Friday 29 March 2013

You may not like the answers - and in future you may not ask the questions: last night's constitution committee

Mrs Angry was late for last night's Constitution meeting, having been to another meeting elsewhere. As she hurried out of Hendon tube station, up to the Town Hall, she was surprised to see, in the cafe next door to the station, the young Tory councillor Andrew Strongolou sitting back in a chair and chatting with a companion. Funny, she thought: is he not a member of the Constitution committe, whose meeting must be well underway by now?

In fact Councillor Strongolou (right, above) arrived fifteen minutes late for this meeting, well after Mrs Angry, and took his place silently at the committee table, making no contribution. 

Mrs Angry thought back with wry amusement to the recent Full Council meeting in which the apparently unemployed Councillor Strongolou asked a dozen questions about THE UNIONS and their malign influence on council activities. This, citizens of Broken Barnet,is of course a valid subject of public interest, whereas the punctuality and contribution of elected members paid a handsome allowance to attend meetings on your behalf, is of no consequence.

The committee meeting was underway, with public question time: public questions about the right to ask public questions. A variation on the usual theme of Broken Barnet - the perpetual fight between residents and their elected representatives over the right to engage in the democratic process. 

Here in Broken Barnet the only dialogue allowed, of course, is not between voters and the council, but a competitive dialogue between the council and the private sector companies slavering at the bit to avail themselves of the profits offered by running our public services. Communication between resident and council is irrelevant: we are the commodity for sale, and we have no voice.

To ensure the obstruction of any attempt by residents to find their voice, and interrupt the conversation between our council and their would be suitors at Crapita, our right to take part in any meaningful consultation or public debate with our Tory councillors has been ruthlessly removed, over the last couple of years, piece by piece. This has been an outrageous, and  deliberate campaign, following the timetable of the One Barnet programme of outsourcing. 

It is no coincidence that, despite the evidence given in the High Court last week, in regard to the Judicial Review, detailing the lack of consultation with residents, this week the Tories acted to suppress even further the opportunities for any public challenge of their actions. 

Capita has already won, subject to the outcome of the JR, a contract for up to £750 million worth of our public services in the NSCSO package. There is now the DRS contract to win, offering a tempting array of services, including the profits to be made from deceased residents in permanent occupation of the grounds of Hendon Crematorium, in a deal worth up to another £250 million. 

Mrs Angry had the unexpected pleasure, and a great deal of amusement, to be honest, the other day, sitting on the tube next to some hapless Crapita Symonds executive, reading through his documents, and seeing how keen they are to grab hold of this contract. 

Barnet is keen to smooth the way for the conclusion of this tender process. This entails a silencing of criticism from residents who have any inkling of what is going on. And here we were, therefore, being told that from now on it will be almost impossible for any of us to question our elected members at scrutiny committees, which offer one of the last remaining opportunities to hold our councillors to account for the decisions they are taking on our behalf.

 As public question time had began, there was an immediate problem. The Chair, Melvin Cohen, tried to rule that only one supplementary question would be allowed per person, no matter how many questions they had submitted. This caused outrage, as such a rule has never before existed. The newly appointed officers advising the councillors appeared to have no grasp of the relevant regulations, or indeed of the constitution, but tried to justify the unjustifiable attempt to silence the further quesions raised by residents. 

Members of the public present erupted into very vocal objections. Councillors looked panic stricken. 'We have heard what you have had to say', said Councillor Cohen, with a palpable lack of interest. 

Maryellen Salter, previously head of internal audit, in her new governance post, insisted that no rights were being taken away. These were anyway only 'proposals', she observed. 

We were then informed that in future, if these proposals were adopted, we would not be allowed to put questions to our elected representatives, but would be able to 'make comments'. One resident remarked that in effect, that was what happened anyway, as we did not receive answers to our questions.

And how, asked Tirza Waisel, from Barnet Alliance, does all this fit with your views of local democracy?

Officer Andrew Nathan ventured the interesting opinion that the council was not removing any rights, but 'regularising' them.

As to the questions posed to our councillors? You may not like the answers, said Melvin Cohen, but ... But what? No, Councillor Cohen: we do not like the answers, in fact.

End of questions, and now a chance for speakers to address the committee. John Dix, also known as blogger Mr Reasonable made a magnificent speech.

"The amendments proposed tonight will reduce democracy in Barnet. 
I will start with amendments to article 3. 

You have amended 3.01d from public participation to public engagement, a subtle shift which appears to show the council’s true motives, a rejection of public participation. The rest of the paragraph appears to contradict proposed changes you are making elsewhere in the constitution. It states that:

Citizens have the right to ask questions and make comments at committee meetings, make representations at Residents’ Forums and contribute to investigations initiated by Overview and Scrutiny Committees (such as Panels or Task and Finish Groups). 

However, other amendment you are seeking to introduce tonight will stop residents asking questions at Overview & Scrutiny  Committee meetings and make it even more difficult to ask questions at residents forums. 

At article 10, residents forums, you are seeking to move the deadline for asking question back from 6pm the day before the forum to 10am two working days before the forum. Until two years ago, when you imposed restrictions of residents forums, residents could ask questions on the evening. This was especially useful for 1 in 5 who do not have access to the internet.  You have made no attempt to identify if the changes you made 2 years ago have been successful yet you seek to impose even more restrictive practices without consultation. 

Moving onto article 6, clause 6.03 sets out the specific functions of overview and scrutiny committees including the requirement “to consider and implement mechanisms to encourage and enhance community participation in policy development”. Indeed, Mr Craig Cooper’s statement at the Judicial Review last week said that one of the roles of overview and scrutiny was “to amplify the voices and concerns of the public”.

Yet as part of these proposals you are seeking to stop members of the public asking questions on call ins and pre decision scrutiny. 

That’s not amplifying the voices of the public that’s gagging the public. Many of the call ins are delegated powers reports which will never be subjected to public questioning without call ins. As for ruling out pre decision scrutiny questions that may be a resident’s only opportunity. That is because clause 5.1 of the public participation rules specific excludes the public asking questions “On any matter which has been the subject of a decision of any committee in the previous six months” and that rule was used to prevent me asking question on a post decision scrutiny review in December 2010. On that occasion it was only thanks to the common sense and discretion of Cllr Rayner who agreed to suspend public participation rules that enabled me to ask my questions.

So there you have it. You want to stop us asking questions on pre decisions and call ins and rules already prevent residents from asking questions on post decisions so that means no public questions at scrutiny full stop.

These latest proposals send one very clear signal and that is you want to eliminate public participation in Barnet. Two years ago you ignored the views of the public and pushed ahead with the draconian restrictions to the residents forums. They are now in their death throes and you want to kill them off permanently. With no outlet to question the council in residents forums this led to more public questions  at Overview and Scrutiny. So your response is to kill off participation in those meetings too. Perhaps that in turn will lead to far more FOI requests. 

In summary these amendments seem to be an incredibly ill timed response considering the events that took place in the Royal Courts of Justice last week. Legal challenge increasingly looks like the only way residents can get their questions answered in Barnet. Please think very carefully before agreeing to these amendments as in time they may prove to be disruptive and a very costly error of judgement."
The Tory councillors, including leader Richard Cornelius,  looked on blankly. Their lack of sympathy is perfectly rational, of course. They want to ignore the views of citizens, and see no duty to consult, or to abide by the expressed wishes of the people they represent. They have been elected to do as they please, collect their allowances, and take their turns at playing Mayor. They are not there for our benefit.
Barnet Alliance stalwart Julian Silverman also addressed the committee, putting the situation in Barnet in a global context, and remarking, to the general amusement of the public gallery, that there is more control for citizens over their affairs in Cyprus than in Broken Barnet.
Veteran activist and trouble maker Mr Shepherd hovered near the table, with his bag of cuttings from the Morning Post, wanting to make a statement. He was told he could not.
I can only claim the right of a council tax payer, then,  he commented, resigned to his fate.

That's right, said Melvin Cohen. 
He sat down.
And now Councillor Cohen had a problem. 

Due to the unwelcome objections raised by members of the public, the meeting, which started at the unusually early hour of 6pm, had apparently over run the short amount of time alloted by him. He had an engagement elsewhere. The democratic process must be halted, therefore. 

Clearly in Broken Barnet, as seen by the examples of Councillors Strongolou and Cohen, our Tory councillors expect meetings to be arranged to their convenience, rather than the taxpayers who pay for their allowances.
Against a backdrop of barely concealed derision from the public gallery, he arranged for another meeting, on the 10th April, where the proposals would be reconsidered.
Mrs Angry suggests that residents attend this meeting, having submitted questions, and perhaps exercising their right to speak, a right which has not, as yet, been removed by amendment of the constitution. The failure to correct this oversight will of course be addressed at the earliest opportunity, here in Broken Barnet, where the mute submission of subject citizens to our Tory council is their expectation, and our duty.
Of course by the 10th April, Judge Underhill may well have given his findings on the Judicial Review of One Barnet. What chances then, one might speculate, of silencing the residents of Broken Barnet?
Not much, to be frank, Councillor Cohen. Don't put anything in your social diary for April 1oth: looks like it is going to be a long night. 

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