Thursday 11 July 2019

Lord Pickles: "Public participation is an important part of council scrutiny" ... a rap on the knuckles for Barnet Tories

As you may know, at a recent meeting of the Constitution committee, Barnet Tories, despite all reasoned argument to the contrary, decided to approve a motion that would effectively end all challenge of councillors by residents at future committee meetings.

That this would be a deeply regressive measure, and run counter to all notions of transparency, and accountability, and open government, and engagement with residents would appear to hold no interest for the new Tory leader, Daniel Thomas, which is regrettable.

There could be no more important moment for residents to exercise their rights to scrutinise the activities of their elected representatives in Barnet: with the perilous financial situation, the decline in the provision of council services, and the refusal to end the disastrous partnership with Capita.

The timing of this proposal is therefore crucial, and gives all the more reason to challenge it.

One of the former councillors who has always encouraged the involvement of residents in meetings, and welcomed their questions was the LibDem peer Lord Palmer, who was an effective and fair Chair of Audit, at a time when in order to guarantee independence of the committee, it was always chaired by an opposition member. As part of their regressive tactics, in more recent times, the Tory group then installed one of their own members, which has been a mistake, for several reasons.

I wrote to Lord Palmer asking for his view on the gagging attempt: he immediately replied describing the development as 'disturbing', and adding: 

'I suspect that they are not breaking the law but what they are doing is against guidance

Indeed it is, as you would know if you read the Local Government Association's guide to engagement: 'New Conversations', in which, oh dear - Barnet appears three times as an example of ... how not to do it, unless you want to end up in the High Court.

Neither the Chair of the Constitution Committee nor the Monitoring Officer, when I asked them, had read this guidance, which proves the point that the gagging proposal was formed not out of a desire to improve engagement - or due to unreasonable cost - but to censor dissenting opinion of the Tory administration by its own electorate, and to prevent scrutiny of its abysmal record. 

After some thought, it occurred to me it might be interesting to ask another member of the House of Lords, who was well aware of the history of counter democratic blunders made by his Conservative colleagues in Barnet. Yes: Mrs Angry's No 1 fan, Eric, now Lord Pickles, (former Secretary of State for local government, and keen promoter of greater transparency and engagement in the democratic process.

Some readers may recall that way back in 2011, Pickles went out of his way, in a speech to the CIPFA conference, to praise Barnet bloggers for their reporting of local council activities - condemning the Tory administration for its squandering of public money on the MetPro arrangement, and warning all authorities to take heed:

Irony of ironies - this misuse of public money was uncovered thanks to the determination of local bloggers and activists …  Including Barnet Eye. Mr Mustard. And Mrs Angry. (As she had every right to be) Exactly the same people MetPro snooped upon. 
I've got news for Barnet. Liveblogging from council meetings. Microjournalism. Call it what you like.

It's here to stay.

Others might remember this photograph of Eric with two former Tory members, Kate and Brian Salinger, after the appalling treatment of Kate after she was the only Tory member to refuse to endorse massive increases in allowances for themselves, at a time when they had announced austerity measures for everyone else in Barnet.

Kate Salinger is now a member of the new Barnet Fairness Commission, an idea from the local Labour party but intended to be a cross party body that will hope to address social inequality and improve community cohesion.

An email, then to Eric, yesterday: 

Dear Lord Pickles,

I hope you won't mind my writing to you about the following development in Barnet, which I think will be of some concern to you, as someone who fought for greater openness and accountability in local government.

You may perhaps recall that, some years ago, you were kind enough to praise the efforts of a group of 'citizen journalists' in Barnet, of which I am one, writing the 'Broken Barnet' blog in the persona of 'Mrs Angry' - others include John Dix - 'Mr Reasonable', Roger Tichborne - "Barnet Eye', and Derek Dishman, 'Mr Mustard' - and we should not forget the late Daniel Hope, a former Conservative councillor who produced the 'Barnet Bugle'. 

We hold a range of personal political views, but work together as a group and individually, out of a sense of civic duty, due to the absence of any other effective scrutiny.

Over nearly ten years now, we have reported on many subjects, and brought to light many injustices: for example the MetPro scandal, in which the council was illegally deploying unlicensed, jackbooted thugs to act as security guards and keep residents from council meetings, as well as covertly film us - this in turn led to the exposure of many thousands of unlawful 'contracts' used by the same administration. 

Other stories have included the cutting of respite care for young children with multiple and complex disabilities (later rescinded as a result), the fee based project by Capita that led to the unlawful cancellation of Freedom passes for disabled residents, leaving young people with autism and other special needs stranded and confused when attempting to use public transport (later rescinded after being reported by us), the extraordinary cost of a new council depot of around £13.5 million, for a site that had cost £750,000  the year before; the suppressed discovery of legionella in public libraries; the West Hendon faux regeneration, in which land worth £12 million was secretly given to Barratts for £3, and tenants and leaseholders forced out of their homes to make way for luxury housing;  the destruction of our public library service, supposedly to save money, but which has cost £14 million; the recent use of the Public Works Loan Board to facilitate a high risk council loan of £22 million to Saracens rugby club to build a new grandstand, etcetera etcetera.

When it was proposed that the council would undertake a mass outsourcing programme, we investigated the background to this and warned that it was not going, as they claimed, to bring better services for less money. 

In fact, as soon as the Conservative administration was re-elected last May, they revised their financial statements, admitted the council was facing a serious deficit, and that the Capita contracts were not performing well, and needed review. They were going to bring back many services in house. They also admitted that a Capita manager had defrauded the council to the tune of £2 million, unnoticed by the council, who had to be informed by the culprit's bank - it then became evident that there was a wide scale absence of any adequate financial controls of the two massive Capita contracts. All of this was reported by us.

Throughout the years of the mass privatisation of council services, one blogger in particular, that is to say John Dix, who is a management consultant of thirty years experience, has doggedly reviewed the financial performance of the contracts, and reported his analysis of the council's accounts. His work is taken seriously by Tory members, as well as external auditors. He has demonstrated over and over again that the Capita contracts, other than a small core of promised nominal savings, is costing Barnet residents ever increasing amounts of cash, through such waste as the huge dependence on agency staff through Capita, and having to pay Capita 'rewards' via gainshare payments.

There has recently been a change in the Leadership of the Tory group, and there is now a very worrying development as some members of the Group now intend to force through changes to the Constitution which will effectively prevent residents holding their elected representatives to account. We understand other Conservative members are quietly uneasy about these proposals.

At the last 'Constitution and General Purposes Committee' * (they have removed 'Ethics and Probity' from the committee's name - and apparently from its remit) - three Tory members voted to change the rules on engagement. 

This means that now only two residents' questions in total (not per person, but in entirety) on any item will be allowed, no matter how many are submitted. Residents may no longer speak to the committee - any comment must be written and anyway only accepted within the two question limit. The two questions per item may not be any longer than 100 words. Residents will no longer be allowed to speak to councillors at meetings, either in making comments, or answering their questions.

I asked the Tory members and Monitoring Officer if they had read the LGA guidance on engagement, ie 'New Conversations': they had not. Had they taken legal advice on their decision - in 'New Conversations', Barnet appears three times as example of the folly of not consulting properly with residents, citing three Judicial Review)? They had not. Would they please defer their decision until after they had done so? They would not.

The pretext for this repressive move was that residents' questions cost £42,000 a year. This is nonsense, as it is part of the duties of governance officers, the figure appears to have been plucked out of thin air - and frankly on a level of consultancy fees is a drop in the ocean by Capita standards ... but as I pointed out, the Tory group currently spends the best part of £1 million a year on its own political spin, on a huge Communications Team (expanded in the run up to elections) and the propaganda rag, 'Barnet First'.

Most council meetings, in fact, have no questions submitted at all. 

It is true, of course, to say that when any particularly significant or controversial issue, such as those already mentioned - there may be a fairly large number: but these enquiries should be welcomed by any authority with a commitment to transparency - these questions are not 'vexatious' in nature, or trivial, they are from well informed, concerned residents attempting to exert their right to take part in the local democratic process.

The real reason for the attempt to gag residents is of course because the current administration is fearful of being held to account, has no interest in any commitment to the Nolan principles, and actively works to prevent public debate of its decisions and policies in action. 

This is deeply regrettable. 

At a time when the Capita contracts continue to fail, there has never been a greater need for active and well informed citizens to become involved and engaged with their local representatives.

Some of us have wondered if there is anything you can do or say to persuade your Conservative colleagues in Barnet to withdraw, in its entirety, their decision to end our right freely to question their activities and decisions? We would be most grateful for any support in this matter. 

I have also written to former Barnet councillor Lord Palmer who is very concerned by these proposals: as former Chair of Audit he welcomed questions from local bloggers and residents, and indeed former Tory Chair of Audit expressed the same sentiment last year. I understand that one of my fellow bloggers will also be writing to James Brokenshire.

Rather to my surprise, a very supportive response arrived promptly this morning: 

Dear Theresa (or Mrs Angry, if I may)

I am pleased to see that you and your fellow citizen journalists and armchair auditors are continuing to highlight how councils can further save taxpayers’ money. I hope that the legal rights to report and film council meetings under the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 have proved useful.

You might find of interest that MHCLG has announced a post-implementation review into the 2014 Act yesterday, which will include looking at whether the financial information provided in local authority accounts facilitates scrutiny by local taxpayers and the local press.

In relation to your concerns about questions from the public at council meetings, public participation is an important part of council scrutiny and helps keep councillors (of all political colours) on their toes. I will table some Parliamentary Questions on the issue of questions to Ministers on this matter.

With best wishes,

Rt Hon The Lord Pickles

If you want to support Barnet residents' right to question their elected representatives, please sign the petition started by fellow blogger John Dix.

Many thanks: 'Here to stay': Mrs Angry, (As she has every right to be) ...