Tuesday 5 March 2013

One Barnet: Your Choice - no choice, but praying for a miracle

At the end of last week the news broke of a disastrous development in the One Barnet programme - the financial implosion of our incompetent council's adult care service company 'Your Choice', launched a year ago amidst much self congratulation, and a reckless lack of credible business planning. The approval for this new launch, of course, was exempt from call in by elected members of the council.

This disastrous venture, a genetically modified, hybrid body of profit making privatisation and public sector partnership, is yet another dark omen for One Barnet's massive outsourcing projects, which comprise up to £1 billion worth of our local services given away in two bundles: one snapped up by Capita, the other shortly to be decided, and very likely to be given to the same lucky bidder.

What went wrong with 'Your Choice'? Why has a body set up to extract profit from the provision of care and support to the most vulnerable and needy residents of this borough failed so spectacularly, and so quickly, requiring the urgent injection of a million pounds from Barnet, that is to say from you and me, the taxpayers, in order to maintain the service. Why have the clients who are so dependent on this body been exposed to the real risks posed by the inevitable deterioration of service that will now ensue, in the wake of significant staffing changes, and how on earth can the workers employed by 'Your Choice', already low paid, be expected to accept worse pay and conditions, including the imposition of a seven day working week?

So many questions. And where will we find the answers? 

By an unhappy coincidence, at least from the point of view of Barnet Council,  the quarterly meeting of the Barnet Group Board, the 'overarching' body which is responsible for 'Your Choice', was due to take place last night, at Barnet House.

Some residents, including Mrs Angry, discovered that this meeting is, in theory, at least, open to members of the public, and so we decided to attend. The Group's website asked for any visitors to register their interest in coming: Mrs Angry duly rang and did so. She declined to give her name, and indeed considered doing the same when asked again on arriving at the meeting: why should this be necessary? As we discovered, this was partly out of bewilderment - because no one had ever before expressed the wish to attend a Barnet Group meeting, probably because they had no idea they could.

Two other members of the public were waiting to attend the meeting, one of them the elderly parent of two children with special needs, clearly worn down with the responsibility this has brought, and in need of support which was not available. He wanted simply to see for himself how the decisions were made that had direct impact on his family's life.

 And who makes these decisions?

The Barnet Group Board consists of members and directors, unelected, nominated and appointed by Barnet Council. 

The Chief Executive of this group is Tracey Lees, who earns a fabulous level of salary, which according to a FOI response to Mr Mustard last June, in her capacity as CE of Barnet Homes, part of the Barnet Group, pays her around or above £100,000 per annum. 

The Director of Operations for 'Your Choice' is Amanda Jackson: she is understood to be leaving her post. A glance at her cv reveals her background is in working with people with disabilities rather than high level management. She helped create 'Your Choice' while working directly for Barnet. 

Troy Henshall is the director of Business services for the Barnet Group, and an executive director on all three boards. He claims he is aiming 'to bring a commercial and business balance to the Group', so he must be feeling rather disappointed.

The Vice Chair of 'Your Choice' is Nigel Turner, who works for a charitable social care organisation and has, we are told on the website, a diploma in Company Direction from the Institute of Directors. Handy. His direction of 'Your Choice' would appear to be less than successful so far, but he was not present to defend himself, apparently absent because on holiday.

Also present was the acting Chair of the Barnet Group, Terry Rogers: sorry Terry Rogers OBE, as he is styled - Mr Rogers took early retirement from a long career in public sector housing, is involved in several charities, is a senior magistrate in the City of London, and,  interestingly, is involved with the Hampstead Garden Suburb Theatre.

The vice-chair of Barnet Homes is Sharon Slotnick, who has experience of legal advocacy and community organising, and apparently sees her priorities as 'raising standards and increasing resources'. Again, not quite the result she must have wanted to see with 'Your Choice'.

Who else? Derek Rust is Director of Operations for Barnet Homes, with a background in housing, and there was also a director who is a carer named Rebecca Touloui. 

Also listed in some sources as the Chair of The Barnet Group is a Mr Deep Sagar, but he was not present. It is unclear why Mr Rogers is acting as chair in his absence.

Two councillors are members of the Board: Labour's Ross Houston, and Tory Mayor Brian Schama. Cllr Schama did not attend. Perhaps he was on holiday with Nigel Turner.

As we waited for the meeting to begin, the members of the Board passed us and entered the meeting room. There was a palpable lack of welcome, it must be said, and the meeting began, behind closed doors, without asking us to come in. We went in anyway. 

Tirza Waisel, from the Barnet Alliance, had arrived - as did up to a dozen others eventually - she looked at the chairs which had been placed at some distance from the table, and suggested we move closer.  We did, and sat right up front, in their faces. The resulting hostility from some members was evident. To be fair, though, the acting Chair, Terry Rogers, made the point of coming over, shaking hands and welcoming us to the meeting. He seemed like a decent, well meaning man.

Tracey Lees seemed to be rather less pleased to see us, and fixed Mrs Angry with an unrelentingly cool glare throughout the meeting. Ooh, Mrs Angry was scared.

There followed the farce of a carry on as normal committee meeting. The scene was reminiscent of the band on the Titanic playing 'Abide With Me' on deck, as the ship slipped inexorably into the icy waters and all the passengers in steerage were drowning, in short: typical One Barnet denial: lots of talk about 'perceptions', the need to adopt new targets, bla bla bla ...

Oh, hello: Mrs Angry's ears pricked up: Amanda Jackson mentioned 'Your Choice'. Nothing about the financial disaster, and the failure to screw a big fat profit out of disabled residents ... no, no: we must think about the sickness records of the staff who are paid next to nothing to provide these vital services to vulnerable clients. Sickness levels are too high, you see. Not getting value for money out of the workers. Not sure what the hourly pay is, but Mrs Angry imagines it is at the other end of the scale from Ms Tracey Lees' handsome reward.

There was some discussion about the increasing problem of homelessness in the borough. In fact this is a rapidly increasing issue for every local authority, as the impact of the economic climate and the changes in the benefit system begins to show.

The acting Chair of the Board thought that young homeless people were being 'encouraged' to come to Barnet. Not sure where the evidence for this assertion was, however. It was agreed that North London was a 'hotbed of homelessness'. 

This is a situation bound to be made worse, sadly, by the impact of changes to the benefit system, including the obscenely unfair Bedroom Tax. Barnet has identified at least 1,000 residents who are likely to be affected by this new measure. (In fact a press release from Labour today provides evidence that suggests there are around 2,000 households in Barnet that will suffer.)

How are we going to address this issue, here in Barnet, we wondered?

Derek Rust warned that BME (Black, minority, ethnic) groups were expected to fall further into rental arrears than other groups. Really: why? 

Debt counselling? Ah, yes. 

We will be working with voluntary and faith groups on this, we were told.

Will we? Hello: Mrs Angry's blogging antennae started to bleep.

We will, apparently, be relying on the kindness of strangers to counsel the undeserving poor when they fall into the jaws of debt, thanks to the government's new assault on the welfare state.

These strangers come in strange guises. 

Here in Broken Barnet we will help our feckless, debt ridden poor people - the ones who are not fortunate enough to live in Hampstead Garden Suburb, but in the rather less affluent pockets of deprivation, which constitute the unacceptable face of Broken Barnet ... we will help them by referring them to what Mr Rust referred to as 'Christians Against Poverty' ...

 Mrs Angry sat up. 

Tracey Lees darted another furtive glare at her along the length of the table ... 

This is a non denominational charity, he assured the Board  ... mmm, thought Mrs Angry ... Christians Against Poverty ... that'll help, in one of the most culturally diverse local authorities in the country ... (wonder if there are any Christians For Poverty groups, just in the interests of balance?)

The public part of the meeting, including a breakneck summary of the money - our money - going down the plughole of 'Your Choice', was pointless. No questions were asked. Members of the public were not entitled to ask any questions, of course. This board meeting does not want to be scrutinised, or watched, or held to account. 

Significantly, no member of the Board was willing or able to speak to the item on audit and risk - and this told you everything you needed to know about the competence of the Board, and the background to why everything has gone tits up, in this vital support service. A high risk project, with a deeply flawed business plan, run by an unaccountable board of directors: a warning of what can and will go wrong when market forces are applied to the provision of care.

But back to the consolation of religion, in times of hardship ...

Christians against Poverty, or 'CAP', as it is more familiarly known,  has something of a track record, in fact. 

You may recall the story last year, in which this evangelical Christian charity was dropped by AdviceUk because it appeared that the debt counselling service that it offered came with a price: 'an emotional fee' of prayer with counsellors. CAP denied that this was so, but a visit to their website reveals that:

"Combining CAP's expertise with the love and message of the church we have a life transforming mix. Every year we help over 20,000 people to get out of debt and see 500 people become Christians through our Debt Help work as well as 10,000 people benefiting from our CAP Money Course."

Not a bad return, is it? 1 in 40 people helped to become born again Christians.

This is, in truth, a frightening indication of the world to come, here in Broken Barnet. We will betray the most vulnerable members of our community, and punish them for failing to deliver a healthy profit out of their vulnerability. We will then abandon them, and counsel them to turn to Jesus for the salvation of their souls, while we pay ourselves massive salaries from the taxes raised on their behalf.

There are times, citizens of Broken Barnet, when comment becomes superfluous.

Work it out yourselves.


Cneifiwr said...

Another example of the importance of bloggers in scrutinising local government - well done to all involved for uncovering this. In Carmarthenshire where things have taken a similar turn the council has been cutting support for CAB and diverting funds to the evangelicals - all in a very opaque way of course. It would be interesting to know if Barnet is doing something similar.

John said...

It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. We truly live in the L'oreal era where incompetents get paid 6-figure salaries in the public and 3rd sector because they believe they are "worth it".

The fact that these idiots don't have the skills to audit/risk asset their own projects is sadly something I've seen over the years. In the past, it was small projects which didn't much matter in the scheme of things but now that whole departments are being privatised then it becomes very scary indeed.

The lack of skills highlighted by yourself in this board of directors isn't surprising either. Networking trumps everything else it seems.

Keep the pressure on the idiots Mrs Angry - scrutiny is the one tool left open to the citizens.

Mrs Angry said...

Cneifiwr, yes - another reason to twin Carmarthenshire with Broken Barnet ... there is a big difference between a body with a religious ethos providing practical help to those who need it, as a supplementary form of support,simply as an act of charity or philanthropy, and a church group that believes it has a duty to evangelise doing so by offering to step in where councils have cut services, and using the opportunity to make converts.

John - frankly the only proper course of action is to take the services in question back in house.