Thursday, 11 September 2014
Send in the clowns: Capita's bailiffs visit Cafe Buzz
A local business representative dropped in to Cafe Buzz the other day, to see Helen. He was full of excitement, and full of good news. Did she know, he asked, that Barnet Council and Capita are really keen to engage with local businesses?
Helen Michael smiled politely, although Mrs Angry can imagine that smile may have been a little fixed, and hard to sustain. And then she told her visitor what had happened to her, earlier in the week.
Helen Michael is of course a leading character in the story of Broken Barnet: a local heroine, much loved and admired for her generosity, and good humour, and for having had the courage and determination to confront Barnet Council over its catastrophic parking policy, which has had such a devastating impact on our high street traders.
More particularly, she is feted wherever she goes for her role in the downfall of former Barnet parking czar, Brian Coleman, now mercifully relieved of all his overpaid public posts, and holding a criminal conviction for common assault by beating of his nemesis, after an incident in the street outside Buzz, when she spotted him illegally parking, in defiance of his own cockeyed cashless parking scheme.
On Monday Mrs Angry had arranged to meet a friend in Cafe Buzz, and arrived there to find Helen in what appeared to be unusually animated conversation with a man sitting near the entrance to the kitchen.
Helen has a history of entertaining interesting visitors, of course: during the run up to the GLA elections which saw the downfall of Coleman, for example, a couple of officers from SO15 came to see her, and she was later questioned by them under caution on the interesting pretext of having printed a few campaign posters without the relevant imprint.
But this gentleman caller - well, he may or may not have been a gentleman, but he was at least wearing a suit - was holding a card with the word 'Equita' on it.
Hello, said Mrs Angry: what's going on here, then - Equita? That's the bailiffs owned by Crapita, isn't it?
Helen, who was clearly upset, and rather cross, explained this man was indeed a bailiff, sent by Barnet Council, to try to enforce some demand related to disputed and backdated business tax. A demand from over a year ago.
How very interesting, said Mrs Angry. The bailiff asked who she was, so she told him, and explained what a keen interest she took in all things crapitorial. He looked slightly uncomfortable.
It appeared that there were no copies of any liability orders, or summons, yet the bailiff, she reported, wanted to seize goods in lieu of this distant and disputed amount.
Dealing with the Capita run council can be trying at the best of times, and mistakes are made in the calculation of tax collection, since they took over, as we know. Difficult to sort out, when dealing with an outsourced service.
Mrs Angry's friend arrived, and we sat down, increasingly aware that the conversation between Helen Michael and the bailiff was becoming heated, and threatening to boil over into something much worse. The bailiff, despite being asked not to, entered the kitchen.
Helen called the police, which was the right thing to do, as they came quickly, ensured her safety, and acted with impeccable tact and diplomacy until the whole horrible scene, prolonged, and taking place in front of all her customers, was over.
That it ended at all with any sort of resolution was thanks to the great generosity of a friend who intervened and offered to make a payment because, she said, she so admired Helen's stance and courage over the events of the last few years.
Before she did so, another bailiff, with CIA type earpiece in place, had arrived, and within a short time the pair of them were behind the cafe counter, picking up bowls, ridiculously, and poking about, looking for goods to take, as you can see in the photo above.
Are you hoping to confiscate a box of kitkats, asked Mrs Angry?
It then became clear that in fact, rather more seriously, one of them was intending to take the cafe's coffee machine, in other words deprive a cafe owner of her source of revenue, which seemed if not a symbolic gesture, a questionable move when even bankrupts are entitled to retain their tools and means of income.
Presumably Equita would then have covered Capita's allegedly missing tax by flogging a second hand coffee machine on ebay, or maybe a car boot stall? In any event, they make a tidy profit from the fees attached to sending the bailiffs round, don't they?
At this point, as they were poised to risk electrocution and remove the coffee machine, Mrs Angry's kind friend discreetly made her offer of a payment to the bailiffs, which eventually they accepted.
Mrs Angry asked the two bailiffs if they particularly enjoyed their chosen vocation, and pointed out how unfair what they were doing was for someone who worked so hard to keep her business going, and to improve the state of the local high street. They looked on, indifferently.
One of the police officers, as he left, remarked on the kindness of the good samaritan who made the payment, as a really fine example of community spirit. He was right.
A few months ago, Mrs Angry was told about another trader in North Finchley high street who was visited by Equita - Helen witnessed what happened, as the distraught trader pleaded with them and, she claims, explained he had already offered to pay £200 a month to cover backdated demands. She alleges that in this case, there was no ID shown and reportedly the necessary paperwork was again missing.
In the end, she says, the bailiffs made an agreement that the trader should pay an amount less than that he had already offered. So what was the point of the visit? Well, one result is that Equita can bill for the visit, and other costs. And therein lies the really interesting feature of this process.
Let's remember how and why Equita arrived in this borough: here is an article from last September, in the Barnet Press:
When Capita were handed the two enormous contracts to run our council services, here in Broken Barnet, they arrived knowing that the council already had contracts with two bailiff companies, whose services they had used for several years.
Capita decided they were going to bring in their own company, Equita, to replace the long standing arrangement, despite the fact that Barnet Council had signed new contracts with Newlyn and Phoenix in April, and despite fears over the potential conflict of interest that might be presented by using their own bailiffs, raised by opposition councillors. Newlyn and Phoenix threatened legal action, but against Capita? That all fizzled out, eventually.
As Libdem leader Jack Cohen stated at the time:
“All of us are owed an explanation about what has gone on here. The other bailiff firms have had to go through a procurement process, but Capita can just appoint their own.
This is all about Capita making more money and the council has really got themselves into an awful mess. The people who will pay for this are the residents of Barnet.”
Jack Cohen's prediction would appear to have come true.
It is reported that Equita bailiffs enter the process of recovering money deemed owing from residents and traders much quicker, and with more 'efficiency' than the previous contractors. That of course benefits the council in a quicker return of revenue, and may well benefit Capita in terms of more and higher costs involved in the proceedings undertaken to recover more actively, and more quickly.
The human cost is harder to quantify, of course.
That evening, Mrs Angry went to a council meeting, chiefly to witness our Tory councillors give our former Church Farmhouse Museum to Middlesex University - or rather pay them to take it off their hands, as it has stood empty and decaying, since they closed the place, ransacked and flogged the local collection, and tried to sell the beautiful listed building. Mrs Angry pointed out that not only were they philistines who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, they were evidently utterly incompetent when it came to selling any of the heritage assets they are so keen to offload.
And their lack of business acumen is also reflected in the way they approach the duty to support local businesses, which was another item on the agenda at this meeting. It was impossible not to laugh, recalling the events at Cafe Buzz, earlier in the day, as the Tory chairwoman, Daniel Thomas, congratulated himself and his fellow members for their marvellous policies in encouraging the local economy, and traders.
And then Danny Seal, the globe trotting, ever cheerful Tory member for Hampstead Garden Suburb, making one of his rare appearances at a council meeting, and remarking on Mrs Angry's tutted disapproval, from across the room, stated that these days - everyone did all their shopping online, anyway.
Well, no, they do not: we need our high streets, and we need a thriving local economy, with small businesses and traders supported in a time of austerity and economic hardship. But Barnet Tories are not interested in local shops, and the needs of those who don't drive to Brent Cross to buy a pint of milk, or wait in for their delivery from Waitrose. They don't understand the idea of community, or community spirit.
Tories ignore the high streets in preference to their boundless enthusiasm for the development of Brent Cross, of course. They are indifferent to the plight of the high streets they themselves have brought to the point of terminal decline with their parking policies, detering residents from visiting local shops, causing lasting damage to the trade upon which shop and cafe owners like Helen Michael depend: and they are happy to send in the bailiffs to demand the tax such businesses are finding it increasingly hard to pay, as a result.
We don't need museums, we don't need libraries; we don't need affordable housing, or social housing, and we don't need local shops and cafes.
If your business fails: it's your fault.
If your high street dies: meh - that's market forces for you.
Turn away, Tory councillors, and shrug your shoulders: this is Broken Barnet, and you're the ones who broke it, but ... you're not done yet, are you?