Friday 14 December 2018

A Matter of Regret: or - who runs Barnet Council, anyway?

The view from Hendon Town Hall entrance

Well. Another extraordinary few weeks in Broken Barnet.

Let us set the scene.

All around the borough, the scale of failure of the current Tory administration is impossible to ignore - unless you live in one of the more privileged wards, or marginal wards, where it is a matter of fact that Highways expenditure, by sheer coincidence, is rather more generous than others. 

In my road, which is half in a Labour ward, half in a Tory ward, can you guess which end was resurfaced, this year, while the same treatment for my end has twice been cancelled? 

Of course a Tory councillor lives in the other end, and we would not wish his journeys around the borough, to be impeded by the same sort of pot holes and loose gravel to be found in abundance on the wrong side of Long Lane, now would we? Nor would we wish to upset the Tory voters. If you live over the border: tough. This is the Tale of Two Barnets: know your place.

The state of decline, in the wake of failing services, is however beginning to become apparent even in the 'better' areas of the borough, or at least noticed by the better sort of (Tory voting) residents, which is why, and only why, the Tory councillors are beginning to panic. Failures in planning and enforcement, for example, are increasingly inciting normally loyal voters to mutiny against their local councillors.

Their property values, - and the built heritage of our borough - are under threat at every point: from the grasp of developers supported by a weakened planning system, that offers fee based advice to applicants, but shows little interest in impact on residents, or in the enforcement of measures meant to protect even listed buildings. Take a look at the Railway Hotel in Edgware, listed but left to decay and suffer damage from two fires in two years with no effective action by the council's privatised services. Only determined lobbying by local campaigners has resulted in any move to save this property from further risk.

As for the rest of the borough: weeds everywhere, broken pavements replaced, if at all, by tarmac: roads deteriorating daily, with massive holes left from the last icy winter: even the broken lamppost opposite the Town Hall (see above) has been left for weeks, leaning at a dangerous angle, unremarked.

Fly tipping left uncollected at street corners: wheelie bins left uncollected for weeks. Yes, weeks - and now it is impossible to travel around the borough without seeing overflowing bins, accompanied by dumped black bin bags full of rubbish. The open landscape of Broken Barnet, in short, is literally a tip. 

Ironically, the Tories have deployed a crack team of litter inspectors, who look like parking wardens, to patrol the high streets of Broken Barnet, to swoop on hapless residents who drop a sweet wrapper, or cigarette butt, and fine them on the spot, but they appear not to have fined themselves for leaving the entire borough festooned with bags of rotting rubbish.

You may recall that the absurd campaign strategy of Barnet Tories in May, aware of the looming revelation of their financial incompetence, post election, and seeking to distract voters with anything other than questions about their catastrophic mishandling of the Capita contracts, featured, rather more literally than usual, a load of old rubbish. 

Yes: the time honoured deployment of #angryaboutbins was put to use. Wicked Labour, they said, were going to cut your bin collection, if elected. 

The Wicked Tories were elected instead, and - cut your bin collection. 

At the same time, they 'readjusted' their budget deficit to a terrifying new level, admitted the Capita contracts were failing to deliver, and that one of their employees had stolen more than £2 million unnoticed, due to what was then identified as a catastrophic absence of any reasonable standard of financial controls and safeguards against fraud. How lucky they were that they had not realised any of this before the election! 

One week my bin was left forlornly on the pavement, unemptied. On the way to the Audit committee, I peered inside at the contents, & thought about taking them with me to the Town Hall,  and handing it to the nearest Tory councillor, but - couldn't quite bring myself to scoop any of it out. Still, it was playing on mind as an appropriate metaphor for the state of things, as I took a seat in the committee room, watching the Tory councillors insinuate themselves into the room, a room already packed with angry residents and campaigners.

In July it had been agreed that the council would seek to 'realign' their contracts with Capita, and that business cases for varying degrees of separation, and return of services in house, would be prepared to go for consideration.

It then emerged that the Chief Executive had submitted a report to the Audit meeting proposing - with no consultation, or further formal discussion - a retraction of this decision. Instead we should now take our time to consider the 'realignment' - or not - of each service, over a long period of time: over the course of which of course we remain in bondage to Capita, and any unpleasant consequences of their own failings shrugged aside, with no urgency over reclaiming the vast majority of services.

Many questions were submitted to this Audit meeting in regard to this report, and several people made comments to the committee: but the situation had been further complicated by the revelation, that day, of a hastily arranged Urgency Committee at which a most extraordinary deal would be considered - and no doubt approved.

A deal has been made, in secret, with Capita: they will pay us £4 million, in return for being allowed to duck the contractual obligation to provide £30 million of contract savings guarantees over the next 5 years. Well, the report itself has the clanging and grammatically cringemaking title of: Commercial Settlement of Historic Issues: flipping Nora, you may think: settlement of Historic Issues with Capita would require a report using up all the paper in Broken Barnet, and then some, would it not, as detailed in the annals of this blog? Indeed it would, but Mr Duncan Tessier, Commercial Director, has managed to whittle down his token compo wish list to these few items: according to my notes (not entirely reliable):

a) Mosaic (the Adults Social care system) – new IT system implementation that
experienced issues with timeliness and quality of delivery;
b) Development pipeline – delays in delivering housing on council land;
c) Increased monitoring associated with financial controls – to cover cost of Grant
Thornton and additional council resources (in addition to first payment made in
September 2018);
d) Procurement gainshare – settling of respective claims; and
e) Miscellaneous items – estates compliance (related to 2013 to 2016); and KPI failures related to the Re contract.
f) Expenditure on a big box of black felt tips, for redaction of details in council reports and FOI responses from Mrs Angry

Hmm. Of course that £4 million is not much to see, is it, as a result of such prolonged contractual intimacy? A tiny drop of honey on the couch, compared to the unending 'exotic spresm' of money ejaculated, with such enthusiasm, into in the ever welcoming lap of Capita, wouldn't you say?

Don't know about you, but I feel so used, don't you, readers? All the way from Storyville to Capitaville, and back again.

And: why did they not use the agreed contractual processes to hold Capita to task for the breaches now being paid off?

Ah. Ahead of you there, they are: because, apparently:

There would be a need to instigate a range of formal dispute resolution processes under both contracts. The contractual dispute resolution processes would be time and resource
consuming with the outcomes uncertain and always subject to the possibility of
appeal. This would not offer the certainty and clarity of the proposed commercial
settlement. Legal advice has confirmed that the settlement outcome is good value for the council when compared with these risks and uncertainties.

'Legal advice', see, unspecified, and unattributed. 

Could have been from anyone. Citizens Advice Bureau. The Chief Executive's aunty. Man on a bench outside the (unstaffed) library next door to the Town Hall. 

And they don't like risk, and uncertainties, do they? Oh, well: unless in regard to a whopping £22 million loan to a private rugby club. 'Certainty and clarity', that is what you expect, from the officers and members of the London Borough of Broken Barnet. Along with transparency, and accountability.

Oh, about the massive Capita fraud. Why, asked one written question from a resident, did no one at Barnet spot what was happening?

It is a matter of regret that the fraud was not identified earlier, was the starchy knickered response. 

A matter of regret.

And all of this, by the way, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with a visit to the borough, a couple of weeks ago, by the Chief Executive of Capita. 

Oh: no, hang on - it did.

One of the many questions to the committee was from me, on the subject of this meeting, which we only knew about by rumour: turned out to be true.


The Chief Executive of Capita recently visited the

borough, to see the company's last outpost for
himself. Since then the council has announced what is
effectively a retraction of its intention to 'realign' the
Capita contracts. What did the CEO of Capita offer
that persuaded the Leader and senior officers to pull
back from the brink? Please give full details of the
meeting: the date, how long it lasted, with whom he
met, and please provide the minutes of that meeting.


Members and senior officers met with Capita’s

Chief Executive on 15 November for around an
hour. The meeting focused on settlement of historic
commercial issues the detail of which is set out in
the Urgency Committee report published today and
on improving the services provided by Capita going

Aha: those historic commercial issues again.

Going forward, as they love to say, so we do not dwell on any unpleasantness: why was this deal agreed? Because, as I pointed out in my comments to the committee, both Capita and the Tory councillors are so fearful of the damage to their reputations (such as they are) neither party can bring themselves to end the relationship. Like some warring couples, they prefer the hypocrisy of remaining in a loveless partnership, than the public airing of their disagreements.

Also in my comments, I pointed out the folly of having as Chair of Audit the Tory councillor who believes that scrutiny should not be critical - and asks for 'positive' comments only, in line with the usual rubber stamping exercise of Barnet Tory committees. 

The auditors looked on, only the new boy with the designer glasses making any effort to look as if anything mattered much, anyway.

Audit, in the age of Capita

One of the independent members of the Audit committee actually appeared to fall asleep, fairly early on in the proceedings: all part of the same problem, the lack of rigour, the lack of forensic investigation, until it is too late. Oh, and those minutes I asked for? No comment at the meeting. I ask the governance officers. Silence. Weeks later I find out from an FOI officer that this question has been magically transformed, without my consent or knowledge, into an FOI. 

This means it will now no doubt be treated in the same way as any other FOI now: subject to an eternal process of delay, excuses and prevarication, in the hope that I will give up. 

Note to whoever is organising this: I will not give up. 

Interestingly, after several people, including blogger Mr Mustard and I, requested unredacted copies of the exempted report by Grant Thornton into the Capita fraud, and its wider revelations (are you keeping up?) this week, in the middle of all the Brexit hoo ha, it was released. What was all the fuss about?  Perhaps this statement from Capita, previously suppressed:

Ooh, get you.

Some hope, however, emerged from the otherwise pointless exercise rolled out at this Audit meeting. 

My comment to the committee largely consisted of a plea to the newer Tory members to distance themselves from the shambolic history of their older colleagues, and think carefully about their duties, as elected representatives, to put the best interests of residents before political considerations. 

It emerged that Labour members of the committee had been - quite incredibly - given redacted copies of a report on which they were expected to vote. This was outrageous, and another sign on the increasingly ruthless, not to say undemocratic measures being used by the Tories to silence debate, and mask the extent of their culpability in the absolute shambles of the current administration. After protest by residents and councillors, Labour moved to demand access. 

Just imagine our open mouthed surprise, readers, when the two new Tory councillors refused to vote against this motion. Cllr Prager voted against, and Cllr Jajeh abstained. The motion passed. 

This is unheard of, in the long dark history of Tory Barnet: Tory members having the integrity - and courage - to take a stand on a point of principle, in favour of the democratic process. Hats off. 

As the meeting reached the point where the press and public are thrown out, for discussion of 'exempt' matters, I thought I would ask the Chair, while passing by the table, if there were any chance of getting my bins emptied, before Christmas? After the chortling finished, keen new councillor Jajeh followed me out of the room, and promised to make sure they were. And he did. Which is very nice of him, but: it shouldn't be necessary to make private arrangements to deal with the inevitable outcome of the Tories' cuts in service, should it?

This week, my bins were emptied, but - hello - a new strategy in #angryaboutbins has been deployed: leaving you with a bag of your neighbour's rubbish in return. Perhaps this is Nudge Theory, once again: encouraging you to see rubbish collection, like gritting, and looking after our parks, as a voluntary civic duty?

A load of old rubbish from your Tory council: taking away with one hand & giving back with another ...

But it is not just bins, and rubbish, and weeds that are having an impact on our daily lives. For many residents, the collapse in local services is affecting them directly, and acutely.

After the meeting at Parliament with John Mc Donnell to discuss the Capita issue, another session was arranged to take place locally. A room was taken at the Town Hall, in one of the committee rooms where public engagement and open debate is usually suppressed at every point: by exclusion, redaction, exemption and limitation. 

Holding a residents' meeting in the Town Hall was a symbolic gesture, meant to remind elected representatives that local democracy is only ever an expression of the will of the community, and not something to be controlled by them. 

It was also, by chance, the same room where five years ago, residents took over the meeting where Tory members were due to vote to approve the Capita contracts - unread. They were obliged to flee to a tiny side room, where they did the deed under siege, defiant to the last. 

Five years on, this meeting now followed a long sequence of testimonies by residents - and some Labour councillors - as to their experiences with the contracted out services. Others read the statements of those unable to do so themselves, or too upset to do so themselves.

Fellow blogger John Dix explained exactly how Capita made so much money out of these services, and how the claims that the contracts are making vast savings are nothing more than an elaborate fiction.

A resident read a statement from a young man with autism, who had been left stranded and in distress when his free travel pass was found not to work: it had been cancelled without warning by Capita. It was a 'heinous action' he said, in his detailed, deeply upsetting comments. This happened because Tory members and senior officers allowed Capita to demand an extra fee for taking over the issue of such passes: and of course the contracts allow Capita to receive gainshare payments for any 'savings'. Who cares if savings are made at the expense of disabled residents? Leave them at the bus stop, or tube station, wondering how they are going to get home. Kerching!

We heard from a resident who is a social worker, deeply concerned at the impact on elderly residents of the failure to maintain pavements and roads: the risk of falls from hazards left unaddressed, from leaves unswept as a matter of policy, leaving slippery pathways all over the borough.

Another read statement described how Capita had helped itself to £2,000 from a resident's bank account, and informed them of the withdrawal of their single person discount.

A resident of East Finchley told us about the local community centre now being 'marketed' by Capita: they have their hands now on all council buildings, including our libraries - what is left of them, unstaffed for much of the time: as one woman explained, leaving one mother no option but to take her little girl out to wee in the car park, as the loos are locked in these hours. Another speaker asked if the libraries were being deliberately run down, so as to free the properties for sale, and facilitate more unwanted development.

A resident of West Hendon exposed the conflict of interest in Capita's dual roles in both running the 'regeneration' of her estate, and the valuation of homes subject to the process of compulsory purchase. (You may recall the massive and sustained fraud to the value of £2m plus by a Capita employee perpetrated in the course of compulsory purchase of properties in another 'regeneration' area).

A Labour councillor furiously condemned the use of Capita bailiffs against the poorest members of her ward.

Another criticised the terrible council website, the first point of information for many residents, and a 'nightmare' to navigate, despite continual challenges to the contractors about the poor standard.

As you might imagine, there was much criticism too of the planning service, with many remarking upon the disadvantages for ordinary residents, and the balance in favour of rampant development.

And on, and on. 

But it makes no difference to our Tory members whose lives are barely affected by the result of their own blundering failure to hold their contractors' poor performance to account. 

They held an Urgency meeting, sneaked into the timetable, listed for 8.30 one morning, with only the Tory Leader, Cornelius, the deputy leader Daniel Thomas, and the Labour leader. Clearly they wanted to hold the meeting at a time when almost no one was likely to notice - or turn up. 

Unfortunately for them John Dix did turn up, to watch their shame faced capitulation to the deal 'offered' by Capita: a £4m quid hand out (or, the equivalent of the amount nicked by one of their employees, times two) and - now ... let's be friends. 

And by sheer coincidence, an announcement was then made that instead of honouring the decision made by the P& R committee - to order officers to present full business cases on all options regarding the future of the Capita contracts - the next P&R committee would only talk about bringing back Finance & HR, and throw the rest of the services into the long grass, some only to be reviewed on the twelfth of never, or Year Seven of the ten year contracts. 

Before the Policy and Resources meeting, Barnet Alliance members, residents and Labour councillors took over the downstairs lobby of the Town Hall and sang a medley of impertinent carols aimed at the Tory members about to wave the continuation of the contracts through, with minimal adjustments. They continued upstairs, in the committee room.

The antics of Kick Out Capita activists obviously met with the disapproval of the Capita officers  behind me, who had as usual commandeered the best public seats, and provoked the close attentions of security staff, campaigners broke through the fourth wall normally retained in the theatre of the absurd that is the average Barnet council meeting, where audience participation is definitely not encouraged. 

Father Christmas and his helper approached the table with presents, and crackers: the Tory leader was not amused and tried to speak over the singing, and ignore the intruders. It didn't work.

In the good old 'MetPro' days, the Tories would have deployed unlicensed thugs in jackboots to menace the public, and physically bar them from the meeting. Not allowed anymore, that sort of thing, so the members had to sit there with wan faces, in tacit admission, from their inaction, and their silence, that they have no defence of what they are doing. 

And of course, there is no defence of what they are doing. 

Another shameful act, to add to all the rest, was the last minute addition to the agenda of a proposal to cut vital housing benefit support to the borough's poorest residents. This report was published (as the document itself discloses) after the deadline for members of the public to exert their right to submit questions or ask to comment: a flagrant abuse of the democratic process.  The Monitoring Officer, when asked by a resident to explain the implications of this, however, was not at all perturbed.

Whether or not this decision is, in these circumstances, challengeable in law, it is most clearly in defiance of the entire spirit of the Nolan Principles. But then the Nolan Principles do not apply, in Broken Barnet.

Questions about who took the decision - officers, or members - to ignore the actions agreed at the earlier committee meeting, to prepare the business cases for all options in regard to the future of the Capita contracts, including Option Three - cutting all ties with Capita - were met with evasive answers. They would only admit that officers recommend the current position, of a 'phased' response. That admission is all you need.

You can view the 158 questions submitted to the committee by residents here.

 My comment to the committee, for what it is worth, which is probably nothing at all, except it was gratifying to see the Tory leader squirming in his seat:

To tell the truth, I find it harder and harder to watch the way in which, over so many years, the Tory members of this deranged administration have presided over the destruction of our local services, and our democratic processes. 

You were responsible for promoting the disastrous partnership with Capita, you refused to listen to all reasonable arguments as to why it would be a disaster, and at every stage, until it was impossible to hide the truth any longer, you have pretended that the contracts were working entirely in our favour. That was, and is, untrue. Some might even say it was a lie.

In the response to one of my questions tonight, you claim, with a truly mind blowing lack of irony, 

“the council will continue to apply a robust approach to managing performance under the contracts”.

Dear Councillors: you have NEVER applied a robust approach to managing performance, which is why we are where we are now, supposedly in the act of ‘realignment’ of those contracts, but in fact back-peddling as fast as the One Barnet, Future-shaped Pedalo from Hell will allow, in order not only to cover up your own incompetence, but that of your contractual partners. 

You once saw yourself as the flagship council for Tory policies, in a decades' long war on public services. You detest the very idea of public services, in fact. Public is bad, private is good. Except: you’ve managed, in your slapstick way, to demonstrate that the reverse is true. 

Not one of you is capable of running an enterprise with a billion pound budget: not one of you is capable of running the whelk stand that used to appear every weekend in North Finchley, across the road from Margaret Thatcher House. What on earth the Blessed Margaret would make of your abject failure even to empty the borough’s bins, let alone manage the massive Capita contracts, is anyone’s guess.

Whether due to incompetence, apathy, or sheer laziness, you have allowed consultants and senior managers to persuade you to swallow the idea of mass outsourcing, then sat back and accepted, in face of all evidence to the contrary, that all was well. Didn’t take much to pull the wool over your eyes, did it? 

Now here you are, about to let them and your hapless contractors hypnotise you with a £4 million pay off, so as to let Capita continue to milk as much profit as possible out of our failing services. 

No wonder the newer members of your own party look aghast at what you have done and what you have failed to do – and what you are about to do now.

Prove me wrong. 

Take a stand. Throw out this report and demand the full business cases you asked for. Or take the consequences, which will, as you must know, come in the shape of electoral failure on a scale you have never seen before, as services decline even further.

A waste of time, perhaps: but if we stop using the limited opportunity we have to speak truth to these dunderheads, what will be the result? 

And the Tories' body language throughout this comment told its own story: they know full well they have blown it, big time - damage limitation is the only course now, and the only consolation they have is ... that it is a long time before the next local elections. 

They are gambling that things will have improved by then. 

In fact it is quite likely that things will be an awful lot worse.

Although the real danger is not to them, in the short term: the immediate risk is to their parliamentary colleagues, should there be, as there probably will be, a general election any time soon. 

We have three Tory MPs, all of whom have overtly or tacitly supported Brexit in three marginal, Remain leaning constituencies, left in a borough whose Tory administration leaves the bins unemptied, the streets full of pot holes, weeds, and fly-tipped rubbish - and a plague of unchecked development adding an intolerable extra weight to our already overburdened services.

As things fall apart, and we slouch towards the holiday shut down, it is abundantly clear - the certainties of life in Broken Barnet cannot -  and never will be - the same. 

Merry Christmas.