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?


Mr Mustard said...

I recently purchased a most enlightening book "Taking Control of Goods" about bailiff's powers (£49 if you want to buy a copy). I haven't managed to digest all 393 pages yet, stuffed as it is with relevant legislation and case law, but it seems to me that if the coffee machine was hard wired to a fused socket and connected to the water supply, that it would be a fixture and not a chattel and could not be seized. The bailiff has probably exceeded his powers which is quite normal. I have several bailiff complaints in with the council and they seem to be very tardy in responding, perhaps because in every case I have looekd at regarding PCN recovery, the bailiff has lied, cheated, schemed or over-charged.

This story is not yet complete. There will be a happy ending.

The council has a duty of care about the actions of its bailiffs. They try to absolve themselves of responsibility but they cannot as their name is on the warrant (once it is found & if it exists). I am going to make them care in the end.

Quintus Slide said...

Whenever a reasonable person considers that the depths have been plumbed, the outsourcing shovel keeps digging.

An area elected representatives may wish to probe is the way in which the conditions of the Capita contract may be even worse than the initial transfer suggested. It is too early in the morning to go through the document to drag out all the references, but the way in which further power is being transferred to "Regional Enterprise" Ii.e. Capita management) should raise alarm bells.

When the contract was signed in 2013, the hapless transfer of staff under TUPE took place - with existing performance management and systems in place. In mid-August 2014, a year after the contract took effect, these protections are no longer required. So Capita can incentivise and penalise RE staff according to its own criteria.

This puts yet another barrier between citizens and the council, as well as making it even more opaque and difficult for Councillors to scrutinise what is being done in their name and how the RE staff are actually implementing policy. Are the new management arrangements incentivising speed rather than proper process - after all getting something off the desk means that the next task can be addressed, whether or not the outcome is consistent with statutory duty or council policies, and the risk can be taken that not everyone aggrieved by this will have the knowledge, the time or the confidence to pursue a complaint.

The Capita contract undermines confidence to start off with, even without a reasonable doubt that the objectives of good governance and transparency are being carried out even if this does not maximise shareholder returns. Imagine the impact that an inappropriate management system could have on housing, education, planning, social service and all the other services where probity is required.

This disgusting event should make Labour, Jack Cohen and others start poking around in the contracts. If Capita and Equita have acted beyond the law here, they should be punished.

How the outsourced services are delivered, and they legality, effectiveness and probity needs Councillors, who have more power than the electorate, to start holding the Officers, Capita and the Committee Chairmen (sic) to account in public.

Mrs Angry said...

Mr Mustard: I have no doubt that if my friend and I and, of course, the police, had not been there, there would have been a far worse incident. The bailiffs were very aware that they were under scrutiny and one can only wonder what happens generally in the course of these encounters.

Quintus: very interesting, thank you. I would like to think our elected representatives will indeed investigate the matter, and hold the contractors to account. I am an eternal optimist. Of course it is awfully hard work, and some of our councillors are not awfully keen on the role of scrutiny, or capable of examining the fine detail of contracts - which is how we came to be lumbered with them in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Mrs A , I find this Very Disturbing !!! We are supposed to be Living in a Democracy were the the Rule of Law should & Must Be Followed , on serving any & all court Appointed papers thay must be accurate & stamped by the court !! & served at point . Turning up Without paperwork & then trying to proced is in itself an illegal enforcement , The Police are not even Allowed to Enter a premises without a warrant !!! & the worrying thing is !! THEY COULD BE ANYONE . Enough is Enough Crapita . & there puppet council

Mrs Angry said...

Well, Anonymous, I don't know whether what they were trying to do was legally correct or not, as there were no court papers to see, and I understand that the council, when later contacted, appeared to have a problem finding copies too ... It was clearly a very upsetting and intimidating experience for Helen.

Anonymous said...

I found it impossible to pay my domestic council tax after the benefits were stopped. I've had run ins with equita and their hired thugs and it's completely terrifying. I've managed to hold them off from coming so far but the council are unsympathetic , Equita are rude and their bailiffs are scary. I'm not a law breaker by nature, just very poor. They ask me to pay almost £500 for sending a bailiff out to try and take my possessions, which combined would fetch less than the £300 I owe. I'm scared all the time now.

Mrs Angry said...

I'm very sorry to hear you have had such an experience, Anon. I don't know if it would be any use, but there are charities like who might be able to help you with your financial worries, and perhaps assist you in some sort of negotiated resolution.

Unknown said...

Shocking stuff. Bailiffs seem to have far too much power to bully and threaten nowadays. Definitely worth reporting.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Our Local MPs , should Be contacted in Regard to the probity & conduct of these Bailiffs , There comments would be of Great interest ( Especially Mike Freer ) & in Answer to your Return comment mrs A . No they cannot just turn up without the correct paperwork ! How would you know what you Owe ! If at all . & if they attempt to collect without the said paperwork . Turn them Away & if need be call the police . The producing of a Card Means Nothing ! I wouldn't no what there card Looks Like ! & if they say that they will charge for the Visit . If procedurally correct fine ! If not there problem not yours & cannot Be charged for ! ? Would or could you pay a Bill Without paperwork ? Tell them you will pay it at the Bank !

Mrs Angry said...

Yes, Anonymous: as you can read at the end of this post - - last November MP Mike Freer used a bailiff company called 'the Sheriff's Office' to eject some members of the Occupy movement from the front of the sacred building that is 'Margaret Thatcher' House, ie Tory HQ for Finchley. See the lovely pic of a bailiff posing in front of her portrait. I think that incident says it all, really.

As to what happened at Buzz, Helen had been making regular payments, and had the receipts to show the bailiff - and me. So, all a mystery, really, why she was being pursued for a disputed back dated sum at that particular point, other than, as she alleges, to rack up more costs and fees.

I'm absolutely sure that there was no decision to be particularly attentive to her perceived debt for any reason, just as I do not think the constant attentions of large numbers of parking wardens outside the cafe have anything to do with her campaigning.

What is clear is that traders in this borough are being treated to the double whammy of loss of trade from the parking revenue cash cow regime, and the merciless pursuit of disputed payments.

Red Sonia said...

Maybe she should sue Barnet or Crapita for harrassment or reputational damage.

Anonymous said...

Mrs A . Quite frankly I am shocked at what is Happening Both Nationally & Localy , Our Country is Being Dismantled Before Our Eyes , We in Barnet are now just a commodity , No Say Just Pay . Services are simply Being Handed over to provide Easy profit , as I expressed in an Earlier msg . If they Don't wish to provide Services , Step aside , I for one would not be upset to pay my national insurance contribution Directly to my Local Hospital Finchley memorial Hospital , Not the Tory sweetener to Be simply picked by the Tory Donors. Has anyone seen the New Flag should Scotland Become independent . Very German Her Cameron !! Independents for all it seems . It's called Divide & conquer isn't it Her Cameron Von Bismarck . Very Very Dangerous !!!