Tory Councillor Jennifer Grocock and the DUP's Arlene Foster at Margaret Thatcher House, the Finchley Tories office, in Ballards Lane
It was Mr Reasonable who spotted it, hidden away in the agenda for last night's Constitution and General Purposes Committee: a report, from the Monitoring Officer, proposing measures to prevent residents of Barnet from making any further contribution to council meetings: the right to ask questions virtually stripped away in one stroke, and the right to speak to meetings for three minutes ended.
It was a grossly illiberal proposal, even by Barnet Tory standards: a deliberate attempt by to silence all challenge from their electorate; to stifle debate, and effectively to sever any opportunity for citizens and tax payers to engage in the local democratic process.
The truth is that - the truth must be suppressed.
We have been too successful in holding that truth to power.
As Mr Reasonable told the committee last night, 'this is personal': he knew that they were targeting people like him - and me, and Roger Tichborne, and Derek Dishman, and a number of local activists who insist on asking for the answers to questions that the Tory administration simply does not want to answer.
Now that the Tories have decided to back track on their decision to take many public services away from Capita, in house, it is even more necessary to shut us up.
Residents are now gagged by their own Tory councillors
They are fearful of being exposed for what they are, as I pointed out in what will probably be my last comment to any committee, as this will no longer be allowed:
The last time I visited North London Business Park, I noted, on my way out, a large poster, proclaiming, in large letters:
“Informing our public
We want Barnet Council to be
Open, Transparent, Proactive”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Some members of this administration - new members excused - and some officers, are determined to make it impossible for residents to hold their elected representatives to account, in blatant disregard of the Nolan Principles which are meant to inform the conduct of government, but do not apply, in Barnet.
The name of this committee is: ‘Constitution and General Purposes’. It used to be ‘Constitution, Ethics and Probity’. You changed it, happy to abandon Ethics and Probity, as these qualities have no value in your eyes, and play no part in this rotten administration, ripe as it is with so many secrets and lies, conflicts of interest, and even fraud.
Barnet residents’ questions are made in the public interest, something recognised when some of us were singled out for praise by Eric Pickles, when he was Secretary of State. We’ve exposed much wrongdoing and many failings which otherwise would have been covered up: MetPro, the Capita assault on Freedom Passes, the Abbots Way depot sale, legionella in libraries, to name only a few.
You continually tinker with the Constitution, in order to prevent residents asking difficult questions, purely from political sensitivity.
Most committees and Forums have too few questions: if there are more, on certain contentious subjects, that is something to applaud, not silence. What have you got to hide?
Many of the questions put to meetings wouldn’t be needed if you were transparent and engaging honestly with residents.
If you’d paid attention to the forensic auditing and careful questioning of John Dix, you wouldn’t be in the financial mess created by your own fecklessness.
If you as councillors were competent in your role of scrutiny, many of our questions would not be necessary. We ask them out of civic duty, because you fail to inform residents properly, and take decisions without proper consultation.
If more restrictions are put on the way in which we hold you to account, this will only cause further breakdown in the relationship with your electorate.
You will also be laying the foundations for legal challenges, as was the case in the One Barnet JR.
The cost argument you present is absurd. You complain about £40K – but are happy to blow the best part of a MILLION pounds each year on council spin, political propaganda campaigns & the Barnet First rag, all paid for by us.
How dare you waste our council tax on your own political reputation, while seeking to silence the perfectly valid questions of residents on the issues that matter to them?
Want to save money? Stop throwing it in the open money pit that is the Capita partnership. Cut your own allowances. Reduce the top heavy structure of management.
But this isn’t about cost, or money: it is purely about your fear of dissent, and bad PR, and political damage. The truth hurts, and awkward questions hurt most of all, because they expose you for what you are, or at least what you have created: a failed administration marked by a defensive, secretive culture, in which those who have most to be ashamed of, make the most effort to keep it out of the public domain.
I challenge you to prove me wrong: throw out these proposals tonight and demonstrate you really do have a commitment to openness and transparency.
After making this comment, there were a few supplementary follow ups which we are - we were - 'allowed' to make.
I asked if either the Chair, or the Monitoring Officer whose name is on the report, had bothered to inform themselves of the guidance issued by the Local Government Association on the subject of engagement with residents: 'New Conversations', is the title: all about making residents participation wider, and more meaningful, and preventing local authorities from becoming inward looking, and defensive.
Both the Chair, Melvin Cohen, and the Monitoring Officer, David Tatlow, admitted they had not read this. Or rather the MO said he couldn't remember. They asked if I would send them the details. I said I would - but please would they adjourn any decision until they had read the document. Clearly they then made the decision without sight of this crucial advice. What else would you expect, from Barnet Tory councillors? They do not want to follow best practice. They want only to follow the least necessary lip service to openness and transparency, and to silence any questions that might shed light on some of their covert activities.
This move to shut down criticism or challenge of the council coincides with the appointment of a new, right wing Tory leader, Dan Thomas, who has never won any election other than in a safe council ward, and the leadership vote, unchallenged. His icy cool demeanour perfectly represents his political attitude, and represents a return by Barnet Tories to an inward looking, merciless tendency, Brexit favouring, defensive, backs to the wall: back to the era of Coleman, and Freer, and all the things that we do not need, in this borough, at this time.
Barnet Tories are split in several ways now: not just within the group, but also the borough associations. Hendon is and always has been a backwater, with factionalism and low membership keeping it in the doldrums. Chipping has also suffered from falling membership, and the days of genteel fundraising events and cohorts of elderly canvassers queuing up to help the party are well gone. Finchley and Golders Green? Again dwindling membership, but - oh boy: look what is happening now -
Finchley Tories here, hosting a member of the party which opposes equal marriage, LGBT rights, and abortion, thinks the world was created in seven days, does not believe in climate change - etcetera etcetera.
Posing in her lovely union jack dress is Councillor Jennifer Grocock, who is a big Brexit fan, it seems.
What are they saying by arranging and publicising this visit? More than they meant to, anyway.
Personally I prefer to recall some other visitors to Margaret Thatcher House, not so long ago, marching in solidarity with Barnet residents fighting to stop Barnet Tories destroying our once magnificent library service:
The late, great Davy Hopper - and the Durham Miners Association banner outside Margaret Thatcher House.
While Finchley Tories were busy hosting the DUP, library campaigners and other residents were at the Town Hall watching in disbelief as their Tory councillors voted to end their involvement in the democratic process:
Labour councillors tried their best to reason with Tory members.
Why, asked Labour leader Barry Rawlings, if you are confident in your policies, are you frightened of questions?
Melvin Cohen appeared not to be able to answer this, nor any other argument put before the meeting. He stared down at his notes, and avoided eye contact, and response. The other two Tory members said virtually nothing: former leader Richard Cornelius looked bored, and keen to get home, and new boy Alex Prager merely suggested tinkering with the wording.
When it came to the decision, even though one other new Tory member, Cllr Richman, had not turned up, by using two votes the Chair forced the new draconian restrictions through.
There was a furious reaction from residents, who yelled at the shamefaced Tories, and promised to ensure they would regret their actions.
And they will.