Sunday 5 January 2014

2013, Part Three: your actions show who you are ...

So: the law is a ass, and what our elected members and their cronies get up to behind closed doors undermines the whole democratic process. What can you do to try and make a difference, or to take a stand? 

If the system has been corrupted, and injustice rules, do we not all have a duty to stand up, and say - no?

Some of us certainly feel that way. 

Here in Barnet, every victory in the war against injustice has been hard won, and much of it accomplished by direct action, and unified opposition.

In early February this year, residents celebrated one such example of people power, the triumphant re-opening of Friern Barnet library, which Barnet's Tory councillors had closed, in 2012, in order to sell for development, with every risk that the historic building, a Carnegie funded library, would be demolished and the plot, along with the adjoining greenspace, in the shadow of the cherry tree, used for a supermarket and flats. 

Maryla Persak-Enefer, library campaigner

There can be no doubt whatsoever that if the closed library had not been occupied by squatter and community activist Phoenix and his friends, the library would now be gone, and replaced by some monstrous building. 

Local residents and supporters took control of their own lives, established the People's Library, and defied the plans, taken without their consent, of their elected representatives. 

 Labour candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, 2015, Sarah Sackman

The council was in turn coaxed, manoevred and eventually persuaded by Phoenix and local campaigners to allow residents to retain the venture as a community library, in partnership with the council. So successful has this been, with the most outragous cheek, Tory leader Richard Cornelius now cites the new library as one of his administration's greatest achievements. 

One of this administration's rather less successful achievements is the creation of 'Your Choice Barnet' - an LATC or Local Authority Trading Company. This was founded on a business model produced by our high maintenance One Barnet consultants Agilisys, in 2011, with the interesting idea that it is possible to make profit from the care support services given to disabled adult residents, and that the profits from this venture should be used to subsidise the mammoth enterprise that is 'Barnet Homes', Barnet Council's ALMO, 'At Arms Length Organisation', responsible for the provision of all social housing in the borough.

Of course a child of six could see that a mouse cannot support the weight of an elephant, and that the business model of YCB was fatally flawed in concept. Apparently this thought had escaped the notice of the consultants who came up with the scheme, and the officers and councillors who approved it. Within months it became apparent that YCB was in serious financial trouble, and Barnet Council was obliged to support the enterprise with a million pound hand out. Funny, is it not, that the financial imprudence of private sector partnerships is so often rescued by public funding, rather than left to fail and cause political embarrassment to the idealogues and interested parties who promoted it in the first place?

In March, YCB's parent body, the Barnet Group, held its quarterly meeting. For the first time, a group of residents, including Mrs Angry, availed themselves of the right to attend such meetings, an event which clearly came as a shock to some board members: 

Residents and users of YCB have called for Barnet Council to take the body back in-house and exert direct control once more of the care services depended on by so many vulnerable and disabled residents. Their determination not to let this issue die down is fired by the natural sense of outrage that users and their families feel at being the victims of a botched attempt to make money from that very dependency. 

More recently, in November, a Safeguarding committee meeting was attended by campaigners intent on holding councillors and officers to account for the scandalous state of affairs: the volume of questions and speeches presented the perfect example of why the Tories have now proposed to minimise the amount of time in meetings allowed for such engagement. Too much democracy is a dangerous thing, in Broken Barnet.

It was impossible to sit through the public part of this meeting, and listen to the contributions of users and their relatives, and not feeled moved to tears of fury on their behalf, especially when looking at the blank, uncomprehending stare of the Tory councillors. 


No wonder they want to shut us up.

Your Choice Barnet continues, but as long as it does, residents will continue to protest - loudly - wherever possible, or impossible, for as long as it takes to make our elected members listen. The lesson has not been learnt: shutting down debate leads necessarily to residents taking matters into their own hands. Direct action is the result of a serious failure in the democratic process: the frustration of the disenfranchised. And there is a lesson here not just for the Tories, but for the Labour group. A failure to speak out loudly and act on behalf of those who feel estranged from the democratic process will remove their credibility as an opposition, and their potential as an alternative administration.

Another useful example this year of where residents' unasked for participation turned the course of events, regardless of protocol, was the infamous Contract Management meeting in October, the first attended by our new masters from Capita:

This meeting was attended by a congregation of executives from Capita, and the head of Capita in Barnet, Mr Mark Wyllie, who sat at the committee table to address the members - and received a short sharp introduction into democracy, Barnet style, as he did so. 

In other words the scrutiny that should but does not come via the committee members was generously provided by the enthusiastic participation of members of the public, sitting in the few seats not already grabbed by the droit de seigneur of the new rulers of Broken Barnet.

We sat and listened to Mr Wyllie, as he explained how his company would be forging 'a new relationship with residents', who would be at the heart of everything they do. He showed us graphic diagrams of the many ways in which Capita would express its love for us. Mrs Angry felt rather faint, at the very thought. 

Mr Wyllie appeared rather unnerved by the amount of derisory comments, raucous laughter and expressions of disbelief wafting across the wide range of the public seating in his direction. This was rather surprising, considering the history of the campaign against privatisation: clearly Capita had not expected such overt opposition to continue under the new regime. 

Oh dear, and Mr Wyllie's discomfiture was to become even more pronounced when at last one or two councillors decided to ask him some unexpected questions, which he was unable to answer.. And (almost) renegade Tory councillor Sury Khatri asked a very important, unexpected question: 

"Please explain the payments of more than £30 million from Barnet to Capita over the last two months.

Interim, says, Mr Wyllie. NO, declares Mr Reasonable, who has been told by the Chief Executive exactly what the payments are. 

Mr Wyllie could not answer. He turned to Kari Manovitch, who could or would not answer. She said she would speak to Cllr Khatri out of the meeting. 

Why, we yelled, as Mr Wyllie looked on in clear dismay: we want an answer. It will be published online, they replied."

We are still waiting for a proper answer. But the issue here is that the man from Capita could not, or would not answer the question, when an elected member of our council asked him, and in reference to an enormous sum of money.

As Mr Reasonable had verified, some of the money was interim payments - and some of it was money that should be returned to Barnet. This was not done until Mrs Angry submitted a question to the Audit committee - and miraculously between the question being emailed, and the meeting a few days later, the £4 million sum had been repaid - on a Sunday. Would this money have been returned, without the question being asked by bloggers? 

Or would Capita have retained it, as part of the payments from the authority? Which leads us nicely into another, and much more significant question, and a much more significant sum of money - £16.1 million, to be exact. 

We were forced into the One Barnet programme of privatisation - the 'change programme', as our mendacious Tory councillors have to tried to rebrand it for electoral purposes - on the basis that there was no possibility of keeping council services in-house. No possibility because we depended on the capital investment that would be made by a commercial partner. When Labour suggested that services and jobs could be retained by borrowing this sum, they were vilified by the Tory group - Councillor Robert Rams even wrote to the local press to express his disgust at such an idea: 

Tory councillors and officers continued to promote the deal with Capita on the grounds that the company would be making a substantial multi million pound upfront capital investment. 

This was untrue.

The day before the Capita NSCSO contract was signed, Tory leader Cornelius signed approval of a 'non-key' decision, which was not a decision, of £16.1 million from Barnet's own funds to cover the capital investment. 

Again, it was bloggers and campaigning residents who protested about this turnabout. Few councillors of either party knew about it, or understood it, when it was highlighted. No one could explain it: throughout October and November, Tories adopted a policy of total silence, and eventually the Chief Finance officer, Mr Chris Naylor, was wheeled out to try to persuade us that this had always been the plan, and that no difference was made by what Labour leader suggested was a 'sleight of hand' - the overall payment to Capita, he insisted, would be the same.

Yeah, right. 

Are you convinced, dear reader? Look at the expression on the faces of our Tory councillors - even right winger Tom Davey, to the left of Mr Naylor.

If this investment must be paid for as part of the aspirational savings promised to us by our new partners at Capita, how on earth can this be at the same time defined as an upfront payment by ... Capita?

The excuse for the £16.1 million payout by Barnet has been given variously by council officers as because we can borrow money cheaper than Capita, and because it was always part of the deal. 

These two excuses are not only contradictory, but simply not compatible with the line taken by the Tories, either at the time of ruling out an in-house proposal on the grounds that we cannot borrow money, or consequently throughout the tender process. 

Was the whole One Barnet outsourcing programme promoted on the back of a big fat lie?

Mrs Angry made a formal complaint to the council about what appear to be breaches of the constitution in regard to the lack of transparency over the funding of the Capita deal, and the way in which the £16.1 million transfer was authorised.

Since then - November 18th - there has been no further response, and the complaint has not been, as it should, according to the council's complaint's policy, advanced to the next level, which is the Chief Executive.

Mrs Angry also wrote to the external auditor, Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton.

Mr Hughes has the great good fortune, a blessing in any auditor, always to see the good in everything, and never to find any problem that might need investigating, on the grounds of public interest.

When asked to instigate an inquiry, for example, into the Metpro case, revealed by local bloggers, he refused, because, in his view, it might undermine confidence in a public body, ie the London Borough of Broken Barnet. 

In this view, he was quite correct, even though confidence was at an all time low, as bloggers then proceeded to uncover an entire culture of gross incompetence in the authority's management of procurement, as a result of which there were found to be thousands of non compliant contracts, wasting untold millions of pounds worth of taxpayers' money. 

Such a revelation, if investigated by the external auditor, would most certainly have further undermined confidence in Barnet Council.Thank God no one ever found out.

Procurement, of course, is now top of the list of functions taken over by Capita, and the source of most of the aspirational savings they have promised to make for the borough's taxpayers. And of course procurement, if run competently by the council itself, would have retained all savings for the borough's taxpayers, rather than, as will now be the case, all surplus profits over the minimal target going in the form of profit to the shareholders of Capita plc.

Also of no interest to our auditor, until it was all over, was the lack of a proper strategy for the handling of the risk of conflicts of interest posed during the One Barnet tender processes, specifically in regard to senior officers coming to and from companies involved in the process, either as potential bidders or as consultants. See:

(Incidentally, Barnet's councillors are not obliged to declare any shares they may hold - this is entirely voluntary - so we have no idea if any of them hold shares in Capita, or BT, or any of the companies shortlisted for the contracts. As none of them appear to have declared an interest in regard to these companies, we must conclude that they do not.)
It was no real surprise, therefore, to hear from Mr Hughes, eventually, that he is not at all worried by the payment of the £16.1 million. 

One might ask what sort of apocalyptically awful audit-related event might possibly keep Mr Hughes awake in the long dark hours of the night, but it is hard to imagine. He replied:
Based on what you have already been told in both the Audit Committee and subsequently, I do not see anything in your further communication which has not been answered and that falls within my statutory remit as the Council’s external auditor. Specifically, on your request for me to assure you around the lawfulness of the expenditure, this is not actually my role as external auditor, although I am able to seek a declaration from a court if I suspect unlawful items of account. This is not an approach that I am minded to take at this stage in this matter, as I am satisfied with the explanations provided to me around the expenditure to which you refer, and the processes for authorising it, being in line with Council procedures.

As mentioned at the Audit Committee, we will consider the broad question of how the Council is ensuring value for money from its contracts as part of our 2013/14 audit programme. Our accounts audit will review whether contract income and expenditure have been correctly accounted for in all material respects.

Mrs Angry has not quite finished with Mr Hughes, however: so watch this space. 

Eric Pickles wants to abolish the Audit Commission, on the pretext that people like us, the armchair auditors, will do the job instead, holding our elected representatives to account.

Balls, of course: the only way to do this is to have effective procedures in place to scrutinise the activities of such bodies, and hold them to account through regulation and formal processes of accountability. 

And that is exactly what is missing, and that is why local authorities like Barnet can get away with almost anything they want to. There is nowhere for local residents to complain to, if they suspect wrong-doing, or incompetence. 

The external auditor, as we have seen, is simply not interested, and does not see it as his responsibility. Anyone who has tried to use the Ombudsman system knows it is utterly pointless. 

It is of no surprise whatsoever, therefore, that in the absence of opportunity from the political process or any other formalised mechanism, in a time of great injustice, inequality, corruption and greed, ordinary people are resorting to alternative ways to express their dissent, and to take control over their own destinies. 
After the success of the occupation and re-opening of Friern Barnet Library, our friend Phoenix and some of the other squatters moved into an empty pub in North Finchley, to return it to its former function as a community centre: 

This new venture was well supported by local residents, determined to retain the much loved venue, and fight the decline of a once thriving high street. Eventually this occupation was ended by a court order, enacted by bailiffs, and a contingent of police. 

The bailiffs used dogs to enforce the eviction of the peaceful occupiers - one of whom is pregnant. Within days, they had returned to North Finchley, and established themselves in the most interesting choice of locations: the forecourt outside of Margaret Thatcher House, the offices of the Finchley and Golders Green Conservative party, and of our local MP, Mr Mike Freer.

Freer, of course was one of the MPs who sponsored the recent anti-squatting legislation that criminalised such activities in all residential properties, even if long empty and abandoned.

Phoenix and other occupiers believe very strongly that to leave something like one and a half million such properties unused when there are so many homeless people is obscene, and their presence in front of Margaret Thatcher House was aimed at raising awareness of the injustice of these issues.

Again, the bailiffs were brought in, this time by Freer, who rather amusingly sent the occupiers by accident an email in which he described the local police as 'numbnuts'. Margaret Thatcher House was liberated: the second time this year it had become the focus of media attention, of course, 2013 marking the death of the former Finchley MP, and oh, at least two bunches of flowers left leaning rather forlornly against the blue door in tribute, her passing otherwise largely unnoticed by the residents of Broken Barnet:

Barnet's Tory councillors paid their own tribute at a full council meeting: as did some of Barnet's less reverential residents:

And then in December came another passing: the death of Nelson Mandela. 

Some local Tories muttered mutinously about Labour proposals for a special meeting to commemorate his life and achievements. The party which for so long under Margaret Thatcher had helped support the survival of apartheid, and keep Mandela in his prison cell, finds it hard to come to terms with the new reality of Mandela the hero, the politician, the peacemaker; the man who freed the the jailer as well as the prisoner, a great man, whose legacy is so much more worthy than the divisive, corrosive memories of their own lost leader. 

Useful, perhaps, to contemplate his legacy, and his history: honoured now as a former president and world statesman, reviled in the past as a 'terrorist' for daring to oppose the forces of injustice and inequality. 

He above all others knew that sometimes, in order to fight a political system that has been broken and bloated by corruption, you may need to seek a more direct form of action: call it civil disobedience, or whatever you like, the message is there for all to see, here, and wherever the same obstructions lie - do the right thing, get up off your knees, stand up and fight for your rights. Ok, maybe that's more Bob Marley, than Mandela: but - you get the general drift.

In four months time we will have local elections here, in Broken Barnet. 

The opportunity will be there, at last, to change the current administration. 

Last year, at the infamous meeting which approved the deal with Capita, residents took over the room, and held their own meeting. They vowed to continue their opposition to the mass privatisation our elected members had just agreed, with no mandate from us:

Once our public services are gone, they are gone forever.

We are not going away. 

No matter what the Cabinet decides, whatever the Cabinet decides, it is only the beginning.

We are fighting to take back our democracy. 

We will keep on the fight.

We will keep on the fight.

We will keep on the fight, and reclaim our democracy.

Here in Broken Barnet the way forward is clear: only by deposing the current junta of neo-Thatcherite Tories, who have so happily sold us into bondage for ten years to our profiteering masters at Capita, can we reclaim our democracy, and our freedom. 

So here's to a new year, and a new resolve:

We'll take it back some day, mark my words ...


Don't Call Me Dave said...

“The party which for so long under Margaret Thatcher had helped support the survival of apartheid, and keep Mandela in his prison cell…”

Oh dear, Mrs Angry. Your propensity for writing complete and utter garbage knows no bounds. But you were never one to let facts get in the way of a good anti-Tory rant. You are, however, clever enough to know that you cannot libel the dead.

Mrs Angry said...

If the old miner baiting, starched knickered old bat was still alive, DCMD, there would be no problem with publishing the comments you quote, as they were true then, as they are true now. What is awfully amusing is to see so many of the Tories who condemned Mandela as a terrorist - some happy to visit SA during the apartheid era, on luxury sponsored jollies, while Mandela was incarcerated - now falling over themselves to honour his memory as a great statesman. Such cant and hypocrisy: exactly what you would expect, of course.

Anonymous said...

The truth from someone who was actually there and a Diane Abbot who thinks she 'owns' this issue as her personal political plaything.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

As an avowed Socialist Mrs Angry, I bow to your vastly superior knowledge of hypocrisy.

Mrs Angry said...

Do try to keep up, Mr Hope: see recently released papers which support Diane Abbot rather than the Thatcher hagiographers -

Mrs Angry said...

Yo: DCMD - wassup? Life in Chigwell not the bucolic idyll you imagined? Not been invited round to tea with the Tebbits yet? Tanning salon barred you again?

Anonymous said...

Mrs Angry you are focussing on the wrong period and wrong President

PW Botha was not going to release Mandela.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Chigwell is very nice thank you, but the rubbish collection is, er, rubbish when compared to the simple and effective system which operates in Barnet. DCMD will be attending his first Parish Council meeting on Thursday. He hopes they have some answers ready for him otherwise they might be sent to see Uncle Eric.

Mrs Angry said...

Daniel Hope: pay attention. There was no wrong period in which to a. oppose apartheid, or b. lobby for the release of Nelson Mandela. Such injustice was always wrong, but Thatcher only chipped in when it was clear that a. the big bogeyman of world communism was no longer so scary and b. it was the only way to go, for economic reasons as much as anything else. She was quite happy to visit SA under apartheid, and her husband's sanction busting attitudes are well documented.

Mrs Angry said...

DCMD: since you have left Barnet, we have been blessed with the most idiotic and costly rubbish collection service imaginable. £4m for new bins, £8 million for new lorries, and ha: here is the joke, they forgot to check whether it would be compliant with new regulations coming in next year, so we may well find ourselves with £12 million worth of extra plastic to recycle when we have to bin the bins. More Barnet Tory extravagance and waste for you.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Angry are you referring to the in house, unionised, public sector controlled refuse service run in the way you want all public services run?

Mrs Angry said...

As you know perfectly well, it is not the operational service which is cocked up, but the political decision making by your Tory councillor chums, who lecture everyone else about austerity measures and throw our money at wasteful expenditure like £10 million on private consultants, and £12 million on bins and lorries.