Sunday 22 June 2014

How Accessible is Your Barnet Councillor?

Yesterday I saw a tweet from Phil Fletcher which I found utterly disheartening.
It was particularly galling as I had been at the Chipping Barnet  Residents forum earlier this week when Phil was trying to ask some perfectly reasonable questions and to which Cllr Lisa Rutter kept chanting the mantra "go and ask your councillor". Subsequently Cllr Longstaff replied that they had moved the surgery to the Conservative Party Headquarters at 163 Barnet High Street a year ago. It is just a shame that no one bothered to change the details on the council website which still shows surgeries are held at Chipping Barnet Library where Phil had attended.

Being the sort of person that I am, I thought I would look into this a bit further and look at the surgery details of all councillors. A few of the new councillors have yet to set out their surgery details but my analysis did reveal something else quite interesting and that is the amount of time councillors devote to surgeries. Set out below is a graph showing the number of minutes each month (assuming 4 week months) councillors host their surgeries.
One thing jumps off the page at you and that is minimal time Conservative councillors devote to surgeries (with the exception of Mill Hill Cllrs). The general trend is that Labour councillors allocate 90 minutes every week whereas Conservatives allocate either 60 or 90 minutes once a month. Some councillors may claim that they are always available but the whole point of surgeries is that councillors make themselves easily accessible.

It is all very well Lisa Rutter saying going and speak to your councillor but not all Conservative councillors are as conscientious as her (she holds a one hour weekly surgery). If your councillor is only available between 6pm and 7pm on the 4th Monday of each month (Garden Suburb)  or 6pm to 7pm at Hendon Town Hall on the first Monday of the month, but none at all in October (Hendon) there is a pretty good chance you will miss the opportunity to visit them.

Some Conservative councillors may say that there is no need/demand for more surgery time but if you make it difficult for people to visit their councillor and don't keep your contact details up to date, it is not surprising that residents do not attend. At a time when the council is talking about the importance of resident engagement to take up service that the council will no longer provide, I would have thought that the starting point for that engagement would have been councillor surgeries.

By the way, Councillor Brian Gordon's details should be updated as they are still showing his surgery for the old Hale Ward from where he jumped ship, not the Edgware ward where he is now councillor.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Chaos at Chipping Barnet Residents Forum

Last night's Chipping Barnet Residents Forum started badly and only got worse. The "Chairman" was Lisa Rutter who, I think, took entirely the wrong tone and as a result steered the meeting into a rigid and inflexible format that left many residents completely disengaged.

We started with a presentation on the new Area Forums and the £100,000 budget they will be allocated. Sounds good? Yes except that although residents can come up with ideas, they will then be reviewed by officers and councillors to see if they are "viable". Give it with one hand take it away with the other. The framework is not clear in what they want to achieve other than it has to be a capital project and cannot require on-going funding. Another council officer gave a breakdown of the population profile in the constituency - how that is meant to help decide what sort of projects will be chosen is unclear. On one of the slides was a reference to timebanks and when someone asked what they were, the officer said they didn't know and asked the audience. Luckily Green candidate, Poppy, was able to explain.

Then onto the main part of the meeting. We started with a petition from residents on Pollard Road. The person who brought the petition was told immediately that the petition was being referred to the Environment Sub Committee and did he have anything else to add? He looked a bit flabbergasted and said that he had expected to talk about the issues. Again Lisa Rutter told him he had 3 minutes to speak (not an official time limit as there is no such rule for residents forums). I should have mentioned that there was a large contingent of residents from Pollard Road and you could sense their frustration. The petitioner started asking questions of the chair who batted them straight back by saying they could discuss then at the Environment Sub Committee. Lisa Rutter then suggested that all the residents would be able to raise these points at the sub committee which is untrue, that is not how the subcommittees work. I told several of the residents that this was untrue and that if they wanted to speak they should do so now. When one of the residents then asked again if they could discuss the issue at the sub committee they were told that no they couldn't. Oh dear, not a smart move and a large number of dissatisfied residents.

At this stage the former chair of the residents forum, Kate Salinger - who I always found to be fair in the way she chaired forums - suggested that all the residents move to a room across the hall to discuss their concerns with Brian Salinger, Councillor for the ward, and who could then reflect their views more accurately at the Sub Committee. A smart move and one which seemed to take some of the heat out of the situation.

There were a number of similar tussles throughout the meeting where sensible suggestions from residents seemed to be met by refusal or complex solutions by the council. Parking on Friern Barnet Lane, parking on Sellwood Drive both problems that could be resolved with some common sense but Lisa Rutter's continual chanting of the mantra you should be speaking to your local councillors about these issues just seemed to anger the audience even more. The issue with Sellwood Drive revealed the level of friction between the new labour councillors for Underhill Ward and the ruling group. Residents were told that there is a list of road across the Borough where councillors have agreed that parking on the pavement will not be ticketed. However since the election residents in Sellwood Drive have been ticketed, albeit with warning notices. The three new councillors had not been consulted on the change in ticketing policy nor had they been c=given the list and this seemed to anger Cllr Paul Edwards.

Eventually the meeting ran out of time with a number of questions including three from Mr Reasonable left unanswered. I must note that I was originally told (as were a number of other residents) that my questions were not admissible as questions had to relate to "local" matters, a term entirely undefined in the constitution. A robust response from me and suddenly they weren't inadmissible but better dealt with by other committees or by our local councillors! so what's the point of forums then.

I think you could sum up the evening as shambolic with many residents who had not been to a forum before left feeling entirely frustrated at the restrictive and unhelpful attitude and council procedures. Lisa Rutter successfully managed to reduce what should be a channel to access residents views, to listen to their concerns and to find collaborative ways to work together, into a heated confrontational battlefield where standpoints were simply hardened.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Chaos in Barnet - Did outsourcing legal services lead to this mess?

At the start of last night's Assets Regeneration and Growth Committee Andrew Travers, the Barnet CEO, announced that, based on legal advice, all decisions made by committees since the election are not legal.  This is because there is a dispute as to the proportionality of committees. Although Richard Cornelius strenuously denied this was a Conservative ploy one has to wonder who else would have raised this challenge. Geof Cooke asked whether legal advice had been taken before the council meeting and if not why not. Barnet outsourced its legal services to London Borough of Harrow a couple of years ago and one has to wonder if this was the best of decisions given that we now face another four weeks on inactivity before the next full council meeting can resolve the issue. I hope that a full investigation is undertaken to make sure the person or organisation responsible for the duff advice get held to account. It cannot be allowed to pass without holding someone to account.

Friday 13 June 2014

Supplier payments and the missing £8.4 million - good job they have armchair auditors in Barnet

On 27th May Barnet Council published their supplier payments for April, a few days before the deadline. Now you have to know your way around the Council website to find these payments but I always schedule in time at the end of every month to review them. Initially I was a bit wary as the file size was enormous 56MB when it is typically around 100 KB. Downloading the file caused my computer to go into a flat spin but eventually I opened the file only to find a rather modest £22.489 million of payments significantly less than I would have expected.

I immediately emailed the council on the 27th May to ask them what the problem was, why was the file size so immense and where were the missing payments.

On 30 May this was the response I received.

Thanks for the query – I’ve set out the explanation below.

The guidance from the DCLG advises that we should be disclosing payments made by the authority during the period greater than £500. Up until March 2014 the Council had been disclosing all payments and their various posting details (directorate, service area etc.) where the payment was made during the period and the individual posting line was greater than £500. This was slightly different in approach to the guidance provided by the DCLG which refers to invoices over £500 rather than ledger postings over £500.

For example, in the April 2014 disclosure we have disclosed three invoices paid to Comensura Limited for the net amount of £788,192.47 (£354,22.65, £219,437.08 and £214,442.74). During the period we have only paid three invoices to Comensura Limited, each of which has been coded in the Council’s general ledger accounts over multiple codes. Some of these individuals lines will be less than £500 and some over. Previously the Council hasn’t disclosed the total invoice value paid, however the individual lines within the invoice greater than £500. This isn’t in line with the guidance and explains the variance in the number of lines on the April disclosure, rather than the fact that we have missed some invoices. Those marked with various are therefore where the invoices have been charged to more than general ledger account.
Comensura is probably the most significant example, but there are a number of others, care providers predominantly.

If it would help, I am happy to ask a colleague to send you the general ledger account breakdown for the invoices marked with ‘various’ and we shall look at including this in future periods either within the disclosure or as a separate attachment. At the same time I shall ask for a colleague to see if there is a reason why the file size is so different.

Now it is a good job I am not easily fobbed off because I knew that irrespective of the consolidation of suppliers payments into a few larger invoices there were still a significant number of payments missing so again I immediately emailed back the following:

Thank you for your response. I think you are saying that rather than listing individual entries you are only listing actual invoices paid which may cover a number of entries and that means there are fewer payments listed. I could accept that if there weren’t a large number of companies missing who you typically pay every single month without fail. For example starting at the beginning: Affinity Water are consistently paid every month. In April no payment. Same for Agudas Israel Housing Association Ltd; Anchor Foster Care Services Ltd; Barnet Lighting Services; Baytree Community Care; Blue 9 Security; Brent Couriers; NSL; the list goes on and on. I am sorry but I simply do not believe this suppliers list. The fact that the total payments in April is only £22.5 million when I would typically expect it to be at least £31-32 million (the average for 2013/14 was £39.4 million but it did have all those advance payments to Capita) and in April 2013 was £31.3 million suggests that a large number of invoices have been omitted.

I therefore would ask to look into this again and to send me a full and complete list of payments next time.  I also look forward to understanding why it is such a huge file size.

And then I waited until the 4th June and having found the person dealing with it was now on holiday I chased someone more senior. A couple of days later I got a response acknowledging that there was a problem and that they would let me know when the problem was sorted. That was a week ago. Today I checked again and saw that the file was now showing as being much smaller (only 99KB). However clicking on the link it downloaded the massive old file crashing my computer again. Eventually at 4pm I checked again and this time it downloaded the new file.

So what are the differences? The original file had payments of £22.5 million. The new file has payments with a value of £30.9 million from an additional 514 invoices including all the missing names I had mentioned plus two invoices from Capita Business Services Ltd for a total of £248,203.82

So what you may say? Well the issue is the supplier payments are suppose to help with transparency and are a requirement of central government. If I had simply accepted the payments on the face of it there would be a massive gap of £8.5 million in just one month. Also if I had been prepared to be fobbed off with a supposedly informed response from a senior officer those payments would still be missing. But here is the cruncher - who prepares these figures - Is it CAPITA? I think it is since they took over the finance function last September.

Where were the quality assurance checks, where was the attention to detail and why wasn't it picked up when I first challenged it. It seems to me that the only people holding the council to account are the few engaged citizen who get paid absolutely nothing unlike Capita and the senior officers who get paid a fortune.

I am logging this as yet another Capita contract failure.

Monday 2 June 2014

Barnet Inspection of Accounts in case you missed it - Starts Tomorrow

Notice is hereby given that the accounts of the London Borough of Barnet, in respect of the financial year ended 31 March 2014, will be available for public inspection as set out below:
1. From Tuesday 3rd June 2014 to Monday 30th June 2014, inclusive (between 9.30 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. (weekdays only), any person interested may:
(a) Inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them; and
(b) make copies of all and any part of the accounts and those other documents; for which the council may make a charge for costs incurred. Any person wishing to exercise the rights, set out at (1) above, must make application in writing to the council’s Chief Operating Officer at:
Building 2, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1NP or
2. The council’s External Auditor has appointed the date of Tuesday 1st July 2014, until the completion of the audit, for any local government elector for the area to which the accounts relate, or any representative of his/her, to question the auditor about the accounts and/or to make objections to the auditor as set out below:
(a) any, relevant, local government elector wishing to be provided with an opportunity to question the auditor about the accounts and/or or to object to the accounts, must send notice in writing to:
Paul Hughes, Director, Grant Thornton UK LLP, Grant Thornton House, Melton Street, London, NW1 2EP or
(b) any notice of proposed objection(s) must set out, clearly, the grounds on which the objection is made. A copy of the notice to the auditor, dealing with proposed objection(s) must be sent, at the same time, to the council’s Chief Operating Officer:
Chris Naylor, Chief Operating Officer
Building 2, North London Business Park, Oakleigh
Road South, London N11 1NP
Email for notices:

Your Choice Barnet - Driving low paid staff into poverty.

I received notice today that there has been a strike ballot by Your Choice Barnet care staff. Your Choice Barnet (YCB) is part of the Barnet Group, a 100% owned trading arm of Barnet Council. The Council decided it would be a good idea to outsource adult social care. As a result they handed responsibility for the service over to the Barnet Homes who already run the Council's social housing. We were told how the new company was going to save council tax payers a fortune by getting lots of other authorities and other social care providers. Surprise surprise it didn't happen and now YCB are in a financial mess having had to borrow £1 million to get then through the cash shortfall when the new business didn't materialise. Rather than stand back and see that this was a flawed strategy they decided to cut wages, not of the most senior staff but of the front line care staff whose numbers have already been cut. So more work and a 9.5% pay cut has led to a strike ballot. many people are anti union claiming they are unrepresentative. Well in this case the strike ballot was 100% in favour of strike action something which is exceptionally rare and which indicate the depth of feeling amongst staff.

We all know someone who is elderly; a relative, a friend, a neighbour. We expect them to receive decent care from staff who are trained and are consistent. Unsurprisingly the pay cut and more hours has led to a number of staff leaving, replaced by agency staff who may only do the job for a few weeks before they move on elsewhere. This is a desperate situation and entirely of the Council's making. Some services cannot be privatised as they are both uneconomic to a profit driven organisation and critical to the welfare of vulnerable individuals. Driving low paid staff into poverty is not the solution

Barnet Council need to do the right thing and quickly. They need to bring the service back in house and run it properly, treating staff fairly and ensuring the vulnerable get a consistently good quality service. That is the only way this situation will be resolved satisfactorily.