Sunday, 23 October 2016

Censored: Barnet Tories, gagging residents' views, once more ...

Updated Monday:

This morning, despite the best efforts of the Crapita switchboard operator who hotly denied, for twenty minutes, that there were any such posts, Mrs Angry contacted the acting Assurance Director and (interim) Monitoring Officer and pointed out that the council was acting unlawfully (again) by refusing to abide by its own Constitution, and by barring awkward questions to our beloved Tory councillors at our Residents Forums.

Guess what? Mrs Angry has now been uncensored, and will be disposing of her pieces of cardboard. Don't say you haven't been warned.

And if you have had questions banned, do get in touch with the officers, and insist yours are included too.
9th July 2013

"Mrs Angry pressed the Chair as to whether or not, in his view, the censorship and the repression of the freedom of speech was the mark of totalitarian regimes all around the world. Councillor Cohen seemed unhappy with this suggestion, and could think of no sensible response, but merely asserted, not once but twice, avoiding eye contact, but as if saying it aloud might make it true: There was no censorship. 

 Erm, yes: yes there was, replied Mrs Angry. But of course it makes no difference: Barnet's Tory councillors are simply unable to face reality, and merely repeat the same untruths over and over again, like obstinate children: we did consult, the Judge didn't find we had broken the law, we didn't censor the Forums, the moon is made of cheese, and we are going to win the next election ..."

Updated, 23rd October 2016:

(They did win the election. 

They are trying to censor the Forums again. 

The moon is not made of cheese).

It's hard to believe I'm having to write about this subject again: but then, in the rotten borough of Broken Barnet, it is inevitably going to be the case that the same sort of shabby behaviour recurs, with tedious frequency, and battles we thought we had already won must be fought anew. 

Three years ago, I wrote here about the decision by our shamefaced Tory councillors - after criticism in the High Court about the lack of consultation with residents over the mass outsourcing of council services - to remove the outrageous ban that they had introduced on free debate at local residents' forums, amending the constitution to forbid any questions about, or reference to, council 'policy', and restricting all discussion by residents at these meetings to matters of 'public works', things like potholes, and street lamps. 

They had introduced the new rules specifically to prevent discussion of the looming privatisation, and clearly had never imagined that they might end up explaining to a High Court judge why on earth they had done that, the very opposite to what they were expected to do, indeed required by law to do: to inform their residents, consult them on the proposals, listen to them, and consider their views. 

Consider the views of residents? Why would a Barnet Tory councillor do that? And a senior officer would never allow it: not when the mass privatisation of services must be pushed through, with such haste - and no opposition.

A typical Residents Forum: Tory councillors and officers lining up to face the enemy, and duck the questions they don't want to answer

With admirably McCarthyite zeal, Tory councillors and officers alike had scoured any questions put to residents' forums - put by the people who pay them to run the borough - for anything that might touch on 'policy', or present even the most oblique criticism of such policy, and pounced mercilessly on any attempt to exercise the right to free speech, or free debate. 

Each meeting was prefaced by a lecture read out by whichever po faced Tory councillor was chair, pompously reminding those attending of the new rules, and sternly lecturing them of the dire consequences, should they dare try to defy the authority of their elected representatives. 

This of course led to the most ridiculous confrontation at such meetings, created the most unwelcome publicity for the idiotic councillors and officers trying to wrap up the outsourcing without anyone noticing; and ended in court, with a legal challenge that won the argument, but lost the case - only because the application was deemed to be out of time.

Three years ago, then, the Tories were obliged to review their policy (if I may use the word) of censorship, and then dropped the draconian regulations which forbade residents to raise matters of heresy, that is to say political debate, or criticism of our council's performance, at their own Forums. 

The truth was that by then we were on the way to signing the whopping great contracts with Capita, and no one really had anything to lose. 

Or so they thought.

Censorship is the first and last resort of any desperate right wing regime, and will always be used as a weapon against those who pose a threat to the rule of those who wish to be unaccountable to the electorate. 

In the battle of Broken Barnet, as elsewhere, the first casualty of any new outbreak of war is the truth. And whenever the truth may look as if it may become an obstacle to their agenda, or to an opportunity for profit, there will be a new assault.

The story of our Tory councillors' attack on our public services is a long one, with many skirmishes along the roadside. This is not so much a battle, in fact, as a crusade: a holy war based on an uncompromising political ideology, but used as a pretext for empire building, and commercial exploitation: the latter day equivalent to the templars, perhaps - soldiers of profit masquerading as priests, conquering and plundering in the name of divine right.

If you watched the BBC documentary last week by Jacques Peretti - 'Who's Spending Britain's Billions', you will have some idea of what is happening not only in local government, but in central government, and the NHS. The conquest of the public sector, by private consultants - and by the outsourcing companies, like Capita, Serco etc.

Barnet has always prided itself on being the 'flagship' for a new model of administration, the hollowed out council, which hands over the delivery of services to such companies.  

Problem is that now the cracks are beginning to show in the new model: the so called savings that are meant to accrue from the contracts are revealed to be irrelevant, compared to the massive weight of extra charges demanded for all sorts of other things: all hidden away in the contract, almost entirely unscrutinised by your elected representatives, before signing.

This year saw the most catastrophic crash of the library IT system, and massive loss of data: a system which was meant to be maintained by contractual agreement with Capita. There was also the revelation - by local bloggers - that contractors had been given an extra £100,000 to renew travel passes for disabled residents - that were still valid until 2020 - and had been cancelling some of those passes unlawfully, and without warning, causing enormous distress, utterly unnecessarily. And now we learn, from Mr Reasonable, that the contracts have led, in the last year, to no less than £18 million spent on consultants and agency staff. 

Only now are even the most doltish Tory councillors beginning to realise that the contractual agreement they so easily and lazily endorsed is little more than a licence to print money, and will make them unpopular with voters, as standards decline. Oh dear: because they are committed to more and more outsourcing: and what cannot be outsourced, because there is no money in it - such as parks and - ah, libraries - must be dumped, and kicked over to 'the community' to run because they can't be bothered.

Hmm. Tricky, though, because ... parks and libraries are sensitive and inflammatory issues, politically. People care about them. Voters care about them: Tory voters. Hence the almighty fuss when we publicised what was happening with Victoria Park, here in Finchley, and what is going to happen to all parks, if we are not careful, with parts sold off for development, and responsibility for maintenance shrugged off by the council we already pay to look after them. 

And hence the fear, amongst our Tory councillors and their senior officers, about the shit about to hit the fan, as the library cuts begin to become a grim reality, and no longer an abstract proposal. 

Library staff are now going through the process, nicely timed for the run up to Christmas, of finding out which of them will be likely to lose their jobs, as a result of the cuts and the introduction of DIY, unstaffed libraries, from which children will be banned. And plans are in place to have a rota of library closures as 'modifications' are going to be made to existing library buildings, so that the buildings will become libraries in name only, with smaller space, fewer books - and half the staff missing, if present at all.

Clearly such moves are going to cause a huge reaction amongst residents, once in place, and there will much criticism of the council. What to do, to avert this? 

Stop people talking about it, of course. Gag the residents' forums again. If they don't talk about it, we can pretend it's not happening.

The next round of Forums are taking place this coming week. As part of their relentless drive to make these meetings as inaccessible as possible, incidentally, the Chipping Barnet meeting will be held in  ... Hendon.

I submitted a number of questions on a range of issues to my local Forum, Finchley and Golders Green.

Back came the response: 

... the Residents Forum has within its remit the responsibility to consider local matters for Finchley and Golders Green area and these matters fall outside the scope of the responsibility of the Residents Forum ...

Eh? The list of questions was already published, I was informed - with only two of mine allowed, one about a pothole, and another about parking. 

Public works, see? Vanilla. Nothing risky. Of course, plenty of scope for Mrs Angry to create opportunities, via the supplementary questions, for condemnation of privatised council services, but requiring a certain amount of effort. And besides, potholes in Finchley are the favourite subject of Labour councillor Arjun Mittra, and no one is allowed to talk about parking, ever, other than Mr Mustard.

The following questions, the really important issues, were forbidden: they would not be allowed to be referred to at the meeting, or discussed, but written queries would be forwarded to the relevant departments. 

Er: no, thank you - I want this debated with other residents, and councillors and senior officers held to account. 

Another female resident, prominent in the summer's campaign to stop the development in Victoria Park, had also had questions barred on the same pretext: perfectly sensible questions about matters such as on the placement of planning notices, pavements and driveways, the peculiarities of the Barnet Capita planning website, the FOI process. Nope. Banned.

These were mine:

Subject: Library staff
Submitted by: Mrs Angry

Tory councillors insist that the 60% cuts in library budget are necessary because of the demands of 'austerity', which means £2.85m will be culled from the Libraries service total of £4.8m, in itself a modest amount for a service that was already independently assessed as representing good value for money. Of course at the same time they are spending £6 million on gutting libraries, shrinking the space, and preparing them for a DIY, staffless service.

The impact on the well being of residents, especially children who will be barred from the new  unstaffed libraries, is incalculable and will affect the most disadvantaged residents.

At the same time as cutting this vital service, Tory councillors are happy to sanction the eye wateringly high level of expenditure -  of £18 million in the last year alone - on private consultants and agency fees. How is that morally or economically justifiable?

Subject: Budget
Submitted by: Mrs Angry

Half of the library staff who currently help members of the public when they visit their local libraries are about to lose their jobs, supposedly because of the need to save money.

Please explain, therefore, why those same Tory councillors have just handed half a million pounds, ie a substantial amount of the 'savings' they claim we need from the library budget, to the RAF Museum, a national and well funded museum - especially when they shut our own local museum, again on the pretext of economy. Also explain why another £800,000 has been spent on creating additional posts on the council's PR team, specifically to 'manage the council's reputation', as we head towards the next local elections. 

Subject: Library staff
Submitted by: Mrs Angry

Tory councillors believe that a professional library service can be run by unqualified volunteers. Are they willing to become unpaid volunteers, and carry out their civic roles without their allowances, and free parking permits?

Subject: Fees for renewal of travel passes
Submitted by: Mrs Angry

The council was recently exposed as allowing Capita to charge another £100,000 fee, on top of the normal massive contractual charges, to renew travel passes for disabled residents which did not need renewing, and in some cases were unlawfully cancelled, causing enormous distress to their users, often finding themselves stranded, unable to access public transport.

Why was Capita not asked to return this fee, and why was no one held accountable for this 'mistake'?

Now why on earth would our councillors not wish to discuss these issues in public with other residents, do you think? 

I objected to the banning of my questions, and asked for details of the section of the Constitution which authorises the censorship of questions by a resident to a residents' forum. No reply. 

 I wrote again: 

I'm afraid if you do not give a satisfactory response to this asap, I will be making a formal complaint about what is a breach of the Constitution, and yet another attempt to censor the views of residents and taxpayers, in defiance of the Nolan principles of openness and accountability.

Reply, which the officer had copied to the Tory chair, Cllr Shimon Ryde, so evidently he is well aware of the censorship, and indeed may be the one insisting upon it:

Can I just signpost you to Responsibility for Functions Annex A of the Constitution that explains that the forums are an opportunity for any resident to raise local matters. 

Hmm. Let's take a look. Ah.

My reply: 

May I just re-signpost you to the part of the Constitution to which you refer?

Local matters are any matters which are relevant to the Council except for matters relating to specific planning or licensing applications.

Just to repeat, with my emphasis: 

Any matters relevant to the Council. 

This is perfectly clear, and your refusal is therefore in breach of the Constitution. 

I realise that censorship is a necessary part of the Tory process of government, but even this administration is supposed to be compliant with the definitions of its own Constitution. 

Please confirm either that:

a. my questions will be included, or

b. you intend to act in defiance of the council's Constitution.

Many thanks

Mrs Angry 

They never learn, do they, our Tory councillors, and their senior management?

And they appear to have no respect for the process of democracy, resenting anyone who asks them to be accountable to the residents and tax payers of this borough, and as soon as they think they can get away with it, resort to their usual tactics of avoiding transparency, openness, debate or genuine consultation. No doubt even now they are plotting to rewrite the Constitution again.

Don't let them get away with it: please keep making life difficult for them, and insist on your right to take part in that process of democracy. Don't stop asking questions, and demanding answers.

The Forums are held on 26th October, at 6.30 pm (timed so as to deter as many residents attending as possible) - Finchley & Golders Green meeting at Avenue House, East End Road.

And if you are concerned about the library cuts, please look at the last post and see what you can do to voice your views on the subject, or attend a local 'information' session, and ask difficult questions. If you live in Finchley, there is one of these 'events on Tuesday morning, 10-12, at North Finchley library.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Those Freedom Passes are an entitlement under law guidance is not law also Barnet councils consultation process is flawed.The limited choices' available are still set down by the council by inducing a response to their thinking and don't offer evidence from a healthcare professional who has the patients records.A disability could be diagnosed many decades ago.

No one should suffer the humiliation of any assessment with a disability.

Discretionary passes were offered to people in some boroughs' however these were withdrawn because of spending cuts'.