Friday 29 March 2013

"Judge a man by his questions" not in Barnet

Last night's Constitution, Ethics & Probity Committee was a case study in chaos. From the very start the meeting was on a collision course for disaster. The redoubtable Barbara Jacobson had submitted a series of questions about the prohibition of questions at Overview & Scrutiny Committee (OSC) meetings. With responses tabled at the meeting she was then asked to submit her one supplementary question. Barbara seemed surprised. But the rules say we get a supplementary for each question. Ah, not tonight Barbara. The thought police have a new chief and her interpretation was just one supplementary. It was a classic case of light the blue touch paper! Cllrs looked deeply uneasy as residents in the public gallery shouted out their condemnation. Cllr Melvin Cohen who was supposed to be chairing the meeting seemed to lose control with everyone trying to speak at once. Eventually, after trying to justify the unjustifiable, the council backed down and Barbara asked her supplementary questions. Did she get an answer - not likely! Tirza Waisel also tried to ask her supplementary questions but again no answers.

We then moved on to speeches. I was up first. I set out my concerns and why I thought this knee jerk response could have knock-on consequences. I have included my speech below for those who might be interested. I was then questioned by Labour and Lib Dem Councillors (Tory Cllrs were mute at this stage). I made the point that having analysed the last 32 OSC meetings, public questions were asked at only 8 of those meetings - so 75% of meetings are question free. I also made the point that the questions that were asked focused on three main topics, Friern Barnet Library, Pinkham Way waste site and the NSCSO contract, three issues which are both controversial and deeply unpopular and also which have been banned from discussion at residents forums. I suggested that residents could either be viewed as a resource, the 12th man on the OSC team, or as an adversary, the Council clearly viewing us as the latter. I suggested that if the council closes one channel for residents to ask questions they will simply find another channel. The unintended consequence of stopping residents asking questions at residents forums has stimulated more questions at OSC meetings. Stopping them at OSC meetings will  simply mean they pop up at other meetings but with residents even more frustrated.

Julian Silverman then gave his speech and Daniel Hope, who had requested to speak, did not attend.

Cllr Richard Cornelius asked what all the fuss was as the scrutiny committees were going to be abolished in a year's time. Exactly Richard, why tamper with the constitution if things are going to change in 2014, just leave the rules as they are now.

It was apparent that the Council thought these amendments would simply be nodded through and as such Cllr Melvin Cohen had made arrangements to go off to another engagement. "Can we deal with these amendments in 10 minutes?" No, so the meeting was adjourned and another meeting will be held on 10 April to allow further consideration.

Barnet have consistently underestimated the value residents place on the ability to challenge and question the council and yet again last night they showed just how out of touch they are with public opinion. the Council need to think long and hard about the consequences if they introduce these amendments. I hope common sense prevails.

Speech to Constitution Committee

"The amendments proposed tonight will reduce democracy in Barnet. I will start with amendments to article 3. 

You have amended 3.01d from public participation to public engagement, a subtle shift which appears to show the council’s true motives, a rejection of public participation. The rest of the paragraph appears to contradict proposed changes you are making elsewhere in the constitution. It states that:
Citizens have the right to ask questions and make comments at committee meetings, make representations at Residents’ Forums and contribute to investigations initiated by Overview and Scrutiny Committees (such as Panels or Task and Finish Groups). 

However, other amendment you are seeking to introduce tonight will stop residents asking questions at Overview & Scrutiny  Committee meetings and make it even more difficult to ask questions at residents forums. 

At article 10, residents forums, you are seeking to move the deadline for asking question back from 6pm the day before the forum to 10am two working days before the forum. Until two years ago, when you imposed restrictions of residents forums, residents could ask questions on the evening. This was especially useful for 1 in 5 who do not have access to the internet.  You have made no attempt to identify if the changes you made 2 years ago have been successful yet you seek to impose even more restrictive practices without consultation. 

Moving onto article 6, clause 6.03 sets out the specific functions of overview and scrutiny committees including the requirement “to consider and implement mechanisms to encourage and enhance community participation in policy development”. Indeed, Mr Craig Cooper’s statement at the Judicial Review last week said that one of the roles of overview and scrutiny was “to amplify the voices and concerns of the public”.

Yet as part of these proposals you are seeking to stop members of the public asking questions on call ins and pre decision scrutiny. 

That’s not amplifying the voices of the public that’s gagging the public. Many of the call ins are delegated powers reports which will never be subjected to public questioning without call ins. As for ruling out pre decision scrutiny questions that may be a resident’s only opportunity. That is because clause 5.1 of the public participation rules specific excludes the public asking questions “On any matter which has been the subject of a decision of any committee in the previous six months” and that rule was used to prevent me asking question on a post decision scrutiny review in December 2010. On that occasion it was only thanks to the common sense and discretion of Cllr Rayner who agreed to suspend public participation rules that enabled me to ask my questions.
So there you have it. You want to stop us asking questions on pre decisions and call ins and rules already prevent residents from asking questions on post decisions so that means no public questions at scrutiny full stop.

These latest proposals send one very clear signal and that is you want to eliminate public participation in Barnet. Two years ago you ignored the views of the public and pushed ahead with the draconian restrictions to the residents forums. They are now in their death throes and you want to kill them off permanently. With no outlet to question the council in residents forums this led to more public questions  at Overview and Scrutiny. So your response is to kill off participation in those meetings too. Perhaps that in turn will lead to far more FOI requests. 

In summary these amendments seem to be an incredibly ill timed response considering the events that took place in the Royal Courts of Justice last week. Legal challenge increasingly looks like the only way residents can get their questions answered in Barnet. Please think very carefully before agreeing to these amendments as in time they may prove to be disruptive and a very costly error of judgement."

Friday 22 March 2013

Barnet to Become a Democracy Free Zone

Yet more proposed changes to the constitution will be discussed at the Constitution Ethic & Probity Committee next Thursday. One  proposed addition tucked away in the Public Participation amendments particularly catches my eye:

"Public questions are not permitted at Overview and Scrutiny Committees when they are considering call-ins or undertaking pre-decision scrutiny of executive decisions"

Now just to be clear this new rule would have prevented any questioning on the NSCSO contract at the Business Overview & Scrutiny Committee Meeting on 29 November - a topic on which 63 public questions were submitted. Every single one of those 63 questions would be ruled invalid under the new rules. 

In those few words this amendment will render the majority of business discussed at Overview & Scrutiny committees exempt from public questioning and that is frankly an affront to democracy.

I suggest that if they wish to pursue this proposal they might as well put a barbed wire fence around Hendon Town Hall and stick up a sign saying residents KEEP OUT.

"Nothing About Us Without Us" - Why Barnet ended up at Judicial Review

On Tuesday and Thursday this week I have been at the Royal Courts of Justice listening in to the Judicial Review Hearing. There has been much written about the case and I would urge readers to visit Mrs Angry's blog for one of the most comprehensive and entertaining reads around. (For what it's worth I believe that Mrs Angry is one of the most talented writers in the UK and deserves much greater recognition of her talents).

The quote "Nothing about us without us" came from Maria Nash and it runs to the very heart of the problems in Barnet. The court hearing has revealed  that the Council have assumed that they know best and that residents are incapable of understanding the issues involved. The Council have made oblique references to what 'One Barnet Transformation Programme' was about and left it to residents to join up the dots. Barnet seem terrified of consultation in case residents say something the Council don't like. In summary it appears that the Council will do what they want irrespective of what residents think or want and worry about the consequences afterwards. 

Over the three days of the hearing not one single Conservative councillor has shown up to see how the case is going or to understand some of the reasons why this dispute has made it all the way to Judicial Review. Perhaps they were worried about the public opprobrium, perhaps they didn't understand the issues, or perhaps they simply didn't give a s**t. Whatever the answer, their absence speaks volumes about their disengagement from residents on such important matters. Maria's words clearly show that Barnet's stance is simply untenable.

Irrespective of what the judge rules, it is clear to me that the Council will struggle to recover from this case. They have demonstrated a contempt and disrespect for residents which at times was breathtaking. They have shown that there is a complete (and justified) lack of trust for the Council and that will continue with the current regime in place.  Without a regime change and a complete revolution on openness and true consultation, I suspect that that the Council will face many more Judicial Review requests and that risks bringing the Council into a state of complete paralysis.


Friday 15 March 2013

2e2 - When Outsourcing Goes Wrong

A Joint Post from the Bloggers of Barnet

Barnet Council have been having trouble with their IT infrastructure for some time. Back in 2011 an internal report identified that the Council was having difficulties with their IT Infrastructure Supplier, 2e2. The report stated that:
2e2 contract was put in place to transfer the operational management and risk of core infrastructure to a private provider. 2e2 no longer feel responsible for this and have passed all risks back to the council, on the basis that all equipment has reached EOL (End Of Life)”.

The report identified that a key risk was that,  “2e2 will pass all risk back onto the council and not deliver to their contractual arrangements” and that to mitigate that risk the council should, “Improve the relationship with 2e2 and look into terminating the 2e2 contract early and bringing services and staff, under TUPE, in‐house, if necessary”.
Unfortunately, Barnet ignored its own advice and continued to engage 2e2 at a cost of over £1 million a year, including an annual up-front payment of £400,000. In January 2013 2e2 went into administration and withdrew its services. This leaves Barnet £220,000 out of pocket for the unused up-front fees and scrabbling around to find someone else to run the IT infrastructure, without which the council would struggle to function.

To get themselves out of a hole quickly, Barnet Council have appointed Capita, without any form of tender, on the basis that it was an emergency and they had already had discussions with Capita to take over the running of this service. This new contract will cost £72,595 per month. 

The Council states that they did undertake a risk analysis of 2e2 in January “using Experian reports” and that “the report stated the company was satisfactory”. However a quick check on the internet would have shown that suppliers have not been able to get credit insurance on goods supplied to 2e2 for some time and that 2e2 were handed a number of County Court Judgements in 2012.

If Barnet had simply followed its own risk register advice back in 2011 and brought the service back in house, we would not be in this position. It also shows the massive risk that comes with outsourcing key services and that even large companies can go bust. 

Barnet need to stop taking risks with our services and abandon One Barnet now. 


Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Money saving option - Barnet's 575 Blackberries

Reading through the council's disclosure log I was interested to find that the Council has issued 575 Blackberry mobile phones to council staff at a cost of £70 each. All Directors and Assistant Directors get one. Each one will be on a contract adding further to the costs. Now I can understand why some people, who are not office based, would need a Blackberry but for the majority of office staff this just seems an unnecessary expense especially as so many of the same people will also have expense tablet computers (£1,600 including all the peripherals). In 2011/12 Barnet spent £43,142.75 with Orange, O2 and Vodafone and a further £24,022.88 with Daisy Telecoms, a business communications provider. Interestingly each department appears to use a different telephone provider. Children's service appear to use Vodafone, Chief executives department use Orange, Environment and operations use O2 and the Commercial directorate use Daisy Telecoms.

With many organisations pushing ahead with BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) strategies, perhaps someone needs to take a look at this whole area as a way to save costs.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Barnet appoints Capita as IT infrastructure provider

Barnet's IT infrastructure provider, 2e2, went into administration in February owing Barnet £220,000 which I blogged about here. Today the Council published a Delegated Powers Report showing that they have appointed Capita as an interim provider on the basis that they have already bid for this service as part of the NSCSO contract and so they might as well give it to them, even though the main decision is still subject to Judicial Review. I have no issue with the fact that they had to appoint someone very quickly as 2e2 were going to leave us in the lurch but did it have to go to Capita and how easily can the decision be unwound if the Judicial Review is successful?

I suppose the other question I would be asking is why did the Cabinet Resources Committee agree to reappoint 2e2 just 15 weeks before the company went bust and in so doing cost us £220,000 which we are unlikely to recover from the Administrators. Where was the oversight, where were the credit checks or was it just pushed through on the nod because everyone was focused on implementing One Barnet and forgetting about the day to day business of running the Council efficiently.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Alternative Budgets in Barnet

Last night was the council's budget setting meeting. Labour and the Lib Dems  put forward their alternative budgets. Interestingly, Brian Coleman, as an independent councillor now has the freedom to submit his own alternative budget. He proposed sacking the Chief Executive and scrapping the Barnet First Magazine saving £333,000 per annum which Brian will give back to residents in the form of a £2.66 PER ANNUM cut in council tax - that's 5p a week. He also proposed to INCREASING PARKING CHARGES by 3% with the extra income invested in road repairs. Interestingly, he made a strong argument why the charges should go up which was that if you freeze them this year then after the election you have to push them up dramatically. Well Cllr Coleman, how come you believe that to be true for parking yet you refuse to accept it for the council tax because that is exactly what will happen after the next election - council tax will rise dramatically to make up for the shortfall created by five years of freezes.

Lib Dems and Labour both proposed cutting the number of people in the cabinet  which will save between £52k and £87k per annum. Perhaps they should consider larger cuts to the number of councillors from 63 to 42. That would save over £200k per annum. Overall I found the alternatives disappointing. Very little has been done to address the massive cuts in children's services, the closure of day centres and nothing to address the increasing cost of adult social care as set out in the infamous 'Graph of Doom/Choices'.

Cllr Harper, made the point that the opposition must be in favour of the budget when tested at the Budget & Performance Scrutiny Committee. He talked about the "anodyne and ineffectual questioning by the opposition." sadly I suspect he is right. Currently in Barnet, the strongest opposition is coming from the community in the form of BAPS, bloggers and a few well informed residents none of whom receive a five figure allowance from the council.

Personally I think the budget needs a root and branch review. We need to go through a series of zero based budgeting exercises challenging how money is being spent and how money is being levied by external bodies. £15 million to fund Freedom Passes represents 9.6% of the money raised by Council tax and it is just taken without any challenge. £5.8 million has been paid to just one firm of consultants and according to the suppliers payments for 2011/12 the council spent £13.5 million on consulting fees. The Council also spent £7.7 million on agency and interim staff. They spent £1.4 million on grounds maintenance even though the council has its own green spaces team to manage parks and open spaces. £1.46 million is spent on transport hire charges - are we sure we are getting value for money, something I queried last year. We are spending £1.5 million on gas and electricity and £680,000 on telephones; are there any savings that could be made here?

That is £47 million of spending that seems to go through on the nod without detailed scrutiny and maybe somewhere where we can start to make some real savings. These are the sorts of topics that should be being voiced but never get discussed at the budget meetings and are not allowed to be discussed in residents forums.

Monday 4 March 2013

One Barnet Flagship Project Needs £1m Bailout

Barnet Cabinet members have repeatedly said that the outsourcing mistakes of the past will not be repeated. "We have a team of experts" they say "we are getting professional advice". Well Friday saw the public airing of a problem that has been rumbling for some time. It has become clear that Your Choice, the Local Authority Trading Company (LATC) providing Adult Social Care is in deep financial difficulties. I blogged about this back in November when board papers revealed that the forecast surplus of £263,000 for the year 2013/14 was now being forecast as a loss of £700,000.

On Friday a consultation document was issued which made it clear the financial situation is difficult.
Your Choice Barnet are currently projecting a loss for 2012-13 of approximately £60,000. This amount would have been higher but as illustrated at 3.4 below some efficiency savings have been achieved. There is also currently a query from the Council in respect of £345k that has been paid in respect of growth and the projected loss does not take account of any monies that might need to be repaid. If no changes are made with regard to efficiencies, the change from a block contract to payment-by-actual would create a gap of approximately £1m.

It goes on to says: "Barnet Homes has agreed to provide a 3 year loan to Your Choice Barnet. This loan has been agreed by the Barnet Homes Board and is subject to commercial interest rates. It will be repayable by lump sum payments at the end of each year of the term of the loan".

As a consequence of these financial difficulties Your Choice are proposing to implement a series of measure which include: 
  • Review the structure which will result in 6.8 posts being deleted and the introduction of a new management structure
  • Deletion of enhanced payments and introduction of a 7 day week
  • Benchmarking of salaries with similar organisations and the introduction of a new salary structure in line with the findings of the benchmarking exercise
They are cutting 3 part time night staff from a residential respite care unit, they are downgrading 17 support worker staff to assistant support workers, (meaning a cut in pay) and enhancements for working nights, weekends and public holidays will be scrapped. Instead of having two staff on duty at night it will be reduced to one and as they so delicately put it:
 "For continence issues, those who require changing in the night do not require the use of hoists as they are already in bed".  
On this subject I can speak from personal experience. In the last few days before my mum died she was bed bound and had 'continence issues'. The care home had put her in nappies but she became very distressed. She had always been a most fastidious person and the thought of going in a nappy was a ghastly thought for her. She asked for a bedpan. Because we had chosen a care home where they were not under pressure to be "competitive", they did as she asked. It took two staff to help her but that simple act allowed her to settle down and helped her maintain her dignity to the end. Often organisations talk about 'business units' and 'resources' but these are people, someone's flesh and blood, someone's mother, father, brother or sister and they deserve the very best.

What these cuts means in practice is that staff who are not well paid now will be paid even less in the future so as to remain "competitive" and win new "business".  When staff are caring for the most vulnerable, personally, I do not necessarily want them to be competitive in terms of price nor do I think of caring for vulnerable people as 'business". I want them to be the best possible person for the job, because they are dealing with our nearest and dearest, our family members, our neighbours, who need the best possible attention.

Back in 2011 a business case was prepared for this One Barnet Project and was presented to the Cabinet Resources Committee - you can read the business case here. This document was prepared by the Council's One Barnet Implementation Partner (Agilisys/iMPOWER) who have so far been paid £5.8 million.

The business case was optimistic and incomplete. Unison put forward a clear and detailed critique of the business case identifying its shortcoming but, as ever, this was simply ignored. Sadly Unison were right and the business case has now been proved to be flawed. Some staff will lose their jobs, some will get even lower pay and the most vulnerable will see the quality of their care reduced. That is unacceptable.

Perhaps Richard Cornelius, Dan Thomas and the other cabinet members will now see why so many people are concerned at the validity of the entire One Barnet Outsourcing project given that the business case was prepared by exactly the same team of consultants who prepared this flawed model. But most of all think about the users who will suffer those moment of indignity and lack of care, all for the sake of competitiveness. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Friday 1 March 2013

Barnet's Council Tax Freeze - Short Term Expediency or Long Term Disaster?

Yesterday it was announced on the BBC that 40% of Councils surveyed are increasing their council tax even though they are being offered incentives from central government to freeze tax. Barnet have announced that they will freeze council tax for a further TWO years until 2015. This will mean that by the end of the period, Barnet's council tax will have been frozen for five consecutive years. This may look like a good deal for council tax payers but it really isn't that simple.

Set out below is a graph which shows the impact of a five year freeze will have over the next ten years.

Each year the Council freezes tax, we fall further behind the amount we need to collect to keep services running. Councillors say, we have to make savings but there are lots of areas where we simply cannot make savings. For example energy costs - last year the council spent over £1.5 million on gas and electricity and that is a cost that will continue to rise over the next ten years. Another example is the cost of Freedom Passes. Although free to users, Barnet Council is billed for the cost of the passes by TFL. Because Boris put up fares in January, the cost of Freedom Passes rises accordingly and this year that means Barnet have to find an additional £326,000. This brings the total that Barnet pays for Freedom Passes to over £15 million a year or 9.6% of the amount raised by council tax. Every year there is a freeze and Boris puts up fares, the funding gap grows. Many of the contracts Barnet have entered into include inflation clauses, so the costs automatically increase each year.

One of the biggest areas of potential cost increase is that of adult social care. Remember that Barnet have been trumpeting their "Graph of Doom" ( a horribly offensive title - I prefer to call it the "Graph of Choices") far and wide claiming that we will not be able to fund any other services because of these costs yet they make no provision for this when setting a council tax freeze.

The other side to the equation is that Barnet are putting up charges for services, in some cases, by well above inflation. For example, next year the charge for painting a white line for a vehicle cross over goes up by 12%, replacement green wheely bin 60%, removal of 1 non electrical item of furniture or rubbish 170%. At a more basic level, the cost of going for a swim or having a game of table tennis or badminton all go up by 5%.

One of the key reasons why 40% of council have opted for an increase in council tax is the government are only funding the shortfall for one or two years. However, you never catch up for those years of freezes. If you add up the difference between the council tax collected with a five year freeze and council tax increasing at 2% per annum, the difference over the period shown is a colossal £132 million. Even if you add back the central government support, it still shows a shortfall of over £120 million and that means services will have to be cut.

The Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) has also carried out a survey and their findings show that over 80% of councils want the freedom to increase tax including many Conservative Councils.

So what does a 2% increase mean for Barnet residents? For a Band D dwelling it means an additional £22.26 per annum or 43 pence a week. From my perspective, an additional 43p a week to maintain essential services for vulnerable adults, children and the least advantaged in our society seems reasonable to me. In fact every resident has already being paying a similar surcharge for the last 7 years to fund the Olympics - Ken Livingstone's famous 'Walnut Whip' and that went virtually unnoticed.
I suspect that after the next election we will suddenly find that there is a massive shortfall in finances and council tax will have to rise significantly above inflation so in many ways we are simply deferring the increases till a later time. I just wish Councillors would sit down and discuss these strategies with residents before they embark on these entirely politically motivated and unsustainable campaigns. Surely any rational person would be taking modest inflationary increases now and if they are not required immediately then put them into reserves. In three to five year's time, when we may have a different economic outlook, adjustments can be made but freezing tax now simply limits our options in the future.

Agreeing a council tax freeze at a time of such financial uncertainty, and with such pressure on essential services, seems to me nothing short of reckless.