Monday 27 June 2016

Brexit: Breaking points, broken promises - and Broken Barnet

A deserted Hendon Town Hall, on election night

This election day seemed wrong footed, right from the first step inside the polling station. After the chaos of May's London elections, and the cockup over the registers, which saw thousands of voters disenfranchised, one might have hoped for all irregularities to have been addressed, and the democratic process restored to some sort of efficiency. 

This time, they had the right registers, but at our polling station the Presiding Officer appeared to think he had to escort us through the procedure, following us to the table, asking for my daughter's card, taking it from her and handing it to the clerks, as 'proof' of our address. They were confused by his intervention, as we have different surnames, and they thought I was not on the list.

No, I said. That is not how this works. We both state our name and address, and that is all that is needed. I don't have my card. It's not up to you to ask if we are related and assume we live at the same address. He wanted to argue about it, but we walked away, and voted, in an empty room, and left, for the first time in my voting experience, with no tellers at the doors to ask for our numbers. 

I suggested to my daughter that we were fortunate not to be asked who we wanted to vote for, and have the infamous pencils taken out of our hands, to be replaced by magic biros, and a proxy vote made on our behalf, in the approved manner.

As it happened, pencils won over biros, in Broken Barnet, and the vote here at least was a convincing win for Remain. But as I observed later, in the long, long hours of the count, some Brexit voters were determined to make their mark indelibly, and in the most emphatic manner, large angry crosses, in marker pen, as if that would have a more convincing outcome than a less determined indication. 

As I made my way to join the count, I had passed by the Town Hall, where election night results, in the era of local MP Margaret Thatcher, were traditionally declared, now looming large in the midsummer dusk, in all its deserted, gothic majesty, the lights not on, and nobody home, except for a congregation of pigeons determinedly clinging on to the window ledges, peering in at the empty council chamber. Another omen.

The signs were ominous, but arriving at the count, at Allianz Park, in Mill Hill, with Labour councillor Devra Kay and her daughter, our mood was reasonably optimistic, despite the prospect of having to stay awake all night, scrutinising the tables of ballot papers. 

Allianz Park is the name given to the former local authority Copthall sports stadium, handed over to Saracens rugby club by our Tory councillors, and renamed in homage to the German insurance company, who have an £8 million sponsorship deal with the team. It is, therefore, of course, the perfect venue for the counting of votes, in Broken Barnet: a former public asset, deliberately neglected until ripe for disposal to a profit making enterprise, its annexation confirmed by the striking out of its local name, and any association with the history of the borough.

Arriving at the count, with misplaced optimism, Labour Cllr Devra Kay & daughter

Copt Hall was once the home of the Nicholl family, whose centuries long association with the area is now forgotten, their ancient house demolished, and its name a matter of indifference to our Conservative easycouncillors. 

Handing our heritage and only major sports centre to German business partners did not raised any concern from our elected representatives, and the dark irony of this crucial referendum being accounted for not in the former seat of municipal power, but in a once publicly owned building and facility appropriated by a European sponsor, would probably have passed them by, as well.

On the other hand, it may have been a matter of no interest at all. Hard to tell, on the night itself, because of one remarkable fact.

Not one Tory councillor, or local MP, or senior Tory activist attended the count. 

They boycotted it, and left all the work of scrutiny, and overseeing the counting of the ballot papers, to others. Sitting up all night, watching and checking the count were Labour councillors, Labour party members, a handful of Better In activists, and a cabal of tight lipped, sullen Brexiteers. 

We left around three thirty: the result came in an hour later: unless he made a last minute appearance then, and I've seen no report that they did, neither the Tory leader of the council, Richard Cornelius, nor the deputy leader Dan Thomas, or any senior Tory came to observe the proceedings, let alone thank staff for their hard work on the election, and through the long night. You might think after the national disgrace heaped on the authority as a result of the mismanagement of the last election, it might have been appropriate to show some interest.

As for our MPs: no sign of Eurosceptics Offord or Villiers, or Remain supporter Freer. 

Why did the Tories stay away? 

Clearly the Tory group in Barnet, like the party itself, was divided on the subject of Europe. The Tory leader has always shown his antipathy to the EU, and after standing unsuccessfully as a candidate in the London Assembly elections, Thomas has been outed as an outer. Other members, such as the veteran member for Hampstead Garden Suburb and former MP, John Marshall, have been staunchly pro Europe. Marshall, despite his age and frailty, helped man a Remain stall at last week's East Finchley festival - and indeed we happily agreed that this was the first and only time in which we were likely to be on the same side in any political debate. 

Marshall's fellow Suburb councillor Gabriel Rozenberg is also pro EU, and has been tweeting madly about it since the disastrous vote, although curiously more reticent beforehand. Gabriel is of course the son of Brexit fan Melanie Phillips, and like most sons (though not mine on this point, at least) is probably naturally inclined to disagree with his mother as a point of principle, but still ... Neither of these two Remain supporting Tories showed up, on Thursday night.

With the majority of Barnet Tory councillors, it is hard to detect if their absence was strategic, a matter of fear, apathy  - or merely laziness. Whatever the reason, it perfectly illustrates the moribund state of health of the Conservative local party, the democratic deficit in their administration - and the contempt our Tory members extend towards the process of governance, the role of governance with which they are entrusted.

The morning after the night before: always the hardest moment, in any election, in Broken Barnet - and here we still are, rubbing our eyes in disbelief, wondering whose bed we are in, and how we got there, and what we did ...

And how even to begin to consider the implications of what has happened? 

The duplicity and recklessness of those leading the Leave campaign, with no plan for what to do, if they were successful, defies belief, and represents an act of irresponsibility on a incalculable scale. More than irresponsible: if there had been any discernible signs of intelligent strategy and forethought, one might argue they were guilty of an act of economic and constitutional treason, or terror. As it is, the apocalyptic storm they have unleashed is by default, rather than by design, an act of idiocy - but its impact will be the same.

How fitting it is that we are, at last, about to see the Chilcott report published, and Blair's invasion of Iraq held to account. An act of aggression, based on a false premise, for the purpose of regime change, and no strategy for managing the outcome of victory: hard not to see parallels with what is happening now in the disastrous Brexit campaign - a catastrophically stupid retreat, rather than an invasion, but with consequences that will last for generations to come.

Equally irresponsible are those voters who made their mark on their ballot papers without properly informing themselves of the implications of their decision, choosing to leave Europe, largely, simply on a basis of fear of migration, and a vague belief, promoted by the tame press, that their lives were being remote-controlled by faceless Eurocrats, leaving them powerless to direct their own destinies ... All the promises they believed, now revealed as lies and misconceptions, and the unimaginable impact of their decision entirely due to their own failure to think, and question, before voting, and exercising what is, after all,  a democratic duty, as well as a right.

And then we have the self indulgence and self serving machinations of the Labour party, looking on as members of the Tory government expose themselves as the most conflicted administration ever yet seen, a party torn in two, and instead of stepping into the breach, here is the opposition launching us into another act of self immolation.

The opportunist MPs who so happily accepted posts in Corbyn's shadow cabinet have been waiting for the time in which they could seize a chance to kick him out, restore a more malleable leader, and return to the cultivation of their own best interests, in defiance of the clear mandate given last year by grassroots members. 

They neither understand nor care why there was such a groundswell of support for change: that core Labour voters have abandoned a party run by those who put career before principle, who fight for preferment rather than against social injustice, who regard the ideals on which the Labour movement was founded as an historic footnote, an irrelevance to the modern day party, and an obstruction to the smooth progress of their own best interests.

Here in Barnet, a few Blairites in the local Hendon CLP attempted yesterday to promote a motion of no confidence in their own party leader. They failed: defeated by a membership vote that reflects an acknowledgement that there is a reason the Labour party is losing votes in that constituency. Not just a change in demographics, but a growing dissatisfaction with the party from local campaigners and residents being driven from the area by Tory housing policy, for example, who look at the ineffectual leadership of the council opposition, and cannot support them. 

It is a problem echoed in constituencies all over the country, and best exemplified perhaps by what is happening to the teaching assistants in Durham, in what should be the heartland of Labour support, but whose Labour council has sacked these vital workers, and demanded they lose 25% of their income on new contracts. The Labour establishment, a legacy of New Labour, still embedded in so many parts of the country, is complacent, and estranged from working class communities in the North East, and elsewhere, and this is why increasingly such voters veer towards ukip territory, voting for Brexit - or not voting at all.

A new Labour shadow government and leader will fail its duties as an opposition, and never become elected, if it fails to learn this lesson, and refuses to acknowledge the message sent to them by those grassroots members who voted, last year, for a reaffirmation of Labour's core values, and a commitment to the people of this country, who are being crushed by a punitive set of Tory policies, and so desperately need a Labour party that offers an alternative vision - and hope for the future.

The day after the vote, I fell into conversation, in a supermarket, with a local Tory party activist: a nice woman, bright enough, yet who told me she had not really made up her mind about her vote, until the last minute. Now she wasn't sure whether it was the right decision, she said, vaguely, as if it didn't really matter. 

Here in London, during May's elections, citizens rejected the politics of hatred so cynically adopted by Tory campaigners. That horrible attempt at divisive, gutter politics deflated as satisfyingly as the Back Zac balloons in the window at Margaret Thatcher House, here in Finchley, post election.

But we are always just a knife edge away from the rise of something even less inclusive and tolerant, in our capital city, and elsewhere.

Back home, I noticed the foreman of the Polish builders who have been working hard on the house next door for months, standing outside, leaning against the skip, and regarding my 'Remain' signpost with a worried expression. He is right to be worried: not because he will be asked to leave any time soon, or fail to find work here, but because something fearful, and dangerous, has been unleashed, here, now, in this country. 

Already there are many reports of incidents of hate crimes against migrant workers, and fear amongst migrant communities of a backlash from the dawning realisation, by those who voted for Brexit on the basis of an unthinking resentment of immigration, that their vote was wasted, and our diverse, multicultural society is here to stay. 

Add to that resentment the impact on our crashing economy of the withdrawal from Europe, and you have a potential formula for social unrest, riots, and divisiveness on a scale we have not yet seen - and the rise of an even uglier and more overt face of political demagoguery. 

The breaking point that Nigel Farage wanted us to believe in was a lie: we will be broken, in Barnet, and elsewhere, not by remaining part of the EU, but by Brexit itself, and by his doing, and that of all those, in all parties, who play games with our political future, for their own purposes. 

Where we go now, or what we do, feels as if it is completely out of our control, the inversion of everything Farage, Johnson, Gove and all the rest promised us. The only surprise is that so many of us did not foresee it.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Breaking Point - and a lesson from history: voting for a better future in Europe

Let me tell you about something that happened to me last winter, just before Christmas. 

Sitting in my living room, one morning, I noticed that there was a woman standing outside my house, clearly in some sort of distress, bent over the front garden wall. 

A middle aged woman - or so I thought, nondescript - the sort of person you walk past, in the street, without noticing. I opened the window and asked if she was alright. She did not speak, but shook her head. I went outside, then, and asked her what was wrong: but she could barely utter the words to explain, clutching herself in excruciating pain, tears running down her face. In an eastern european accent, she whispered that her leg hurt, and her stomach. I asked if I should call an ambulance. No, no, she pleaded: not that. She was adamant that she could not go to a hospital. 

Eventually, I managed to persuade her to come inside, and sit down, and gave her some water, and tried to help - and eventually a kind friend who is a doctor came down the road to look at her. The friend smelled her breath, and asked a few direct questions. She's a chronic alcoholic, she told me, but I think she is very ill. She needs to go to hospital. 

Lilija (not her real name) refused. She was frightened. Don't be frightened, I said: no one is going to judge you ... (I was wrong, of course). After much coaxing, and persuasion, she let the friend drop us off at a local hospital, where we spent the next few hours, she holding my hand, the hand of a total stranger, in a tight grip, as if she were drowning, crying silently, and sipping furtively all the while from a water bottle, that had no water in it, but some sort of spirits.

In those long hours, she told me a little about her life. She was only in her thirties, which was hard to believe, from her appearance, or accept, that someone so young could be so unhappy that they must drink to the point of oblivion, in the middle of the day. 

But she was - very unhappy: having lived in this country for fifteen years or more, somehow surviving as a cleaner, or caring for children, living in a lonely bedsit. She couldn't go home: her elderly mother depended on the money she sent from England, and the family background was dysfunctional, and abusive, and she would not have been welcome. So she was killing herself slowly, with alcohol.

I had told her the doctors would not judge her, but they did. The young, cool eyed Australian duty doctor, in front of her, as she wept, announced abruptly that she was seriously ill, but it was all due to alcohol. Yes, I said, I know, but ... can't you show her a little compassion? The doctor complained then about the trouble that this woman was causing, and the burden on the NHS, with the implication that this was particularly objectionable as Lilija was from eastern Europe, and although a long term tax payer, now with mental health issues, was somehow not entitled to care - or compassion.

Fortunately, when the ambulance came to take Lilija to another hospital, and the emergency care she needed, the paramedic crew extended to her the dignity and kindness that she deserved, and took great care of her, without question or moral judgement: the familiar, kindly face of the NHS, upon whom we all depend. She hugged me, before she got into the ambulance, and I walked away, now in tears myself. What would become of her? I don't know. The address she gave the doctors was false. It doesn't exist. I've haven't seen her since. 

Here is another story  - from the past, several generations ago. You may think it has nothing to do with Broken Barnet, or Broken Britain, or anything much. You may think history has nothing to tell us, now, today - even though we are on the brink of an election being fought, on one side, on the basis of our past, or at least their version of our past, a mythical Britain which has never existed, but to which they fondly hope we can return, none the less.

Still: come with me, now, back to nineteenth century England, that cradle of high Tory virtue, where the poor were always with us, but in their rightful place: the undeserving poor, punished for their fecklessness, managed with the full force of a merciless set of laws intent on stigmatising those who could not support themselves, carefully created so as to deter all but the most desperate from asking for help, for charity, when in need.

Fear of the workhouse, for example, was a deliberately crafted tool of social engineering, lovingly polished in the workshop of political ideology, and religious zeal. The workhouse regime was made as unbearable as possible, in order to prevent all but the most desperate from applying for admission. The inspiration, of course, for much of the present Conservative government's welfare policies.

When the first members of my Irish family came here, during the Famine, to the north east of England, some of them - including three small children - ended up in Newcastle Workhouse, their mother having died, shortly after arrival, of fever contracted in Sandgate, one of the festering slums that were home to newly arrived refugees from the West of Ireland. 

Where are you from, they were asked? Shaking with fear, no doubt, not fluent in English, they whispered - 'Sligo': the beadle mistaking their words for 'Glasgow', as it is still recorded, written down in the ledgers, with indifferent inaccuracy. 

And yes: they were refugees, fleeing starvation, and religious persecution, although their new English Protestant neighbours, especially if they had the benefit of twenty first century scepticism, would have seen them, no doubt, at best as economic migrants - and more generally, without doubt, at that point, as some sort of vermin.

The surname, incidentally, of these children, was Durkin - the same as the self professed libertarian polemicist who has made 'Brexit, the movie'. The motif of which would appear to be, in the name of our freedom, to obstruct the free movement of everyone else. 

Almost every inch of the Sligo Mayo border was home to a Durkin family, at one time. Almost all those that did not die in the Famine left the area in the wake of the Irish diaspora, their descendants, like me, and Martin Durkin, scattered across Britain, the USA, and Canada, settling at will, in a new world of possibility, with open borders, and freedom from institutionalised religious bigotry. How lucky we are, that they survived - and prospered.

But let us move on, and visit another workhouse now, in London, a little later in the next century, in 1908, to be precise. Here is a small moment of history no one has remarked upon, until now.

It is the Westminster Union Workhouse, where according to the register for that year, on April 19th, a woman of sixty eight years of age was admitted - a needlewoman, referred to the Workhouse by order of the police in St James' ward. 

Her name, according to the register, is Nina Schrod, but it is a mishearing of the name Bina Schrod. 

She is described as 'injured', and would appear to have been previously in a 'sick asylum'. She will be discharged to a son, a GPO letter sorter, who lives with his own family, while his widowed mother has spent the last few decades eking out a living by sewing, living alone in a series of lodgings. 

Now, however, she is dependent on the goodwill and charity of the parish overseers, along with many other destitute and ill Londoners living in the heart of the city - all of them a burden the Board of Guardians are keen to dispose of. 

Bina came to England in the 1860s, from Germany, with her husband Nickolaus, a cabinet maker, and they settled in a part of London that was home to many other German immigrants in the nineteenth century, around the Tottenham Court road area: so many of them in this area it would probably have been more usual to hear German spoken, than English. That must have felt some Londoners feel ... uncomfortable, or even - awkward ...

Bina Schrod was from Friedberg, near Frankfurt: her first name suggests she - and maybe her husband - might have been of Jewish origin, although perhaps one of many who chose to convert rather than suffer the many restrictions forced on German Jewish citizens, even before the later persecution and genocidal regime of the twentieth century. Fortunate, if so, that the Schrod family escaped now, before the rise of Nazism, which saw the remaining Jewish population removed to Buchenwald, and total annihilation.

Most Germans who settled in London at this time, in the nineteenth century, were undoubtedly doing so for largely economic reasons, moving to a more liberal country that put up no barrier to immigration, and offered great opportunities for those arriving from all parts of Europe. 

Bina, who died in 1915, never became a naturalised British citizen: but her son Carl, born in London, was careful to change his name to Charles, and the family perhaps escaped the anti German prejudice that arose during the First World War. 

Charles married an English girl, and their children, including Gladys, born in 1900, grew up in suburban south London. Oh, yes - and Gladys, in 1927, married a man called Harry Farage: the grandfather of Nigel, of course.

Nigel Farage dismisses his German ancestry as irrelevant to his views on migration, and Europe. He has dismissed the recent revelation that the myth of his genteel sounding 'Huguenot' surname, lost, he hoped,  in the mists of time, is actually the legacy of a Belgian immigrant, who settled in Berkshire in the 18th century, and whose Ferridge descendants latterly assumed a rather more romantic spelling of their name. 

But the reinvention of Nigel Farage is key to his political viewpoint, just as the schoolboy extremism revealed in his former school records is central to a clear understanding of the man he is now.

The idea of Britishness to which he ascribes has never existed, is just as outdated and bogus as the tobacco stained, beer swilling bar room bore persona that he has adopted. 

And nor do most of the leading members of the Brexit campaign really believe in the idea of Britain to which they proclaim loyalty. They simply want to protect their own interests and privileges, and assert a sense of authority and power.

The truth is that most of us - all of us - living here, in Britain, in 2016, are the descendants of migrants. We have all of us, at one point, arrived here, and been dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is the mark of the humanity, and decency, of the society we have created, as part of the evolution of social progress, that we have enjoyed such care, and flourished, as a result. 

We have to see beyond the rhetoric, and the spin, and see the human stories behind the soundbite politics: or we lose our own humanity in the process. Migrants, refugees, immigrants - you, and me, and our children. Where is the difference?

London is the most ethnically diverse city on earth, and even here in Broken Barnet, we rejoice in a population of the broadest possible cultural and religious backgrounds. 

The fear of something other, and alien, only applies if you abandon that sense of humanity, and empathy. As Jo Cox put it - we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us. 

And that one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, the descendant of immigrants, who has grown up in the protection and care of a British society founded on tolerance, decency, and compassion, could stand in front of a poster of refugees, and seek to make political profit from such hatred, is contemptible. 

We are citizens of the world, Europeans, and British: no contradiction there, only something to be proud of.

Tomorrow we have the chance to affirm those values, and defend them, preserve them, for generations to come.

I only hope that hope itself wins over hate, and intolerance, because I do not want to live in a country living in the dark, selfish, reactionary isolationism that Farage, Gove, IDS, Johnson, and all the rest want to become our future, but in a Britain, a Europe, and a world, that respects and supports diversity and difference, and acts in unity and comradeship for the greater benefit of all. 

Mrs Angry, eternal optimist, teetering on the brink, June 23rd, 2016.

Friday 10 June 2016

Barnet's Freedom Pass fiasco: a legal challenge is served ...

Jenny and Siobhan Fairclough

If you have followed the rather extraordinary story of the cancellation by Barnet Council - and its contractors Capita - of the vital travel passes held by many of this borough's vulnerable and disabled residents, (see below for links to previous posts) you are very likely to be pleased to hear that yesterday the authority was served with a Judicial Review 'letter before claim' letter, in regard to one of the residents whose pass was wrongfully removed. 

This letter before action has been sent on behalf of Jenny Fairclough, the nineteen year old student whose mother Siobhan has shown great courage and determination in exposing the shameful treatment of her daughter, and countless other residents with learning or physical disabilities, who have been subjected to a pass 'renewal' process, run by Capita, on behalf of the Tory run authority.

Barnet's private partners began this scheme after asking for, and being granted, a contract variation by Barnet Council worth £100, 000, in order to undertake the administration of the passes. 

It is unclear why the process of renewal was considered necessary, when the passes appear to be valid until 2020, but in the course of this enforced renewal scheme, Jenny and other residents found their Freedom Passes had been cancelled, some without any warning, apparently on the grounds of failing the eligibility criteria created by Barnet, that is to say local criteria, based on requirements that differ from, and are in addition to, the statutory definition.

The impact of this scheme has been immensely distressing in terms of the immediate impact on vulnerable residents suddenly finding themselves unable to board buses or the underground, and the longer term implications and financial loss incurred by the loss of their free passes.

A challenge has therefore been brought by the Fairclough family, with legal support from Giles Peaker, of Anthony Gold Solicitors  - (Giles is also known for his 'Nearly Legal' blog ) - and the initial stage of a process which could lead to Judicial Review has begun.

This action is being brought on the basis of the following claims - amongst other grounds:

Failure to have regard to Department of Transport's statutory guidance on assessment of eligibility

Failure to publish or make known criteria for eligibility set by Barnet Council

Falsely and inaccurately describing the criteria being used to the resident in question

Acting beyond its powers in imposing additional, more restrictive criteria than in legislation

Failure to have regard to the council's Public Sector Equality Duty

Cancelling Jenny's Freedom Pass without warning, within a 30 day appeal period.

Barnet Council has been required to remove the unlawful additional criteria for eligibility for a Freedom Pass and to re-instate Jenny's Freedom Pass, and a response is due within 14 days.

After this iniquitous scheme was exposed by local bloggers, and through FOI requests, and questions to council committees, the council was obliged to announce it would address concerns through the work of a 'review' - which initially, apparently as part of an effort to shift the blame, it claimed was on behalf of London Councils. This 'review', we now understand, will be the work of an 'Improvement Group', and overseen by an officer with the typically absurd title of 'Strategic Lead for Effective Borough Travel'. 

Mrs Angry, for one, always endeavours to travel throughout the borough in an effective way, and welcomes the extension of this aspiration to our friends at Capita. One can only hope that they will be able to find some new source of profit from this new approach, 'moving forward'.

The emphasis of this review, however, or as we were then informed, a process which would only be completed in November, while disabled residents carried on worrying about their temporary passes - would be on aligning Barnet's criteria with the 'ethos' of the Care Act, with reference to helping residents live more 'independent' lives. 

Only latterly has the authority even begun to acknowledge that in fact it is the Transport Act which defines eligibility, and as Mrs Angry pointed out at the Policy and Resources meeting where the passes were discussed, we all know what 'independence' means, in Barnet: removing support on the pretext of 'more choice', just as they did recently when they cut meals on wheels to other vulnerable residents. 

In other words, the intention might reasonably be assumed to be that the review should be a face saving exercise, and a useful interval, after which all the fuss, they hoped, would die down, and they could continue setting their own minimalist criteria. 

Jenny Fairclough's legal action has now, however, with perfect timing, and adept direction, presented the ultimate challenge to yet another shameful policy exercised by Tory Barnet, through its outsourced contractors, and of course we look forward with great interest to the response from the authority, but it is also timely to ask ourselves a question. 

If such an obviously ill conceived policy, and one that has had such a devastating impact on the lives of our most vulnerable residents, is only discovered by external scrutiny - and exposure, what other irregularities might there be lurking under the cover of commercial sensitivity, and contractual arrangements that have shrouded the outsourced administration of our local public services? 

At the very least this shameful episode has proved that there is no effective oversight by our elected representatives of the Capita contracts they so happily approved, on the basis of so little examination of the finer details, wherein the devil, especially in the infernal world of privatisation, is so comfortably established. The only alternative conclusion would be that councillors knew, and were complicit in, this horrible process. That would be very hard to accept.

And something else to consider - as the catastrophic election day cockup has suggested - although a thought ignored by the dismally limited scope of the investigation by Southampton Council's Chief Operating Officer: has the outsourcing of legal services created a risk to standards of governance that has now moved past the tipping point, and delivered this authority into the last stages of failure in corporate competency?


Freedom's just another word: the disabled residents in Barnet, struggling to retain free travel passes issued by Capita

The price of Freedom: on the eve of elections, Barnet Tories panic as their Capita run disability pass 'renewal scheme' is exposed

Cry Freedom: at last - victory for disabled residents, wrongly deprived of their travel passes - 'sorry', say Barnet Council, and Capita ...

The Tailoring of Communication, and Mrs Angry, designed to Annoy: the Freedom Pass Scandal, a lot of questions, and not many answers

The Price of Freedom, still under negotiation: have thousands of disabled residents in Barnet lost their travel passes?

Friday 3 June 2016

Barnet's Election Day Shambles: Issues, Events, A Positive Step, and A Journey

The Wrong Registers? Thousands of people disenfranchised? How the f*ck did that happen?

Election Day, Broken Barnet Town Hall, May 5th, 2016

When the investigation into Barnet's recent election day fiasco was announced, it is fair to say, there was a good deal of criticism about the choice of format, the terms of reference, and indeed, the appointment of the individual nominated to undertake the process.

It was hard to see why, in regard to such a serious failure in electoral procedure, Barnet Council would not appoint an independent body to examine the problem - or indeed, do as they had done in regard to the governance crisis in 2013, and commission a report from a lawyer. Instead of either of these options, the job was given to Mark Heath, a long serving Returning Officer, and with a good deal of experience in electoral matters - but also the current COO of Southampton Council, which of course, like Barnet, is in a long term contractual partnership with Capita.

Although Capita is not directly responsible for electoral registration, in Barnet, it is pretty much responsible for every other council function - including the delivery of postal votes - and many people felt therefore, quite reasonably, rather uncomfortable with the idea that the inquiry should be carried out by someone with close connection to our contractors. 

The story of the appointment, as reported in the local Times newspaper, upset one or two Tory councillors, who objected on twitter that it implied the inquiry was being directly carried out by another Capita run council, which was not correct, but it is not difficult to see how such a misapprehension might occur. 

And imagine the amusement, therefore, when Mr Heath's report was published, on Thursday night, and it was noted that, despite a statement by him that his appointment was made 'as an independent individual and not in any representative capacity',  the report document displayed the following heading:


Oops. This has now, Mrs Angry notices today, been amended, rather too late, to:


Last week Labour Assembly member Andrew Dismore raised a number of very serious questions in regard to the terms of reference of Mr Heath's investigation, and about his appointment. 

There were several very interesting responses from the acting CEO of Barnet, John Hooton, including the revelation that Mr Heath was the only candidate considered for the job, suggested by someone at London Councils, and that he 'was previously known' to Davina Fiore, the Assurance Director, who was also a deputy Returning Officer on the day, and of course ultimately responsible for electoral services. She was collating much of the information for Mr Heath, whose renumeration, we were told, was as yet not 'finalised'. Opportunities for the public to contribute their own evidence had been very limited.

Mr Heath, we learned, had spent only one day in Barnet, and was too busy to present his own report to councillors at the General Functions committee meeting. 

Still, here we are now, with his report to read, and enjoy. Only twenty two pages. Wonder how much that cost, per page? Now that the report is finalised, perhaps we can find out.

A discreet choice of title: 


An issue, see, not a cockup. Cockups are caused by someone, somewhere, who will have to be named. Issues are  far more complex, no one to blame, maybe even a force of nature, or an act of God. From the 'shit happens' school of thought: one to which Mrs Angry does not subscribe, it must be said.

The strict limitation of the terms of reference under which Mr Heath was obliged to work, set of course by senior management, and nominally at least by the Tory administration, meant that:

Any issues relating to the conduct of individual members of staff will need to be addressed in accordance with the Council’s HR policies and procedures and is outside the scope of this report.

In other words, his inquiry could not apportion blame. And he has kept strictly to those terms of reference, leaving officers off the hook: and also the Tory councillors whose policies have led, directly or otherwise, to the decline in standards of governance and corporate competence that made a failure of this proportion inevitable, sooner or later.

Mr Heath interviewed only five people, including one Presiding Officer. He had some information from electors, although we do not know how many, twelve Presiding Officers, and from Andrew Dismore. Plus of course any material supplied to him by the Assurance Director.

You may think that this is not a wide enough, or deep enough scope of investigation. Mrs Angry would agree with you. Although the Referendum is constantly referred to as a reason for haste, it may be that it would have been more sensible to hand over the organisation of this vote to some other body, and await the outcome of a more intensive investigation, before proceeding with an attempt to deal with the June election, as clearly whatever faults are identified now, in this short interval before June 23rd, can hardly be addressed in that period of time.

Mr Heath states himself to be very grateful for the help given to his investigation, and is touchingly thoughtful of the consequences of such involvement: 

All gave their time freely, no one was reticent or held back even though some were reliving events that they probably would have preferred not to.

Rather unnecessarily thoughtful, in Mrs Angry's view. 'Reliving events that they probably would have preferred not to'. I'll bet, but we are, after all, talking about recalling the unfolding of an administrative blunder - albeit a serious one - rather than, say, living through the dark days and nights of the Siege of Leningrad, Mr Heath, are we not?

Still, sensitivity to the feelings of senior officers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet is the leitmotif of this report, as we shall see.

Ah, yes - Section 3: Background

This section of my report provides some background to the electoral landscape, and the
situation in Barnet, and is included to assist in understanding the detail of the issues that
arose in Barnet on May 5th and my recommendations.

Now then: Mrs Angry is a great admirer of corporate 'landscapes'; that romanticised, not to say gothic view of public life, held by so many in senior management, eager to turn the mundane world of box ticking and boring administrative functions into something visionary, and beautiful, which can earn them lots of fees in consultancy work, and a leg up to a wonderful career in privatisation and local government outsourcing. 

But an electoral landscape? A dangerous exploration into the feverish miasma hanging over the marshlands of Broken Barnet, into which the intrepid Mr Heath might well disappear, if he were to go too far. But no need to worry: a day trip up from Southampton for our happy friend was always going to be pretty low risk.

A bit folllows about the role of the Returning Officer: what his duties are - or were - but ... no, Mrs Angry is still unsure what exactly those duties are, other than accept a handsome sum of money for the job, and appoint some deputies to assist him. (Did he get paid, in the end, poor old Travers, when he left, by mutual consent', in such a hurry? ) Oh, hang on, it says here ... his role was:

... to ensure that the election is administered effectively and that, as a result, the experience of voters and those standing for election is a positive one.

Now see, there we were, thinking the role of a Returning Officer was to ensure the election is compliant with the law, and protecting the rights of every citizen to exercise their vote, but, no: no, readers - it is to make sure your experience - and that of candidates, of course - is 'a positive one'. That's nice, isn't it?

So presumably, even if no one in Barnet had been able to vote, but they were all handed a John Lewis voucher instead, and sent home from the polling station with a smile on their little shiny faces, and candidates consoled with a silver service reception at the Town Hall, or an all you can eat buffet, the Returning Officer's responsibilities would have been accomplished, with satisfaction to all parties?

Hmm. There is more: 

The Returning Officer is not fettered by the Council’s normal procedures in terms of conducting the election or subject to direction or instruction from members of the Council in respect of the discharge of the responsibilities falling to the statutory office.

Not fettered by normal procedures. Clearly not. Plenty of scope for creative thinking - or indeed no thinking at all, as in this case. Anyway, do we have normal procedures, anymore, in Broken Barnet, now everything is outsourced to a contractor?

As for the line of responsibility on the day in question:

On May 5th, the management arrangements for electoral services at the Council were
through a line management arrangement which started with the Chief Executive (Returning Officer). Reporting to him was the Assurance Director, to her the Head of Electoral Services and to him the Electoral Registration Manager.

So Ms Fiore, the Assurance Director (unnamed by Mr Heath, as indeed are all the senior officers involved) was next in line to the now departed Chief Executive, Andrew Travers. (Mrs Angry misses him, you know, sitting so glumly at the committee table, 'sadness in his eyes' ...)

Training for election day staff: there is supposed to be some, apparently. There was some, which Mr Heath says was quite correct. And he points out - rather unfairly, in the circumstances, that all Presiding Officers are given a handbook, which rather implies they were in some part to blame, or, as he puts it:

This includes reference to the need for Presiding Officers to check that they have the correct equipment and supplies including (amongst other things) that they have the correct register.

What he doesn't mention here, at this point, is that POs were this time, and for the first time before an election, not able to check their boxes because Barnet had decided to hold the pickup at a place where there was no room for this to happen. 

Barnet no longer has the room to organise such events, because the hollowing out of the council has not only lost a catastrophic amount of corporate knowledge and expertise, but also facility space for large scale operations like this.

'Checking' ... here we go again: another pearl of wisdom -

It is a cardinal rule in electoral administration to "check, check and check again". Human beings make mistakes. People who work in elections offices are humans and make mistakes. We all do. But a robust regime of checking (ideally each time by different people) will reduce if not remove that risk.

(Speak for yourself, Mr Heath. Mrs Angry NEVER makes mistakes, and indeed, as we all know, is never wrong).

Of course 'checking' in this instance appears to be the sole responsibility of underlings, and Presiding Officers, and not the Returning Officer, or his number 2, or 3, or .... anyone who is a senior officer, in short.

Stuff about the Referendum, then and next: more wise words on the subject of electoral law:

The world of elections is complex. Elections will always raise issues, such as voters
believing they should have been on the register, postal voters saying they haven’t had their
postal vote etc. Such is a normal election, if there is such a thing. The Returning Officer has
powers to correct clerical errors where they arise, and of course sometimes they do.
Sometimes the issue is not of the system’s making however. So it is important to be clear
that running an election everywhere brings with it issues, conflicts and challenges.

To summarise: elections are quite difficult to run. Problems may occur. No, not problems, Mrs Angry: issues. Groundbreaking analysis. Then a bit of padding, quoting a Law Commission report, saying the same thing.

Not until Page 10 do we find a consideration of the problem - sorry: issue - which caused the election day meltdown in Barnet, that is to say, the question of The Wrong Registers ... or as Mr Heath puts it:


Printing the Wrong Registers

Ah yes: the printing of the Wrong Registers ... Who dunnit? The answer appears to be - let's blame an unnamed electoral officer who mistakenly chose the option offered by the electoral software to print registers which excluded 'standard' electors, and instead listed those who belonged to the following categories: 

New Electors                 Young Electors
Over 70 Electors           Crown Servants
Lords                               Service
Euro(local)                     Euro(Local + Euro)
Overseas Lord               Voluntary Mental
Postal Voters                 Proxy Voters

So: if, say, you were former councillor Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, on holiday, authorising your wife to vote by proxy, on your behalf, you could vote, otherwise - hard luck. 

Rather a niche selection of voters, but still: a return to Victorian values and a rejection of the notion of universal suffrage in favour of a return to voting rights only for the meritocracy. As it should be, in Broken Barnet, democracy being too good to waste on the plebs, after all. 

Well - Mr Heath, you recall, did observe:

People who work in elections offices are humans and make mistakes ...

So where was the preparation for mitigating any such risk? Apparently there was none:

4.10 The registers were then put aside ready for inclusion in the ballot boxes. They
were not checked by anyone else in the elections office.

Why not? Who was responsible for this? And why does Mr Heath not ask this question?

And then it is admitted that Presiding Officers were told that:

... they did not need to check the ballot box contents as that had been done by the staff in the elections office ...

Now the report becomes very interesting. One Presiding Officer did check, and noticed  - the night before election day - that there was something wrong. He tried to alert the election team, but the same officer who had printed the registers took the call ... the PO was told nothing was wrong.

The next morning, however, he raised the matter again - and apparently received a new register before the poll began at 7 am.

Why then, did it take so long to realise that every station had the wrong registers, with such catastrophic results, and hours lost for voting?

According to this report, an unnamed senior member of the elections team was told, at 6 am, arranged for the new register, yet somehow it took until the polls opened and other POs reported the problem, for the scale of the cockup to be noted. Why? Who was this senior officer?

What happened then appears to have been a free for all: the report merely admits that his information in regard to what individual POs decided to do, in the ensuing panic, is not 'definitive'. Clearly not. He then decides to conclude, on the basis of this inadequate information: 

6.5 No one would suggest that the impact of events of 5th May was anything but
very serious. Disenfranchising even one person is unacceptable.

Quite so.

6.6 However the scale of the issue and the impact would appear to have been in
the hundreds rather than the thousands as was initially reported.

Really? Mrs Angry begs to differ. The reports from all over the borough on the day - and one wonders if Mr Heath has bothered to look at the tweets and other social media reports from residents (and councillors) who were disenfranchised - as well as information passed on to Mrs Angry from at least one very experienced Presiding Officer, would suggest that hundreds is too low an estimate. 

More than 150 polling stations, not receiving the registers until at least 10. 30, (as stated by Mr Heath, although at the time anecdotal evidence suggested that some stations received the registers after that time) and almost no standard electors listed before then must have caused huge numbers of voters to have left the polling stations without voting, and many may not have been able, or willing, to return. 

To accept that only 500 or 600 voters were turned away, is not credible, in Mrs Angry's view - and of course it is impossible to estimate how many of those returned to vote later in the day. Many would have been unable, due to work or childcare commitments, or would have been disinclined to bother.

There is a small crumb of comfort for our departed Chief Executive - (or perhaps a quantum of SOLACE)-  who had to walk the plank, after the election day debacle. 

Andrew Travers, former Barnet CEO

As this report explains, he knew nothing about the cock up until 7.19 in the morning. No one had bothered to tell him. What about the Assurance Director, the Head of Electoral Services and the Electoral Registration Manager: when did they know? For some reason we are not told.

Not until Page 18, and 'Findings in relation to Terms of Reference', do we see mention of one of the other serious problems on the day: the inability of the Capita run call centre and phone system to cope with the emergency.

It is no secret that the Capita run call centre can barely cope with the function of connecting council departments at the best of times, as anyone who has had to complain about the appalling service can testify - continual cut offs, impossible option choices, dead ends. 

On the day itself, according to Mr Heath, who of course does not mention Capita at all, there were no problems, naturally - only 'issues'. Not just between polling staff in the stations and the electoral team, but for members of the public, who, as he puts it, so innocently:

... met recorded messages based on standard scripts which, given the circumstances did not address the issues the voters were facing and probably inflamed feelings / frustrations.

Welcome to Broken Barnet, Mr Heath. This is the experience of almost anyone trying to reach any department of the council, at any given time, and nothing to do with the fecking election, chum.

Now for some cheering news for the Electoral Commission:

As set out in my report, I believe that the Electoral Commission was involved in a timely and effective manner (as do the Commission). I also believe their advice and guidance was robust and appropriate.

(As do the Commission ... LOL: no shit ...) But: good, we like 'robust' and appropriate, here in Broken Barnet, don't we?

More worrying about the senior management, now ... How are they bearing up, under the strain? Need big hugs? 

The events on 5th May must have taken its toll on the staff (although I saw no evidence of that) ...

Erm ... Still got jobs, one assumes. Well, apart from poor old Travers, who had to carry the can for everyone else. And really one must genuinely feel sorry for the officer who made the printing error, as his line managers should have picked up any mistakes, and there were plenty of opportunities to do this, from the time of printing.

There is precious little sympathy, you will note, in this report, for the real victims of this farce - the thousands of voters who were affected by the grossly incompetent organisation of election day in Broken Barnet.

Mr Heath has some helpful suggestions for the Referendum. Check stuff. Have a system. Have a robust system, that sort of thing. 

Thank God , then, for this report, as clearly no one at Barnet could have thought of anything like that, without being prodded with a red hot poker- or paying a consultant to do the thinking for them.

And after the Referendum: the Returning Officer should then have a bit of a think about how to do things better. Again: very useful, thank you.

And at last, in conclusion, a deeply moving final paragraph, from our friend from Southampton. Mrs Angry found herself dabbing at her tear stained cheeks, after reading this: partly in pain, due to the gratingly awful lack of grammatical fluency, but of course ultimately in a paroxysm of joy, in realising something rather wonderful had come out of such an almighty fuck-up:

By definition, I have been asked to look at something that went very wrong. There was much that I saw read and heard that was good. I was particularly aware that the senior officers were very aware that something very serious had gone wrong and as a result fundamental review and change (neither of which would necessarily be easy or comfortable) was required. That is a positive step, and I wish them well on that journey.

It doesn't really matter, does it, that so many residents of Broken Barnet were disenfranchised and inconvenienced, due to 'the events of 5th May', and all those annoying 'issues'? 

Just so long as your handsomely paid senior officers, so deeply traumatised by those events, are now aware that 'something very serious' went wrong, and - yes, they have thereby taken a teeny, teetering, positive step on ... please excuse me ... a 'journey'.

This is Broken Barnet, and this is how, in the dying days of local government,  we deliver something that, from a safe distance, almost looks like democracy. 

Marvellous, isn't it?