Friday, 18 July 2014

A Pardoner's Tale, or: a dispensation of innocence: further shame for Barnet, as Tories vote to hide their own pecuniary interests





It is an honour to everich that is heer 
That ye mowe have a suffisant pardoneer 
T' assoille yow in contree as ye ryde, 
For aventures whiche that may bityde. 




It was always going to be an eventful evening.

And the extent to which the council was aware of this possibility was marked, as Mrs Angry observed, by the preparations made for the potential trouble that might ensue. Police at the Town Hall, overly heavy security inside, and an emergency committee room set up as an alternative venue, should any protest disrupt the meeting, and chase our quivering councillors into flight, down the corridor, away from their electors.

This was the second full council meeting of the new administration, with a new Mayor, Hugh Rayner, whose inauguration had been marked by a less than respectful response by the public and by a Labour opposition outraged by the now notorious 'indecent proposal' made by the Tory leader in a desperate attempt to protect his party's perilous control of the council. 

The Cornelius proposal, whispered into the ear of the staunchly virtuous Labour leader Alison Moore, was that there should be a sort of twinning arrangement, parliamentary style, so that any Tory councillors on holiday, out to dinner, or wanting to stay at home washing their hair, could be excused attendance at meetings, without fear of causing the loss of a majority, and any crucial vote.

The Labour leader slapped Cllr Cornelius's hand, and told him to get lost. This rejection had consequences, however: the Tories punished Labour for this refisal to play their game by a petty sequence of measures, including the withdrawal of some expenses for opposition spokespersons, and most notably deciding to change the time of the September meeting to a date deliberately coinciding with the week of the Labour conference, and in fact on the very day of Ed Miliband's speech.

Short of travelling to and from Barnet - and abandoning poor Mrs Angry to the temptations of Manchester, unchaperoned, which would be unwise - this means there would be very few Labour councillors able to attend this meeting, which is of course their intention. 

Such a tactic was pretty pathetic, and completely without precedent, as by convention meetings are never arranged for the week of any party conference.

All of this disagreeable, petty behaviour by the Tories, together with the mayhem caused by the complete shambles of the new and apparently unconstitutional committee system, created a tumultuous response in the council chamber and the public gallery, and Rayner lost his temper, demanding repeatedly that respect be shown, if not to him, to the office of Mayor. Ah.

Within days of this plea, the Mayor himself had managed to bring his office into a state of no little disrepute by the emergence of allegations connected to his business dealings as a landlord, and reported claims that he had failed to make the necessary declarations of interest at meetings in which housing issues were discussed. The outcry which ensued saw calls for the Mayor to step down, and an outpouring of criticism over his apparent activities and failings in regard to his declarations. 

Assembly Member Andrew Dismore made a formal complaint to the Monitoring Officer, followed by a further submission with more evidence. We await the outcome with some unease: why is it, many are asking, that even though the allegations concern what is now a potentially criminal offence, ie the reported non declaration of a pecuniary interest, no referral has yet been made to the police?

When earlier this year, coincidentally just before the elections began, it was made known that a Labour councillor had been referred to the police for what eventually was proven to be a false allegation of 'taxdodging', there was clearly no hesitation in taking such an action, or announcing the development. 

Here we have a much more serious matter, brought to the attention of the Monitoring Officer, Maryellen Salter, more than a month ago, yet apparently no referral has been made. There is even talk of the matter being presented to the group leaders' panel, a toothless body with no power to apply any sanctions, let alone deal with an issue of potential legal consequence.

Ms Salter is a busy woman at the moment: not only is there an investigation into the Mayor, there is another one focused on the very interesting issue of the disproportionate Highways expenditure, overseen by the Mayor's colleague Dean Cohen, who gave a million pounds to his own ward in the run up to the election, while Labour held wards received comparatively paltry amounts of funding, and Colindale nothing at all. The Labour group - eventually - followed up Mrs Angry's coverage of this scandalous state of affairs, and submitted a complaint, and here again we must ask - in view of the case that there may have been unlawful expenditure, will this matter be referred to the police?

Because clearly the police do take a close interest in Barnet issues. In the last week alone, Mrs Angry has observed a police ISP reading this post, about an attempt to lobby Hendon MP Matthew Offord:

http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/whose-west-hendon-our-west-hendon-mp.html  

And yesterday the Met was back again, reading up about Rayner, just before the meeting, or rather just before the protest which was due to take place outside the Town Hall, before the meeting began. 

 http://wwwbrokenbarnet.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/hugh-rayner-mayors-nightmare-continues.html 

And protest is the word that links these two visits from the boys in blue, of course: our elected representatives may disport themselves in any way they think fit, but any expression of dissent by any residents will be likely to be under scrutiny.

Allegations of unlawful behaviour by elected representatives are not automatically the subject of investigation or scrutiny by the police, therefore, but lawful demonstrations by ordinary residents, expressing their democratic right to protest most certainly will be. Funny old world, isn't it?

And so back to the meeting, and the protest at the Town Hall, which moved inside - after the Mayor had slipped round the back rather than face them, leaving his wife and chaplain to leave the limo on their own - and up the stairs to the public gallery, closely followed by security staff. 


 The People's Mayor, Mr Shepherd, enters the public gallery

The Mayor entered the chamber. Mrs Angry noted with amusement that he had dispensed, for this occasion at least, with the pomp if not the pomposity that he had bragged about in his inaugural address: please take note, Daily Mail, because obviously a man's outfit, even in Broken Barnet, tells you all you need to know about their suitability for political office.

But - no velvet gown or frou-froued blouse, this time, and no fox furs: a sober black suit, suitably penitent for a man in his position, with only the Mayoral bling to accessorise his outfit. Perhaps a pair of cheery socks, or a raffish handkerchief well placed, in top pocket, would have lightened the effect. Something to think about, Mr Mayor, for next meeting. Oh. If there is one, of course.

As he entered, visibly flinching at the prospect of what might be to follow, members of the public in the gallery remained seated (as Mrs Angry always does) and held a silent protest, with a dignity sadly lacking from the other side of the glass wall that divides our elected representatives from the great unwashed they speak for. They held up posters allusing to rogue landlords, and to the fact that 86% of residents in a poll in the local press thought Rayner should resign.



At this point Mrs Angry noted a cameraman filming the protest: not one of the regulars who dutifully record our meetings. When asked who he was, he claimed he was from Al Jazeera English. 

Bearing in mind the rather more significant, not to say abominable conflicts around the world, in Gaza and elsewhere, it seemed hard to believe they would be interested in the continuing saga of unrest here in Broken Barnet, but then ... it is an uprising, of sorts. 

And apparently what is happening in West Hendon, some of whose campaigners were present last night, is of interest to this channel: and so it should - the social cleansing of vast swathes of outer London is a war that needs reporting, and an injustice that needs a resolution.


The Mayor looked ill at ease, right from the start. He took his place, and his chaplain, a female pastor gave the usual sort of address that we must endure at these otherwise God forsaken occasions. Mrs Angry tried hard not to listen, as the sight of so many Tory councillors bowing their knavish heads in prayer, just before launching into an agenda of villainous intent and socially divisive policies never fails to send her into a fit of near apoplexy. The general drift of the chaplain's address, it seemed, was to remind us to be obedient to the rule of authority, and our betters, who are charged with our protection on behalf of the Lord. 

Well, f*ck that for a game of soldiers, thought the disobedient Mrs Angry, grabbing her notebook and pen, and preparing to chronicle the evening's performance.

And what a performance it was.

Any declarations of interest, asked the Mayor?

Oh, how we laughed.

Mr Shepherd, who some have suggested should be nominated as the People's Mayor, and what a brilliant idea that is, announced from the back of the public gallery that he had to declare an interest in the NHS, on account of his blood donations. 

Fair enough.

A couple of sad announcements: the death of Cllr John Hart's wife, after a long illness, and also that of Lady Miller, the Tory peer - and mother of former Barnet blogger 'Don't Call me Dave'.

On to constitutional matters - yes, there is a constitution, even in Broken Barnet, although like the scriptures, it is open to a wide range of interpretation, and widely abused by all who practise its commands. 

The high priests of governance had previously allowed the Tory councillors to make a complete cockup of the new committee system, and now had somehow to fix it. 

How they have fixed it is as follows. 

Identifying there is a problem, and taking the legal advice they should have had before they created the new system, and then finding it was unconstitutional, and then taking more legal advice which said although it was unconstitutional, it wasn't, and they could carry on until they changed the system to one which was. 

Got that?

The issue of concern was around the proportionality of the committees. The solution to this, it seems, is to give a majority of one on all committees except where it really matters, ie Policy and Resources, for which they have insisted on having two.

The Labour leader complained, but the Tories couldn't give a shit, of course. 

An argument broke out next about the date of the September meeting.

At the recent question time in Friern Barnet library, Mrs Angry had tackled the Tory leader about the date being moved to the Conference week, and suggested to him that it had been a pretty shabby thing to do. Rather to her surprise, he had had the grace to look ashamed, and nodded, and said that it needed adjustment.

Now here we were, at the meeting where the Tories were doing the opposite, and forcing through the date he had agreed was unfair. He squirmed in his seat, but voted with all his ghastly colleagues to support the motion.

Cornelius' gentlemanly act is the not the real deal, it seems: scratch him and he is like all the rest of the neo Thatcherites sitting in Hendon Town Hall - Brian Coleman in white gloves: just as ruthless, and just as lacking in any sense of fair play, but with slightly better table manners.

This regrettable tendency, so prevalent amongst the Barnet Tories, now reared its monstrous head in the most provocative manner, in the form of something that really, one might have thought was impossible: covering themselves in an even greater level of ignominy than they already displayed.

Try and imagine this.

You are the leader of the Conservative party in Barnet.

Your new Mayor, within weeks of taking office, is under investigation by the Monitoring Officer for alleged misbehaviour in his role as a private landlord, and for reportedly failing to declare a pecuniary interest at meetings in which housing matters have been discussed.

At the very next full council meeting, where there is a well placed motion from the opposition directed at licensing landlords, you persuade the same Monitoring Officer to overrule the requirement for councillors to make declarations of interest in relation to their business activities as, yes - as landlords.

You then sit back and wonder why there is an explosion of incandescent fury in the ranks of residents sitting in the public gallery.

Remember: this is Broken Barnet, and this is the way we do things here. 

Whenever you think our Tory councillors could not act in any way more stupidly than they already have - hello: look, here they come with something new, something guaranteed to make them appear even more questionable, incompetent, and totally without any standard of propriety in public life. 

It's the sort of thing which keeps people like me compelled to look on, in horror, a witness to what has been without a doubt the most awful, prolonged, slow motion dive into abject shame - and beyond. 

In fact, such wilful misdirection of policy is almost a gift: it is the inversion of political instinct - a masterful display of low cunning gone terribly, spectacularly awry.

Yes. Our Tory councillors, facing an item from the opposition on the thorny subject how best to deal with rogue landlords, were faced with a problem. Many of them are themselves  landlords, and therefore had interests which would preclude them from taking part in a vote.  Or should do:  you can never be sure, in Barnet, can you?

In fact, apart from the Mayor, these Tories have interests which would ordinarily prevent them from taking part in a debate on any housing issue: Zinkin, Salinger, Dean and Melvin Cohen, Hart and Davey. 

Labour's Tim Roberts declared his interest, and left the chamber when he felt it appropriate, for which demonstration of transparency he received applause, from his colleagues, and from the public gallery.

But in order to make sure the dreaded fate they fear could not arise, that is to say, the passing of a proposal from opposition councillors that might benefit some of the most vulnerable residents in this borough, victims of unscrupulous landlords, the Tory group resorted to a desperate tactic. 

They told the Monitoring Officer, their latterday Pardoner, to sanction a motion that gave them a dispensation to take part in the vote, without any obligation to make declarations of interest. 

You will probably think that is pretty outrageous by any standard. In a council chamber presided over by a Mayor in trouble for his alleged behaviour as a landlord, and for reportedly failing to declare his interests in relation to his business activities - well - that pretty much surpasses anything they have ever done.

The howling and stamping of feet in the public gallery, and prolonged heckling was on an unprecedented scale, as residents and protestors were genuinely shocked at the extent to which the Tories are prepared to abandon any pretence at integrity, simply in order to win a political point.

But let's look more closely at the report from the Monitoring Officer which apparently has allowed our Tory councillors to avoid any obligation to be transparent and open when taking part in the decision making process of our local authority: is this dispensation even lawful?

  http://barnet.moderngov.co.uk/mgChooseDocPack.aspx?ID=7813


 2.3 Council has not specifically delegated to a Committee or an Officer the
power to grant dispensations to Councillors or co-opted members in
accordance with section 33 of the Localism Act 2011. It has however been
assumed it is for Council to decide on dispensations in the absence of a
specific delegation. A dispensation allows Councillors or co-opted
members to be present, take part in debate and vote on any item in which
they have a Disclosable Pecuniary Interest.

 

Please note the clause which states, my emphasis: it has however been assumed it is for Council to decide on dispensations in the absence of a specific delegation.

And please remember that this is the same council and the same Monitoring Officer, and the same Chief Executive that had assumed the new committee system was properly constituted, but was not - or may have been, we are not sure - and the process by which we arrived at this state of confusion is now, in consequence, the subject of an independent investigation by Claer Lloyd Jones, QC.

Can you really have a dispensation from the need to make declarations of interest, and does it not run counter to every one of the Nolan principles, let alone raise a grave risk of serious harm to the reputation of the authority?

Anyone who has had a Catholic upbringing will be familiar with the concept of dispensations in canon law, the loopholes which the church can use, if it wishes, to give favour to the powerful, similar to the indulgences that were once for sale to those whose behaviour would otherwise be considered a grave sin, and earn them an eternity in hell: a sort of medieval carbon offsetting of wickedness for the wealthy, if you like.

Dispensation, in the context of the elastic constitution of the Tory administration, here in Broken Barnet, would appear to be based on a similar need to expiate the transgressions of those with influence.

The ambiguity over the legal status of this dodgy get out clause makes it pretty clear that there is every reason to present a legal challenge, and one would imagine this is exactly the course of action that will be pursued.

Back to the meeting.

The furore caused by the truly astonishing vote by Tory councillors to give themselves a dispensation from obligation to declare interests ibecame so intense, in fact, that, as must have been predicted, the Mayor felt obliged to announce an adjournment. 

Members poured out of the chamber, and residents from the gallery, and oh: Tory leader Cornelius ventured into the public gallery, in search of one of a small group of brave Tory party organisers who had sat there, one of them a shy young man in mysterious shades, who had run like the clappers earlier in the evening, when the man from Al Jazeera turned the camera on him. Wonder why? 

Probably worrying about the prospects of his future career in Conservative politics, should any footage emerge proving any association with the open sore that is the Tory party in Broken Barnet.

Richard Cornelius, sadly for him, timed his entrance just as Mrs Angry was going through the doors, and therefore set himself up nicely for a prolonged and detailed expression of Mrs Angry's views on his regrettable behaviour.


 No escape for the Tory leader: Mrs Angry - behind the door - tells him off

Mrs Angry remarked that she had thought he was a man of his word, and as he had admitted to her that the stunt his party had played over the conference week meeting was shabby, and needing putting right, he would do so. His face reddened, and he burbled on about it being impossible to find another date. He did not explain why he did not then cancel the meeting entirely. 

And, said Mrs Angry: of all the things that you could do, when you have your own Mayor under investigation for apparently failing to declare his interests, why on earth have you done the one thing guaranteed to make yourselves look even more awful? More importantly, did he really think what they were doing was in line with the Nolan principles in public life? Yes, he said, unconvincingly, he thought it was. 

Really? Let's remind ourselves of those principles, shall we?

  • Selflessness Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.
  • Integrity Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.
  • Objectivity In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.
  • Accountability Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
  • Openness Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it.
  • Honesty Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.
  • Leadership Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

Looks as if they pretty well have broken every one, doesn't it?

What happened next was reminiscent of the bad old days of MetPro, and the rule of force in the Town Hall: Mrs Angry was invited to the Labour room for refreshments by a couple of the councillors, and also wanted to visit the loo. The way was barred by two security guards. Erm, I'm going to the ladies loo, said Mrs Angry. Go downstairs, they said, you're not going down that corridor. 

Yes, I am, said Mrs Angry: I've been invited to the Labour room. Oh really? Which is it, they asked - going to the toilet, or going to the Labour room? How impertinent, she thought. *

Both, as it happens.

No: they barred the way. 

I have been invited by Labour councillors, and if you don't believe me go and ask them, said Mrs Angry, who is in fact now a liaison officer to the group for her branch, and considers herself perfectly entitled to help herself to one of the party's wilting cucumber sandwiches and mini eclairs, should she choose -  And so have I, said another Labour activist. 

They gave in then, and Mrs Angry swept by with matronly disapproval, and soon rewarded their grudging permission, after grabbing said sandwich, by slipping out of the room, hurrying further down the corridor and taking covert photos of Committee Room 3, the operations room set out like Churchill's war time bunker, in preparation for invasion, with tables and chairs carefully labelled with placenames. 


 Emergency Ops Room, Hendon Town Hall

As she peered through the door, it became apparent that an officer was now setting up microphones, ready for an evacuated council meeting. Yes, this is an elected administration, in 2014, at war with its own electors.

Feeling only mildly like a heroine of the French resistance, returning to the village with important news: listen very carefully, I shall say this only once - she hurried to the gallery and informed the residents that their cowering councillors were about to make a run for it, should they continue to exercise their democratic rights to protest, with a few posters and the odd heckle. The residents in the gallery vowed to do their best to carry on exercising their democratic right to protest, with posters and heckling, and looked forward, with no little satisfaction, to the prospect of the Tory councillors fleeing down the corridor to their emergency ops room. As it turned out, however, this apocalyptic ending to the night's events was averted.

*Mrs Angry understands, by the way, that several Labour councillors fell foul of the heavy handed security that night, and were almost barred from parts of the Town Hall by security staff.

There was, after the meeting reconvened, a debate, of sorts, of an item from Cornelius on the subject of the 'savings context' of members' policy.

A few interesting points: Alison Moore reminded the Tory leader of some of the shameful choices his party made in order to make savings - cutting the funds to respite care for disabled children, for example. 

Libdem Jack Cohen pointed out that in their budgets both Tories and Labour had proposed cuts in council tax - he had not. He alluded to the trap in which Barnet now finds itself, tied in to a ten year contract with Crapita, and already seeing service standards decline, and without the evidence of promised savings. Now we are in hock to them, he said, if we need to make greater savings, we cannot, the contracts do not allow us to do so. He told the story of a constituent who had written to Barnet officers about a problem and was perplexed on being answered by an employee who, it transpired, was not a Barnet employee, but belonged to Capita. When asked why he was responding to the resident, and not a council officer, he was told that now: 'Capita speaks for Barnet' ...

Deputy leader Dan Thomas, fresh from his recent honeymoon (yes, clearly Mrs Angry's heart, once more, is Broken ...) spoke to support Cornelius' item. Hmm, thought Mrs Angry, obviously not listening to his blatherings, but keen to provide this blog with more fashion notes: John Thomas, who sometimes writes a blog called True Blue Barnet, was wearing a most unusual Pale Blue jacket, rather like, as observed by Mr Gerrard Roots, the former curator of the Church Farmhouse Museum, who was sitting next to her and gleefully sharing the duty of heckling Tory councillors, rather like the uniform of a Thompson's tourist guide in perhaps Magaluf, or Ibiza.

Time for the opposition item on ... oh dear, the regulation of landlords. Awkward. 

Labour's Ross Houston, who is the housing spokesperson,  spoke eloquently on the subject he probably knows more about than anyone else in the chamber. 

And then, oh dear, a pronouncement from the Mayor that could only result in a reaction of deep dismay by all present: Councillor Old, you have five minutes ...



Tory councillor Old is living proof of the theory of nominative determinism: one cannot imagine him, even as a young schoolboy, as anything other than a doddery old Tory councillor, rabbiting on, trapped in the usual Barnet Tory timewarp, stuck somewhere in the Thatcherite 1970s, a place of safety but under seige from the red peril, and red tape: the great bugbears and preoccupations of our Conservative members still, forty years on.

He went further back in time, in fact, to the 1960s, a dreadful era, apparently, in which it seems that our Graham was not letting it all hang out, and enjoying the bliss of free love and magic mushrooms, but worrying about the impact of secure tenancies and restrictive regulation of the housing market. 

This sort of regard for the rights of tenants, he seemed to be saying, meant that landlords found it hard to make any sort of living from their properties. 
  
Apart from Rachman, suggested Mrs Angry, across the chamber floor, rather tactlessly, perhaps.

At this point, it was noticeable that the Mayor, who had been covering his face, during some of the more uncomfortable parts of the evening, was nodding in agreement with his colleague, who,  it transpired, was more worried about the proliferation of beds in sheds, and unsightly erections in back gardens, which of course is something which keeps us all awake at night, and should be tackled, head on, in Mrs Angry's firm view. Although not if your neighbours are watching.

By now it was getting rather late. The Mayor thought it necessary to rule that the meeting should be extended beyond the ten o'clock limitation.

Yes, said Labour's Alon Or Bach, looking at the Mayor: ten pm is when some of us have to go and visit our tenants.

And then - oh, God: time for the churlish young Tom Davey to speak. He thought, guess what, that Labour could not have a 'grown up conversation' about housing.  Tom Davey, who lived at home with Mummy and Daddy until recently, bless him.

You need, he said, to allow people 'choice'. You know: Tory choice - choice for the middle classes, and those with means. The 'well off' residents that Davey wants in Barnet, rather than those 'benefit scroungers' that he so dislikes.

Question time for councillors no longer appears at the beginning of the full council meeting, but still offers plenty of opportunities for embarrassing the Tory administration. Another sign that our Tory chums have lost their mojo, bigtime, is that this session was not packed full of the old style self priming congratulatory non questions, whereby an obedient backbench councillor, wet behind the ears, is encouraged to earn brownie points by asking for reassurance of the enormous acheivements of the Tory administration. None of that, this time: just a relentless litany of questions  on two subjects, from Labour: on the rather sensitive issue of, oh dear, rogue landlords - and the million pound Highways expenditure in Golders Green granted by Cllr Cohen, to his own ward.

Keeping their noses clean: the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Broken Barnet

Labour's Ammar Naqvi, a very bright new councillor, asked some particularly astute supplementary questions on the former topic, so astute that for some reason the Mayor resorted to hiding his face behind his hand, in deep discomfort. 

Another new Labour councillor Amy Trevethan asked, with what may or may not have been breathless naivete and boundless curiosity:  

Would the Leader provide an update on the ratio of pomp to pomposity in Councillor Rayner's mayorship so far?

No coherent answer emerged from the Leader, or the Mayor, as you might expect. Coherence, selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and - oh dear -leadership: if you are expecting to find any of these attributes in the council chamber of Broken Barnet, you are going to be awfully disappointed.

None of these things have a market value, after all, none of them can be bought, and none can be sold in the guise of a dispensation.

Back to the Pardoner's Tale, then, and a message for Cllr Cornelius and all our sinful Tory councillors,  for which Mrs Angry begs your pardon, even if she doubts any of you really have any coillons:
 
Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech 
And swere it were a relyk of a seint, 
it were with thy fundement depeint!

But, by the croys which that Seint Eleyne fond, 
I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond 
In stide of relikes or of seintuarie. 
Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie; 
They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!*
 
This is Broken Barnet, in 2014. 

Welcome to the middle ages.

*For the benefit of those Tory councillors who failed their 11 plus, and may be in need of translation:

Mrs Angry is unlikely to kiss your *rses, any time soon, and is casting doubt as to the effectiveness of your washing cycle.

Mrs Angry is not convinced that any of you have any balls, but if you did, she would be quite happy to remove them for you, although this would be accomplished with a fair degree of disrespect and ribald humour.

Mrs Angry


Sunday, 6 July 2014

Beyond belief, or: suffer the little children: the story that must now be told




Lord Brittan on Geoffrey Dickens' dossier, now missing: As I recall, he came to my room at the Home Office with a substantial bundle of papers ...

Anyone who, like me,  has had a Catholic upbringing, will understand the real horror of discovery, in recent years, of a tolerance, within the church and its schools, of the sexual and physical abuse of children entrusted to its care. 

The revelations of the extent of this abuse continue to reverberate, both here and in Ireland, and has caused damage that is irreparable, to victims, of course, but also to the institutions involved. 

Writing about the experience of psychological abuse of my own school here in Broken Barnet, still provokes a constant flow of visits, some of them from victims who continue to suffer, years later, from the unspoken traumas of their childhood and education.

Institutionalised abuse, whether psychological, or sexual, is a demon that preyed on not just the church, Catholic or Anglican, in children's homes, or schools, and it is one that is only just beginning to be confronted, and one whose power, even now, presents a formidable enemy.

To a child, the identity of an abuser, or the background of organisation that may or may not be behind it, is immaterial: anyone who has any knowledge of the impact on a child knows that the impact of his or her personal experience continues to be felt in adult life, acknowledged or not.

And the abuse of children by individuals with the protection of a celebrity status, or the defence accorded to those in a position of power, is a subject that until now has eluded all attempts to hold it accountable.
 
In the midst of the truly nauseating revelations about predatory celebrity paedophiles like Jimmy Savile, and Rolf Harris, one fact has emerged, or seems to have emerged, and at least seems to have been accepted as undeniably true, and widely promoted by the mainstream media.

This is the claim that their activities succeeded, ultimately, because despite their fame, and status, the sexual assaults committed by them went unchallenged because they were 'hidden in plain sight', that is to say took place openly, but in a way that denied and  'normalised' the nature of the behaviour. Not just their victims, we hear, were 'groomed' and duped, but the whole nation.


Is that so? Or is the truth more likely that the same media outlets, the papers and broadcasting channels now so keen to report and exploit these stories could very well have - should have - pursued lines of investigation into allegations regarding these individuals over the decades during which rumours were circulating, but no action against them was taken?


Because there certainly were rumours about both of them, , as I can recall from my own teenage years, on an anecdotal basis: stories about Savile hanging around Piccadilly Circus, picking up vulnerable youths with another Radio 1 DJ, stories about Harris having, as Vanessa Feltz puts it in a story today 'wandering hands': and a woman who told me once about an 'indecent proposal' he made to her when she was a young student working in a well known department store. 


Were the News of the World and all the other tabloids too busy hacking the phones of missing schoolgirls, and adulterous ministers to bother investigating the sexual exploitation of children? Probably. 

Were any other journalists trying to cover stories like these? Yes, but you might only read such stories in publications like Private Eye, solely prepared to report the unreportable, and now struggling to raise an almost lone voice of sanity (and yes, clearly one must exclude the Daily Mail here) to question the impact of legislation designed to create the emasculated 'free press' approved of by Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan, Hacked Off, and the mysterious 'Media Reform Coalition'.


This week has seen, at last, the emergence of another story about historic child abuse, a story which will blow the lid off what was described in a feature on James O'Brien's show on LBC last week by Exaro editor Mark Watts as 'almost beyond belief' and possibly 'the biggest post war political scandal in the UK'

Really, you may be asking? Yes, really.  

(In fact, Mrs Angry must confess to bending poor James O'Brien's ear about this issue at a lunch recently - being the only woman in London who could make a fair stab at out-talking a chat show host, she felt it was her duty ...)

Listen to the discussion here ...

Hard to explain the significance of what lies behind all this, without sounding the alarm bells that warn of yet another conspiracy theory. And if you spend any amount of time googling the subject, you will come across a certain amount of over imaginative speculation of the David Icke type, some of which, perhaps,  may well, to indulge in one's own moment of conspiratorial madness, be deliberate misinformation, and an attempt to smear and detract from the truth.

And yet the truth, supported by evidence, and documentation, is itself so disturbing that it needs no embellishment or misinterpretation.

If you are surprised at the revelations now inching their way into the public domain about the lost files on child abuse submitted to Home Secretary Leon Brittan, and various other related stories, then that will be because until now, almost no one has reported them. 


You might have heard about such stories in the past, again in Private Eye, or more recently if you have followed the patient, scrupulously careful and courageous articles published on the Exaro website, largely the work of our old friend, veteran investigative journalist David Hencke.


For the past eighteen months, Exaro -motto - 'holding power to account' - has raised the issue of the historic organised sexual abuse of children, usually young boys, by individuals who  in some cases were high profile members of the establishment, and who appear to have eluded the course of justice by a sequence of failures by police and prosecuting procedures. 


In contrast to the cluster of high profile trials of celebrities facing charges on alleged, and in some cases now proven, historic sexual abuse, a number of politicians and other well known names have not yet had to face any proceedings, and the investigations into their alleged crimes have been delayed, or simply been dropped, for no clear reason.

The mainstream media, the daily papers, the broadcast channels, have all failed to cover the story, despite the clear evidence suggesting a major coverup over decades since some of the events occurred. 

Until this week.


A major breakthrough in the struggle to bring the issues into a wider focus came in the form of an exchange, ironically, in view of the background to much of this story, in the Margaret Thatcher room, at a meeting of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. 


You can watch the meeting here : from 16.49 onwards, see Rochdale MP Simon Danczuk, who has written a book about the appalling abuse of young boys by the late paedophile and Liberal member of parliament Cyril Smith, deliver a measured but powerful message to the committee on the questions raised by the failure properly to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse, then and now.

Explaining that he wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, the victims of such exploitation  who have been overlooked for so long, Danczuk refers to politics as 'the last refuge of child sex abuse deniers' and talks about the coverup of allegations by individuals high up in the 'food chain': he refers to Elm Guest House, an extablishment in Barnes in which it is alleged young boys - some reportedly from a local childrens' home - were made available for the sexual gratification of a number of high profile men, some with political connections. More articles on this subject may be found here.

Danczuk also referred to something which has been a major factor in the breakthrough, after so much silence, of the issue as a mainstream story - the call for an inquiry into the historic cases, and an overarching investigation into the matter, an idea originally backed by seven MPs, in a cross party move, and promoted by Exaro. This rapidly took off as a campaign on twitter,  and is a tribute to the power of social media as a conduit of grassroots activity. Over 140 MPs have now agreed to give their support to the call for an inquiry.

Mrs Angry thought she should do the right thing, and wrote to her MP, Conservative member for Finchley and Golders Green, Mike Freer. 

She wrote as a constituent, emphasising this was a non party political matter, and hoping therefore that he would give his own support, commenting:

It is unfortunate that such an inquiry should be necessary at all, but it seems clear to me, from the number of wide ranging cases now being being uncovered, and being familiar with some of the appalling allegations made by victims and survivors that there is a pressing need for a wide ranging investigation into not only the allegations of organised abuse, but also the way in which previous inquiries appear to have been obstructed or even silenced.

As my MP I hope that you will agree that the proposal by MPs from all parties is one you should support, and I ask that you do all you can to press for this inquiry to be established as soon as possible.


Normally when Mrs Angry writes to Mike Freer, an emergency alarm and flashing lights activate in his office, and he sends a panicked, if somewhat tight lipped response almost immediately. This time, however: no, nothing, and after a few days she was obliged to send a reminder.

Dear Mr Freer,

I wonder if I might trouble you for a response to this request. I really cannot see how a serious issue like suspected wide scale child abuse would be in anyway party political, or controversial, and clearly those behind calls for an inquiry would benefit from the momentum of significant cross party support.

For victims, the sexual abuse experienced in childhood has a long lasting impact upon their physical and psychological well being even in their adult lives: to come forward and report what has happened takes enormous courage, and should be supported by those who are in a position to examine their allegations, or instigate investigations into such incidences.


A reply is in hand, was the rather terse reply.  

And then: 


Thank you for contacting me about historic allegations of child abuse.



I appreciate your concern about this issue. Child abuse is an abhorrent crime, no matter when, or where, it occurs. It is important that the Government is committed to tackling it, in whatever form it takes.


Both the historical cases of child abuse and recent cases of organised sexual exploitation raise a number of important issues for the Government, social services, the police, the criminal justice system and others. It is important that we learn lessons from these reviews of historic child abuse cases. That is why the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, Damian Green, is leading a National Group which will work across government to urgently address any missed opportunities to protect children and vulnerable people.

There are a number of inquiries taking place into historic child sex abuse cases, including criminal investigations. It is important we allow these to run their course before taking further action.


I join the Government in urging anyone with concerns or information to report them to the police. I am glad that the Government has made clear that if anyone has concerns about police handling of such complaints they should report them to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. It is important that these authorities act on the information provided to them.


Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
 
Oh, thought Mrs Angry. Rather disappointing. Still, for the first time ever, my MP has, rather touchingly, thanked me -twice - for taking the time to contact him.

Let's have another go:


Thank you for your response. I have to say that I find it disappointing, especially as I noted yesterday that during PMQs, David Cameron indicated that he was not entirely unsympathetic to the idea of an inquiry, should it be necessary.

I think it is clear, from everything I have read about the different investigations that are in place, that there is a need to have in place some overarching body that will look at the wider scope of these separate cases, and ensure that everything is being done to protect the best interests of victims, and prevent pressure being brought to bear from any quarter to obstruct the proper process of investigation.

It is simply not enough to say that individual cases where there may be concern about failures in the police investigations should be reported to the IPCC.  This is dealing with the matter piecemeal, rather than addressing the real issues behind what may appears to be a determined resistance to follow lines of enquiry which may lead to sensitive areas others may wish to protect.

It takes enormous courage for victims to come forward and undergo further trauma caused by the revisiting of their experiences, and it seems to me that they are owed every form of assistance in order that they receive the justice that has been denied to them for so long.

More than 42 MPs have now shown their support for this campaign, and I hope that you will reconsider your own decision.


A semi literate reply in response:

There is a longstanding practice that overarching inquiries are not undertaken whilst existing inquiries - which may result in criminal prosecutions. This has been respected so as not to jeopardise any prosecutions. The most important thing for any victim is surely to see perpetrators prosecuted

Undaunted, Mrs Angry lobbed another response back at him:

Thank you, but I think perhaps you are not familiar with the many instances where prosecutions are not going to be pursued because investigations are dropped, or evidence ignored, or lost. 

Perhaps you are aware that Greater Manchester Police dropped their enquiries into the sexual abuse of boys by Cyril Smith. 

Why? Clearly he is not alive and cannot be prosecuted, but the same applies to the case of Jimmy Savile. The allegations regarding Elm Guest House are deeply alarming, yet appear to be resulting in nothing but further delays and prevarications ...

An inquiry would not jeopardise prosecutions if correctly organised: it may actually help to ensure that prosecutions that would otherwise be avoided do actually take place.
 
No response, and then ... hello, Mrs Angry came across an article which had a variety of responses from MPs  to constituents on this matter, and do you know, readers, she spotted one or two - including one from Andrew Lansley, no less - were exactly the same as the original one sent to her by Mike Freer. Back again, then: 

Dear Mr Freer

I wrote to you last week about a matter I feel strongly about, on a personal basis, asking you as my MP to support a cross party call for an inquiry into a number of cases of historic child sexual abuse.

Rather naively, as it turned out, I thought that any reasonable person would support such an inquiry, if they are acquainted with the facts, and are familiar with the sequence of failure to pursue much of the evidence of these cases.

You sent me - eventually - a response which informed me you thought any inquiry was unnecessary. I tried to engage you on the perfectly valid reasons why I thought this was misinformed - you failed to respond to my last email.

I now discover that the first response you sent me was not yours, but the words of someone else: it seems a stock answer is being sent by some MPs to constituents in the guise of a proper explanation, and I have seen several examples, including one sent in the name of Andrew Lansley.

I have to say I am really appalled by such a cavalier attitude from you, and find it insulting that you cannot be bothered to formulate your own views, and express them in your own words to a constituent, when dealing with a subject of such significance.

It is easy to succumb to the theory of conspiracy when dealing with cases of organised abuse on such a scale: one would hope that any organised resistance to a full and honest investigation of these matters was no longer possible, or likely. It seems that that may be a misguided view.

Please tell me who wrote the response you sent me last week, and explain why you and other MPs are giving the same answer, rather than addressing the issues raised by your constituents.


That was sent on the 17th June. No reply from Mr Freer, as yet. Of course our staunchly loyal Tory MP may have overlooked the email in the excitement of being appointed party Vice Chair, on the previous day, ie 16th June.

Back to the HOC committee. At around 17.11 pm, the footage shows that Simon Danczuk, after alluding to Elm Guest House, moves on to the subject of the 'Dickens Dossier', submitted to the Home Office in the 1980s, with allegations regarding paedophile activity that included individuals associated with government. This dossier, of course, is now 'missing'.

The Chair, Keith Vaz, had a question for Mr Danczuk: what year was this? In the mid eighties. And, he asked, apparently at a loss to remember - who was the Home Secretary?

Sir Leon Brittan, replied Mr Danzcuk.

Mr Vaz and Mr Danzcuk agreed that it would be 'useful' for Sir Leon Brittan to share his knowledge and understanding about what happened to the Dickens Dossier.

Tory MP Mark Reckless rather recklessly tried to throw a spanner in the works by  attempting to suggest we should feel compassion for what he claimed were 'a number' of MPs who felt they had been 'bullied' into supporting the call for an inquiry. He also tried suggesting the inquiry would be too expensive, and merely an opportunity for lawyers to make money. His concern for the 'bullying' of unnamed MPs was notably not extended, in this discussion, to the suffering of the victims of abuse. In short, his performance was the voice of those in power, and in retreat, who would prefer this issue, and these people, to be silenced once more.

The day after this meeting, however, Leon Brittan issued a statement - or rather two - in which he remembered something that he had appeared previously to have forgotten, that is to say the submission to him by Geoffrey Dickens of the dossier in question, and its handling by his officials.

As I recall, he said, he came to my room at the Home Office with a substantial bundle of papers.

Those papers, apparently, have gone missing, or have been destroyed.

Since then, the story has moved at last to where it should have been - reported by the mainstream media, and in the public domain. 

On Friday the Prime Minister was forced into trying to appear to respond to pressure by announcing a review of the events surrounding the 'loss' of the dossier. The words he used sounded curiously like the words in the response from Freer, above: platitudes meant to obstruct further questions, and stonewall any real investigation. 

The signs are, of course, that no one any longer has faith in such 'reviews', and that Pandora's box, now open, may not be closed. 

Public interest is growing, at a breathtaking pace, and of course, once an issue is found that is bound to sell a large number of newpapers, we may rest assured that nothing will stop the story being pursued to the utmost boundary of possibility.

In the meanwhile, let's remember that if it were not for the determination of an independent investigative website, and the momentum of a campaign fought via the virtual battlefields of social media, the horrible truths that lie within the lost pages of the Dickens dossier, and the even darker secrets that are yet to be revealed, would still remain buried under a cover of silence. 

Nothing is more precious than the innocence of a child, and no one is more vulnerable than a child in care: it is time to give a voice to the voiceless, the children to whom a duty of care was ignored by society, and exploited with the complicity of those who held the ultimate responsibility for their well being.

A petition by Tom Watson, started only today, has already, at the time of writing, on Sunday, at 10.15 pm, has already received an absolutely astonishing current total of 48,118 signatures. 

Tom Watson is the MP who first had the courage and integrity to begin the outing of this unmentionable subject: it is a fitting tribute to him that so many are supporting him today, in this way.

If you want to show your support, please write to your MP (even if it is Mike Freer), and ask them to press for an inquiry,  and sign the petition: