Thursday 28 November 2013

I don't have a problem with making a profit : Barnet Tories and the Your Choice Barnet whitewash

Their Choice, not Your Choice: Gabi Maddocks questions councillors - and gets no reply 

Safeguarding is something that Barnet Tories like to think they are very good at. 

They often congratulate themselves on how well they manage this responsibility, and present the successes of hard working council staff, social workers, support workers, care workers, as their own achievement. 

And when it all goes wrong? It doesn't go wrong. Even when it does.

Just to prove it hasn't gone wrong, they set up a group to study the matter, and report back to a committee to tell them: look, some people have said it is going wrong, but we don't believe them, and here is £1 million to put it right.

That, in short, is the outcome of the report submitted last night to Barnet's Safeguarding committee from a 'Task & Finish' group supposed to look at the catastrophic 'Your Choice Barnet' venture, an 'independent trading company' set up by the council to run care support services for disabled residents. They looked at it, and have failed to recommend any really effective response.

Your Choice Barnet was launched on the basis that it is possible to make a healthy profit from the provision of care to such vulnerable people, and that such profit would be used to subsidise the activities of Barnet Homes, another part of the 'Barnet Group' ALMO - 'At Arms Length Organisation' which is meant to run certain council functions as a successful business.

Political ideology in Broken Barnet, of course, demands that the market is brought into every aspect of life, hence the recent billion pound deal with Capita to provide almost every other service not already privatised by our Conservative easycouncillors, eager to swallow any half baked suggestion from their private sector groomed senior management, and their multi million charge account consultants.

It was Agilisys/iMPOWER, the consultants now feasting off Barnet taxpayers with their multi million bills for the tendering of two massive contracts given to Capita, who created the original, disastrous business plan for Your Choice Barnet.

Within a year of YCB being in place, it became clear that, not surprisingly, there is no profit to be made from the meagre payments and personal budgets of disabled residents, and a financial meltdown was looming. The council was obliged to offer £1 million to bail the venture out of trouble. Despite a tidal wave of protest and widespread condemnation, the service was not taken back in-house. The council's only reaction to criticism was to set up a Task and Finish Group to look at the problem.

Except of course, the remit of this group was deliberately limited in terms of scope, and set up to provide exactly the outcome the Tories wanted: a whitewash.

Many residents, users of YCB and carers turned up at the Town Hall for this meeting. 

A large number of public questions had been submitted, and others had exercised their right to speak to the committee. We sat back, and watched the Tory councillors move from a position of quiet indifference to one of discomfort and even hostility. For Labour, Kath McGuirk did her best to do what an opposition member is supposed to do: oppose, challenge, obstruct the shameless political game playing of the Tory administration.

Public question time. First one from a Gabi Maddocks, whose brother Carl has attended centres formerly run for disabled residents, and who is deeply anxious at the thought of no longer being able to go to the places which have provided him with care for so long. She asked:

Can you reassure the disabled adults in Barnet that they will continue to have a safe and stimulating place to congregate on weekdays when Flightways, their current centre, is demolished, considering that this is their preference?

The response said merely that 'a service' will continue to be provided in 'various locations' across the borough. Ms Maddocks demanded to know what 'various locations' meant, and asked why they did not understand the enormous anxiety this uncertainty was causing her brother, seated at the front of the public area with another family member, and unable to follow the proceedings due to his profound deafness. Her brother had attended his centre for 8 years, drawing huge support from what was a safe, intellectually and creatively stimulating environment.

There was to be no reassurance for Ms Maddocks or her brother: she was told in a smug reply that the issue of Flightways an 'operational' matter and not part of the remit of the Task and Finish group. They would not even confirm if it was going to close. 

Tell Carl that and damn you it is THEIR choice, change the name of your company, she responded, furiously, and who could blame her?

More questions received more evasive or patronising answers from Tory councillors and officers.

Tracey Lees, the Chief Executive of the Barnet Group responded to one question by saying that they had to decide if Your Choice Barnet was an independent limited trading company, or not. It was not, she said, a good thing to interfere ... an ungrateful remark, you might think, considering the bail out of £1 million which this 'independent' venture requires from taxpayers in order to subsidise its acitivities.

As to the morality of the whole project, making money from the provision of care for disabled residents: Tory Councillor Brian Salinger commented thoughtfully 'I don't have a problem with making a profit' ... if it extends the service, he added, he was 'all for it'. The point is, of course, that the service is unsustainable as it is, let alone capable of being extended in order to benefit users. But Barnet Tories are so ideologically obsessed with the profit motive, they are incapable of admitting there are areas where the market cannot be introduced, should not be introduced.

A questioner asked why Your Choice Barnet had no user or carer on the Board, to represent the real stakeholders in this as is supposed to be the case. Ms Lees said there was a carer representative, but they had still not managed to find a user. In any case once on the Board a member became a Director, and could not represent anyone else. It emerged that the carer representative has stood down, and it seems extraordinary that in all this time no user can be found to join the Board, or that their contribution should be so proscibed, one might think.

Is someone representing Capita? asked our veteran revolutionary commenter Mr Shepherd, from the back row of the public seats. No reply.

Perhaps Question 21 elicited the most telling response of all.

Resident and member of Barnet Alliance Barbara Jacobson had asked why the report had not, as it had stated, acted to ' Consider evidence from parents and service users about their experience of the services ...' Instead of doing so, the study used 'existing readily available information' and some feedback regarding only one centre. The written response said that due to 'time constraints' this was considered a good idea.

The Group did not consider any reports from service users and/or carers and instead undertook site visits to engage with service users and staff.

Tory Brian Salinger seemed to see nothing wrong with the restricted scope of information.

We weren't sitting an exam, he said.

Time for those who wished to address the committee to speak. 

The narrow scope of the Task and Finish group had also, quite ridiculously,  excluded any input from Unison, representing staff members working for Your Choice Barnet. Labour's Councillor Kath Mc Guirk now asked for Unison to be allowed to speak to the committee, and pushed for a vote on a motion for this to be moved. 

Rather astonishingly, the vote went in favour, and Helen Davis addressed the meeting, stressing the link between decent pay and working conditions for staff and a good quality of care for users. Due to the effect on morale of the uncertainty regarding YCB's financial stability, and the threats to staffing levels and terms of employment, many had chosen to leave, replaced by agency staff, which was clearly not in the best interests of users. She criticised the glaring flaw in the business model which had led to false assurance resting on the funding available from personal budget payments.

Service user Janet Leifer addressed the committee next. The picture she painted of the effect on residents who relied on their purpose built centres was bleak, and shaming. 

She spoke of users being obliged to spend long periods outside in cold weather, 'out and about in the community' as it is so cynically described. Mrs Angry thought about the group of disabled young adults she saw recently being dragged reluctantly along the road,on a bitterly cold day, confused, accompanied by what seemed like too few carers, not speaking, or interacting, just being moved about for the sake of it. 

Janet explained the terrible difficulties caused by lack of transport, or the high charges of transport that was available, and the burden of costs introduced for some activities. All of these changes make it impossible for many former users to take up the more limited services available. The resulting impact was not only on the disabled residents but on their carers, who were being deprived of much needed respite. There was no independent body to inspect and evaluate most of these facilities. And the report was wrong to say they had to create YCB: the alternative of an in-house service would be more likely to guarantee that users were well cared for, healthy and happy.

Mrs Angry thought that perhaps the happiness of disabled residents was not a Key Performance Indicator recognised by the directors of Your Choice Barnet.

Glancing at the committee table then, it was apparent that the hardline Tory councillor Brian Gordon was sleeping through Janet's impassioned speech. To the many disabled users and carers who had come to the Town Hall to hear their elected representatives debate this report, it must have seemed extraordinarily discourteous. 

Resident and carer John Sullivan had wanted to address the committee, but is in ill health, and so asked Barbara Jacobson to read his speech for him. John has a fifty year old daughter, Susan, who has Downs Syndrome, and he is deeply concerned at the standard of care that she and her fellow users of care services in Barnet are being offered, since the creation of YCB.

There are many kinds of lie, said John Sullivan: a complete untruth, a partial untruth, inaccuracy, omission ... The name Your Choice Barnet gives the impression people were given a choice. LIE.

Barnet Council created Your Choice and foisted it upon users; it did not allow them to choose to keep services in house. The brochure effectively selling this privatisation of adult social services was called 'More Choices' ... LIE: there was no choice at all; all services are administered by Your Choice. 

This brochure claimed "the services will not change, only the logo will change" LIE: services have changed out of all proportion to what was available before ... 

Your Choice claim they have consulted parents, family carers and clients: LIE. They arranged purely informative meetings, and the leaflets about the meetings that they sent to family carers said there would be no change to services ...

Now, wrote John, we have the absolute farce of an investigation by members of this committee. How many of these concerned parents and family carers did this inquiry consult to ascertain what they think, feel, or fear? None.

These parents collectively have hundreds of years of 24/7 front-line experience in this field, experience far beyond that of those on the board of Your Choice, yet this inquiry chose to ignore them. No investigation into a complax service such as this can possibly be considered comprehensive without that input.

Your Choice have claimed that no staff are having or are about to have their incomes slashed: LIE. As and when staff have had a huge wage cut. Skilled support workers have been demoted to a lower-paid status as assistants, a 23% pay cut, effectively forcing them out, and they have been replaced with as-and-when and zero-hour contract staff at reduced rates ...

It has been lie after lie after lie.

You cannot build a future for these vulnerable folk on a lie, any more that you can build a stable home on the sand.

All Your Choice services should be returned in-house at the earliest possible time, before we experience our own version of Winterbourne View. 

The Tory councillors shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Tracey Lees's expression was a picture. And then it was the turn of one of the users of Your Choice Barnet, a resident called Philip Rackham, who has physical disabilities and learning difficulties, but whose spirit, cheerfulness, cheekiness, and hard won independence, is truly inspiring.

His speech must be reproduced in full, delivered as it was with such determination, effort and sincerity.

My name is Philip Rackham, and I want to tell you about myself.

I'm 52 years old and live alone in a flat in Whetstone. I've lived in the borough of Barnet all my life. I have cerebral palsy and a mild learning disability.

When I was younger, I was abused physically and mentally for being like I was.

When I was 34, I moved out of my mother's house into a residential home. I then lived in different places, until I moved into a ground floor flat, where I've lived for eleven years. 

In 2001 I got married to Susie, who also had a disability. None of my family came to the wedding. Sadly Susie died in 2005, and I've lived alone ever since then.

I used to be able to get about quite well, with no problems, mainly using buses. But a couple of years ago I was knocked down by a car, and broke my hip. Since then it has been very difficult for me to get about at all, and I have to rely on other people for transport. That means I have to spend a lot of time in my flat, on my own. 

So I've had a very difficult life. But I'm a FIGHTER.

I've joined a  lot of different organisations that have helped me stick up for myself, such as CADDSS, BAPS, Peoples' Choice and Barnet Mencap. They have all helped me to become more confident, and stand up for the rights of disabled people. 

But the council isn't helping much. I don't think they give a DAMN about disabled people, just like the government. 

I get Direct Payments, but they're not enough. I think that councillors probably get more, just for coming to meetings. The councildoesn't give me enough money for all the care and support that I have to have, such as cooking and cleaning of my flat, and also for getting about as much as I want and need. 

I used to go to BILS (Barnet Independent Living Service) which is run by Your Choice Barnet, but when I became a volunteer receptionist there, my transport was taken away, so I can't afford to go there anymore. I really used to enjoy the company I had at BILS, and I get quite lonely without it. It was an important part of my social life. 

Barnet don't want the responsibility of looking after disabled people. That's why they set up Your Choice, so they wouldn't have to bother anymore. 

In the end, all that it's about is MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, which seems to be more important than caring for people. 

That's why I wanted to say all this today. 

I'd like to finish with a question to the councillors. 

How would YOU feel if you were in my situation?

When he had finished, and made his slow, difficult steps back to his seat, the room was absolutely silent.

Did I do well, he asked, afterwards, over and over again, with a grin: did I do well

Because, you know, I've had to learn to stick up for myself.

Yes, Philip: you did well.

There were no questions from the Tory councillors, of course, only from Labour's Kath Mc Guirk. Time then for Barbara Jacobson. Barbara laid into the deeply flawed report on YCB.

She noted the failure to investigate the issues it promised to address, to listen to users, carers, and staff. She referred to the lack of evidence for any of the assumptions, statements and recommendations the report makes, a report whose lack of thoroughness she said would not be acceptable in a sixth-form student essay, and exacerbates the worries of some of the most vulnerable people in our society - real people with real needs, real hopes and real fears.

Our humanity, she said, means that each and everyone of us has a responsibility to them.  

All of us here tonight, representing those who cannot speak for themselves, are asking you to examine the matter before you with empathy and the knowledge that it is your responsibility, too, to use your power to protect adults with disabilities. After all, you are the safeguarding committee.

While you might not have the power to order, as we demand, that adult social services are brought back in house, you do have the power to find that this report is only a first draft and demand further, more substantial work by the Task & Finish Group. And so we ask you to do that. 

Please do not fail us; do not fail yourselves.

Kath McGuirk asked a question, then at last one came from a Tory: Kate Salinger, wife of Brian. She said that it was fair to say that none of them could fail to be moved by what they had heard. Kate is a nice woman, and thinks the best of everyone. Clearly some people around the table were unmoved, and their consciences untroubled.

Further comments by John Sullivan were read by Tirza Waisel. He said that 'our caring councillors' could not see that attempting to make profits from extremely vulnerable people is 'immoral and reprehensible'. 

The only way we will protect these residents from the horrors that the market place brings, such as Winterbourne View and Veilstone Care Home is to bring all Your Choice services back in-house and stop the continual obfuscation, misinformation and smokescreen attempts to hide the truth, such as this inadequate, one-sided Task and Finish Group's inquiry, which is a whitewash and a cover-up.  

Time for a Labour member of the Group which produced the report to step up to the table. Deputy Leader Barry Rawlings, the senior member, was absent for some reason, so it was left to the less experienced councillor Arjun Mittra to speak. He was put in a very difficult position, left to carry the can and to explain the objections which opposition councillors had raised in the course of the study. They had wanted to speak to Unison and CADDSS, and had argued that they should visit all sites, not just one. He disagreed with Tracey Lees about the representation on the Board of services, and did not see why it should not work perfectly well. He urged YCB to look much closer at how they engage with users, and to have a more formal process in place for such engagement.

Kath McGuirk asked about morale. Arjun responded. And then at last a Tory councillor who rarely speaks wanted to ask a question. We all looked expectantly at Councillor Barry Evangeli, who proceeded to use the opportunity not to ask anything about the impact of the shambolic YCB venture on disabled and vulnerable residents, but in order to score a cheap political point.

Were the findings of the report agreed unanimously, and if so why was Labour bringing up reservations now?

Arjun said he did not believe it had been unanimous. Both Barry Rawlings and he had agreed they should take direct evidence from the unions ... there had been a necessary compromise ...

In fact the Labour group had issued a press release yesterday before the meeting, stating their position - but only a handful of individuals have seen this:

Your Choice business plan did not stack up 

"Optimistic revisions to financial projections" were made in the Your Choice Barnet business plan before Cabinet approved the transfer of some adults social care services to local authority trading company Your Choice Barnet - a cross party scrutiny review has found. 

The May 2011 Business Plan showed Your Choice making a loss of £282,260 in the first year of operation, but in November 2011 this was revised to show a profit of £85,337. 

The scrutiny Task & Finish Group review of Your Choice was set-up following a request by Labour councillor Barry Rawlings after Your Choice Barnet, which provides services to adults with learning and physical disabilities, reported first year losses of £68,000 and had to be bailed out with a £1m loan from its parent company - the Barnet Group - earlier this year. 

The scrutiny review also found that the business planning process prior to outsourcing failed to identify the key cashflow black hole that later required Your Choice to borrow the £1m from the Barnet Group in order to continue operating. 

 It is not clear from the Task & Finish Group report why the optimistic revisions to the business plan were made in advance of the Cabinet decision to outsource, but Labour councillors believe that Cabinet Members did not challenge the figures in the business plan sufficiently before making the decision. 

 Labour councillors Barry Rawlings and Arjun Mittra who participated in the Task and Finish Group (TFG) both argued that the final report should be delayed in order to take more evidence from parents and service users, and to allow for all of the services to be visited, but this was opposed by the Conservative majority of councillors serving on the TFG. 

The Task and Finish Group report will be considered at tonight's Safeguarding Overview & Scrutiny Committee (Wednesday 27 November). Nearly 40 public questions have been submitted to the committee on Your Choice by concerned parents and service users. Labour's Social Care & Health Spokesperson, 

Cllr Barry Rawlings said: "There was a complete lack of robust data so the business plan just did not stack up. The Conservative Cabinet did not properly test the figures, or ask for comparisons in other Boroughs. If they had the services may not have been outsourced - it is almost as though they were determined to outsource these services regardless. "The problem is we are now in a catch 22 situation: the council say they cannot afford to bring the services back in-house because so many service users are now receiving direct payments for their care and this money would be lost under an in-house service, but Your Choice must still make cuts to continue operating and this may impact on the quality of the service in the future. It is a very worrying situation for parents and service users." 

In the committee room, however, Labour's position had been unclear to the residents present, many of whom assumed from Evangeli's insinuation that they had been sold down the river by the Labour group's involvement in the report. 

Here is something that needs to be said.

The Labour councillors' naivete, and innate decency, plays right into the hands of their shabby Tory colleagues. They need to be more outspoken, more assertive and more challenging of the Conservative members, and senior officers, and to communicate better with electors - or the Tories will succeed in deflecting the strength of focus on their own failures and appalling policies, and win another election by default.

In other words, they have to learn to fight, and shout, and scheme, and play tough, or stand accused of facilitating the policies of the current administration, and of betraying the first duty of an opposition: to fight for the rights of the residents who have no voice, and are effectively disenfranchised by the democratic deficit in this borough.

Tory councillor Brian Gordon was awake now, although clearly not entirely. He seemed to be confused by the prolonged debate. Why the fumbling around, he asked? There was, he thought, a 'huge trade union input' in the discussion, with a 'left wing agenda' ... 

Uproar ensued - and a certain amount of hilarity at the thought of left wing agendas driving Barnet Labour policies.

Why are you still living in the 1970s? yelled Mrs Angry (amongst a few less polite observations). In fact this was unfair. Gordon and his Tory colleagues are still lingering in the Thatcherite glory days of the 1980s.

Unions don't exist in fascist states, Mr Shepherd observed, loudly, from the back of the room.

Most union members are low paid women, struggling to provide for their families, added Mrs Angry ...

Women don't get the vote in a theocracy, replied Mr Shepherd, trying to rile the traditionally minded, shamelessly authoritarian Gordon.

Tory Brian Salinger summarised his view on the outcome of his Task and Finish report. No change is never an option, he said. We have to live within our means

All the more reason, you might think, not to throw good money after bad, in the cynical exercise of propping up a failed venture, on grounds of political expediency.

The Salingers have a good understanding of the needs of those with disabilities, having a family member with such difficulties. Of course one family's experience is not easily comparable to that of any other.

To some extent Brian thought he could see John Sullivan's point of view. But there had been a 'sea change' in the management of disability in the last fifty or sixty years. In the past, disabled people were institutionalised but now parents were looking after children, and for longer. Those parents were getting older, struggling to look after the children who had outlived their expected span of years.  

Go and shoot them then, suggested one resident and carer, seething with fury.

Councillor Salinger was not going to support asking the Task and Finish Group to do any more on this issue, it was too much of a demand on resources.

And we've discussed it for nearly an hour and a half, agreed his colleague, Councillor Gordon. 

Kath Mc Gurk insisted a vote should be taken on whether or not the report was recommended for approval. The Tories refused to consider this, despite protests that the constitution allowed it. The meeting broke up with residents shouting in disgust at the councillors, and one or two officers.

Is it payment by results, asked Mr Shepherd, as Tracey Lees, the Barnet Group Chief Executive who earns a six figure sum salary for her efforts, left the room in something of a hurry.

Clearly not, Mr Shepherd.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Chickens coming home to roost, or: the occupation of Margaret Thatcher House

Updated Thursday - see below

Mrs Angry called in to visit the occupiers of Margaret Thatcher House this morning, finding them in good spirits and keen for our local MP Mike Freer to accept their invitation to join them for a night in the cold, to experience what it is like for someone without a home to live out on the street. They have this morning sent him this letter:

Dear Mike 

We appreciate you taking the time to communicate with us, thank you for the permission from you and your office to conduct our peacefull protest on the front yard piece of land at 212 Ballards lane N12.

The protest at your constituency office is a result of us trying to engage with the parliamentary democratic process in which we followed your procedures,for a public consultation.
Lobbying campaigning and raising awareness,whereby 96% of the replies to the public Consultation said do not criminalise squatting.
Including  Judges, police and lawyers associations as well as homeless charities and housing NGOs  requesting the law not be enacted.
However your government chose to ignore their own  public consultation and press ahead undemocratically to criminalise sheltering (squatting) in empty buildings.

We are further concerned greatly by Chris Grayling the justice minister saying he may once again undemocratically criminalise non residential squatting.Which is one of the last safety nets for many homeless and landless people who are not helped by the housing system.

Part of serving your constituents is to represent all constituents including rich and poor this includes some of your homeless constituents currently evicted onto your front yard from a community centre around the corner the Bohemia.

We have many points of importance to raise with you around the issues of the Housing crisis,the rise in street homeless,the bedroom tax,the further criminalisation of non residential squatting etc.
The law you co sponsored sec 144 Laspo act is unfair, unjust, undemocratic, unlawful, unaffordable and unworkable,and is causing great misery by removing an ancient and basic human right to shelter.

Also leading to an increased number of people freezing to death over winter.Many of your constituents are facing urgent housing/homeless and medical issues,which we hope you are willing to address.

We have had numerous liaisons with the inspectors from Colindale police of the past days (which we have filmed recorded and logged ) who are happy for our protest to continue, acknowledging that:
We are not breaking any laws and that we have rights to peacefully protest and assemble under ECHR articles 10 and 11.

That at all times we are endeavouring to be polite, courteous,co-operative with police requests through regular Liason.
We are keeping the area clean and tidy and are aiming to install some plants and window boxes to make the area more beautifull and attractive.
We are keeping the main access way very clear to your doorstep all times.
We have trained health and safety managers who are monitoring the situation.

We politely ask you to meet with us to discuss matters of great national importance such as the housing crisis which we feel your sec144 is exacerbating.
We would like to invite you to spend a few nights camped out with some of your homeless constituents to discuss these and many other issues,over a cup of tea, in an atmosphere of co-operative democratic discussion.

Having been ignored by your so called democratic public consultation, we have taken this act of peacefull protest to facilitate direct discussion and to stimulate the debate in the national media.

We are, having met with you and shared our views with each other,and some of our conditions met, happy to discuss an end date to our protest in a reasonable and proportionate manner without recourse to the law.
We hope to avoid unnecessary court time and expense.
We shall be advised in all the matters by our good friends Bindmans solicitors.

Looking forward to a discussion of solutions to the housing crisis that we can all work towards together.

Yours sincerely

Bohemia Caretakers

Not backing Boris: the Bohemian occupiers of Margaret Thatcher House

One of the occupiers is Mordechai, a former director of the Jewish theatre of Budapest, who explained to Mrs Angry that he has been celebrating the first night of Chanukah, a festival of lights, but also commemorating an uprising against oppression. It seems a suitable festival to re-enact, in the circumstances. 

 Ma'oz Tzur, occupy style

And as Mrs Angry pointed out to Phoenix, even the Pope has made a point of speaking out yesterday on behalf of the plight of the homeless and dispossessed in a papal 'exhortation' issued yesterday:

No to an economy of exclusion

53. Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Here is the testing point then, in the story of the occupation of Margaret Thatcher House. Who will win? The rule of might, and the interests of the powerful, or the voice of the excluded, and dispossessed?

Mrs Angry would suggest that Mr Freer accepts the invitation of the occupiers, and spends a night out in the cold, and demonstrates that he does have sympathies for those constituents beyond the boundaries of Hampstead Garden Suburb. 

Leaving Margaret Thatcher House and wandering up the road to North Finchley, Mrs Angry bumped into a local sympathiser who was taking some coffee and food to the occupiers. He commented that he had enjoyed the previous post, and the psychogeographical references. He was himself, he confessed, a former Situationist. Of course. This is Broken Barnet: the streets of are full of them.

And here in Finchley, in November 2013, we have the spiritual home of Conservatism, where now,  in the grip of this heartless government, we see the battleground of a war we are only just beginning to understand: the fight for the heart and soul of something whose very existence Margaret Thatcher denied: society, community, call it what you will - we want it back, and if it doesn't really exist anymore, we will have to re-invent it, won't we?

*Updated Thursday:

At 6 am this morning bailiffs evicted the occupiers from the forecourt of Margaret Thatcher House. 

Phoenix and his friends believe the eviction to have been 'illegal'. The action has been reported here on the website of the company that carried out the eviction, with a lovely picture:

Rejoice, rejoice: Margaret Thatcher House has been liberated: pic courtesy 'The Sheriff's Office'

 According to the bailiffs:

Mr Freer is very pleased with the work of The Sheriffs Office – he asked us to remove the protesters as he felt they were intimidating and deterring his constituents from coming to the door.

Oh. He asked us to remove them, did he? Hmm. 

And then, oh dear ... look at this email which, for some reason, perhaps accidentally, Mr Freer sent to Phoenix and the occupiers in reply to their invitation to join them for one night to experience what it is like to sleep out in the cold, as so many homeless people will be tonight, and every night this winter ...

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: FREER, Mike 
Date: Wed, Nov 27, 2013 at 7:20 AM
Subject: Re: Invitation for direct democratic
To: Bohemian 
err no

email told them to phone and we would follow our usual procedures. which they seem unable to do. I am mightily peed off at the Police. I feel like sending the BILL to the Commissioner saying your daft advice landed us with this Bill.

of course this will inhibit every other demo as we will simply refuse to allow anyone onto our property.

so tempting to say - you are all numb-nuts as i am not the owner of the property and it is they you should be dealing with about your presence!

Mike Freer MP Conservative Member of Parliament for Finchley & Golders Green

020 7219 7071 (Westminster)

 020 8445 5875 (Finchley)

Sent from my iPad, working in the move

Well: dear me. Speaking as someone who has always found the local police to be hard working public servants, dedicated to their jobs, and working under extremely difficult circumstances, under resourced and overstretched, Mrs Angry finds it rather objectionable to hear her local MP referring to them in such disrespectful terms. 

Remember when the Conservative party was the party of law and order? 


How times have changed. What would Lady Thatcher say?

Numb-nuts? And ... if Freer is not the owner of the property, was he entitled to call bailiffs in to have the occupiers removed, especially when a licence already appears to have been given to them to remain there?

Monday 25 November 2013

Mike Freer: your actions show who you are - an occupation in the heartland of Thatcherism

*Updated Tuesday, see below

The story of the occupation of the People's Library, in many ways, perhaps, marked a turning point in the battle of Broken Barnet: the battle won, but not the war, and hostilities continue, of course. 

And the psychic fault line that runs through this borough, acting as a portal to some other world of extraordinary happenings. never ceases to shift and to gape ever wider, and release a series of events that ensure the continuation of this never-ending story.

After the library was returned to the community, occupier Phoenix and his friends moved on: but not very far, or for very long. They turned their attentions to the empty premises of the much loved former Bohemia pub in North Finchley, that dangerous spot, just opposite Cafe Buzz, run by Brian Coleman's nemesis, Helen Michael. 

It is in that most potent and unstable stretch of the High Road where man of the street Horace would sit, with his suitcase, his drawing pad and his crayons, and wish passers by 'the very best of luck'. 

It is in the same stretch of the street where Mrs Angry was walking when she heard our former MP and PM Margaret Thatcher had died: a departure unmourned by her former constituents, marked by a feeble offering of two sparse bouquets left outside the Finchley Tory office just down the road.

The Bohemia had closed down overnight, one night in the summer, despite doing a roaring trade, and having become the focus of the local community. 

The occupiers wanted to return the pub to that community, as well as continue to highlight the issue which is their own abiding belief: that shelter is a human right, and that the increasing level of homelessness in this country is completely unjustifiable when so many usable premises lie vacant and unused.

The new tenants of the Bohemia settled in and opened their doors to local residents, encouraging the use of the premises once more for local groups, meetings and entertainment, including a memorable night of cabaret, with Phoenix playing the part of master of ceremonies, besplendent in gold lame frockcoat, his bleached dreadlocks stuffed into a top hat, between acts like music critic Charles Shaar Murray, playing blues on a slide guitar, and spitting out his brilliant poem 'Dylan in 66', and more poetry from the poet Anna Chen, also known as blogger Madame Miaow. North Finchley, you can be sure, had seen nothing like it before.

Life is a cabaret, old chum, in Broken Barnet. 

As in any period of political repression, in this borough, where the official view of culture is that it has no place here, where libraries are only potential property developments, and museums closed, and the contents declared to be of no value, and flogged at auction, and where Tory councillors tell you to get on the tube in search of the arts while cutting funding to local projects: a clear sign of resistance is the appearance of such spontaneous, uncontrollable forms of expression. But like all such movements in a time of civil unrest, the authorities must have the last word, and the occupation ended one cold night, with bailiffs breaking down the door, accompanied by dogs - and the police.

You might have thought that was the end of this story: but the next event has brought matters to yet another level. From a community activism, to cabaret, and now to politics - the natural course of any uprising, perhaps.

Because last week we heard that the occupiers were back: in a new location, but still in Finchley. They had moved into an empty church, formerly a meeting place for the Plymouth Brethren, and now used once a week by a group of local Sufis. And it is right across the road from ... the local Tory offices, once the constituency HQ of Margaret Thatcher, now serving the same function on behalf of MP Mike Freer.

Ah. MP Mike Freer. As well as being the visionary genius who came up with the easycouncil idea which has now sold this borough and our local services into ten year bondage to Capita, Mr Freer is the proud father of the bill which criminalised squatting in residential premises, moved by the plight of the hugely wealthy homeowners of local Tory stronghold Hampstead Garden Suburb, as reported in the Standard in March 2011:

MP Mike Freer says some homeowners are so concerned by the "epidemic" of occupations that they are considering whether to take family breaks this summer.

He added: "Constituents are wary of going away for three-week holidays. They are worried that they may come back to find their home occupied.

"People have bought these large, expensive properties and the law needs to be changed to give them peace of mind."

At the time, there was much outrage expressed by local Tory politicians, especially Mr Freer, over the ocupation of the £10 million house owned by a Mr Saif Al Gaddafi, formerly of Garden Suburb, Tripoli, and now detained by militia in Zintan, Libya, awaiting trial on security charges, but apparently avoiding indictment on other charges relating to alleged war crimes. Mr Gaddafi's house was occupied by Libyans protesting about the dictatorship - their stance was inevitably portrayed as anti-social behaviour rather than a political statement, of course.

You might be wondering what Mr Freer does on behalf of the rather less fortunate constituents of Finchley and Golders Green. Is he fighting, for example, to protect local health care from the ravages of the new 'reforms'? Is he heck as like. 

Mr Freer is gushing in his support for government policy on health, and describes talk of the privatisation of the NHS as 'tosh'. He does not want us to know the unpublished risks associated with these reforms. He says those who press for this information to be put in the public domain are 'shroud waving'. 

What about those residents affected by the bedroom tax? Any support from their MP?

Nope, sorry: in the housing benefit debate on 12th November, he complained that everything was the fault of Labour:

They created the perfect storm of insufficient house building, record overcrowding and housing benefit out of control.

This is rich coming from the man who was  Leader of Barnet Council, at a time when it had the longest housing list in the country, at the same time as boasting of the success of selling off so many council houses. Barnet is only now daring to build an astonishing number of three new council homes, the first in the borough for over twenty years.

Mr Freer, who owns two properties in Finchley, one house in the the south west of France, and enjoys half ownership of another in Scotland,  does not explain where the poorest and most vulnerable of his constituents now living in social housing, deemed to have one bedroom too many, should move to, if they cannot afford the Tory tax on poverty.

What exactly does our MP do on behalf of us, in parliament? As recorded on the 'They work for you' website, Freer's interests, according to Hansard are:

Billing, Departmental Billing, Press: Subscriptions, Sick Leave, Mobile Phones

For some reason, Mr Freer asks question after question about these subjects, to each government department in turn, fretting over the cost of paper invoicing, and hard copy newspapers. Mrs Angry wonders if by any chance he knows of any alternative form of IT based solution that might be used instead, and if so, could he come right out and tell us all, and concentrate on matters of more immediate interest to his constituents?

In the meanwhile: on Friday, his new neighbours in Ballards Lane moved across the road to the forecourt of the Conservative Association offices, and set up camp, with a couple of tents, and some pithily worded posters, aimed at raising the issues of squatting and homelessness.

 As the occupiers press release explained:

Mike Freer, co architect of the anti-squatting law is our next door neighbour! 

We challenge you, Mr. Freer, to sleep out in the cold with us for a night, while the local homeless who we will invite into the warm building watch us from within. 

We can assure you that this will make you understand the reality and flip the switch in your brain which prevents you from feeling compassion for brothers and sisters! 

Or else you can use your political influence to force us out of here into the frost. 

If you are ready to make laws, be prepared for the consequences. With power comes responsibility.

'Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights'
                                                                                                                                                                                        Isaiah 10:12 

Mr Freer declined the invitation, as you might imagine. The occupiers are still there, in the cold, camped in front of the room that serves as a shrine to Margaret Thatcher. 

Thatcher is dead, but there is really no need for a £15 million museum - her memory  lives on in the sociopathically charged policies of Barnet's Tory councillors, who prefer, for example, to continue to cut council tax at the same time as announcing cuts in vital services to the poor, the sick, and the dispossessed residents of this borough.

Our MPs sit back and say nothing, do nothing, in their defence, intent on furthering their own political ambitions at the expense of the more pressing concerns of those they represent. 

In the debate on benefit 'reform' Mike Freer told the house his support for the bill was based on his own upbringing, which appears, in this version of his early life anyway, to have taken place in a brown paper bag, Python style, between the wars, or possibly the nineteenth century:

I would never be rude to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you well know, but I feel passionately about this. I was raised in a two-up, two-down, with no outside toilet—[Interruption]—with an outside toilet and no inside bathroom. Opposition Members might laugh, but I know what it is like to live in poor accommodation and I do not need lectures from them about what it is like to live in poor accommodation. The Conservative party is the party of aspiration; it is the party that is solving the mess; and I will vote for the amendment.

Of course in this pre-election interview in the Guardian Mr Easycouncil admitted he had spent part of his childhood in a council home, which his parents bought under Margaret Thatcher's right to buy scheme. He thought then that all social housing tenants wanted a similar 'housing journey'. 

Thing is, Mike, you can't even think of travelling anywhere on this journey if you have no social housing left to allocate, and if the poorest of all are finding themselves without any roof over their heads, or are thrown out of their homes when they cannot pay their bedroom tax.

My own mother, between the wars, really did live in the worst poverty, a family of ten, at one point, before her brother and sister died as a result of illness caused by their appalling living conditions, living in a two up two down hovel, in one of those mining areas where your heroine later launched her worst policies of attrition against the working people of this country. And my mother's journey out of poverty was made possible not by Tory style aspiration, but by the efforts of union campaigning for a decent wage, and decent working conditions, and by the policies of a Labour government, the creation of a welfare state, the NHS, fair access to education. 

It's not greed which drags people out of poverty, and protects them from falling into a spiral of need and even homelessness: it's the right sort of support, and compassion from others.

Everything, in short, you cannot expect to find in the political philosophy of the Conservative successors of the woman whose malevolent legacy is embedded, like a genetic fault, in the dna of everything that is wrong in the blackhearted policies of the coalition government, and in the mindless, merciless governance of Broken Barnet.

Updated Tuesday:

The story of the occupation of Margaret Thatcher House has begun to attract attention beyond the boundaries of Broken Barnet, with stories in the Standard and the Guardian , and local BBC news.

Mike Freer, it should be noted, is putting a new spin on his reasons for promoting the anti-squatting bill: 

 “I supported the criminalisation of squatting because it was a big problem in my constituency. I don’t think it was right that hard working families that have saved would come home from holiday or having a house refurbished and would find someone else living in it.

Rather a different pitch to the quote given above, you will note: Mr Freer has changed the story from worrying about the peace of mind of the multi millionaire residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb returning from their three week holidays to their 'large expensive properties' to 'hard working families' - clearly not Mr and Mrs Gaddafi, then, or oil rich overseas royalty, or even Tory party donors whose fabulous family fortunes are founded on arms dealing, but ordinary folk, like you, or me.

Mrs Angry looks forward to hearing further details of the 'big problem' of squatting that has existed in this area, and is confident Mr Freer is able to provide the evidence for this.

The occupiers want only for Mr Freer to accept their invitation to join them for one night, sleeping in the cold, and to experience what it is like for the increasing number of homeless people who have no home, no shelter, and whose numbers are set to increase further this winter as the impact of government welfare cuts makes its impact. Their view is that the effect of his bill, which criminalises the act of squatting in any empty, unused residential property, is unfair, and punishing those who have nowhere else to go. 

The Finchley MP would appear to becoming deeply uncomfortable at the unwelcome publicity that the occupiers have provoked, and the local Times paper reports now that he has told his new neighbours:

 "I appreciate you feel your point is important, but I must stress that I am trying to deal with constituents who are facing urgent medical issues and child protection issues to name but two.  “My constituents are being deterred from calling at my office.  Having made your point through your protest, I now politely ask you to stop."

In fact such claims are nonsense: Freer's Sooty and Sweep style camper van, his mobile surgery, has been happily parked at the back of the office all throughout the last few days and could easily be accessed as normal throughout all this time. The occupiers are in no way agressive, or intimidating, but very charming, reasonable and courteous. And the truth is that he appears to have given them a licence to remain on the forecourt quite legally, but now resents the embarrassing reminder displayed outside the Tory HQ of the consequences of his own actions. 

So be it. 

A message for our elected representatives: