Monday 23 April 2018

End of Days: a Nasty Party, and the long, slow death of Easycouncil


The death of Easycouncil has been a long time coming. 

The death of Tory Barnet has been a long time coming. 

But here it is, now, before our eyes, even before the elections are over. 

And it all began, and ended, in two Audit committee meetings, years apart, in the faded municipal grandeur of what was once Hendon Town Hall. 

A Town Hall in name only, pimped out, like everything else now in Broken Barnet, as a rented space, here a nominal, liminal space, between two worlds: one imaginary world of civic splendour, decorated with stern portraits of dead aldermen, and fading photographs of past mayors and mayoresses, and another, more brutal territory, more familiar to us now  - a building emptied of its purpose, and a democratic process broken, and lying in pieces on the floor.

This Thursday saw the last Audit meeting before the election: a meeting squeezed into the carved up corner of an airless committee room, a room reduced in size to accommodate the new commercial function of the venue. 

The meeting was chaired by Hugh Rayner, a stalwart Tory member, and former Chair of Hendon Association, who has suddenly announced his 'retirement' - and attended by a newly independent member who has renounced the Tory group after his ruthless deselection by his local Conservative association. And it had been rumoured that Cllr Khatri intended to use the occasion to make a statement. Those in the know sat in the sweltering heat of the room, on the edge of their seats, waiting. 

Cllr Rayner's last meeting: but he took the time to thank the local bloggers for ... what was it now .... being 'helpful in concentrating our minds' ... and noting that he would hope to see members of the committee being more challenging in their own questions.

This meeting was to end in the most devastating way possible for the remaining Tory members on the committee, and for the party in Barnet, as Councillor Sury Khatri, while his former colleagues sank their heads in their hands, in abject misery, quietly denounced the Barnet Tory group, their record in office, the disaster of the Capita contracts- and urged voters to vote Labour. 

 "It has been an honour to serve as their community champion for the residents of mill hill for 8 years. in that time I have tried my best to take up their issues and concerns, and deliver real positive changes, such as the diving club, the future of the library and with the many planning applications we have received. I fear though that my zealous advocacy for the residents of mill hill may have cost me the selection. as Cllr Dan Thomas lays the ground for his right wing and hard brexit based leadership coup, he only wants yes men in the conservative group, and thus I have been discarded. astonishing that after 8 years of serving the community, without a blemish on my record and more than a decade serving the party amounted to zero.

 I have had residents contacting me expressing shock and disgust – a conservative councillor telling me among other things that when joined the conservative party it was not this party – a nasty party. Isn’t it telling that of the 31 other councillors only a handful had the decency to contact me expressing also shock and disgust. today have the party group chairman sitting alongside here but not even a squeak - silence is deafening? We have been hearing for some time that deselect ion was discussed last summer and that the exercise should be prolonged to the 11th hour – damage limitation was on mind. Momentum has arrived in the conservative party.

However, my time at the council has been overshadowed by the disastrous capita contracts, which are falling apart at the seams. 4 years on, issues still keep crawling out the woodwork. This contract represents poor value for money, and the residents are being fleeced. I believe my deselection by Daniel Thomas is motivated by my scepticism of the capita contracts.

 Today’s public questions and current media reports vividly illustrates the complete incompetence of capita.

 The contracts are a shambles and a disaster and performing badly and council taxpayers are being fleeced by capita ..."

He ended by saying:

"... all I can say is that the people of Hale will get a significant upgrade in the quality of their representation if they vote for the labour candidates - Ernest, Rachel and Liron. they deserve better.

I hope the residents deliver the right result on 3rd may – conservatives losing control."

Cllr Zinkin hides his face as former fellow Tory Cllr Khatri trashes the party's record in office

Well, to be fair: why, oh why, Mrs Angry? ... Cllr Khatri's criticism was perhaps too focused on deputy leader Dan Thomas, (you can read his reaction to the devastating speech in full here) did not mention the Tory 'leader', Richard Cornelius, and glossed over the fact that Khatri had approved the Capita contracts himself, and criticised them publicly only when they had been safely signed. 

Would he have spoken out, if he had been re-selected, and tacitly supported the continuation of the contractual bondage we are committed to for at least another five years?

Dan Thomas later commented to the local Times:

"Mr Khatri only has himself to blame for his de-selection, which was decided by a democratic process.

I believe he lost the support of party members because of an ill-tempered style, not attending many Conservative Party events and the fact that he delayed a new town square being built in his own ward".‎

A council spokesperson stated:

"The partnership between Capita and Barnet Council is performing as expected in many areas". 

This at least is undeniably true - if by 'performing as expected' you mean - badly.

This morning Capita admitted to pre-tax losses of £513.1 million. With their level of commitment to Barnet, clearly this raises many questions about the future delivery of our local services.

Over the weekend, Sury Khatri has posed for photographs with opposition candidate in Hale (Labour) and Mill Hill (Libdem). Clearly he wants to encourage tactical voting to ensure his former fellow councillors do not return to power, at all costs.

The meeting had begun with no clear sign of the looming trouble: the usual collection of now you see me, now you don't officers of the council, or Capita, interchangeable, and indistinguishable, some of them occupying the limited public seats with a droit de seigneur that has become the norm, in this last outpost of the Capita empire.

Fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable, had submitted a long list of questions to the meeting, on several issues, including a failure in addressing the risk of duplicate payments, and in regard to the alleged massive fraud currently under investigation - and the very interesting story of a very large gainshare payment to Capita, of £313,215, which he finds very worrying, and has reported to the external auditors at BDO, as an objection to the accounts. After nine months, this has still not been resolved. In John's view:

"Services are being cut, money is incredibly tight but because Barnet signed up to a contract which no councillors read in detail, we are being stuffed. This is nothing short of a scandal".

You can read John's summary of the meeting here.

Leigh Lloyd-Thomas of external auditors BDO and fellow blogger Mr Reasonable

Mrs Angry had only one question for the meeting: addressed via the Chair, to the auditors at BDO. Chair Hugh Rayner wanted the Man from Capita to respond first, before the auditors.

The man from Capita, Alan Parfitt, Operations Director for Capita Re, the 'Joint Venture' company that runs many of Barnet's services, sat himself at the committee table and smiled a blue eyed smile, in a blue suit, not in the least discomfited by the occasion. 

Why would he be? His demeanour was the usual insouciance of a contractual partner protected by an 8,000 page agreement, signed unread by councillors, that delivers power and profit, but not accountability, into the hands of private sector control: a complacency based on the sure knowledge that no matter how bad that relationship becomes, the commissioning council becomes, like the partners in any troubled relationship, caught in a trap: coerced into silence, for fear of the outcome of any challenge.

Sorry to bring you here, muttered Mrs Angry, with as great a degree of insincerity as could be imagined. No, murmured the man from Capita, still smiling, I quite enjoy it. Does he? Perhaps he does. Probably he did, usually. But then: some of us enjoy attending Audit meetings of the London Borough of Broken Barnet, for all the wrong reasons. 

Being totally disnumerate, as I most certainly am, is no bar to the enjoyment of a Barnet Audit meeting. If it were,  I would most certainly not attend. In truth, not understanding a single thing about accountancy, or audit, is an advantage. It leaves Mrs Angry better able to sense intuitively when something is wrong: to smell the odour of deceit, and tear apart the language of spin, and obfuscation, that is used to cover up the rotting corpse lying beneath the floorboards of the committee room. This is something that has been true right from the beginning, from the first Audit meeting that addressed the almighty stink of the MetPro scandal.

When the Barnet blogosphere was born, the first investigative story we uncovered was the scandalous tale of the bogus security firm used by the Tory council to stomp up and down the corridors of the Town Hall, in absurd paramilitary uniform, preventing members of the public from attending council meetings - and covertly filming suspect dissidents like Mrs Angry, with pinhole cameras. 

As we discovered, these jackbooted thugs, provided by MetPro, were operating illegally, without licences, and generously paid by the Tory council without any contract in place. 

It then emerged that the authority had literally thousands of 'non compliant' arrangements in place, instead of contracts - some of them in relation to the care of vulnerable residents.

This scandalous state of affairs was brought to the Audit committee, where it was properly investigated, by the Chair who was then, quite properly, deemed best appointed from the opposition groups. In those days this role was undertaken by Libdem councillor Monroe Palmer, now in the House of Lords: he was of course formerly one of a triumvirate of Libdem councillors, in Childs Hill ward. And Palmer made sure that the MetPro scandal and the further revelations that ensued were acknowledged, investigated, and put right. It was the birth of something new, in Barnet: the first major coup of the new phenomenon of citizen journalism - and the first sign of weakness in a failing Tory administration.

But- ah yes: Childs Hill ward. A former Libdem stronghold, now keenly fought over by three political parties.

All of which is why Mrs Angry and the Man from Capita were sitting at the committee table, at the Audit meeting, now chaired not by an opposition member - too risky - but by Hendon Tory Hugh Rayner (see last few posts) who has been a councillor for Hale ward, but mysteriously announced he was standing down, only a couple of weeks ago, when nominations were published. He said the decision had been made six months earlier. It had been alleged that Cllr Rayner wanted to stand in Edgware, and of course there was a vacancy after the deselection of Cllr Joan Scannell - but rumour has it after accusations of misogyny, Hendon Tories were obliged to appoint another woman. Whatever the truth, poor Hugh is out. Why would he not want to stand again in Hale? Because it was last time the most marginal ward in the borough, and Labour gained one of the seats in a traditionally Tory area.

Ah yes: marginal wards. 

And the reason Mrs Angry and the Man from Capita were were sitting at the table. 

This was in regard to a question put by her to the Chair in regard to the Audit report items on Highways expenditure. See the previous post, and the interesting pattern of higher spending on Tory wards, a pattern objected to at the time of the last election, when an FOI had exposed the highest level of funding had gone to the ward of Tory lead member of the Environment Committee, which approves spending- and the second highest to the most marginal ward of ... Hale. 

A report from Sharpe Pritchard confirmed that more money had been spent on Tory held wards, although unconvincingly concluding that this was not proof that the expenditure was politically influenced.

A new set of FOI responses revealed that in the run up to this election the highest level of expenditure had once again been to the most marginal ward in the borough - which is itself perhaps the most marginal in London. 

That ward is - Childs Hill, which is being fought over by Tories, Labour and Libdems. 

The question to the committee had been to note that there was still, after all these years, not in place a robust and objective system to prioritise the allocation of Highways expenditure on a basis of need - was that why so much money had been given to Childs Hill, while the roads in so many other wards in the borough were in such a terrible state? The response admitted that the final decision on funding is approved by the Environment committee, which clearly is politically weighted.

Supplementary question, then, through the Chair to the external auditors, BDO: 

This response confirms that the level of spending on each ward has been determined not according to need, either by regular inspection, or to address concerns raised by residents, but by a process that is open to exploitation for the purpose of politically influenced decisions. 

Bearing in mind findings of the Sharpe Pritchard report of 2014, commissioned after a previous FOI made to the council revealed a use of public funds, favouring Conservative held wards, including the previous marginal ward of Hale, the continued failure to protect expenditure from political influence is truly shocking. Childs Hill is of course again, the most marginal ward in this election. I think it is not reasonable to suggest this is purely coincidental, and should at least be the subject of investigation.

The Man from Capita was asked to come and comment, before the auditor. Blah blah blah, repeating how money was agreed, which we knew already. Turning to him, Mrs Angry asked why it was, did he think, that the roads in marginal wards wore out quicker than in others?

The Man from Capita

He didn't seem to know.

The auditor had never thought about the issue. Mrs Angry asked him to think about thinking about the issue, then, as it might appear to suggest ... an improper use of public money. 

Later on in the meeting, Labour lead Geoff Cooke took up this point, and suggested that the 'disparity' in allocation was indeed a matter for the external auditors, to see if it was an appropriate use of public money.

Up until then, the two Tory councillors had been silent, and somewhat uncharacteristically subdued, sitting downstream from their coolly aloof former colleague Sury Khatri, who had been ruthlessly deselected only weeks before, and resigned the Tory whip in protest. But Cllr Peter Zinkin now launched himself into what was clearly an irrepressible outburst - he is prone to these performances, which are often deployed at  moments when distraction from an inconvenient truth is necessary.

He claimed now that his ward - Childs Hill, of course, had been forced to endure 'twenty eight years of Libdem misrule'. 

Bit harsh, thought Mrs Angry, no Libdem fan, but trying to think of Cllr Lord Palmer and Lady Palmer, and Jack Cohen, ruling the ward like merciless feudal overlords, revelling in the number of pot holes and broken pavements, while the peasants sat and waited for the day when they would be rescued by Tory councillors, who lavish them with attention, out of boundless generosity and fond feelings, and make sure their feet never have to walk on anything but the best laid paving stones, and the most perfectly maintained roads, and all of this being absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with being the most marginal ward in the most marginal borough in London. 

Cllr Zinkin was tweeting during this discussion, so Mrs Angry took the opportunity to ask if the previous pre-election splurge on the then most marginal ward of Hale was therefore due to about sixty eight years of Tory misrule? 

He didn't answer, but made a face at her from across the table.

The Chair intervened at one point and asked if Mrs Angry had noted that Hale was bottom of the list of expenditure. Yes, she retorted, because you've written it off, haven't you, Hugh? Is that why you wouldn't stand there again?

No argument, funnily enough: just a wry smile playing on the mouth of Cllr Rayner.

Newly independent Cllr Khatri showed the first signs of mutinous behaviour, that evening, by venturing to tell the meeting that despite constant requests over many years to repair areas in his ward, nothing gets done. He blamed the Environment Committee.

Geoff Cooke said it was a question of resources, and governance, and that despite the Tories' boast of spending £50 million on investing in them, the borough's roads were in a 'poor' condition. 

Earlier in the meeting there had been much debate about the pot hole issue, one which is blighting the borough, and is perhaps the biggest and most obvious manifestation of Tory incompetence, at least in the eyes of Barnet residents - and voters. With all the reckless zeal of someone with a compulsive deathwish, Barnet Tories have put the condition of the roads at the top of their manifesto, along with bin collection, another act of frantic flag waving of their own glaring failures in office.

The Tories would like to blame the contractors, although they are supposed to be -ha ha - in charge of them. The contractors, as it turns out, blame ... other contractors. Well, why not?

The Man from Capita, with a measured application of low, slow, Welsh accented murmuring, intended to soothe the worried hearts and minds of Tory councillors newly awoken to the catastrophe of their own making now unfolding, tried this tactic, anyway. 

He wriggled out of admitting that Capita Re, who run Highways, are accountable for the problem, by blaming their contractors, and saying in effect they, ie Capita Re, were not responsible for the holes, only the management of the people paid to fill the holes. 

He appeared not to be at all disappointed in their failure to manage the people who fill the holes, as if some dark magic force has somehow intervened in the process, and made it all impossible. 

But then: dark magic has been at work in the London Borough of Broken Barnet for some time now, even before the signing in blood of the devil's pact between our Tory council and Capita, in the summer of 2013.

What can you do, in the face of such malign influences? 

Not much. 

Except throw the Tory council out on May 3rd, of course.

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