Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Golden Share - or: words have meanings - Cabinet meeting Part Two

Dr Azi Khatiri made the last speech, urged on by an impatient Cllr Cornelius, who had somewhere to go to, it seemed, illustrated by Mrs Cornelius reportedly pointing at her watch at a later stage of the proceedings.

We pay our taxes, said Azi, in good trust ... She accused the councillors of betraying that trust, and prioritising companies' profits and shareholders' dividends. What is there to protect us, she asked?

The councillors looked on, silently.

She was told to stop.

We shall overcome, she promised, as she stepped away.

It was time for another presentation from Pam Wharfe, the Director For Place. (Director For Place, I ask you: how up themselves these people are). Mrs Angry's heart sank. The Director opened her mouth and lots of One Barnet shaped words spewed out onto the table, making a neat little pile of jumbled up concepts and meaningless jargon.

 Cllr Cornelius asked someone not to take a photograph of the public gallery. 

To be fair, it was a pretty horrible sight, stuffed full as it was with One Barnet executives, Capita spies and grumpy looking men from Trowers and Hamlin.  

Are you worried about your appearance fee, asked Mr Shepherd, as he always does.

Time for Captain Cooper to step into the breach. He adopted a steady, but beautifully soothing tone, the sort of approach you might use to placate a small child having a tantrum - or perhaps a badger, just before you cull it - and addressed the Tory Cabinet in carefully rehearsed words. He kept referring in hushed tones throughout the evening to 'the relationship' they were going to experience with Crapita. Not a business partnership, see: or a marriage between equals: a casual relationship, slightly seedy, but replete with mutual satisfaction. An abusive relationship, suggested a member of the public.

Cooper talked blithely of what might happen in Years 6 and 7 of the new age of Capitaville.

Will you still be here, Craig, wondered Mrs Angry aloud, and rather tactlessly?

... swiftly moving without comment over the awkward subject of KPIs (those crucial measurements, half of which are still in dispute) the Captain explained once more the story of the 'Golden Share' in the Joint Venture, which is like a golden ticket from Willy Wonka, or in this case Paul Pindar, to visit the chocolate factory of Capitaville, and try some of the sweets, and then disappear, kidnapped by the Oompa Loompas, turned into fudge. (Yes: and Mrs Angry expects to be offered an everlasting gobstopper).

Capitaville: artist's impression, courtesy of our implementation partners

Time for the councillors to try to formulate some questions. Robert Rams had nothing to ask about the multi million pound contract he was endorsing, but wanted only to demand why no opposition member had asked to speak? He had a point. Apparently Labour or Libdem councillors had the right to address the committee, but had chosen not to. Labour, as Mrs Angry found out later, had decided to leave the questioning to residents, being mindful of the fact, unlike the Tories, that they have few enough opportuntities to engage in such meetings. Whether or not that was a wise decision is debatable. It might be thought that the point of opposition is to oppose, and be seen to oppose. Still: luckily, residents were doing it for themselves.

Rams again refused to pose a question but attempted to make a political jibe. He began a petulant rant about 'the silent majority' he claims he represents, people he meets on the doorstep who raise no objection to One Barnet. That, Mrs Angry pointed out, is because you have not informed them about it, as the judge noted in the High Court ... Silent majority: that is what the Tories want from their residents, of course: silence, tacit and unquestioning approval of everything they do.

Councillor Dean Cohen's turn. This was a rather baffling contribution. Dean was only worried about the future provision, in Capitaville, of grit. Dean likes grit: when he was Councillor Coleman's environment lackey, he was given a supply of grit to play with, and allowed to invent a diy grit distribution scheme with shovels and buckets, and he has never quite got over the heady excitement.

Oh God, moaned Mrs Angry, please: see the bigger picture. A flash of rebellion from Cllr Cohen: You can laugh, he said, which she was, uncontrollably, these are the things people raise on the doorstep ...

That's because, repeated Mrs Angry, you don't tell them about anything else ...

Councillor Rajput asked one of his questions which always cause listeners' eyes to glaze over and induce a sense of losing the will to live, to which Mrs Angry clearly did not listen, as there is nothing in her notes, but the response from Ms Pam Wharfe caught her attention, as - yes, she did, she referred to a profound challenge which is clearly her responsibility: how we maintain the place that is Barnet?

The place that is Barnet.

Ms Wharfe is of course - in case you did not know - Director For Place. Not just any Place -in the Place that Is Barnet. 

The rest of the response escaped Mrs Angry, who had stuck her fingers in her ears, but before she managed that, she heard a murmured mention of demand pressures going forward ... 

Fingers out and, hello, an intriguing throwaway reference to another new relationship - one between Capita Symonds and Barnet Homes, over 'land'? What's that all about, then? 

Ah: an interesting question, at last to Captain Cooper: perhaps the most important question of all - what would happen in the case of 'multiple service failure'?

Cooper's response was perfectly calm, and fooled no one who knows anything about the history of outsourcing public sector services. Persistent breaches would be addressed, he assured us by remedies, stepping rights, and blah blah blah ... but the truth is that the contracts contain a web of legal knots that can only be untied by dispute which will take time, money and possibly legal action. In the meanwhile, any loss of standard of service will be borne by the taxpayers and residents of Broken Barnet. 

The deal was approved, of course. The show of Cabinet members asking a few meaningless questions, and receiving a litany of platitudes in return is a necessary ritual, that's all.

 Blogger Mr Mustard had been there  and bought the appropriate t shirt ...

Tagged on to the Cabinet meeting was a Cabinet Resources Committee meeting. 

 This proved to be a fitting footnote to the evening's main event.

Public questions, again: John Dix wearily took his seat at the table once more. He raised the subject, once more, of the £5 million overspend on the bills for the One Barnet implementation consultants, Agilisys/iMPOWER. 

An overspend of five million pounds, from an original agreement of two million pounds. 

Yes: the obscene extravagance of £7 million of taxpayers' hard earned cash on one small private company, and all in the name of saving money. 

The sum to be saved from the DRS contract is now less than the bill for the consultants. 

Do the maths - because clearly our Tory councillors cannot manage this for themselves. As John said, before walking off in despair - the council is in denial.

Barbara Jacobson took her turn again. She addressed her remarks, in fury, to the young deputy leader, Dan Thomas, who is Chair of CRC. He cowered under the force of her attack. There was NO BUDGET for this spending on consultants, she asked? 

You don't know how to manage a project? 

Thomas seemed completely unable to respond - probably because there is no response to make. He has previously criticised overspending on the salaries of senior officers, even the Chief Executive - he knows perfectly well that there is no justification for such profligacy with the consultants fees, and yet has chosen to do nothing about it.

Barbara was not going to let him off the hook, reminding him of the High Court judge's finding that there had been no consultation with residents over One Barnet. 

The Tory leadership and the Cabinet are determined judgement deniers, of course. They refuse to acknowledge this finding, in the absurd way a child caught red handed stealing from the biscuit jar insists they did not do it.

I hate to go on about it, said Barbara, not entirely truthfully ... these are only words ... but they have MEANING! ...Let me just remind you ... You did NOT consult!

Thomas' carefully adopted One Barnet smile became harder and harder to maintain, in the face of her fury. He looked like a pupil trying to brazen it out in the headteacher's study, but slowly realising all protest was useless.  

She tried then to ask how much it would have cost to fund a proper consultation. Thomas tried to wrong foot the argument by talking about the cost of a referendum. No, she retorted, as did various members of the public, not a referendum, proper consultation! He did not know, because no one had ever thought to find out.

The Tory councillors looked on, puzzled, as of course the very idea of informing and consulting their own electorate is totally incomprehensible to them.

Thomas stupidly tried the argument trashed in the High Court, that the annual budget consultation addressed any need to consult over One Barnet. He was yelled down, of course, and looked totally discredited. It was a shockingly bad performance, but then again: he had no defence. In court, even the highly experienced QC acting for the council visibly struggled to put together a case to support the authority's claim to have addressed the statutory requirement, and failed, as the judgement showed.

A change of subject in the questions now, but still another insight into the way in which this council works, in secret, and in defiance of any need for transparency and accountability.

Mr David Hersch had tabled questions about a very interesting issue, and one which is deeply mysterious: the tale of the sale of the former Hendon Football Club, a saga which has enthralled us all for many years.

In Broken Barnet, as we know, a football club, like a library or a museum, is not a community asset, but a potential property development. For some unknown reason, Barnet Council is determined to sell this property, derelict for years, and now occupied by squatters, to the tenants, Montclare Developments, who propose to build housing there. 

Mr Hersch is the Chairman of the London Jewish Girls High School, a much needed school for girls from the charedi community, and one which desperately needs a new location. For once, in contrast to the ill advised plan to move a huge school from Harrow to the Broadfields site,  a new school is proposing to move to somewhere entirely suitable, and should, one might think, be supported by the local authority. The school's bid, however, was rejected, even though it was a higher offer. The case has gone to court, and judgement found in favour of the council, although an appeal is planned.

Asked about the value of the bids, Thomas said this was commercially sensitive. Not after you have accepted one and approved it? We haven't, said Thomas. Wait til the end of the meeting and ask again, suggested another resident.

As Mr Hersch left the table, clearly incensed, and who could blame him, the Chair, very unwisely boasted: '... another court case we won' ...

Not yet, riposted Mr Hersch. 

And Mrs Angry hopes there is an appeal, and that the school wins. 

The offence caused by the actions of the Tory councillors - and such an ill judged remark - will be felt amongst all those residents who would wish to send their daughters to this school, and will have an impact in next year's elections, without question. Odd that no local Tory councillors had the courage to support the school's representatives at this meeting. But the whole story is very peculiar, is it not?

There was one more issue, and one more example of what is to come for all us new residents of Capitaville: an illustration of what happens when privatisation goes dreadfully wrong, and standards of care deteriorate, in this case with fatal consequences. 

In December 2011, an elderly resident of Dell Field Court, a council care home managed by a company named Fremantle, died after falling from a first floor window, in an unexplained incident. 

It should be remembered that not only did this fatal accident occur during the company's tenure, residents at homes managed by Fremantle have been found to have been exposed to legionella. 

Yet in a decision which seems beyond belief, despite this record, our councillors are quite happy to extend the contract with this management company for another ten years, and did so at this meeting.

Resident and Barnet Alliance member Tirza Waisel questioned this astonishing decision, and commented on the inappropriate reference in the report to 'a risk of adverse publicity' rather than showing respect for the tragic death of a human being.

She asked how the family of the resident who died felt about the contract being renewed.

The Chair thought they would 'be pleased to know' that there was going to be a prosecution.

Yes: believe it or not, following the death of a vulnerable elderly resident, a health and safety prosecution will ensue, but we will reward the same company with another contract.

But it's ok: officers assured us all that 'lessons have been learned'.

Councillor Rajput mouthed some platitudes in support of the decision.

Would you put your parents in that home, asked Mrs Angry?

No reply.

Tory councillor Kate Salinger had asked to address this issue.

She reminded her uninterested colleagues of the duty of all councillors to safeguard the dignity and rights of all residents. She pointed out that there had not been a safeguarding investigation. The councillors looked on, unmoved. 

Mrs Angry remembered asking for a safeguarding investigation in the wake of the MetPro scandal, when illegally operating private security officers employed by our council, without CRB checks, boasted of working with 'looked after' children. The council refused to investigate any potential risks to which that these children had been exposed. Let us hope that in the future none of these children come forward with allegations about their time in the protection of the London Borough of Barnet.

Kate Salinger reminded her colleagues of Winterbourne View.

No reaction.

She asked again for assurances that the council had fulfilled its obligations in regard to safeguarding. 

We do give those assurances, said the Chair.

What are they worth, asked Mr Shepherd, in the public seats?

Nothing, replied Mrs Angry.

Words, you see, have meanings, but in this borough, they mean whatever our councillors and their senior officers want them to, or nothing at all.

This is Broken Barnet, where meaning, and empty promises, are nothing more than a little pile of words on a committe table.

No comments: