Thursday 1 August 2019

Bound and gagged: Barnet Tories attempt to silence the voices of their own voters

A Barnet Tory fantasy: gagging the Barnet bloggers

The outcome was always inevitable. 

The extent of dissent amongst the Tory ranks was not. 

Yes, I'm talking about the other night's Full Council meeting, in Hendon Town Hall, where Barnet Tories, as noted in the previous post, proposed to end the right of residents and taxpayers to hold their elected representatives to account, by asking questions, at council meetings. 

That they had to be whipped into doing so, was evident (although this was not entirely successful): not one of them spoke in support of this shabby proposal, and all of them sat in silent shame, avoiding eye contact with the public, and the opposition, studying their phones, hiding their faces, and most tellingly, two of them leaving the room just before this item was discussed.

Outside the Town Hall before the meeting a large crowd of residents, campaigners, union members, and other supporters - including councillors from other authorities, as you can see at the end of this post - had assembled to show their contempt for what our Tory administration was about to do.

As a mark of how desperately undemocratic this proposal was, and is, the situation had required the attendance and encouraging words of one resident of the borough who happened to have been a close friend and comrade of Nelson Mandela, fighting by his side against the repression and injustice of the apartheid years in South Africa. 

This was Paul Joseph, who now lives in Mill Hill: he spoke to the residents gathered on the steps of Barnet's town hall and urged them to fight for their right to protest - and to hold their elected members to account.

Friend and comrade of Nelson Mandela Paul Joseph addresses Barnet residents

It has been a while since so many people turned up to demonstrate before a council meeting: such is the strength of feeling amongst residents in regard to the removal of their rights freely to question members on policies and decisions that affect their lives, their environment, and their public services. The public gallery was packed, and indeed overflowing. Barnet Tories have scored a spectacular own goal by galvanising the resistance amongst local residents to their administration, in this way. Hats off.

We started as usual with the pantomime procession so beloved by our Tory councillors: what is meant to be the solemn entrance of the Mayor in the moth eaten robes of office, accompanied by Cinderella's footmen in breeches, white gloves and tricorn hats, noises off provided by deeply unimpressed residents in the gallery, suitably restrained from throwing rotten fruit by a (non-metaphorical) glass wall between them and their 'betters'.

Next up an address by the Mayor's Chaplain. Ah, good. 

As someone who spent her childhood years listening to the rambling sermons of various Catholic priests, and has a lingering fondness for being lectured by clerics, I must say, frankly, this was up there with the best of them: decorated as it was with references to a pair of snowflakes celebrating their own individuality, Toscanini, Unfinished Symphonies, and so on. 

No one was any the wiser at the end of it, but as usual the Tory members sat with assumed pious expressions, as if entirely unaware that God was in His Heavens, his beady eye on them, the black hearted elected representatives of the London Borough of Barnet, when they were about to vote through the most ignominious change to the constitution which is supposed to safeguard the integrity of the local democratic process.

Time for some self congratulation: Tory members were awfully proud of having launched some 'Healthy Heritage Walks', (part of their new PR gambit, trying to co-opt lovely things and people who are lovely entirely despite, rather than because of, anything they do, hoping the loveliness will somehow become confused in the minds of voters with the unlovely Tory councillors, and an unlovely council that leaves the borough strewn with litter, unemptied bins, broken pavements and potholes ... )

The first Heritage walk - look, a lovely landscape created entirely by Barnet Tories, (in partnership with Capita)  -  starting in Hendon, and passing by the church where - (as Mrs Angry has pointed out in this blog, in fact), Bram Stoker was inspired to set one of the scenes in Dracula, in which Van Helsing drives a stake through the heart of the unfortunate, (undead) Lucy Westenra ...

Next to the church is the former beautiful, listed Church Farmhouse Museum, which the unfortunate, (undead) Tories shut, hoping to flog off the property for a quick return, but couldn't, and then ransacked the local history collection donated by residents, and flogged that off instead.

There really can't be much Heritage left in the borough that the Tories haven't tried to sell, or hand over to developers, in fact. The arts & crafts park keeper's Lodge in Victoria Park is now destroyed, the site - yes, in the park -  awaiting the erection of a block of flats, thanks to them (post to follow on this) - and of course where they can't sell it for a quick buck, or give it away, they allow someone to steal it. 

They have now admitted that, for the second time in a year, 'Heritage' items have been stolen while allegedly in the safekeeping of their own contractors: this time, the irreplaceable stained glass Grass Farm window panels from the old Church End library. They promised to remove and secure them: now we know they did nothing of the sort, and no, as the admitted at this meeting, they were not insured. What price our heritage? Walk around that one, feckless Tory councillors, why don't you?

Donated from the Heal family to the people of Finchley: stolen while in the care of Barnet Council 

This emerged during the long, long sequence of questions - eighty five in number - which Tory members allow themselves, but is not a right extended to the people they are meant to represent. Total hypocrisy, to lecture residents about daring to submit questions about bona fide matters of public interest, when indulging in this back-slapping posturing, many of the Tories' questions being designed entirely for, yes more undeserved self congratulation, or rhetorical, cheap, political points, admiring their own questionable achievements, or giving unsatisfactory responses to the genuine enquiries of the opposition.

On to the item in question: the gagging proposal. 

A more than usually sheepish Cllr Melvin Cohen, Chair of the Constitution Committee (and father of Dean, the er, erm, Chair of the Environment Committee) read out a faltering justification of this shameful motion, claiming to jeers from the public gallery that the fuss about it was 'a storm in a teacup' ... and appearing not to understand the implications of his own proposals, or, as fellow blogger John Dix, Mr Reasonable, explains here in his account of this meeting, to have checked the accuracy of the accusations made, in order to defend the gagging: for example the number of questions asked in the period used as an example:

The report was factually incorrect stating the period in question was 5 months when it was in fact 6 months and over stating the number of questions asked by 100. But in Barnet facts don't matter, just say something often enough and people will believe it.

Mr Reasonable's chart disproving Tory claims of misuse of public question time

As you will see, the questions posed - by a range of residents - are on hugely important matters: the Tories have chosen this rather arbitrary period, in fact, because: most unusually, it includes a unique example of when a record number of questions were submitted to a meeting. This was because - uniquely - it was a meeting where several hugely significant issues were being discussed: the review of the Capita contracts, and the massive Brent Cross Cricklewood development, being two of them, each in itself of unprecedented importance. 

At a rough guess, in the eight months of this year I have asked a grand total of, oh dear: as much as ... well, in fact only 20 or so questions; and I think given a couple of three minute comments. A shocking misuse of council time, apparently. 

Those questions included a few made at the last Audit committee - knowing I would be blocked in the future from doing so, on such issues as the failure by the authority to replace ANY of the 1800 Grenfell design fire doors in our social housing, and about the risk posed by senior Capita planning officers who are able to leave the service and immediately begin work as consultants dealing with their former colleagues, and/or for clients with whom they have previously acted on behalf of the authority. Also about failures in the administration of the Pension scheme, and, oh, how the proposed gagging of questions would be compliant with the authority's own Code of Governance, and the requirement to consult with residents.

I cannot begin to wonder why 20 such questions in seven months would be considered excessive, can you, reader? Unwelcome, yes, but: excessive?

In the future, no more than two questions will be allowed on any item - in entirety. 

It doesn't matter how important or complex the item might be, for example, the Brent Cross Cricklewood development, the Library review, the Pensions crisis: the first two questions to arrive will be the only questions considered, and they must be of less than 100 words. No one else may ask anything.

There will be no speaking to your elected representatives. How dare you even think of it? No eye contact, either. Stare meekly down, as if you were an extra in the Handmaid's Tale.

At this last Audit committee, it should be noted, in the same week Lord Pickles criticised Barnet Tories for their attitude to public scrutiny and the plans to gag residents, the external Auditor also went out of his way to praise the involvement of people like us in holding the authority to account, as did Lord Palmer, the former Libdem Chair of Audit.

Rabbi Jeffrey Newman came to give his support to Barnet residents: talking here to Labour councillor Reema Patel: in the background, John Dix - and a suitable display: 'Barnet as it Never Was' ...

At this week's meeting, the new Tory 'Leader' Dan Thomas launched into a frankly childish rant, looking across at me and John Dix, raving about 'unelected political activists' being to blame for asking too many questions.

I might be accused of being politically active: at least I hope so. But my questions are made out of a sense of civic duty, and utter horror at the incompetence of the local Tory administration, rather than driven by disagreement with their political agenda - to reach that point of polemical debate they would have to be capable of carrying out their own policies with some level of competence. 

They can't, and they don't. 

John Dix, Mr Reasonable, the most reasonable of men, it must be emphasised, has no political allegiance, and asks detailed, patient and forensic questions about budgeting and accounting matters, and most importantly, about the dire performance of the Capita contracts. 

This is based on his long years of experience in management practice, professional experience, and an ability to add up, and draw conclusions - a quality sadly lacking in those among the Barnet Tory administration who have been tasked with scrutiny of their own accounts and contractual performance.

I've been gagged, says Mr Reasonable

Unelected? This from the chap who cannot get himself elected to the GLA, or to a parliamentary seat, holds a safe Tory council seat, and reportedly stood for Leader of the Tory group unopposed!

Poor Thomas is not, you might say, the sharpest knife in the box: he has no real contribution to make to political debate, but looks very nice in a blazer and cravat, and is therefore a worthy group leader for the mass of empty headed Barnet Tories. 

Unelected they may be, but the four Barnet bloggers between them have had a huge readership over a period of ten years, and maintain a wide reach on social media. Other informed residents like Barbara Jacobson, of Barnet Alliance, who care passionately about our community, and our services, pose intelligent, probing, necessary questions as what should be a healthy conversation that forms the basis of any relationship between government and voters. This is a good thing: this is what democracy looks like, Barnet Tories. Did you know?

That the Tories choose to spend nearly £1 million a year in spin trying to counteract our reporting of their own cockups proves the point that Daniel Thomas avoids: the effectiveness of residents' involvement and engagement in that process of government.

A million pounds, FFS! What's the (fake news) price of £42K for residents' questions by comparison?

Barry Rawlings telling Barnet Tories, to loud cheers from the public gallery, to withdraw their gagging proposals

Labour leader Barry Rawlings tried reasoning with the Tory numpties on the other side of the chamber. He pointed out their proposals were in breach of their own constitution. Meh. So what? Well: almost certainly none of them have ever read any of it. 

Labour's Kath Mc Guirk tore a strip off them, demanding to know what on earth they were so scared of, observing that the questions usually came from people who knew better about the issues than they did. Well - yes, that in fact is what they are scared of: it becoming widely known that they are simply not up to the job of governance.

The gagging plans were voted through, of course, to a riotous response from the public gallery.

But it is not the end of the story.

One thing of note, during the course of the meeting, and from watching the footage later uploaded, is highly significant.

As confirmed today by governance officers, two members of the Tory group were not present when the gagging vote was taken. 

Roberto Weeden Sanz, the young man who wants to be, but will never be, the Tory GLA member for Barnet and Camden got up just before the item, and returned after the vote.

Veteran Tory member, and former Hendon MP, John Marshall also left at this point: and did not return. This is unprecedented.

It was evident from the fact that no other Tory member spoke to support the gagging, and the looks on many of their faces, and the fact that several have told us privately that they do not agree with it, that there has been strong disagreement over this ludicrous proposal.

It does not bode well for the new Leader that, within only weeks of taking his post, he was unable to maintain a grip on his own group. That two members had the courage to follow their conscience is quite astounding, by Tory standards. Let's hope it catches on, that sort of thing. The splits in the Tory group are real, and will tear them apart, eventually. 

And there were other tensions evident: Gabriel Rozenberg, probably the brightest member of the group, or at least - yes, steady on, Mrs Angry - along with John Marshall, the only one capable of intellectual thought, was evidently uncomfortable throughout the meeting, hid his face entirely during the gagging item, and was at loggerheads with his own leader over Brexit preparations - Gabriel is fiercely for Remain, whereas Thomas entirely relaxed, not to say brimming with excitement at the prospect of  a No Deal Brexit. 

Tensions too over the preference for tenants' rights (Gabriel Rozenberg) versus landlords' best interests with Brian Gordon, who appeared to ask - and answer - most of the 85 councillor questions, in another sign of how much to the right Barnet Tories are moving. 

Here we were, I reflected, with Cllr Gordon, the one time Nelson Mandela 'tribute act', watched in the public gallery by one of Madiba's closest friends, who had come to give support to those opposing the removal of their civic rights: from the sublime to the ridiculous, in one council meeting. 

Cllr Marshall, on the other hand, who had absented himself from the vote for the repression of residents' rights, had once paid his own tribute to the great man, spoken with moving words, at a special council meeting to commemorate his passing, speaking of his visit to Robben Island, and the tiny cell where Mandela was incarcerated for so long.

Tory councillor Brian Gordon's 'tribute' to Nelson Mandela

The message is clear: goodbye to the paternalistic, laissez faire Conservatism of Richard Cornelius; to the hope of some sort of coherent political leadership guided by intellect, or vision, or even compassion - hello to the world of Trump and Johnson and empty rhetoric; the denial of truth, the repression of free speech, the betrayal of heritage, and history, a panto season of clowns, fools, and slapstick politics.

Why does it matter so much to our Tory members to silence the voice of their own residents? 

Because it reflects the brutish nature of their political regime: and for a party that so much enjoys the act of bondage to a contractual partner, for up to fifteen years, it is a natural step to take, to throw in the added thrill of gagging. 

Outside the chamber of horrors of Hendon Town Hall, however, there are ways and means of seeking address for those who abuse the rights and privileges of the people they are meant to represent. 

The fight continues.

Residents may have lost access to the process of democracy, but there are still ways of holding these eejits to account, and we will not stop reporting, at every point, the truth, and exposing the nasty little secrets of this shabbiest of backwater council administrations.

Watch this space.