Friday, 27 May 2016

Carry On Barnet: election day omnishambles, and now an 'Inquiry' to match ...


Andrew Dismore, AM, on election day

Mrs Angry, being somewhat indisposed at the moment, and immobile, lying down in a dark room, moaning, neglected by her children, and drawing up her will in favour of the nearest cats' home, had no intention to write anything for this blog, for the foreseeable future, and had vowed not even to think of anything to do with the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and all its works. But now look: this press release has arrived in her in box, and must be shared with the world: 

Dismore: Bungling Barnet’s election ‘inquiry’ riddled with conflicts of interest, fails to address systemic issues, and gives little confidence for the Referendum 

Labour London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden Andrew Dismore AM has received a response (copy attached) from Barnet Council’s Acting Chief Executive, John Hooton, to 29 questions Mr Dismore posed, concerning the mechanics of the ‘investigation ’ into 5th May London elections. 

Mr Dismore said: 

Mr Hooton’s reply confirms my worst suspicions about the so–called ‘investigation’ into what went wrong on 5th May. Residents can have little confidence in the way the Referendum will be conducted based on this process.

Firstly, the investigator, Mark Heath, was appointed on the basis of a phone call, with no due process such as a proper interview or competition. His remuneration is not disclosed. He has spent only 1 day in Barnet. Nor will he attend the committee to present his report in person and answer questions.

He also appears to be personally acquainted with a deputy returning officer , the Council’s Monitoring Officer, whose role should presumably be examined under the investigation. 

There should have been an independent lawyer with an assessor who has run elections before, to give confidence in the investigation. 

There are clear conflicts of interest. Not only is there the issue of this apparent personal acquaintance, the Monitoring Officer and elections team who prima facie were probably responsible at least in part for what went wrong (and presumably should therefore themselves be subjects of the inquiry) have themselves actually been given the job of collecting the evidence and information as to what happened!

The report will go to the General Functions Committee, whose lack of exercise of their oversight role ought to be one of the subjects of the investigation: another conflict of interest.

It also seems to me that the public have not really been given much of a chance to contribute their experiences of what went wrong, either.

The investigation is not looking at everything that went wrong on 5th May and in the run up to the election, either. It is only looking at the question of the wrong electoral registers being provided. That should be a relatively simple problem to address for the Referendum. 

But the systemic problems- late or non arrival of poll cards, postal and proxy votes, inaccurate voter registers, inconvenient polling stations, inadequately trained polling staff, unobtainable helplines, for example- that have bedevilled every Barnet election for years won’t even be looked at by the investigator.

At the Council AGM, even the Leader of the Council accepted these were problems and said they would be looked at; but this is clearly not going to be done in time to effect substantive changes for the Referendum. ‘Dozy Barnet Conservatives’ slothful attitude is jeopardising the most important vote in the UK for a generation.

I am already receiving complaints from the public about the problems they are experiencing trying to register for the Referendum and getting postal and proxy votes, for example, but the causes of these complaints are not going to be considered in time.

Whilst, therefore, the ‘wrong register’ issue may be addressed, all the other systemic issues won’t.

There is good news and bad news, too. The good news, is that another chief executive is coming into Barnet for a day a week to give support. The bad news is that it is the chief executive of the rotten borough of the Corporation of London, with less than 10,000 voters, fewer than the population of just one Barnet ward! While no doubt he is an admirable and competent officer, overseeing elections a 20th of the size of Barnet’s is hardly the right experience we need.

No-one can have much confidence in Bungling Barnet’s ability to run the Referendum efficiently and fairly. There will be the same complaints from disenfranchised voters and if the result is close, Bungling Barnet will be in the headlines yet again.

We have lost the Chief Executive as the scapegoat and we now have an Acting Chief Executive. I would not put money on us not having an ‘Acting, Acting’ Chief Executive after the Referendum, the way things are going. 

No-one has had the courage and decency to accept the political responsibility for what went wrong. Cllr Cornelius, Leader of the Council should go, as should Cllr Scannell, chair of the relevant General Functions Committee, responsible for elections.’ 

Goodness me: and now here is that letter, with the questions put by Andrew Dismore, and answered by John Hooton, acting CEO: 



Acting Chief Executive John Hooton

Dear Mr. Dismore 

Please see below Barnet Council’s response to the questions in your letter dated 19th May 2016 relating to the election investigation: 

1. What was the process under which Mr Heath came to be appointed? 

I personally spoke with the Chief Executive of London Councils and Mr Heath was recommended as he has carried out investigations into electoral problems at other Councils.

2. Was he previously known to any senior officer(s) in Barnet? 

As far as I am aware he was previously known to one senior officer. 

3. If so, who? 

Davina Fiore, Barnet’s Monitoring Officer and Director of Assurance. 

Prior to joining Barnet Davina was the Monitoring Officer and Returning Officer for the Isle of Wight Council, and Mark Heath was in both positions at Southampton City Council. As Davina and Mark worked at adjacent unitary councils it is to be expected that they would know each other professionally. 

4. If so, did that/those officer(s) have any say in Mr Heath’s appointment? 

The decision to appoint Mark was mine, based on an independent recommendation from London Councils, and was made in consultation with Group Leaders and the Electoral Commission. 

5. As Mr Heath will no doubt have major responsibilities as Returning Officer for the EU Referendum in Southampton, why was it considered he will be able to devote sufficient time and attention to do the job? 

The decision to appoint Mark was taken on the basis that he had been independently recommended as a returning officer with significant experience in investigations of this nature. Mark has requested and reviewed significant amounts of documentation, has reviewed the IT system, spoken to a number of people on the phone and interviewed people on site in Barnet. As an experienced professional in his field, he has ensured that he had allocated sufficient time to enable the review to be robust. Mark would not have committed himself to the investigation had he not been sure that he could devote sufficient time to and attention to it. I sought assurances from Mark on this point. 

6. Why was an independent barrister ruled out (there is a precedent when Ms Claer Lloyd Jones was appointed for a similar type of inquiry)? 

Ms Claer Lloyd Jones was appointed to carry out a previous investigation into a problem with the legal clearance of reports at an annual council meeting. The problem in that case related to the legal clearance of reports, and therefore an independent barrister was appointed to carry out the investigation. In the case of the current investigation, I considered it to be essential that it was carried out by an experienced, credible and independent Returning Officer. Had I not appointed an experienced Returning Officer to the role, I would have rightly attracted criticism about suitability. 

7. Was Mr Heath the only person considered for the job? 

As stated above, Mr Heath was recommended by London Councils to carry out the investigation and was the only person considered. It is of paramount importance that the review is undertaken swiftly to enable the results to be published on the 1st June, reported to General Functions Committee on the 9th June, and for the recommendations to be implemented in time for the EU referendum on the 23rd June. As such it was not considered appropriate to undertake a lengthy recruitment and selection process. 

8. If not, how many other people were on the shortlist? 

 See above. 

9. Was Mr Heath formally interviewed for the job? 

I conducted a telephone discussion with Mr Heath. 

10. If not, why not? 

See above. 

11. What is his remuneration for the job? 

This is in part dependent on the length of time spent on the investigation, and the figure is not currently finalised. 

12. How many days will he be spending in Barnet on the investigation? 

Mr Heath is spending the time he thinks is necessary on the investigation. He has been reviewing documents, contacting external bodies and conducting telephone interviews and spent a full day on 20th May interviewing face to face at Barnet Council's offices. 

13. How many of those days will he be spending in Barnet? 

See above. 

14. Will he be presenting his report to the General Functions Committee in person? 

Mr Heath will provide a written report to General Functions Committee. The report will be presented by me in my role as Interim Chief Executive. 

15. If not, why not? 

The need to consider the report quickly prior to the EU referendum means the timetable is very tight. It was not possible to identify a suitable date prior to the referendum when Mr Heath was available. The public and committee members will be able to submit questions in advance in line with the normal Committee rules and Mr Heath will be involved in providing written answers as appropriate. 

16. If not, who will? 

I will present his report, alongside a wider report in my name which sets out the council’s response to each recommendation and the status of the actions that have already been and will be implemented. 

17. As the General Functions Committee’s own terms of reference include ‘elections in general’ there is a clear conflict of interest in that committee receiving the report into the investigation, as the exercise of their oversight role ( or lack of it) should be part of any findings. Please confirm therefore that this decision will be changed and that the report will be made either to full council or Policy and Resources Committee? 

It is the responsibility of the Returning Officer, not of the Council, to run elections effectively. If General Functions Committee wishes the report to be considered by Policy and Resources Committee or full Council it may refer it. 

18. I understand that directly reporting to the Assurance Director is the Head of Electoral Services; and reporting to the Head of Electoral Services is the Electoral Registration Manager: is this correct?

That is correct. 

19. Assuming this is correct, there is a clear conflict of interest if these three people are involved in any way in the investigation, other than as witnesses. Will you confirm therefore, that they are not involved in the management of the investigation, or collection or collation of the evidence in any other way, other than in giving their own evidence as to what occurred, as it would be very surprising if they were not subject to the investigation themselves, as having a case to answer as to their roles as to what occurred? (There is a clear precedent for such exclusion, when the previous inquiry was held by Ms Claer Lloyd Jones). 

Mark Heath supplied a list of information he needed to carry out the investigation. The majority of the information was, understandably, held by Davina Fiore and the elections team. As such, they supplied that information to Mr Heath, along with other background information which they thought he would find useful or which others requested be supplied to him. Davina was one of the Deputy Returning Officers who helped to manage the problem on the day. She asked for information from Presiding Officers and Polling Station Inspectors on the day, and this has been supplied to Mark Heath. She has also subsequently asked them for any other feedback which they wished to put forward and this has been forwarded to Mr Heath. Mr Heath is an independent investigator and an expert on elections. He will reach an independent view on what happened and give his recommendations. 

20. Assuming they are not involved, due to this conflict of interest, who is assisting Mr Heath in the investigation? 

 Support in terms of the investigation, scheduling interviews and so on has been provided by me, the Director of Strategy and Communications and our support team. 

21. Due to the risk of conflict of interest with the Electoral Services department and its officers, will you confirm that Polling Station Presiding Officers will be able to submit their evidence direct to Mr Heath? 

A significant amount of evidence was already collated from Polling Station Presiding Officers by the Assurance Director and her team, and therefore this information, alongside additional information subsequently requested, was passed to Mr Heath. Mr Heath is an independent investigator and has sought the necessary evidence to be able to undertake his review. For example, he took additional evidence from specific presiding officers. 

22. If not why not? 

See above. 

23. If not, how and to whom are they to submit their evidence and it what form?

See above. 

24. The public were invited to submit their experiences by a posting on the Council’s website and a twitter message (for those following the Council on twitter) on Friday 13th May, with a deadline of today, 19th May, 9am. Were any other attempts made to notify the public, for example emailing everyone for whom the Council has emails? 

Given the timescales involved, there was naturally not the opportunity to publicise this in the way we would with, say, a council consultation. As well as putting out the details of how to provide feedback through the website and social media, I also sent an email to all Barnet Councillors to set this out. The public could also submit their feedback by telephone, and on election day itself Polling Station Presiding Officers were taking a note of feedback. All of this has been passed to Mr Heath as part of the investigation. 

25. If not, why not? 

As above, the timescale for the investigation has necessarily been very tight due to the need to complete it with time to publish the findings and implement any recommendations prior to the EU referendum. This meant that the timescale for feedback was relatively short, but on balance it was decided it was important to get the feedback and also important to publish and consider the investigation report and have time to implement any recommendations prior to the EU referendum. 

26. Do you consider this adequate notice to the public? 

See above. 

27. As this gives very little time, will you accept late evidence from the public? 

Due to the timescales involved, late evidence was not consider by Mr Heath as part of his investigation. Mr Heath has confirmed to me that he received the information that you provided to him, and took this into account. 

28. As many other shortcomings in the Council’s management of elections have been identified yet again ( as many of these are recurrent issues ) but which are presently excluded from the investigation’s very narrow terms of reference, what is being done to address those concerns, including maladministration of polling cards, postal votes, the inadequate helpline and the poor compilation of the register? 

Mr Heath’s investigation was necessarily focused to ensure the issues which led to the wrong lists being sent to polling stations are not repeated during the EU Referendum on 23 June. Following this, I fully intend to commission a wider review into elections processes in Barnet, to ensure that other issues that have been raised are investigated and, where necessary, changes are put in place. This will involve independent scrutiny and will pick up the issues that were raised at Annual Council on 24 May. I will make this clear at GFC on 9 June. 

29. What guarantee will you give, as presumably you will be the returning officer for it, that there will be no mistakes and maladministration in the conduct of the EU Referendum? 

It is of paramount importance for me and for everyone involved in the running of the EU referendum that this process runs smoothly. Improvements to processes are already being implemented and we will have the benefit of Mr Heath’s recommendations to further strengthen the process and give confidence to the electorate in Barnet for the referendum and in future. The detail of this will be set out publicly at GFC on 9 June. 

Yours sincerely 

John Hooton 

Chief Operating Officer and Interim Chief Executive London Borough of Barnet

Mmm.

To recap then, readers: according to Mr Hooton, Mr Heath, who happens to be COO for another large authority with another large Capita contract, was appointed solely on the recommendation of some unknown person at London Councils, (who are now to blame for lots of things, in Barnet, it seems, including - wrongly- the changed criteria for disabled residents' travel passes) - and on the basis not of an interview, but of a phone call. 

No other candidates were considered, even though clearly Mr Heath is very busy with his day job, and indeed cannot find the time to attend the meeting at which his report will be presented.

Mr Heath knows Ms Fiore, the Assurance Director ultimately responsible for electoral services and who was a Deputy Returning Officer on the election day under investigation. 

Ms Fiore has supplied Mr Heath with the majority of information required by him to conduct his inquiry. Unfortunately, the only publicised appeal to residents to submit their own information was ...  a tweet, and something somewhere on the council's own website, which almost no one would have seen.

We do not know how much Mr Heath will be paid, but as it appears he can only spare a day - a full day, mind you - to visit Barnet, we might not have to shell out too much of residents' hard earned tax for this hugely anticipated and wide reaching investigation. Might see change out of a fifty pound note. Plus his bus fare back to Southampton. And a free copy of 'Barnet First'.

There was no need to appoint an independent body to investigate, or indeed an independent lawyer, for this inquiry, as the Claer Lloyd Jones report was about governance, and compliance with the law, which gets you into trouble, if you cock it up,  and this was only about, well you know ...  democracy, the right to vote, transparency, accountability, that sort of nonsense. Meh. Who cares? 

Not the Tory councillors in Barnet, as long as no fingers are pointed at them, for failing properly to run the council, hollowing out the council through mass privatisation, stripping out all corporate knowledge, not giving the council proper resources to run the remaining services, being too lazy to pursue any effective scrutiny, etc etc.

Here is the question, then: how can this 'inquiry' possibly be adequate to the task of reviewing such a serious failure in administration, when the majority of residents affected are probably unaware of what little scope of investigation there is - or was, and have had no opportunity to contribute?

Hmm. And then finally  - to put the old tin lid on it, we are now being assisted, for some reason, with a one day a week visit, apparently - although no public announcement appears to have been made about this - from the Chief Executive of the City of London Corporation, that is to say the least accountable public body in the country. 

Comrade Cllr Mr Shepherd, People's Mayor, veteran council heckler, and unstinting critic of the Corporation of the City of London - your worst nightmares have come true, at last ... 

This at least explains why Mrs Angry has observed, over the last couple of weeks or so, so many visits to this blog from the Corporation of the City of London - yes, I can see you peeking ... 

Of course she was hoping this meant she was about to be made a Freewoman of the City, in homage to her services to investigative bloggery, and revolutionary politics, but sadly not. Too many jokes about all the freemasons on Barnet Council, probably.

Of course it may be that our mysterious visitor from the City has come here not to help, but to pick up a few tips himself. 

A thousand years of defying the principles of transparency are as nothing, after all, compared to the proud history of this most rotten of rotten boroughs, here in Broken Barnet. 



Mr Shepherd, The People's Mayor, London Borough of Broken Barnet

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The Tailoring of Communication, and Mrs Angry, designed to annoy: the Freedom Pass scandal, a lot of questions, and not many answers


Updated Sunday 22nd May:

Fellow blogger John Dix, also known as Mr Reasonable, has just noted something that puts this shameful tale into an even more scandalous perspective.

In the log of contract variations going to the next Performance and Contract Monitoring committee, there are listed numerous added on services which Capita have managed to convince our supine councillors to allow them to perform, over and beyond the core contract agreement. 

This sort of extra charge, as John has pointed out, over and over again, is how Capita is making so much money out of Barnet taxpayers, and the supposed savings that the core contract was meant to make have been dwarfed by the additional payments for other charges, and gainshare payments.

In October 2012, Barnet Tory councillor Hugh Rayner stated at a council meeting, with heart warming candour:

 "I let out contracts myself to various customers and what I learnt in the contract is the word change or variance, because I know they are tied into me for the contract and this where I make all my profit and make up for the low price at the beginning ..."

Now take a look at the log of contract variations, and in particular: 

CRO75: Freedom Pass Renewals: Processing of appropriate Freedom Pass renewal requests, not covered in the original Output Specification (one-off cost)£99,829.

Raised by the Service Provider.  

That is to say, by Capita.

In other words, Capita suggested to Barnet Council that for nearly £100,000, they would relieve the authority of the role of administering passes, and this suggestion was readily approved by the council. 

Who signed that off, I wonder? Are our Tory councillors yet again going to shed crocodile tears, and claim they knew nothing about it? If so, as Mrs Angry pointed out last week, this proves how little control they have or interest in the way Capita are running this borough's services.

If you recall, or may read below, when questioned, Tory Leader Richard Cornelius said he thought that this extra payment to Capita represented good value for money, for Barnet taxpayers.

And yet, as a result, as we know, from what had been a straightforward process, this extra earner  for Capita turned, somehow, into a scheme that meant 600 disabled residents were deprived of their passes, and were wrongly caused - are still being caused - immense distress and financial loss as a result. 

If this is not an absolute scandal, I really do not know what could be worse - or a greater indictment of this contractual agreement. 

And how perfectly, and horribly, this story illustrates, the real cost of privatisation, and the impact on our local services, especially those on which our most vulnerable residents depend.

                                                           ---------------------------

Original Post:

There are various ways of measuring the extent of discomfiture amongst the Barnet Tory councillors, when attending a meeting where an awkward subject is being raised. The shifting in seats, the avoidance of eye contact; an uncharacteristic, sullen silence from councillors whose ill formed opinions are usually voiced the loudest, and most frequently: and the degree of choleric indignation reddening the face and neck of the Tory Leader, Richard Cornelius. 

All these signs, and more, were evident, at last night's Policy and Resources Meeting, in the gloom of a committee room, begrudgingly half lit by Crapita, through the medium of the barely luminous, nineteen thirties wall lights, part of the original decor carefully maintained in line with the curious, unthinking, outdated Conservatism that guides the latter day aldermen who sit on the council benches, and wait their turn to play Mayor, and have their portraits lining the stone staircase and echoing corridors of Hendon Town Hall.

The unease amongst the Tory councillors last night was clear, as soon as they entered the room, with officers, from a private pre-meeting, into a room already full of residents in the public gallery, unusually for a P&R meeting; but it was not the unease of men - and they are all men - with troubled consciences, wracked with remorse for the terrible policies they impose on even the most vulnerable residents of this borough, but a sense of embarrassment, and fury, at being caught out, and exposed to widespread condemnation for something truly shameful: yes, the continuing story of the Freedom Passes cancelled through the administration run by their private contractors from Capita.

They took their seats, and we launched straight in to the public question time, to which Mrs Angry had submitted 28 questions, targeted so as to reveal further details of the scandalous process which has seen so many dependent disabled residents subjected to the distress, and financial hardship caused by the removal of their access - their right - to these vital travel passes. The full questions, and immediate responses, can be viewed here.

As Chair, the Tory Leader was responsible - in theory - for answering Mrs Angry's supplementary questions: this is always a high risk activity for Cllr Cornelius, speaking without continual briefing from his officers, prone as he is to making ill advised remarks. And last night was the perfect demonstration of this tendency, as it happened.

Reading through the responses published at 4pm, it had been immediately evident that some of the information given earlier in the week to questions put to the Monitoring Officer and Tory councillor Sachin Rajput were ... at odds with the answers given here, or overshadowed by an even worse set of revelations.


Disabled resident Maria Nash watches the debate about the Freedom Pass debacle

First was the admission that renewals for 2016 numbered 1,021, compared to 1,993 in 2015. In other words, the number has been halved. Was that what all this was about, wondered Mrs Angry, this scheme? Very successful, if so. No real response, from Mr Jamie Blake, or the Leader. Well, no need: the facts speak for themselves, don't they?

Next question: how many residents with disabilities were sent letters regarding the renewal of passes, since January?

Response: in brief - all of them.

Even though the passes are valid until 2020?

Even those who clearly have statutorily defined eligibility, already proven - including those with conditions such as autism, and Downs Syndrome? Did they know that one parent had been reduced to writing in big letters all over his letter MY SON STILL HAS DOWNS SYNDROME? 

Has Capita perhaps found a cure for these disabilities?

No reply.

Why then, as the passes are still valid until 2020, would they put vulnerable and disabled residents through such a distressing process for a pass to which they are already entitled?

Silence. The men from Capita looked nervously at each other across the table.

There is no answer, is there, observed Mrs Angry?

No satisfactory answer, admitted the Tory leader, in a way which suggested he laid the blame on others.

Deputy Leader and failed Assembly candidate Dan Thomas jumped in. Sitting there, he was, all lovely in a true blue blazer, like Alan Partridge, with a crisply ironed handkerchief, just popping out of the top pocket. Mrs Angry, as always distracted by irrelevant details, wondered now how the Tory boy from the Welsh Valleys had coped with life in a former mining region, if he had dressed like that in his home territory. 

Cllr Thomas had thought up an awfully good excuse. The obvious answer, he threw out now, with a dismissive wave of his arm, was that ... they might have moved ...

Trust you, Cllr Thomas, remarked Mrs Angry, to find an answer like that ...


True Blue Dan Thomas, Scrutineer Extraordinaire Anthony Finn, & Tom Davey, praying for forgiveness

Moved, see. Obvious. 

What, all of them? Where to? Yes. Crafty, these disabled folk, always trying to outwit the council with their peripatetic lifestyle choices, wandering about the country in search of benefits and concessions, and a life of luxury, fraudulently enjoying free bus travel all over the place, at the tax payers' expense.

Would the possibility of a new address not suggest a simple test of residency, rather than a so called medical assessment, or being 'known' to two separate nominated agencies, over and above the statutory criteria of eligibility?

This pathetic clutching at straws was Thomas' only contribution, of course. No apology for what had happened, only a desperate casting about for a justification for something unjustifiable.

It had been implied in the earlier set of - painfully extracted - responses this week that 207 people had lost their passes as a result of the spurious renewal scheme. 

In fact we now learned, from the questions here, that figure related only to 2015: the current year an additional 'cohort', as they put it, of 379 residents were assessed as no linger qualifying - in all nearly 600 in total had been affected - confirmed now, at the table. There was a very swift explanation, of course, ready prepared, as to why the larger number had not been given before.

Q 6: again - why renew these passes at all? 

Cornelius: we should check them, we shouldn't hand them out Willy Nilly ...



Not handing anything out Willy Nilly: Cornelius right and left, acting CEO, John Hooton

Mrs A, stoutly resisting temptation: We are talking about disabled residents with long term conditions: are you saying you doubt their medical evidence?

Cornelius: ... I'm not saying that ...

So who was responsible for the 'renewal' scheme? 

This question from Mrs Angry now: Was the decision discussed, or at any stage approved by elected members

The written response was: 

There was no decision, and there was a process set down to be followed. Therefore this was not discussed with London Borough of Barnet Elected Members.

Well, well.

Mrs A: Cllr Cornelius - were you aware of this scheme, because if so, that  was fairly shabby, I would say, that you allowed it to continue, and if not, does that not prove yet again that you do not have a competent control of the local services that are supposed to be under your management?

Cornelius: I'm sorry. You must try and keep up with the Constitution ...

Mrs A, who apparently is now expected to become a constitutional expert, as well as a lawyer and world famous auditor: Sorry? I don't understand that answer.

Cornelius: There is no answer that can be made to your question ...

Mrs A, to a chorus of laughter from the public gallery: No, there isn't. 

Cornelius: ... that is Designed to Annoy ...

Mrs A, who admittedly was designed to annoy Tory councillors, from the moment of her conception, some six years ago now: 

Did you know about this scheme, was the question, you didn't - and that makes the point, that you have no idea what Capita is doing, in your name, to the residents of this borough, and the most vulnerable residents ...

Cornelius: Is that a question? I didn't really understand that.

Mrs A: Go away and think about it then.

(At this point, Cllr Finn, the Chair of the committee which is supposed to scrutinise the contractual performance of Capita, but who has said that he believes scrutiny should not be critical, but an act of positive suggestion, after a noticeable build up of indignation, decided Mrs Angry was being impertinent. 

Impertinence, to a Barnet Tory councillor, quite often means 'asking difficult questions, and being female', especially from someone they can't shut up, of course. 

Finn now demanded that Mrs Angry 'show some respect'. Mrs Angry explained that she felt respect had to be earned, which went down awfully well, as you can imagine).


Naughty Mrs Angry, failing to show respect to her elected representatives

Ah. Now then. Question 8: was the decision (to implement the so called renewal scheme) tested in terms of lawfulness, and if so, when?

The written reply merely referred back to the previous response, which was deliberately pointless, as there was no mention of legality. So Mrs Angry asked the Leader of the Council directly: 

Was it or was it not lawful?

Cornelius: It was lawful.

Mrs Angry smiled to herself. ( For future reference - this was stated at about 8.19 minutes into the footage).

Mrs A: How do you know that? (Note the body language of the commissioning officers, and the men from Capita, at this point ...)

Cornelius: Because the policy was laid down, and the criteria were laid down, and the testing was carried out appropriately and bla bla bla ...


If it was lawful, Mrs A began, and was going to ask 'why did you stop the scheme', but a sulky Cornelius, probably grateful for the excuse, said he would not answer as she had interrupted, and she had had her answer.

I have had my answer, and thank you, said Mrs Angry, very pleased, writing down:

The Leader of Barnet Council says the Freedom Pass 'renewal' scheme was lawful.

And yet: days earlier, Mrs Angry had asked the Monitoring Officer if legal advice had been taken in regard to the implementation of this process, and was told it had not been.

Of course it may be that Councillor Cornelius is qualified to assess the lawfulness of council policy, without reference to counsel, but Mrs Angry has asked the Monitoring Officer to confirm that his statement is accurate.

The next question saw Cornelius admit that the council did not assess - or rather 'needed to look at' the impact of the renewal process in terms of vulnerable residents, and the duty of care that the authority holds to them. Some looks were exchanged at this point, between officers.

A physically disabled reader of this blog left a comment recently,  describing her experience, and the distress and fear she felt as a result, of being compelled to attend an 'assessment' by the council, in order to be considered worthy of retaining her travel pass. She was obliged to walk up and down some stairs, and to a bus stop, in front of her assessor. She feared the loss of her pass would make her dependent on her children, who would have to become her carers, as she would lose her independence and ability to look after herself, without a bus pass, being unable to afford the transport costs that would result. Mrs Angry referred to this example and had asked who had decided to subject residents to such a humiliating process?

No, this is a professionally established test, said Cornelius. 

Like the Atos scheme, asked Mrs Angry? No proper reply, as apparently Cllr Cornelius has never heard of Atos - but an awful lot of dark looks across the table.

Next question, again, why put residents with long term conditions that clearly meet the statutory criteria through the 'renewal' process, and put them at risk of finding themselves without a valid pass, in distressing circumstances, without any warning.

Cornelius tried to deny, to angry remarks from the gallery, that it would have been without any warning. It will be done with the maximum sensitivity, the testing, in future, he said. 

(Or perhaps it was the 'Maximus' sensitivity, if Cllr Cornelius isn't so keen on Atos?)

Why does it need to be done at all?

Because, said Cornelius smugly, borrowing the straw clutched by his deputy leader, someone may have moved out of the borough.

This infuriated the public gallery. Order, order, said Mr Shepherd, from the back of the room.

No, said Mrs Angry: that's not the reason, you can easily verify someone's address ... Pointless. Next question.

Q 13: Who was responsible for drawing up what appear to be criteria in conflict with, and more restrictive than, the statutory criteria?

The council, we read, bases its criteria on Dept for Transport guidelines. However, the council is now reviewing its methods for assessing the criteria  to ensure it still fits the ethos of the Care Act.

Mmm. Good to seem mention of the word 'ethos', remarked Mrs Angry. Thing is the criteria are not 'guidelines', but set in law, in the Transport Act 2000, and should not be 'based' on anything to do with the Care Act. And Barnet's sudden interest in the Care Act would appear to be because of the phrase they have picked out, about extending 'independence'. We all know what that means, in Barnet: just as the Tories did when dropping meals on wheels - removing something from somebody, on the pretext of 'choice' - isn't that why we are now talking about the Care Act?

No.

Discussion next of what happened to residents who found themselves unable to use their passes, when trying to access public transport, even when their 'appeals' were supposedly being considered, such as Mrs Fairclough reported, in her daughter Jenny's case. At this point it emerged that Mrs Fairclough was present, and Mrs Angry suggested to Cllr Cornelius he might like to apologise to her.

Jamie Blake, who is the commissioning officer supposed to safeguard the best interests of residents in the delivery of contracted services by Capita, was asked by Cornelius to comment. You can see his contribution at around 14.40 minutes.

Labour's Cllr Or-Bach, who really ought to have far more responsibility within the Labour group, if they had any sense, asked a question about whose decision it was to adopt the Barnet eligibility. The response was evasive, and did not address the point that the criteria being applied now are not the statutory ones. 'Based on', is not the same thing at all.


Councillor Alon Or-Bach, centre

Safeguarding, next. The issue of vulnerable people, perhaps with a learning disability, left stranded and confused due to not being able to use their passes? Again Mr Blake claimed that should not have happened, but - it did, and there should have been proper consideration of the impact or risk of such an eventuality. Letters were sent, he said. Would someone with a learning disability necessarily understand the implications? He absolutely agreed with that point. Bit late now, observed Mrs Angry.

Next then: why did staff continue wrongly to inform  residents that the renewals were due to London Councils changing the criteria? 

Written reply: 

We apologise if staff miscommunicated the situation to residents. We will address communication and the tailoring of communication to meet residents' needs as part of out review into the Freedom Pass process.

Mrs Angry thought it was interesting, the use of the word 'miscommunication'. Was that similar to someone who 'misspoke', she mused, thinking about Hillary Clinton, and Trump.

Cllr Cornelius did not like the suggestion that some sort of corporate untruth had been perpetuated in regard to the story given by officers to residents that the reason for the 'renewals' was that it was all the fault of London Councils changing the criteria. He may not like it, but as then she now explained, Capita officers were caught out saying this, apologised, and then weeks late repeated the 'untruth' to Mrs Angry. Cornelius then admitted that that was 'plain wrong'.

Why was the scheme only stopped once publicised on local blogs, and then reported to the Monitoring Officer and Cllr Rajput?

Oh, there had been complaints (true, Mrs A has seen the emails, which were not followed up in any effective manner) and then they realised there were  'shortcomings' with the process, rather than restricted to 'isolated cases'. In other words, too many complaints, too well publicised. Why were these 'shortcomings' not spotted earlier? Where was the monitoring of the process?

Cornelius, mumbling: of course it should have been spotted immediately ...

Should have been spotted in advance, remarked someone in the public gallery. Was that you, Julia?

Q 20: who was the senior officer responsible for this scheme?

Mr Blake: Me.

You created the scheme, did you?

No. But I am the senior officer.

Do you think you ought to resign, then?

You've asked your question, interjected Cornelius. In fact, Mrs Angry wanted to say perhaps those ultimately responsible are getting away with it, ie the councillors who are now keen to be seen washing their hands of responsibility, but who certainly knew about it when complaints were first raised - if not before - and did nothing to stop it.

Questions then, about why the letters of apology going out to residents wrongly deprived of their passes cannot also inform them they have a right to compensation, rather than, as previously stated, sitting back and waiting for anyone who dares to ask for it on a 'one to one' basis? A lot of nodding went on between the senior officers at the table, who then graciously indicated to their obedient 'Leader' that this could be done. 

Next, regarding the investigation which the Tory Leader had promised: another example, as Mrs Angry pointed out, of the time honoured tradition, here in Broken Barnet, of officers investigating themselves for possible wrongdoing. Wouldn't it better to have an independent investigation, and to what extent will members have oversight of it anyway?

No, said Cornelius, with the air of the Earl of Grantham, asked to look into a mix up involving a scullery maid and the boot boy: this is an operational matter. If only the butler, Travers, had not left, in such a hurry - by, the back door, and by mutual agreement, after that unfortunate business with the missing place cards at Lady Grantham's bingo night.  He would have put on his white gloves, and tails, bowed: yes, milord, and dealt with all the unpleasantness, while the footmen laughed up their sleeves at the dinner table.

Apparently your elected representatives are not paid to oversee investigations into the behaviour of their employees. Or much else, as far as anyone can see. But it will be reported to members. In reports written by officers - see? Easy. 


Mrs Angry's questions earlier in the week had included one asking if Capita, through this scheme, was eligible for any gainshare payments or charges. The response was No, no gainshare payment. There was no reply to the part about charges. Yet here we were, reading a response which said that Capita has been paid a whopping £100,000 for administering this 'renewal' process, for passes which are still valid. No, I don't understand it, either. That works out about - kerrching - £26 for every pass 'processed', according to Mrs Angry's accountants ...

Did Cllr Cornelius think this represented good value for money? 

Yes.

You do? So taking disabled people's passes away is a good way of spending a £100,000?

That's not what I said ... it's money well spent on renewing the Freedom passes.

Mrs Angry begs to differ.

And last of all: when you think about your record of 'helping' disabled people in this borough: are you proud of what you've done? 

You've taken respite care away from disabled children, you've taken travel passes away from disabled residents, you've taken meals on wheels away from the elderly, so pretty much from birth to death, in this borough now, you're being punished for being disabled, aren't you?

No one's being punished for being disabled, said Cornelius.

Well, it must look like it to them, replied Mrs Angry, gathering up her notes, and leaving the table.

If you want to, you can watch the footage that follows of the speech, or whatever it was, made by the Labour leader, Barry Rawlings on the travel pass fiasco. Better probably to skip further on and watch the contribution made by Labour councillor Paul Edwards, who understands the issues at stake here, and eloquently expressed the anger so many feel about what has happened, describing the devastating impact this iniquitous scheme, and the loss of his pass, on one of his constituents: 


"I want to share an example of one case in my ward of a 50 year old man with learning difficulties still living with his family and who has been in receipt of a Freedom Pass since he was 18.

He received two letters from Assisted Travel both dated 13 April 2016.



The first letter, says “Thank you for your application for a Disabled Freedom Pass", and the second letter says "Renewal of Your Disabled Freedom Pass:  your appeal regarding the renewal of your freedom pass is not upheld because you must be registered with the Barnet Council Learning Disabilities Team……I would like to emphasise that the decision is final and the matter is closed.”



Both of these letters do not have any named officer, nor a specific telephone number or email of a named officer and neither have been signed.


I did a search of the websites of LB Barnet, London Councils and the Transport Act 2000, all state the 7 categories of disability for a mandatory travel concession, but none say my constituent must be ‘registered with the Learning Disabilities Team'.

When I clicked on “Renew my Disabled Freedom Pass” on the LB Barnet website I arrived at “Page Not Found” (THIS HAS NOW BEEN REMOVED AND YOU NOW HAVE TO WAIT UP TO 5 DAYS FOR AN ELECTRONIC RESPONSE!)

Not only is this man being made to prove he is known to the Learning Disabilities Team even though there is no published requirement to do so, he can’t even renew his pass on line.  What’s he meant to do?

In relation to the two letters, until it can be proved otherwise I contend that the decisions to stop his Freedom Pass and refuse his appeal have been taken by the same person, and in so doing has denied his human right to an appeal against a decision taken against him by someone in authority independent of the first decision maker.

I welcome the Leader's contention that we have a duty of care and that “of course those with a life long condition should have a pass.”

The manner in which the disabled have been treated by officers of Capita has seriously damaged the reputation of the Council.

The answer to question 30 of the public questions states “The management of the Freedom Passes was not part of the (CSG) contract, but when the renewals came to light, Capita were asked to carry out the renewals process on the Council’s behalf."  If the work is not part of the core contract I call on the council to bring this work back in house to restore confidence and fairness towards our disabled residents."


Paul is an experienced politician, a former Barnet union leader (and former colleague, and comrade, of Mrs Angry, therefore) who again, deserves a bigger role in the Labour opposition. He is unlikely to be given one, as things stand, which is a great shame.

The Tory leader will get his report on the Freedom Pass fiasco, and then nothing much will happen, and probably many of those who were affected won't be properly compensated, and then - a new system will be invented, no doubt incurring more charges for Capita, with what so far, would seem likely to be another version of Barnet's own criteria of eligibility ... oh, hang on ... UNLESS, of course, it should transpire that there is some sort of challenge to the lawfulness of what they are doing, which seems pretty likely, in the circumstances.

Amongst the residents in the room was Siobhan Fairclough, the mother of Jenny, whose story has been featured here, in the local press, in the Standard, and elsewhere. She was pretty cross that no one seems to understand the significance of the eligibility criteria, and handed Mrs Angry a note which said 'Autism is not a mental health condition!' Jenny is so happy, to have had her pass returned, a pass which should never have been removed in the first place - but now the family are deeply worried that the return is only temporary, and that she will see it taken away again. One can hardly blame them for feeling concerned.

Also present was 'Calvin', a very charming young man whose pass, unfortunately, was taken too. He shook hands - several times, and showed us his new - temporary - pass very proudly. 

How sad it is that someone should have to be so grateful for something that is theirs by right. We told him he could ask for compensation for the money he has lost: a substantial amount.  Cllr Edwards' constituent, a middle aged man who had held his pass for thirty years, now had to spend £90 a month on transport fares - from a salary of £360. (One hopes that Capita is directly footing the bill for this, incidentally, and not the long suffering tax payer).

Many residents may well be in the position of not understanding their rights in regard to the pass, of course, let alone how to apply for compensation, or they may not have anyone to help them.

Compensation, arguably, might well be due for the distress caused to disabled residents in what may be considered to be an unlawful, and possibly discriminatory process. Those affected could consider taking legal advice, perhaps, to establish if this might be the case.

This is the face of Tory Barnet, then - and the reality of living in Capitaville. 

Extracting profit from those least able to bear the burden of payment, until caught out, and shamed - and not by the people paid to monitor the contractors, or by your elected representatives.

Leaving the Town Hall, and saying goodbye to Calvin, as he went off to the bus stop with the temporarily restored pass, it was hard not to feel a sense of despondency. 

So hard to fight this sort of thing, and so little hope of anyone else, other than a handful of maverick Labour councillors, grabbing these sort of issues, as they should be, by the throat, and showing the Tory council and their partners in commerce for what they really are: uncaring, cynical, feeling only discomfort, not remorse, for what they have done, and for what they have failed to do.

And nothing, nothing at all, that occurs as a result of the contractual bondage we have entered into with Capita will ever persuade the Tory councillors to accept that it was a mistake, because that would be bring too much responsibility back to them, and damage the last remnants of their tattered political reputation. 

            


If, as most people will surely be, you are appalled by this story - of you or a member of your family has lost their travel pass; if you are furious about the plans to destroy your library service; if you were turned away from a polling station and not allowed to take part in the London elections; if you are fed up with the parking madness that is ruining our high street businesses - at the next full council meeting, on May 24th, at 6.30 pm, outside the Town Hall, in Hendon, there will be a protest for residents, to express their fury to the Tory councillors. There will be speakers, and representatives from all local campaign groups. Do come along, and make your voice heard too.