Saturday, 30 April 2011

MetPro: Love me tender

One of Mrs Angry's more dedicated readers spends an awful lot of time, it seems, sitting up late at night, reading her blog and brooding darkly on certain recent matters: the never ending tale of wonder that is the MetPro story.

Quite often, this mysterious reader arrives at her blog with a little present for Mrs Angry, a google search that shows up on her stats log with rather touching observations on the theme of 'give MetPro a chance in Barnet', or 'Barnet Council is shit' ... if Mrs Angry was not made of sterner stuff, some of these messages might be misconstrued as a form of harrassment, mightn't they?

Well, obviously, one can sympathise to a large extent with the remark about Barnet Council, but really, I would think that our beloved council has bent over backwards to give MetPro all the chance it needs, wouldn't you? Bent so far backwards, in fact, that it lies sprawled on the floor, legs waving in the air?

Quite a few interesting stories are reaching Mrs Angry's ear, too, about the alleged working practices and history of this company. Lots of admirers out there, it seems.

It is now nearly a month since the Chief Executive of Barnet Council promised there would be an audit committee investigation of the MetPro disaster. We are still waiting to hear any real details of this excuse for an inquiry: no timetable, no terms of reference, nothing. This is simply not good enough: it is a deliberate prevarication - as well as a blatant attempt to minimise the political impact of the issue on the authority.

While this delay continues, we have heard that whereas we were told the authority destroyed the illicit footage of residents, in fact it destroyed only one copy, and not the original. On the advice of the Information Commissioner, therefore, Mrs Angry contacted a senior officer of the LBBarnet last week to ask, as a matter of urgency, for contact details of the company to make further enquiries about this issue - any resident who has been the target of such filming is entitled in law to make a subject access request in regard to the material in question. She received no response from the senior officer, or even a basic acknowledgment. Perhaps emails are being lost again? She then also contacted the person in charge of liquidating the now defunct company, and is still awaiting a response from him too. Oh, and she has made a formal complaint to Barnet in regard to the filming - no acknowledgment again - and she recommends that any other resident affected by this issue might wish to do the same.

Last year, the council's incompetence and lack of IT security standards led to a devastating loss of unencrypted personal data relating to school pupils, (including sensitive material belonging to one of Mrs Angry's kids, thank you very much) from a memory stick stolen from a Barnet laptop, and this was reported to the ICO. Barnet then carried out an internal 'inquiry'.

Can anyone remember what happened? Let me think. 'Lessons were learned'. Some lowly officer probably got the blame, rather than the highly paid senior officer ultimately responsible, or the Cabinet member.

Because this is how we do things in Broken Barnet, isn't it? Remember Iceland: who got the blame there? Not the then leader of the Council, now local Tory MP Mike Freer, who claimed the whole mess was nothing to do with him.

Now it seems that another memory stick, with personal data, in the possession of Barnet Council has, under orders from senior officers, been deliberately destroyed. Was the lesson not learned, after all? Oh, you bad London Borough of Broken Barnet, what are you like?

And talking of Mike Freer: look at this amusing One Barnet style story which is reported on the website - thanks to blogger Vicki Morris for the reference - if you ever wonder what our local MPs get up to all day, it seems that our Mr Mike Freer is keeping himself very busy. He seems to have overlooked the need to raise the MetPro issue with ministers, for some reason. Don't know what he is doing about the Pinkham Way waste proposals. Or any other local matter: oh no, hold on, I believe - like Andrew Harper - he has developed a sudden interest in squatting, moved to urgent action through deep anxiety over the poor old Gaddafi house in Garden Suburb.

And now, bless him, it seems he has found something else to worry about. Ever conscious about budgets, he has for some reason been fretting about .... the number of mobile phones allocated to staff at Whitehall. Hmm. And someone has been told to go and count them all ... Yes, really.

"Ministers' revelations came in response to questions from Conservative MP Mike Freer, who told he wasn't convinced the idea that central procurement could drive down the cost of government had yet been taken "to the heart of government". Freer, who conducted a rationalisation of staff mobile phones in Barnet, when he was the council's leader, said he feared nine different government departments could have nine different contracts. "No one has a handle on the cost of government," he said."

Of course Mr Freer is a outstandingly gifted politician. Awarded the title of Private Eye 'Banker of the Year', in honour of the £27 million pounds plus of our money lost in Iceland -although not by him, as we know. According to an interview in the Guardian last year, he stated:

"I'm not responsible for the operational matters ... That's what you have chief officers for."

Oh, and he is the creative genius who thought up the easycouncil model, which seeks to outsource all our local council services. (easycouncil=futureshape=One Barnet, a withered rose by any other name).

It seems he also sees himself as an expert on procurement, rationalisation, and the tight control of contracts. Interestingly, in 2006, the year he became leader of Barnet Council, the authority began its use of MetPro security services. Which begs some interesting questions. Was it under his instigation, or with his knowledge? What about procurement? Contracts? Tenders? Ah. Of course the audit report will be able to set all our minds at rest about all that, won't it? And some lowly fall guy has probably been earmarked already for the blame, rather than any chief officer or councillor.

Sure, isn't he your man for worrying about the phones, though, Mr Freer?

I'm thinking he must get bucketloads of letters from constituents, here in Finchley and Golders Green, on this very subject: from decent folk unable to sleep at night for anxiety over the telecom arrangements in Whitehall. Wonder if his expertise on this issue was acquired on those BT organised Vital Vision courses in the US he attended at an expense of £5,ooo of our money, a couple of years back? Remember - the man who failed to finish his accountancy and business law degree at Stirling University was able to claim an MBA after that. In what? How to count phones and stuff? Always useful.

Oh no: look - according to the council, quoted in some dusty old blogs by Don't Call Me Dave and Rog T, actually the purpose of these courses were, wait for it -

"to build relationships between leading government decision makers, (and Mike Freer: Ed), research partners, and BT, to develop and test respective visions of the future, focussing specifically on technological, social and business changes. It seeks to enable the shaping of policy, inform new thinking, and suggest "- oh f*ck this for a game of soldiers, you get the picture, citizens ... money well spent, of course.

Well, I hope that former leader Freer, and current leader Lynne Hillan, who has been conspicuously silent on the whole subject, for some reason, and perhaps the previous Chief Executive, Leo Boland, are all invited to give evidence to Lord Palmer's audit committee, and any other councillor or senior officer who may have had anything to do with the MetPro 'arrangement'. Perhaps they can enlighten us as to our procurement policy for security services - how we got mixed up with MetPro, then tangled up in Blue Nine, now matey with Magenta, according to the latest expenditure: three different companies at least - almost as bad as nine different phone companies, eh?

So many awkward questions hanging still, like angels, in the foetid air of Broken Barnet ...

How about some answers?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Wedding Special

Mrs Angry is feeling loved up. How about you?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

MetPro breaking news: Barnet admits only one film destroyed

Today I received an email from Barnet's director of Corporate Governance, or whatever he calls himself this week, in reply to points raised about MetPro and the infamous council budget meeting where I and several residents were secretly filmed by unlicensed security employees. His response included the following observations:

Neither the Council nor its officers requested or authorised any individual or organisation to carry out filming at the Council budget meeting on 1 March 2011. I am not, therefore, in a position to answer the questions you have raised in this regard. The Council was sent a copy of a film it had not sought or permitted to be taken – this was destroyed without being viewed. The original film has never been in the possession of or the property of the Council.

The Council had been assured by Metpro that its relevant staff were all SIA licensed. Ensuring that licensing arrangements were in place and that all associated requirements complied with were matters for the company. You will be aware that the Council has now terminated its arrangements with Metpro.

The actions taken in relation to the public gallery during the course of the meeting were not, as you put it, in contradiction to Police advice. That advice given to officers outside the Chamber was that, whilst it was not their decision on whether or not there should be further admission to the public gallery, they could not guarantee that the timing and nature of the movement would not result in disruption. This advice was given based on observations of those who were not at the time seated in the public gallery. The Police advice was taken into account by the Mayor in making the decision not to admit further members of the public to the gallery.

So: this scandalous story just gets worse. Barnet Council now admits that it received and destroyed a copy of a film from MetPro, but not the original one. It is telling me that it did not look at the film, which seems highly irresponsible, if true: are those of us who were filmed not entitled to know what footage was taken? Worse still, we are now told that other copies exist: why did Barnet not demand that these be handed over, and report the matter to the Information Commissioner? How many other copies are there?

It is not good enough for Barnet to retrospectively divest itself of all responsibility for ensuring that MetPro's staff were licensed - and CRB checked. Surely it had a duty of care to the people with whom these employees came into contact, and is it not a damning indictment of the standards of scrutiny within the procurement process that these vital safeguards were not made? And of course, no mention is made of the truly incredible fact that in the five years that MetPro was engaged by Barnet Council and was in receipt of what may well be millions of pounds of our money, it seems that no contract was ever in place, let alone any proper monitoring and regulation of service delivery.

The claims made in the last paragraph are untrue, and I know they are untrue because I was a witness. I heard and noted what the Mayor said in the chamber, and I also spoke to the police officer in charge, Inspector Simon Roberts. He told me categorically that he had not, as the Mayor claimed, advised that residents in the overflow room should be prevented from taking up the empty seats in the public gallery. I repeat: the Mayor stated that no more residents would be allowed to enter the half empty gallery because that was the decision made by the police, and the officer concerned himself consequently denied this and actually told me to go and get seventeen people to take up the vacant seats. These people were then physically barred from the gallery by security employees and council officers.

There is supposed to be an internal audit committee investigation into the MetPro affair. The council leadership, of course, hopes that this will safely contain the matter without further political damage. This is a mistake.

LibDem peer Councillor Lord Palmer is to chair this committee. I wrote to him, asking him to state when this will meet, what terms of reference the investigation will have, and the extent of any powers he will have to take action in the case of any critical findings. It is evident from his response that there are as yet no answers to such questions. Without any disrespect to Lord Palmer, his good intentions are not enough: an internal investigation, in circumstances as serious as we now know them to be, is clearly both inadequate and inappropriate. We must continue to demand an urgent, honest and fully independent public inquiry.

Boris and The Machine

A letter arrived for Mrs Angry's son, at the end of last week.

'S'from Boris Johnson', he muttered, with an expression implying he might be about to about to screw it into a ball and aim it vaguely in the direction of the recycling bin.

'Why is Boris Johnson writing to you?' demanded his mother, snatching it off him.

'Wants to wish me happy birthday or something.'

She read on, suspiciously:

Dear X,

Congratulations on turning 18. This is a huge milestone. You can now vote or stand for election as a Councillor, MP or even Mayor of London.

When I turned 18, Prince William was about to be born in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. British troops had just recaptured the Falkland Islands. The Cold War was at its height, and in many ways the world was a grimmer place. So I think one of my first actions was to go and exercise my legal right to have a drink in a pub - in moderation, of course.

You are turning 18 at one of the most exciting times in London's history. The eyes of the world are on us as we gear up to next summer's Olympics. The Games alone are creating a huge number of opportunities for young Londoners like yourself, not to mention the thousands of new jobs and homes.

Ever since my 18th I have enjoyed my life as an adult citizen of the best big city on earth, and I hope you will too. I look forward to the vital role you will play in making London even greater.

Best wishes,

Boris Johnson

Mayor of London.

Awfully good of Boris to send birthday greetings, of course. Three months late, but then, skipping to the bottom of the letter I notice, in teeny weeny print, a clue as to why he is suddenly so attentive - it says ... Promoted by Chris Scott, on behalf of LondonConservatives/BackBoris2012.

Ah. Oh, hang on though - long time to the GLA & mayoral elections, isn't it? Of course, next week we have that other thing, don't we - the AV vote?

And what, you may be thinking, are Mrs Angry's views on AV? Well, at heart, Mrs Angry does not give a flying you know what about AV. She will only be voting because a. if she doesn't exercise her right to vote she feels guilty about the suffragettes and b. in the hope of upsetting Nick Clegg and the rest of the treacherous LibDems. She hates the thought of voting the Tory approved way, and acknowledges that AV would cut them down to size in a pleasing manner, but the thought of more coalition governments even worse than this one is too high a price to pay.

But back to the Mayor's letter: who is really hoping to benefit from this load of birthday greetings to new voters: the Back Boris campaign, or the the Tory No to AV campaign? A subtle reminder to new voters that they can exercise their new rights, and a nudge in one particular, if unlikely, direction? I am sure that all election expense regulations have been carefully studied and followed, of course. And frankly, whatever the purpose of this letter, it is a complete and utter waste of time and money.

I can't think of any eighteen year old who would be remotely impressed by Boris's attempts to wow them with allusions to aah, loved up Prince William, or the good old days when we could rejoice, rejoice over our retro empire military actions in the Falklands, or trying to impress them with the somewhat passe threat of the Cold War ... Oh, and most eighteen year olds have been exercising their illegal rights to drink in a pub for sometime, Boris, btw. As for the Olympics, this has as much interest to my son & his mates as it has to me, ie none whatsoever, and he is not foolish enough to swallow the line about the games giving him new opportunities, or creating jobs and homes.

I note that in this letter the Mayor tries his best to avoid any mention of current political issues. Can understand why. If Boris actually knows any ordinary eighteen year old Londoners, of course, he would be more than conscious that the one thing that has awakened their political consciousness is the fact that the Tory LibDem government has blighted their future lives with the burden of paying back thousands of pounds of tuition fee bills.

What is interesting, though, about the mailshot campaign, is that hello: a Tory politician has perhaps recognised that there is a young electorate out there, increasingly politicised, and threatening to undermine the party's success in future elections.

My two teenage children see the Mayor as nothing more than a joke, a comic figure: they have no idea what happens at the GLA, and care even less. Their apathy is hardly surprising: and after all - it is a valid question - what is the point of the GLA? Why do we need a mayor? Why do the Tories, who are so much against interference by government, and red tape, and bureaucracy, and quangos, and oh, unneccessary budgets, care so much about an administrative body which has risen defiantly from the ashes of the one they burnt down with such glee?

The GLA is one of those concepts which really exists only in its own imagination, in the council chamber at City Hall. Ask any Londoner what good it does for them, and I'll bet you'll get no sensible response: most people will be at a loss to think of anything. A few jokes about Boris bikes and buses, and a bit of a moan about the congestion charge, will be all. Those who live in the outer boroughs, especially, almost completely fail to feel any connection at all with the London Assembly.

In this area, of course, we are blessed with our current GLA representative, aren't we? Step forward Brian Coleman. Let's have a closer look. He receives £53,439 a year for this post, and what do we, the long suffering constituents, get in return? F*ck knows. Bearing in mind busy Brian has to squeeze it into an enormously challenging workload - councillor and cabinet member here in Broken Barnet, his hugely popular role as conciliator at the London Fire Brigade, and something at the Local Government Association, and stuff to do with the North London Waste Authority - run off his darling, dainty little feet.

Of course what he actually does at City Hall is anybody's guess. We know from his gifts and hospitality declarations that he goes to luncheons, dinners, and receptions from time to time. There is a lovely photo of him having a little kip at his desk, and there are a couple of amusing films on youtube, such as the 'Odious Toad' outburst, which give us a helpful indication of what the old routine might be like, but otherwise ...

But whatever Brian does, he certainly wants to carry on doing it, at our expense, and his Tory colleagues apparently agree. To do this, unfortunately for him, stuck as we are with a few last obstinate traces of democracy, even with within the limitations of what passes for the weird GLA electoral system - he will have to be re-elected. Ha. Slight problem, there, as you might imagine.

Last week saw Andrew Dismore gain the nomination of Labour candidate as our GLA consituency. Good news for us: bad news for Brian. Dismore is a highly experienced candidate, with a long parliamentary career, and a reputation for being a hard working, conscientious MP. Oh dear.

According to journalist and blogger Richard Osley last month, Brian may just realise what a delicate position he is now in: Osley alleged that Lynton Crosby, the Australian 'political strategist'

'will turn up to a branch meeting to herald the start of his re-election campaign at the end of the month. I’ve been told he will brief party activists on what they must work on to avoid any avoidable slip-ups.'

Now, Crosby is largely credited with the success of Boris's own campaign to be Mayor: a victory few might have predicted at one stage - can he really work a miracle for our Brian? Mrs Angry suggests that it will take a little more than a pep talk with a few doddery local activists. Maybe he'll try to get Coleman down wiv da youth, send them all birthday cards, start tweeting and facebooking? Mrs Angry's own advised strategy, offered for free, would probably involve imprisonment in a dark cellar for twelve months, black magic, and possibly a spot of human sacrifice. Failing that, she suspects that Lynton Crosby may find his workload even more demanding than it first appeared.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Barnet Press: why we must support their strike

In this borough, we have three local papers. One of them, the Ham & High, is more focused on the Camden borders but is a good read, literate, culturally savvy, and brave: not afraid to tackle the MetPro scandal, as we saw.

Of the two other local publications, the Times Group is perhaps the most widely distributed through the borough, and is a mainstay of local reporting. Recently it has become more challenging of the antics of our local authority, and is all the better for it, doing what a local paper should do.

Last, but not least, is the Barnet Press, concentrating on the northern sector of the borough, and unusual in being a privately owned, independent paper. Mrs Angry used to save the Barnet Press specifically for firelighting, in the bad old days, when Brian Coleman used to have a regular column in it, enlightening the grateful readership with his wisdom and benevolent views, and descriptions of his Pooterish attempts to network with the er, what is the phrase he loves - the 'great and the good'. Happily, those days are safely in the past, and the Press is now magnificently scathing in its denouncement of not only Mr Toad himself, but more importantly the generally outrageous behaviour of our current Tory council, notably with stories such as Allowancegate and the MetPro scandal.

Which is how a local paper should be - independent, challenging, campaigning, investigative. God knows this is what we need in Barnet - with a lunatic Tory council like ours, which tries to control all dissent and all criticism, even within its own party, the range and vigour of the local press is an essential safeguard of democracy, isn't it?

You might be wondering why a blogger would worry about the future of traditional reporting in an era of social media, citizen journalism, the netroots movement and all that stuff. But I do worry, and I do care very much, because I don't see any conflict between the two different approaches. Journalism is evolving, as everything does, but it isn't extinct: the need to report news professionally will always exist, in whatever format, whether globally, nationally, or locally.

On a local basis, the relationship between bloggers and the local press should be symbiotic, mutually beneficial - or in other words, as happpens in Barnet - they nick our stories and we nick theirs. The local press has its ways, and we have ours, but they are not in competition and in fact the different approaches complement each other. As a result, the hapless residents of Barnet are better informed about their the political life of their borough than any other borough in London, and perhaps the country as a whole.

The Tories who run this council would love it if the Barnet Press faded away, I am sure: its main distribution points coincide with the area in the borough where some of the most awful of our many awful councillors reside and have their wards: all the more reason to maintain a healthy, combative local paper in those parts, therefore.

At the moment, NUJ members working on the Barnet Press are engaged in a two week strike. This is not over paylevels, but on a point of principle, and that principle is the future of local journalism. The owners of their papers have reduced the staffing to the point where only three reporters must produce a total of nine publications. This enormous workload means that many issues and stories that should be covered are going unreported, and there is a struggle to maintain a proper standard of professional coverage. This represents the slow death of a local newpaper, and that is something we should all be very concerned about.

Do you want your local newspaper to be reduced to a couple of stories about bring and buy sales in the church hall, wrapped round a weighty advertising supplement, or do you want a challenging, lively, opinionated paper which reports on matters of public interest to your local community? Time then, to show your support for the freedom of the press, and the future of local journalism: visit their website and read how:

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Mrs Angry changes the subject

Yesterday's blog was hugely popular, for some reason, particularly with gentlemen readers of a certain age, obviously very keen to participate in the debate about a suitable model for local government, (Model X, Mr Harper?) oh, and ladies' underwear. Sorry, boys, though, here is a bucket of cold water - back to politics now.

A couple of things to catch up with:

In all the excitement over the MetPro scandal, Mrs Angry has not had a chance to publish the eventual, partial, responses to the following expenses in the last quarters of 2010, as noted in the online council expenditure over £500. Let's take a look then. Remember, these questions were made to a residents' forum, which proved too embarrassing for Barnet, along with the one about MetPro, and was, in an admirably creative time delaying strategy, turned into an FOI request.

The expenses I questioned were:

a) The payments made to Todd Worsnip, also known as ‘DJ Snips’, amounting to more than £2,000 in July and August by Childrens’ Services.

b) The two payments made to 'a named individual' , apparently a ‘hip hop’ artist, of £1,269 each, in August, by Adult Social Services (name later ‘redacted, although originally published’).

c) A payment of £550 to the RAF Museum in November by Adult Social Services for ‘staff training’.

d) Payments of £3,150 by Children’s Services and £900 by the Corporate Governance Directorate to ‘Higgins Cartoons’ in November.

e) A payment of £1,162 to Digby Trout Restaurants Ltd by Adult Social Services for ‘staff training’ on 9/12/2010.

f) Payments of more than £15,000 to the four star luxury Sandbanks Hotel in Poole for conference facilities in November.

g) Payments, by the Deputy Chief Executive and other departments, of more than £15,000 in the last quarter alone to Voice!Business Associates, a company that specialises in ‘voice training’. How many officers have been trained by this company?

So: on the last possible day Mrs Angry received a reply, of sorts, from Barnet. And how very enlightening. No wonder they were so shy about publishing the details. In fact: excuse me while I slip into the appropriate One Barnet hiphop style:

Yo, Walkley - Mrs Angry's on your case:
She thinks these expenses are a f*cking disgrace ...

Yes, Mr Todd Worsnip, aka hiphop producer and DJ Snips, has been paid for two music workshops, a marvellous opportunity for vulnerable young people in need of a mentor, and perhaps wishing to emulate his sound political views - (read what he has to say about David Cameron on the Salute website, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet ... ) Sadly, the entry over another apparent hiphop artiste must remain forever shrouded in mystery, having been redacted, and Mrs Angry being given a refusal to comply under some third party personal data clause. Now, you may feel that any individual being paid for services should not be eligible for anonymity under this excuse: but what do you expect, in our borough?

So: on to point c), money paid to the RAF museum, for 'staff training': another disappointment, I fear. This was not as I had hoped, in order that deputy CE Andrew Travers might learn how to pilot a Spitfire (hence his elocution lessons in received English, to sound more like Douglas Bader when radioing back to base at NLBP). No, this £550 was actually the cost of venue hire for an Adult Social Services staff awards ceremony at the museum. Oh, and point e), a payment of £1,160 to Digby Trout Restaurants Ltd was for the catering. So more than £2,000 for a party & doling out some awards to staff members. A perfectly reasonable use of tax payers' money, I'd say, wouldn't you, citizens? Rewarding staff for doing their feckin jobs with awards and catered functions, in the same month their colleagues in other departments are being made redundant? Nice touch.

Now then: the £15,000 plus spent on a conference at a luxury hotel in Poole? It was for a headteachers' residential conference. Ha: I'll bet there was some running about the corridors late at night, and a few discreet taps on the door at one in the morning, with that lot, don't you? But don't worry: Mrs Angry is told that the costs were paid for in full by the individual schools. Who get their funding from, er ... us?

Higgins Cartoons: oh yes. The first payment of £900 was for 'promotional material' for the 2010 election awareness campaign. What? Can anyone remember what that might be? Caricatures of our beloved councillors, to discourage young voters from visiting the polling station or ever thinking there is any point to taking part in the democratic process?

The second payment of a whopping £3,150 was for promotional material 'for a recycling campaign', (incorrectly coded, we are told, and really incurred by Environment & Operations, ie the responsibility of our beloved councillor, Brian Coleman.) So: in order to promote recycling and the conservation of energy and finite resources, we spent thousands of pounds on er what: wasting finite resources and energy printing leaflets that probably no one read? Hope they got recycled, anyway.

Ah: the £15,000 plus spent in payments for glorified elocution lessons to Voice!Business Associates, mostly from the Deputy CE's department, but also Env & Ops and Planning, Housing & Regeneration. Here is a partial breakdown of the deputy CE expenditure alone:

Half-day session for 2 officers
Day session for 12 officers
Day session for 12 officers
Half-day session for 1 officer

Half-day session for 1 officer
Day session for 3 officers
Short day session for 2 officers

Day session for 3 officers
Half-day session for 2 officers
Half-day session for 1 officer

Again, money well spent, I am sure all residents will agree. It's vital to the success of One Barnet that senior officers feel confident when spouting a load of shite in meetings about the necessity of a relentless drive for efficiency: an efficiency which allows such extravagance in expenditure for the priviliged few.

Just a sample, then, of the type of things which Barnet Council wastes our money on, while handing out redundancy notices to staff members, and making devastating cuts in vital services like childrens' centres, and in grants to local voluntary bodies.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an event at the Arts Depot: a dance festival performed by children from Barnet schools. I was invited to attend because the evening was held in memory of a family friend, a beautiful young woman named Nadine Mehta, a former PE and dance teacher, and pupil, from my old school St Michael's, who lost her life in tragic circumstances, just before Christmas. It was a very emotional event for many reasons, but notably because of the excitement and pride of the children taking part, young children of many different abilities and cultural backgrounds, many from schools in some of the less affluent areas of our borough, and most touchingly, perhaps, including a class of children from a school for special needs. It was impossible to watch that particular performance without being moved to tears, because it was so joyful, and they obviously gained so much from the experience - and indeed were reluctant to leave the stage.

At the end of the evening the organiser made a speech, and mentioned, regretfully, that he did not think such an event would be held again. I was sitting near the Mayor, as it happened, and watched him while this remark was made. He looked away, and suddenly felt the need to busy himself with his handkerchief. As well he might. Because, as we know, the budget cuts made by our philistine Tory councillors include a massive reduction to the Arts Depot.

The Tories want us to believe that such cuts were unavoidable: looking at their accounts, and seeing where they throw money with such reckless abandon suggests to me that this is absolute rubbish. They choose to waste their budgets on themselves and the whims of senior officers, whilst local bodies, and venues like the Arts Depot, must do without the level of funding that sustains all the fantastic community based projects that bring so much pleasure, and so much benefit, to the less advantaged residents of our borough. There is something badly wrong here, isn't there?

Finally: warm congratulations today to Andrew Dismore on securing the Labour candidacy for the forthcoming GLA elections in this constituency. He is the man who will deliver us from Brian Coleman, and what a happy day that will be for us all, here in Broken Barnet.Today is the day, ctizens, where we start to loosen the grip of the Tory stranglehold on this borough, and move towards a more positive future.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Mrs Angry, never knowingly underplayed

Anyway, so. Gentlemen, look away now: (unless, of course, you are a Tory councillor with a particular interest in women's tights, and yes - I know who you are.) Dave Hill might enjoy this too, over at t' Grauniad.

Ladies: let us visit the Broken Barnet lingerie department for a moment.

Mrs Angry has purchased a pair of John Lewis tights, and hello: as she opened it, a piece of card falls out of the packet. It is a set of instructions, with no less than three helpful illustrations, explaining to we fluffy headed girls, how to put on a pair of tights.

In fact, it warns us sternly, that, in order to obtain the maximum benefit from our John Lewis tights, we must always ensure that they are put on correctly. Oh ... now you mention it ... And: Dr H, please remove those tights from your head, you foolish woman, unless you are intending to nip to the local post office and frighten the staff. Listen and learn.

Step 1: Gather the tights with your thumbs in the toes (no fingers,) and gently pull over each foot. See the saucy line drawing of a woman delicately placing the pointy toes of her left foot into the end of a pair of tights. Unfortunately, to Mrs Angry's expert eye, it looks like she has put the foot into the wrong side, but let's move on.

Step 2: With both feet comfortably fitted, stand with heels flat on the floor before starting to pull up. Of course according to the previous picture, you will now be standing with your tights, if not your knickers, in a twist, but move on. Ok, feet flat on floor, not as usual, one foot in, standing on one leg, hopping about bedroom swearing. And look, another teasy picture of someone reaching knee level with what actually looks more like a stocking. Next: firmly draw each leg up to the knee, repeatedly sliding the thumbs from front to back around the leg and (you may wish to take a break at this point, if you are feeling over excited, or from the Barnet Bugle) and ... ensure that tights are evenly stretched. Mmm. Lovely. Look: evenly stretched - always a bonus.

Step 3: Using the same movement, pull over thighs. When both legs of the tights are stretched to their full length, pull on the panty part. (I should point out that the accompanying picture to this stage clearly shows a woman lewdly sliding her tights up, but not wearing any undergarments, which seems a bit slutty for a John Lewis woman). Hold on, though, we're not finished. Here is a warning. If the tights are not snug and secure, do not try to straighten them. Roll them down to the ankle, you minx, and begin again - do not be afraid to pull firmly, it says, ladies. And then, health and safety: pull out the toes of the tights to make sure your toes are not cramped. Phew. Got that? Legs in tights safely? Now relax. Remember to put some other clothes on, before leaving the house, or opening the door to the postman. Yes, we've all done it, haven't we?

I wonder how long it took to produce such a thorough guide? Frankly, there are shorter and less explicit instructions in the Kama Sutra, and most of them far less exciting.

But isn't it interesting (and this is where I will try and make out there is a serious reason to this post, so pay attention) that we live in a world where so much regulation now exists, so much that upsets the right wing PC haters, the old farts who so detest the nanny state, and 'elfnsafety', and now look, even John Lewis has succumbed: this is a significant loss, you know.

In the heady debate that takes place in corporate circles about yawn, models for local government and all that crap, when people stop sniggering about Barnet's easycouncil nonsense, they like to bring up the John Lewis concept, compare and contrast. Certain Barnet officers who take themselves far too seriously and, when not self promoting on twitter, are paid to promote the dafter outreaches of our borough's pretence at engagement with the community, have even been known to enter this debate.

I suppose John Lewis is seen as a benchmark for quality, and oh, standard of service. Quality and standards of service, a respect for the customer, a partnership with staff: in Broken Barnet? You having a laugh?

There is a clash of cultures in the different strands of administrative management in this borough, and a fatal gulf between the most senior officers, and the politicians, the elected members, and then again, a gulf between the senior officers and the rest of the staff. Somewhere in the gaps between these disparate strands, there is a failure to address the needs of the customers, ie you and me, the tax paying residents. Look at the confusion it creates.

I suspect the senior officers in this borough would prefer to follow the John Lewis model, whereas, of course, our Tory masters have sworn allegiance to the idiotic cause of easycouncil. Somehow or other, we have ended up with Poundland.

For example - and let's not waste an opportunity to mention them again: someone drew my attention today to Barnet's own online information about licensing matters in the borough. There is a long list of regulatory matters, including a section on door supervision. Guess what: this links to the SIA, the Home Office body which licences security companies, and which appears to have had only a passing knowledge of MetPro, Barnet's own private security company, used apparently without contract or tender since 2006. Rules and regulations, instructions, in our borough, are only to be applied to residents: the council is above the law, when it wishes to be. No need for nanny state supervision, diktats and bureaucracy here, we do things our own way and are accountable to no one. This is not a partnership, or a democracy: this is Broken Barnet, after all.

Wonder if Poundland does tights?

See, Mr Mustard: I rose to the challenge ...

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Looking for Business?

Now here's a funny thing.

Fifteen days late, a 'reply' to Mrs Angry's MetPro FOI request has arrived in her in box. I say reply - of course, in One Barnet fashion, it tells you absolutely nothing at all, and yet everything you really need to know.

If you recall - and do try to keep up - this was actually an FOI request thoughtfully made by Barnet itself, to itself, on my behalf, without asking me, when, in my capacity as 'usual suspect' (see last post) I submitted an awkward question to the last Residents' Forum. This neatly delayed an answer by twenty working days, of course - and rather more, as it turned out.
I had asked:

Can you tell me when the company providing security cover for the Town Hall and other council requirements was first engaged, and by whom? How many other companies tendered for the contract?

Barnet refused to answer these points within the statutory time limit, sometimes not explaining why, sometimes claiming it was still 'collating' the information. In the meanwhile, of course, the information necessary to answer this question was clearly in the public domain anyway, as Mrs Angry noted earlier in the week, thanks to the investigations of herself, other bloggers, and some ladies and gentlemen of the press.

Mrs Angry had already drafted a letter to the Chief Executive, in fact, explaining that she was perhaps unique in the history of the LB Barnet in having answered her own FOI request by her own efforts, and suggesting that Mr Walkley will therefore be happy to pay 'Angry Consultants Plc' the fee for this service: (pro rata, based on the pay scale of consultant deputy CE Andrew Travers, hmm - let's call it a month's worth of investigation, so £250K divided by 12 = well, around £20,000, ok?) Of course we had no contract, tender process nor any DPR for my services, but heigh ho, that's never held anyone back in Broken Barnet, has it? Call it a, what was it - an 'arrangement' ...

And of course Mrs Angry's investigations are rather more thorough than those represented in her answer from the council which merely reads:

The company were first engaged by the council in 2006. After searching the council’s records I confirm we have not located any other information falling within your request.


All those long weeks, to come up with that? We already knew that MetPro was working for Barnet since then, actually, and oh dear, we knew from the DPR published on the 12th April that there was no evidence whatsoever of any contract, any tender process, or indeed any formal basis for what is officially described as an 'arrangement' with this company for security services. The telling point in the DPR is where it states at point 2.1, 'Any relevant previous decisions' - none.

Let's recap then.

Barnet Council, since 2006, has been using a security company without formalising any agreement with a contract, without any tender process, apparently handing over to them annually more than a million pounds of our money, and has never bothered to check whether or not they are licensed as required by law, even though it is a criminal offence to work unlicensed in this sector. This security company claims to have been working with children and vulnerable people, yet we have seen no evidence that Barnet has ensured their employees have been CRB checked.

Barnet Council has carried on using this company even when the company was entering liquidation, and claims not to have noticed the change of company, from MetPro 'Rapid' to 'Emergency'.

Barnet Council allowed this security company to prevent some residents from exercising their lawful rights to attend a council meeting, during which the company ignored the decisions of the the police officer in charge, and most shocking of all, actually took covert filmed footage of residents including me and my fellow bloggers.

Barnet Council refused to answer questions about this matter, and then announced it had obtained this footage, and destroyed it, without informing the targets of the illicit filming.

Barnet council dumped the company only after an embarrassing story appeared in the Ham & High.

Barnet Council deliberately refused to answer FOI requests for information about the issue within the statutory time limits.

Barnet Council has refused calls for an independent public inquiry, stifling an emergency debate on the issue at full council meeting, and buried the matter in an in house audit committee.

What the hell is going on here?

How can a local authority, in this day and age, be casually using the services of such a company in such a sensitive role, without due regard for all the safeguards that are supposed to be applied to the use of outsourced services?

How many other services are being outsourced in this unregulated way?

How did this situation arise in the first place, and why has no officer or councillor queried the lack of contract or monitoring of the service?

How did this company come to be taken on: who recommended them, and who sanctioned years of payments to a company without a contract?

We urgently need the answers to these questions, and we must ensure that the right people are held accountable - that means not that some hapless officer, in Barnet tradition, is made the fall guy and given the sack, but that the line of responsibility is followed - all the way.

There are strict rules about the tendering and choice of contractors for obvious reasons: how else do you protect against the dangers of corrupt practices, and financial mismanagement? What does such laxity say about the future of the many contracted services our easyvirtuecouncil wants to throw in the direction of any old punter who comes along?

We have been worrying, haven't we, lately, about our borough being dragged kicking and screaming into the brave new world of Contract City? It seems, however, that our Tory councillors have already, without our consent, taken us on a detour into the seamier side of the corporate night, and made us strut our stuff in the dark alleys of Broken Barnet.

Time to reclaim the streets, I'd say, wouldn't you, citizens?

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Usual Suspects: or how to silence dissent in Broken Barnet

Committee Room Two at Hendon Town Hall is a small, oak panelled room, with nineteen thirties decor, a long abandoned fireplace, and a nice old Persian rug on the floor. Quite cosy and comforting, in many ways. Indeed, you could not ask for a more genial setting in which to have to sit, as I did last night, and watch a group of Tory councillors calmly set about kicking the shit out of the frail old body that passes for our constitution, here in Broken Barnet.

Witnessing this atrocity with me were fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, Barnet Bugler Daniel Hope, and veteran local campaigner David Howard. These gentlemen had all applied to speak to the Special Committee which was reviewing the constitution. Best to take advantage of these opportunities while they still can. Because after last night's meeting, and its outrageous agenda of proposed 'reforms', the ability of residents - and most of the 63 elected councillors in this borough - to take part in the democratic process of our council will in future become almost non existant.

Of course these reforms, we are told, are necessary in order to demonstrate a full commitment to the idea of 'localism'.

Localism? Are you off your f*cking head, Mr Pickles: in Barnet? We can't even manage to grasp the basic principles of democracy here, Eric, let alone get our heads around whatever freedoms and engagement you pretend you want to extend to local government.

About last night then. Who did we have taking part in this disgraceful act of anti-democratic constitutional 'reforms'? Let us name and shame the culprits, our Tory councillors:

Step forward Chairman and Mayor Anthony Finn, Vice Chair Joan Scannell, Deputy Leader Andrew Harper, Cabinet members Melvin Cohen and Richard Cornelius, and Tom Davey.

On the losing team: Labour Leader Alison Moore, Barry Rawlings, and Alan Schneiderman.

Standing on the outside edge, looking in, LibDem Councillor Lord Palmer.

From Corporate Governance (now happily minus the Democratic Service bit in their title, which was removed after a complaint from the Trading Standards authority) officers Jeff Lustig, Aysen Giritli and Jeremy Williams.

Ten councillors, three officers, and four residents, whom I am sure felt as I did, like political prisoners being forced to watch the execution of a fellow party member, as a lesson in why all resistence is pointless.

When the meeting started, surreally, the sound system kept being interrupted by the intervention of an invisible speaker discussing council matters, in a One Barnet corporate speech, presumably in another meeting. It added to the inescapable sense of all council meetings being stage managed and controlled by unseen forces. Mr Lustig commented, in a rather ghoulish way, and as a cold draught swept throught the committee room, that during Question Time at the council meeting on Tuesday night, the lights had kept switching off, for no apparent reason. I imagined this was the desperate act of some dead mayor clanking about the chamber in his spectral chains, trying to make a point about the Tory proposals to cut down these questions, but who knows?

Question time, last night, was a contentious area of discussion. Non Tories pointed out how there was no room for 'spontaneity' or real debate. The Tories looked puzzled: why would you want dangerous debate that you cannot control? Move on. Non Tories point out that most of the 63 councillors have no chance to contribute and that at the last meeting hardly anyone other than executive & Cabinet members spoke. Executive & Cabinet Tories looked puzzled: why would you want anyone else other than themselves allowed to speak at a council meeting? Daniel Hope tried to elaborate on this point. For some reason this upset Andrew Harper, and we had a bit of a handbags moment. (To be fair, Mr Harper looked rather uncomfortable through out the evening, and I did wonder if he is still having trouble with his motions, which might explain his tetchiness.)

'I hope,' said Andrew, icily, to Mr Hope, 'that you are not implying any incompetence by Cabinet Members.'

In case you had forgotten, Councillor Andrew Harper is Deputy Leader, a Cabinet member, has a portfolio of immense proportions, and is Very Important. Last night, though, he seemed a little shy at times, and seemed to be hiding from Mrs Angry's loving gaze, positioning himself carefully behind Alison Moore, the cheeky monkey.

Alison stated that she felt a suggestion to eliminate questions to Cabinet members was quite inappropriate, that it was important to hold them to account, that it was after all, all about public accountability. Andrew Harper stared at the ceiling. Councillor Cohen, who excelled hinself throughout the evening with his determination to force through every mean spirited Tory proposal, disagreed with Ms Moore. Surprise.

Lord Palmer tried in vain to persuade his Tory colleagues that spontaneity and the input of other councillors in council meetings was a healthy and neccessary part of the democratic process. Ha. He was wasting his time, of course. Libya has lessons to learn from us here, in Barnet, he eventually observed, shaking his head. He has been a councillor in this borough for twenty five years, and as the evening wore on, frankly, he looked more and more distressed. Who could blame him?

Alison Moore tried to stand her ground over the right to retain a choice of a single guaranteed opposition motion to go to council meetings: incredible that such a right should have to be fought for, and incredible that there was an argument over the basis for any right for the LibDems to put motions or indeed engage in debate at all, as a 'minority party'. You know - LibDems - that minority party in government?

Lord Palmer pointed out that many motions, as seen at Tuesday's meeting, actually had nothing to do with Barnet at all. Ahem. Andrew Harper, whose squatting motion, brought on by deep anxiety over Saif Gaddafi's property rights, caused so much disgust in the public gallery this week, suddenly looked slightly embarrassed, but then had the gall to agree that perhaps that might be the case.

Alison Moore and Alan Schneiderman's protests about the retrogressive and undemocratic steps the council was taking to shut down opportunities for any councillors other than Cabinet members, and the executive, to have any say in meetings fell on deaf ears, of course. They just do not care: they want to shut down such opportunities, and have no sense of shame.

Here was one of the most gobsmacking Tory comments of the evening, from Tom Davey. He observed that yes, these proposals might be seen as 'undemocratic', but at the last local election, people in Barnet had voted Conservative, so it was ok. Yes. So: whatever our Tory masters decide now, Councillor Davey thinks we must accept it, as they have a mandate for any policy they might come up with. Just think of the possibilties, and be afraid. Be very afraid.

Oh, hello: something they could agree on, not surprisingly - to retain the break in council meetings. This is when they all go off to stuff themselves from a lavish buffet spread laid on at our expense: good news then for Barry 'Take the Biscuit' Evangeli. Mr Evangeli is one of those councillors whose voice I have never heard, and now you know why: they are paid allowances to come and sit in these meetings, but are not asked to take part in any activity other than to stick their hand up and vote when told by their party whip. And enjoy the buffet.

Next came the issue of the number of council meetings. With all his usual charm and committment to the democratic process Councillor Melvin Cohen was determined to push through proposals to cut down on the number of these meetings. Really, I don't know why they bother with them at all: most council policy is decided by a cabal of Cabinet members, behind the scenes anyway. Let's shut them down, too.

Alison Moore again protested about another completely unneccessary further erosion of of debate.

Alan Schneiderman declared the whole evening's set of proposals to be an absolute farce.

What did the Mayor think? He said: 'I like council meetings. I think they're lovely.'

Yes, he thinks they are lovely. Well, your colleagues, Mr Finn, think they are a damned nuisance.

Cutting down on the number of meetings has no financial benefit, and will serve only to obstruct the speed and efficiency of administrative council business, but of course that is the whole point. Oh hang on though, I do see one possible financial benefit: your councillor allowances can be cut, now, can they, as you will be doing even less work on behalf of the local tax payers?

Councillor Cohen then moved to try to stop late amendments to motions being made. Why?

Alan Schneiderman demanded to know what problems such an option has ever caused. Well quite. But as opposition motions and amendments never succeed in Tory Barnet, Alan, maybe it isn't worth worrying about.

Delegated Powers Reports: ah good. Looking forward to this one. A DPR is that thing we saw rushed out this week, belatedly, to legitimise the temporary use of Blue 9 security instead of oh, who was it now, the name escapes me, er MetPro, that's it, you know, the unlicensed company Barnet has been using to film me and other residents, but whose appears not to have been sanctioned by contract or by, oh: DPR ...

Mr Reasonable gave a magnificent address to the meeting on this subject, pointing out the necessity for a transparent and open audit trail. He noted the huge lack of consistency as to when these authorisations are issued, which of course lays the council open to accusations of all sorts of naughtiness. Oh, he mentioned as an example the use of certain contracted senior officers and er what was it ... oh yes, MetPro .... (it was interesting to see how the Tory councillors all fall silent, and stare at their shoes, whenever this subject is mentioned).

Unbelievably, yet again there were no questions from the councillors. Why should they bother?

A discussion about committees dealing with union consultation involved yet another senior officer working for Barnet on a contract. She sought to gloss over the fact that the unions had actually asked for a deferrment of the discussion. Again: why should their objections matter?

Ah, now we moved on to the debate about Residents' Forums and Area sub committees. (NB please note Mr Williams, the plural of forum is not foras, and committee is a singular noun. Are standards slipping since some recent staff departures?) The proposed changes will amalgamate the two bodies, starting at 6pm when most people cannot attend, and strictly outlining the subjects that residents may raise, and the many they now cannot, and will also prevent the discussion of matters already raised in the previous six months. Marvellous.

Mr Reasonable spoke again. He thought the objectives of these bodies, ie influence, localism and cost effectiveness would hardly be reached by the proposed changes. He noted the adversarial system of the Forums/Fora. He explained that in these meetings, 'we ask questions and you try to avoid answering them.' Mrs Angry laughed rather too loudly at this point and Mr Lustig gave her a very disapproving look.

Mr Reasonable suggested in his gentle way that it was perhaps necessary to try to rebuild a relationship of trust and mutual respect between the council and residents.

The Tory councillors looked on with barely veiled hostility.

Where, he continued, is your committment to listening to what people actually want to say?

The same Tory councillors still looked on, wondering why anyone would care what residents really wanted to say.

Mr R pointed out that the new Tory proposals will have the effect of closing the the Forums. Which of course is the whole point, as we know. He asked if instead they might like to use the Forums to engage with the local community, to listen. He pointed out issues which residents have recently raised and have been ignored, such as the strong resentment against the huge parking charge rises. Better explanation, some dialogue, might have led to less objection, and better understanding. We are adults, and want to have an adult conversation.

Andrew Harper did not agree with Mr Reasonable. None of the Tories can understand the concept of an adult relationship with their electors, in fact. It's a one way street with them. They have dysfunctional relationships within their own party, with an abusive relationship of power, a domination of the few over the rest, and of course they don't believe in committing to an intimate and sustaining partnership with residents. They are in charge, and we do as we are told. We voted for them. Or put it another way: we let these con artists in the front door, and now they can knock us about and steal our valuables, and no one can stop them.

David Howard spoke next. He said he was concerned for the future of democracy in our borough. He noted that the very limited research (two focus groups of sixteen people) was based on residents who had never attended a Forum. He noted that at the Forums, the chairing is awful, councillors try to say as little as possible, that all important decisions had already been made, all that we see is defensive stonewalling, to cover up the actions of councillors and council officers. He urged that the matter should be referred back and the opinons sought of people who actually have experience of the Forums.

Tory Richard Cornelius, who rarely opens his mouth without making some ineffably silly comment, asked if, as the report suggested, the real problem with the Forums is ahem, wait for it: 'The Usual Suspects' ...

I believe, citizens, he was referring to the implication in this report that some residents, officially labelled, in fact 'the usual suspects' ie such as myself, are guilty of the outrageous crime of asking awkward questions at these Forums.

Mrs Angry again laughed too loudly at this point. Andrew Harper came out from the rear of Alison Moore and stared malevolently at Mrs Angry, nodding gravely at her in a significant manner. Mr Harper sometimes attends our local Forum and has witnessed one or two of Mrs Angry's questions. (A naughty member of staff who has had to attend these Forums this week told Mrs Angry how they have often had to pinch themselves in order not to laugh or cheer when she raises these sorts of questions, rather amusingly. Not Mr Lustig, btw).

Let me just run through just a few of the issues I've raised at these meetings: the councillors' scandalous allowance increases, the failure to set up, as promised, a system of performance appraisal for councillors, the waste of our money on ludicrous expenses such as conferences in luxury hotels, voice training for senior officers, etc, oh yes, and the use of MetPro. All very challenging questions, and all perfectly valid. Asking such questions does not create a monopoly of the meeting's agenda, but it does cause political embarrassment, well deserved, for the Tory administration. I could not give a monkey's about that: these are serious issues of public concern, and this usual suspect will continue to raise such matters whenever she think it is appropriate. So there.

I didn't stay to watch the final death throes of the constitution, and left as they were still engrossed in pointless discussions about a foregone conclusion. And as I left, I suddenly found myself thinking about that film by Bunuel, the 'Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie', where a group of spoilt, affluent people are kept at a dinner party, finding themselves unable to leave the room, through no other reason, in fact, than a belief that they are unable to leave the room.

The Tory councillors in our borough, I think, have invented exactly the same conundrum for themselves, locked into a room by their own volition. All they have to do is decide to leave, and walk through the door. They don't have to accept the limitations that their own leadership is pushing onto them: if they stood up and opposed the dictators who are running the party, they would defeat them - all it takes is some courage and a sense of duty. Unfortunately it seems that most of the Tory councillors in Barnet have neither courage nor conscience, let alone a sense of accountability to their constituents. And until they decide to walk out of the room, we are stuck right there with them.

All the same,Tory councillors of Broken Barnet: you can shut down the Forums, and you can stop the majority of councillors from raising issues you want to avoid debating, or from speaking on behalf of their own constituents in a reduced number of council meetings, but there is one thing you cannot do, and that is to stop me or anyone else from watching what you do and holding you to account.

So this is Mrs Angry, then, holding you to account. Just one of the usual suspects, of course.