malice and deliberate vengeance, and an act of irrationality that would no doubt also result in further legal challenge.

Mrs Angry has met Mrs Nash at a couple of local community events over the last few years: at a borough police Safer Neighbourhood workshop, for example. She is not 'a protestor' in the sense implied in the article. She is not even a member of the Barnet Alliance. She is, despite the difficulties posed by her disability, an active resident with a real and admirable commitment to making a positive difference to the community in which she lives. She has decided to challenge the One Barnet programme out of concern for the impact that this reckless sell off of our public services on her life, and the lives of every resident of this borough. It is not an act undertaken lightly, and demonstrates a commendable sense of public spirit. 

If only our elected representatives paid to sit on the Tory benches in the Town Hall and take decisions on our behalf had the same sense of responsibility.

As for our senior management team: why are they so determined to support a programme of privatisation, rather than allow an appraisal of the case for an in house alternative? Were they biased towards a private sector option? Were there sufficient safeguards in place to ensure protection from conflicts of interest that may ensue from those officers with links to the private sector? This is an important point of public interest, and an area which Barnet has refused to address in the eyes of many of us who have followed the course of this programme.

Why have senior officers been allowed to move to and from companies involved in the tender process? There have been concerns raised about this for a year and a half, and nothing has been done about it, other than the repetitions of assurance that all officers are obliged to make declarations of interest. As was demonstrated by response to a Freedom of Information request, this clearly was not the case, and as demonstrated by yet another senior officer involved in the One Barnet programme recently moving directly from Barnet to the programme's implementation partners Agilisys, no policy was put in place to mitigate the risk of conflict of interest, or the perception of conflict of interest that such a move might incur.

There will at last be a new code of conduct to address these concerns: to be in place after the dialogues have concluded. Why only now?

At a General Functions committee meeting in January, as reported here in this post,, a senior officer from Human Resources denied,in response to a question by Labour's Barry Rawlings, that there had been any examples of movement between Barnet and any bidding companies, since the formal process had begun. 

This meeting was filmed, and after inspecting the footage, Mrs Angry wrote to challenge what might appear to be this officer's rather misleading statements to the committee, a challenge updated by the most recent example regarding Agilisys, the One Barnet implementation consultants who, according to Mr Reasonable's last post here were paid a staggering £456,131.45 of our money for their efforts, last month. That is £22,800 per working day. 

It should be noted that of course the individual officers who have taken employment with these companies are doing nothing unlawful, nor were such moves in breach of any council regulations - because there were none in place.

There has been no response to the last questions put to the officer from Human Resources, nor to the same questions put last week to Mr Andrew Travers, the Chief Executive.

The message is clear: please don't ask any awkward questions, Mrs Angry - this is the House of Fun, and we intend to carry on  having fun, as long as we possibly can.

Judicial Review: 19th to the 21st of March, the High Court. 

Put it in your diary.

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