Sunday, 31 July 2011

Broken Barnet: End of Life?

One Barnet, end of life, but we have an action plan

They say, don't they, that in London you are never more than a few feet away from a rat?

Yes, more vermin news from Mrs Angry: rats in Tescos, rats in the Town Hall, and now, citizens, rats gnawing at the One Barnet corpse, hidden for an indeterminate length of time in the cellar of the offices of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

One Barnet has been sick for some time, as we know.

Sadly, we must announce that, at some time in the past few months, surrounded by Tory councillors, CEO Nick Walkley, Andrew 'Black Hole' Travers and other grieving members of the One Barnet corporate family, the life of the former model for local government was ended, assisted, it is rumoured, by an official MetPro emergency response pillow held over the face - and a sequence of embarrassing revelations by local bloggers.

Mad scientist Professor Richard Cornelius has been seen attaching electrodes to the corpse of One Barnet, and waving a lightening conductor out of the window of his laboratory, shaking his fist at the infinityof blue sky thinking still hanging over the stark desolation of the corporate landscape, and praying for stormy weather.

Mrs Angry advises Prof Cornelius to wear some rubber soled shoes.

Mrs Angry was hit by lightening once, has she mentioned it? And it was her choice of footwear which saved her from becoming toast, although, as has been remarked in certain quarters, her brain appears to have been rewired, and she has never been quite the same since.

But where were we? Do stop trying to be funny, Mrs Angry, no one is laughing, and let's face it, you're not really in the mood, are you?

So: desolation, corpses, rats: oh yes - and more rats. Mrs Angry must in fact thank the London Borough of Broken Barnet - and their misuse of the the Freedom of Information system - for enabling her to continue with the suitable motif of rodent infestation this weekend. It's been fun.

Let us return to the evening of the MetPro audit committee meeting. You may recall that the response of the senior management team to the catalogue of financial incompetence unveiled by the report was that a. it was terrible but nothing to do with them and b. all ills would be miraculously cured by a wave of Mr Walkley's magic wand, and An Action Plan.

Yes, CEO Mr Walkley has a magic wand, on contract from Agilysis, agreed by contract - no, sorry, in an arrangement, of a knock down price of what? How much? Really? But the cost is value for money because of the enormous savings it brings to the One Barnet programme. Oh: will bring to the One Barnet programme, at some unknown point in the future. Maybe.

In June, the Barnet Eye blog asked the council about the Procurement Action Plan referred to at the audit meeting. This question was made fairly casually, in a low key email, but: hey presto, the magic wand was waved, and this enquiry was transformed into a Freedom of Information request. Black magic like this has been used by the wizards of Broken Barnet before: you might remember the awkward MetPro questions Mrs Angry submitted to a Residents Forum which were similarly transformed. This is a brilliant spell for those in need of an official twenty working day delay in responding to embarrassing questions, you see.

Time's up, now, though, and now, at a suitably quiet time of the year when most people are away, and the danger of embarrassment is minimised, we have the responses. And the information contained in these responses is truly staggering: far, far worse than anything that could have been predicted. There are further details on the Barnet Eye blog, and Mr Reasonable has cast his own forensic eye over the newly revealed information, barely able to contain his appalled reaction.

The most telling document is the Information Systems "Action Plan". Note that they have put Action Plan in inverted commas, as well they might. Where to start? This report is yet another devastating indictment of incompetence. Some choice excerpts:

On the IT infrastructure:

The lack of an Infrastructure Manager has left the service with no direction and poor management of the 2e2 managed services contract.2e2 contract was put in place to transfer the operational management and risk of core infrastructure to a private provider. 2e2 no longer feel responsible for this and have passed all risks back to the council, on the basis that all equipment has reached EOL.

(EOL: End of life: corporate death - the last taboo in Broken Barnet.)

In which case, as Mr Reasonable has pointed out, why on earth did the Cabinet Resources rubber stamping committee renew the contract with 2e2?

Telephony upgrade:

Front and Back office telephony infrastructure has come to the EOL and will be unsupportable by CISCO from May 2011, unless Barnet make a commitment to the upgrade.

Ah: good - we are being told there is an urgent need to start a tender process for a telephony upgrade (anyone got any ideas - a vital vision, even - as to who might be able to provide this? Off the top of your head?) but we are not told how we have come to this point of urgent need without any prior warning.

Applications support:

Two Team Managers supporting SAP and other business applications, creating confusion in the business and the team around who is responsible for what. Staff and Team Leaders involved in a huge amount of projects with the business not none (sic) of them really know what there (sic) role is on any of these projects.

This report is shockingly badly written: the new One Barnet house style, presumably. 'Not none of them knowing what there role is' must apparently be blamed on 'Lack of ownership of the Logica Contract.' amongst other things. Ah lack of ownership. Hmm.

Then we have the grossly overbudget multi million SAP IT system, which is useless: why is it useless? Many reasons but here are more:

Team have been working on SAP optimisation, but neither of the managers are clear on who is the Business Owner for SAP, the sponsor for SAP Optimisation or the Project Manager. No structured project documentation exists for this programme.

Ah, ownership problems again. Ownership: being responsible for, being accountable, showing a sense of strategic direction. All qualities missing from the corporate ethos of Broken Barnet.

Information and data management:

Numerous Reports highlight weaknesses in information and data management and IT security. Business Continuity is virtually non‐existent.

How many more breaches of data security will it take before the ICO step in and take further action to sanction this borough for its continued refusal to address its failings in this area?

One Barnet:

No one in the IS team believe they are the lead for the service specification in IT and as such, nothing has started.

Another example of lack of leadership from the senior management of the authority.

Project management:

No formal Project Management in IS exists. The lack of project management means that no one is aware of their role and responsibility on any project. Staff in IT deliver projects as a secondary function, resulting in a lack of understanding by the business on who the IT lead is on their business project. Staff themselves are not aware that they are the assigned PM for some projects and do not follow any methodology to manage delivery.

Again: another failure of senior leadership.

Finally, we find:


Through the report produced by Agilyis and an assessment of how the team is currently working, reported through the ‘Red Book’, it is clear that the IT structure is not fit for purpose.

Not fit for purpose: four little words that should be written in big letters and hung over the gates of North London Business Park.

Here is a question: why is the political administration of Broken Barnet apparently so tolerant of the cuture of incompetence amongst the senior management team it employs, at such a generous rate of reward? As a Tory councillor told Mrs Angry recently, the truth is that it is the senior officers who run this council, and not the politicians. The outsourcing agenda: was that really a politically driven policy, originally, or was it promoted by the senior officers who came to Barnet, primed with the same philosophy of so many others who are now in place in the highest positions in authorities all around the country?

And here is another question, which the Tory leadership of Broken Barnet needs urgently to address: are they here to do the bidding of their officers, and help them to ease the business opportunities for the private sector that One Barnet's outsourcing frenzy will provide, or have they a rather more important duty of care to their electorate, who have been told that the driving principle of One Barnet is to provide 'better services for less money'.

By now even the dopiest of Tory councillors must see that the only part of One Barnet that is being delivered as promised is the commitment to the mass externalisation of services, and already we are forging an intimate relationship with the big companies who feed off public sector business. At the same time we know that no savings have been made, the financial organisation and now, it seems, almost every other aspect of the authority's administration, is not fit for purpose, and yet we are still throwing more money we are told we do not have on the One Barnet programme. Why? The message from central government is clear - that it wants local authorities to pull back from large scale externalisation, because the evidence now of the risks of failure are incontrovertibly damning.

The big contracts with the big companies will soon be set up, and the senior officers who have pushed the outsourcing agenda will then move on, no doubt into fabulous jobs in the private sector, leaving Broken Barnet to its fate. The services outsourced will be terrible, and there will be no savings to residents and taxpayers. Eventually, the majority of externalised functions will have to be brought back in house as we all learn the hard way, because some of us did not, would not, listen to all the warnings, that no one can or should make profit out of public services.

Oh, and briefly returning to the first item of IT Infrastructure: here is an admission to make you gasp:

The Data Centre and Comms Rooms are at significant risk as the A\C is not working correctly, the sprinkler system has been turned off due to a water leak and cables are at risk of being eaten into by Rats.

Those pesky rats again: what did Mrs Angry tell you?

Funnily enough, both the risk and action points have been redacted, no not with with Mr Walkley's magic wand, but by his One Barnet pencil. I cannot imagine why.

To be fair, though, I don't think we need to worry about the rodent problem. Rats leave a sinking ship, and I think it is clear, is it not, citizens, that the One Barnet ship is going down fast, with all hands on board?

One other naval tradition which is being maintained is the duty of the Captain to go down with the ship: the senior management team is standing on deck saluting as the vessel lists and slips into the ocean. Saluting, and refusing to 'take ownership' of the fact that their shameless incompetence is sending the ship and all its passengers to the bottom of the sea. Until the very last seconds, of course, when they will all nip over the side, to a waiting life boat, and bugger off back to dry land, leaving us all to drown.

Still, never mind, citizens: my heart will go on, will yours?

Friday, 29 July 2011

Twenty two minutes and thirty seconds: democracy in action, in Broken Barnet

Shortly before attending last night's Cabinet Resources meeting, Mrs Angry was obliged to make a quick trip to her local branch of Tesco, in order to purchase a crust of bread for her starving offspring to feed on while she left them home alone again (note to safeguarding team, if there is one at the moment, they are 16 and 18, and don't play with matches anymore). By the way, as you can tell, I'm having to pad this post out, due to reasons alluded to in the title, so bear with me.

Imagine the scene, as you may, as Mrs Angry wandered idly through past the bread section, and the air was pierced with a sudden scream of 'RAT! THERE'S AN ENORMOUS RAT!' A woman was pointing at the floor as the monster rodent walked calmly through the dairy section and sauntered into the bakery department. Mrs Angry froze in hysterical girly horror, tempted to drop her basket and run. Eventually a security guard strolled up looking cross and told people to stop screaming. I'll sort it out, yeah, he said.

What are you going to do
? asked Mrs Angry, who has no reason to like security guards with attitude, Arrest it?

You don't even know if it lives here,
he said, ridiculously, it might have just walked in the front door.

Oh yes, she replied, thinking of the dead flies in the fish section of another supermarket on Tuesday: that's alright then. I expect it got the bus down from Waitrose. (And yes, all reported to Environmental Health, citizens, don't worry).

They say things come in threes, don't they? Flies, rats, and then more rats - cowardly Tory councillors: what a week. Because an hour or so later and Mrs Angry was sat in front of yet another distasteful scene, a council meeting where the members of the Cabinet Resources committee took a mere twenty two and a half minutes to deal with an agenda of 13 items, including the agreement to sell Hendon Football Club - and of course Church Farmhouse Museum.

Lets name and shame our long tailed friends:

Daniel Thomas, the wet behind the ears Chair and deputy leader
Richard Cornelius, Leader
Andrew Harper, demi idol and Cabinet member
Robert Rams, sulky Cabinet member
Sachin Rajput, po faced Cabinet member
Brian Coleman, clown, irritant, and general nusiance: sent his apologies. I'm not sure how sorry he was though, to be honest.

A member of the public, local campaigner Mr Gordon Kerr, had wanted to address the committee in regard to the football club sale. He had been refused permission, and seemed not to understand that by submitting a written question and supplementary question, he could have addressed the members that way, and given them a piece of his mind at the same time. As we know, there is no desire amongst the councillors or senior council officers of Broken Barnet to inform members of the public of their rights to engage in the processes of council meetings. This might lead to dangerous debate, or even opposition of political policy, and we do not allow alternative ways of thinking in Broken Barnet.

Mr Reasonable had submitted questions, and had supplementary ones to follow. With his usual eye for detail, he had spotted an anomalous entry in one of the reports and asked for an explanation. Maryellen Salter, the head of internal audit was asked to respond. She stared unenthusiastically at Mr R and demanded that he repeat the question. One or two councillors hid their faces at this point. He repeated the question, patiently, but was told that he would not be given an answer, because, well, some details should not be in the public domain.

Mr R carried on valiantly. Daniel Thomas, the fresh faced Chair blathered on at one point, citing solmenly as an excuse 'because of what happened at the last Audit meeting' ... which amused Mrs Angry, as he has gone to such great lengths to ignore the magnitude of the MetPro audit findings, dismissing it all as merely confirming his expert opinion that one or two things in relation to contracts needed 'tightening up'. This of course was like saying the Titanic only had a rivet missing as it plunged to the icy depths of the Atlantic, but it seems he is happy now to use this as cover for other One Barnet mischief.

Some discussion (well, a brief exchange) took place on the subject of whether or not Barnet could share its audit service to save costs. Maryellen Salter and Daniel Thomas thought that sharing this service was indeed a good idea, but for some reason, 'the desire to work with us isn't there'.
Mrs Angry laughed: I wonder why, she mused, loudly, to the glaring disapproval of councillors, and mirth of the watching public.

A very concerned resident had submitted questions raising his concerns about the shameless development of the Church Farmhouse, which is a Grade 2* listed building. He was worried about the protection of the interior: how would this be ensured? At this point, leader Cornelius had the gall to sit there nodding sympathetically, as if he gave a shit. Mr Malcolm asked, no pleaded, that local groups such as HADAS, the district archaeological society, might be involved as trustees, so as to safeguard the future of the building.

The response from the icy Daniel Thomas was that this was not necessary. Here in Broken Barnet we take great care of our heritage. Look how we look after our Town Hall. What? Hendon Town Hall was listed, citizens, in the teeth of opposition by certain parties, by a friend of Mrs Angry's whose post was deleted, coincidentally, a few years ago, after doing his job too well and trying to protect our built heritage from the grasp of developers. If it hadn't been for the listing, the Town Hall would already be flats, or one of those private schools Councillor Coleman tells us are queuing up for venues like Avenue House, when they dare to ask for council funding.

When Mr Malcolm asked another awkward follow up question, Thomas told him immediately that he had exceeded his time, but then went on to suggest that the amount of involvement by any local trustees or bodies would depend on 'how much people are willing to pay' for the Farmhouse. It is just extraordinary, the naked commercialism of the Tory attitude to our heritage, and our history. But entirely predictable.

The Farmhouse sale, when put to councillors, provoked no expression of protest - not even a whimper. Hello, though, something is stirring: Andrew Harper rises to the challenge. Obviously, his portfolio does not really hold any direct interest in the matter in hand, but he managed to show willing, and raise some enthusiasm. Did Middlesex University want to buy the Farmhouse? Maybe. Ok, thanks. Nope: that's it. All done. Already asleep. You carry on.

Ah. Time for the guilty party, Robert Rams, to speak. Robert is of course in charge of libraries and museums: oh. He was. Mrs Angry imagines his allowance will now be cut, proportionate to the loss of his responsibilities, now that three libraries and two museums are being dispensed with, no? No. Oh. I see.

Robert Rams has twigged that some of us might just be wondering how we had arrived at the point of flogging our seventeenth century listed museum and grounds to any old punter who wants to make a quick buck. So he is going to give us the background information to explain. Yes, do tell us, invited Mrs Angry, sitting with pen poised. Councillor Rams gave Mrs Angry a Bad Look.

Rams then, outrageously, made a comment which implied that HADAS was entirely to blame for the failure in negotiations to retain the Museum, in a Big Society style venture. He was so disappointed. Oh, how they had let him down. This is utterly unfair: the society could simply not meet and deliver the terms demanded by a council who are totally committed to a property sale, as part of an asset stripping jamboree to fund their disastrous One Barnet nonsense. Neither HADAS, nor any other local group, ever stood a chance of saving the museum.

Earlier on the agenda was Item 5: Month 2 Monitoring, which included the proposal that the authority help itself to £900,000 from our 'contingency fund' so as 'to cover the establishment of critical business posts following the transformation of the commercial directorate' ... in other words, yet another load of taxpayers' money is to be taken out of the piggy bank for the One Barnet idiocy: nearly a million pounds worth. Incredibly, there are still NO savings from One Barnet, and still we are throwing money at the bloody thing.

Other items such as a half a million pounds from the same source to go to Environment & Operations 'to fund the leisure budget pressure' (oh yeah? What's that all about then, Councillor Coleman: oh, not here, is he ... )and hello - another 0.436 million is being pinched for E&O for the PFI street lighting costs. Why is that, I wonder? Was the pointless replacement of my lampost too expensive after all?

We then came to the Hendon FC sale. The committee was told that in contradiction to objections raised by local campaigners (who were not able to speak to defend themselves) advice given to the authority was that it did have the legal right to sell the property. Oh good: always nice to know, isn't it? RUBBISH, shouted some residents, and again, louder: RUBBISH! Andrew Harper looked cross.

The campaigners maintain that restrictive covenants prevent the sale, but of course the authority does not wish to know about that. Interestingly, Mrs Angry hears that the long and contentious fight to prevent the development of this site, has been marked by an equally, and unusually, long lasting award planning permission. This, apparently, is because the stages which are supposed to mark the closure of such periods, originally three years and now five, were never formalised, so the original agreement still stands. Make of that what you will.

No councillor took the opportunity to ask any question of this substantial and controversial development. Mrs Angry tutted loudly. Again, Robert Rams fixed her with a glowering look.

There was an item about some new play equipment, being funded not of course by the kindly uncles on Barnet Council, but by Boris, all due to be installed nicely in the period of the run up to the GLA election, which is a coincidence, of course. Brian Coleman wasn't there to boast about this, or answer a question about consultation, sadly, but yet another interim senior officer, Pam Wharfe, who is always very helpful to Mr Coleman stepped in and said she thought someone might have spoken to some 'old people' and children, about the designs, which is nice.

And that was it: all over in twenty two minutes and thirty seconds. Even Andrew Harper looked embarrassed.

Almost no questions, no address by any member of the public, no debate, no dissent.

Some of the residents who had come for the Hendon FC item left the room in disgust. As they walked past the open doors where the councillors were still sitting, one shouted: 'How do they get away with it?'

Indeed. How do they?

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Pimp my past: Broken Barnet Tories sell our museum

Church Farmhouse Museum, now closed, ruthlessly cleared of annoying visitors, exhibitions, and all historical artefacts, and presenting an exciting development opportunity for some lucky purchaser.

Tonight at 7pm our Tory councillors will meet for the latest Cabinet Resources meeting. As this committee consists of no opposition members, it is of course a rubber stamping exercise, and all proposals will be voted through by a posse of hard line One Barnet ideologues, namely: chair Daniel Thomas, supported by Leader Richard Cornelius, Brian Coleman, Sachin Rajput, Andrew Harper and Robert Rams.

Amongst the proposals on the agenda tonight is Item 7 - the agreement to sell Church Farmhouse Museum.

This magnificent listed seventeenth century building and its substantial grounds have been in the ownership of the people of Broken Barnet since 1944, when it was purchased for them by the former Middlesex County Council. As the council's own website describes:

'Church Farmhouse Museum in Hendon is one of the oldest surviving dwelling houses in the borough of Barnet.

It was built in about 1660 and was the centre of a busy dairy and hay making farm until the first half of the previous century.

The museum has a furnished 1820s kitchen with adjoining laundry room, a bake oven, a huge fireplace and a stone flagged floor. The 1850s dining room has panelling from an earlier period and the rest of the house is full of interest, from the distinctive chimney to the unusual layout.'

As the name suggests, the farm is associated with the neighbouring ancient church of St Mary's, a wonderful building with an impressive graveyard, said to have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker when describing the resting place of Lucy Westenra in 'Dracula'. (The jaded, blood sucking bodies of the undead still stalk the streets of Broken Barnet, and tonight several of them will be sitting around the corner in the Town Hall, flogging off the Church Farmhouse.)

For decades the museum has specialised in the most remarkable series of exhibitions, on local and wider themes too. This, as well as the permanent collection, has drawn visitors from a wide background of the community and from beyond the borough, serving as a vital historical resource for school parties, but also serving in other ways, such as providing reminiscence sessions for older residents in care.

When Mrs Angry was small, she was often taken to the Museum, and particularly remembers a schooltrip to see some of the original watercolour illustrations of Beatrix Potter. The infant Mrs Angry was hardly tall enough to see into the display cases, but the wonder she felt at being so close to the original pictures of Tom Kitten and Peter Rabbit was something not easily forgotten. To see a display like this in the intimate rooms of the Farmhouse Museum is the perfect experience for a child, and something that will be now be lost forever. What a terrible shame.

The Church Farmhouse Museum has been shut, despite a campaign of protest from residents.

They were told that it was a matter of funding.

They were told that community groups would be allowed to take over, in the true spirit of the Big Society.

You were told a pack of lies, citizens.

There never was the slightest intention to allow the Museum to continue, because the grasping Tory philistines of One Barnet have absolutely no interest in the cultural or historical life of this borough, and see the building and its grounds not as something unique, to be valued and cared for, but as something from which to make profit.

The Museum, therefore, is no longer a museum, it is, according to the report going to committee this evening, 'a range of development opportunities'. The report clearly indicates a suggestion that a residential development will be allowed on this sensitive site, oh, subject to permission. Of course.

The Museum is not a unique, precious and much loved piece of our heritage, it is 'surplus to the council's requirements'.

They want to flog it off because this will 'support the council's priorities and bring this currently unused area of land back into use'.

The local archaeological association, HADAS, and other interested community groups of residents, genuinely thought they had a chance to save the museum and preserve it, by their voluntary efforts, for the borough. They never had the slightest chance of this, in fact.

Mrs Angry was reliably informed this week that a couple of years ago, an individual known to her was approached by a Tory councillor and informed that his colleagues 'had their eye' on the property, and would put it up for sale. And so they have.

Earlier this week, Mrs Angry hears, Tory councillor John Marshall was highly critical of some of the radical library proposals, which affects his ward of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Mrs Angry would hope that he and many of his colleagues would also therefore also oppose the blatant philistinism which is driving this sale forward. It's not too late for these rebels to find some courage, dig their heels in and kick up a fuss on behalf of the community they claim to represent.

And while we are on the subject, perhaps local Hendon MP Matthew Offord would like to stir himself and show some interest? Been very quiet lately, hasn't he? Does he ever contradict the policies of his former council friends? Or does party unity come before everything? Still waiting to hear his views on MetPro, aren't we?

Underlying this sale is a wider issue: there has been for some time a quiet, but stealthy, asset stripping property survey in hand, marking out any and every sales and development opportunity that might be lurking in the far reaches of the borough.

This has reached ridiculous extremes: a few months ago a local shopkeeper showed Mrs Angry a most intemperate letter from the council demanding to know why a local children's play area, supposedly situated behind his business, was being used for parking. The shopkeeper was mystified by this: there is and never has been a play area, only a small, broken surfaced, concreted,weed infested parking area next to a local scout hut. Mrs Angry looked at the letter and pointed out to the shopkeeper that the letter was not, as you might expect, from the Highways department, but from a council property valuer. A range of development opportunities, there, in a newly found piece of council ground next to a scout hut, no doubt.

So there you have it, citizens - from the smallest weed infested corner of the borough, to one of our oldest buildings, and our only museum: Broken Barnet is up for sale.

Ironic, really, isn't it? Via the scrutiny of the MetPro audit, Barnet has recently humiliated itself by the revelation of a cataclysmic failure with its performance in in procurement, yet in another, rather less savoury sense, procurement is something at which our Tory councillors excell. When it comes to whoring our heritage to the highest bidder, well - you must admit - nobody does it better.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Taking the biscuit: another councillor on the sofa with Mrs Angry

Barry Evangeli and a civic award - photo: London Daily News

Some of our councillors here in Broken Barnet are, as we know, rather shy. It is a charming attribute, of course, and wholly in line with their self deprecating modesty, and humble dedication to the principle of public service.

When the time came, last year, for our elected representatives to put their declarations of interest, gifts and hospitality into the public domain, in an online register, several Tory councillors - and only Tory councillors - refused to comply, and were allowed to opt out. Transparency is optional, in Broken Barnet. Mrs Angry imagines that these bashful councillors were worried that an intimate acquaintance with the details of their priviliged lives might cause envy and unrest amongst the downtrodden masses of Broken Barnet. In the case of Brian Coleman, this must certainly be true. Funnily enough, Brian is compelled to reveal his details online for the GLA and the London fire authority, so his refusal to comply in Barnet must be purely on a point of principle, the principle being, presumably, that he does not think we have a right to easy access to such information.

Now as it happens, Mrs Angry has seen the withheld declarations. This private view was arranged in conditions more secure than a covert operations room at MI5 (uh oh: more interesting visits for Mrs Angry's blog ...) or a council meeting facilitated by MetPro. Yes: Mrs Angry sat in a room at North London Business Park, watched over by an anxious council officer ready to pounce should she, as frankly she was tempted, naughtily attempt to liberate one of the pieces of paper, fold it up and stick it down the front of her blouse, where it would be lost for all time. Or until she was frisked by the Director of Corporate Governance - every Barnet blogger's fantasy, of course.

Mrs Angry is not going to publish any really sensitive private information about anyone seen in these records: unlike Barnet Council, she knows the difference between what is personal information and what should be a matter of public knowledge. On the other hand, the citizens of Broken Barnet are entitled to know any facts about their elected representatives which are relevant to the work they do as councillors.

As a result of her visit, Mrs Angry acquired some useful intelligence, but in fact, citizens, what the dim witted councillors don't realise is that most of the information they guard so jealously is freely available - or can be checked out - on the web.

Who is next on our list then? Let's continue our showbiz theme, and select one of the councillors who refuses to share his details online: Councillor Barry Evangeli.

What do we know so far? Well, not very much. We cannot even be sure what his real name is, in fact, as we will see. Where does he live? We don't know. On the council website he gives no address, other than the Conservative group members' room.

Barry is yet another Chipping Barnet area councillor, representing East Barnet ward, along with Robert Rams and Joanna Tambourides. Barry is also now the Deputy Mayor, a remarkable compliment to a new boy who only joined the council last May.

Of course Barry has clearly been interested in local issues for some time: the photo above shows him collecting a civic award, in February 2009, for services to the Greek Cypriot community. That was nice, wasn't it? Ten months later Barry himself was a councillor: another twelve months and bingo: deputy to Mayor Lisa Rutter, who also has a Cypriot background. Barnet has a large Cypriot community, and this community is strongly represented on the council - although to Mrs Angry's knowledge there are no Turkish Cypriot councillors.

A favourite destination for Barnet councillors is Morphou, in Cyprus, which they regularly visit, as guests of the municipality, to protest against the Turkish invasion.They do this by attending various lunches and dinners, and staying in a nice hotel. If only all conflict in the world could be resolved so easily, eh, citizens?

Mrs Angry often wonders why no councillors visit some of our other twinned towns, such as Jinja in Uganda: Mrs Angry can think of very few Tory councillors who show any informed interest in the issues of poverty and urban destitution in the developing world - and almost none of them are known to have taken part in any Ugandan discussions. Unsurprisingly.

Giving the award is Mrs Angry's friend and admirer, veteran Tory Councillor John Marshall. No, he wasn't Mayor at the time: John always dresses like this, a habit from his younger days as Speaker of the house of Commons, during the regency of George IV, and serving in the administration of William Pitt the Younger. Oh, and in the same photo, you will notice Brian Coleman to the left, master of ceremonies, but sulking because he has been outflounced.

Barry is one of those Tory councillors Mrs Angry has never heard speak. He turns up to meetings, sits there, keeps stum, and goes home with a doggy bag as a reward. Normal for Barnet, of course. Is he a Cabinet member? No. Does he sit on any committees? Well he is vice chair of the Appeals Committee, but really his only claim to fame is in relation to his post as vice chair of the Chipping Barnet Residents' Forum. Last year, when our greedy little Tory councillors were trying to grab themselves a big fat pay rise, Councillor Evangeli took it upon himself to dictate to the residents at this Forum that they would not be allowed to discuss the issue - and this was before the recent outrageous constitutional changes which he and his colleagues have used to prevent any subjects they don't like from being raised at such meetings.

According to the Barnet Bugle blog of 20th July 2010, after forbidding mention of the allowance issue by the plebs, Councillor Evangeli gave them a well deserved lecture :

"Local residents present at the meeting of Chipping Barnet Residents Forum tonight were in uproar after East Barnet Ward Councillor, Barry Evangeli, banned all discussion of Councillor allowances.

Councillor Evangeli, who admitted he personally benefitted from the hike, submitted the crowd of people present to a 'politburo' style speech and defence of the rises that would have made Brian Coleman blush."

Amongst his more preposterous claims were that the allowance rises would merely enable councillors to afford the price of the odd ice cream. Hmm. Barry has a sweet tooth, as we know. After the infamous MetPro guarded budget cuts meeting of March 1st, Barry was caught running out of the Town Hall with great excitement, clutching a big box stuffed full of biscuits and goodies from the buffet spread which our councillors lay on for themselves, at our expense, in the ten minute break at such meetings. There may be cutbacks, citizens, but our esteemed councillors must not do without their traditional troughing opportunities.

Talking of making Brian Coleman blush: Barry Evangeli, it seems, is a big, big fan of our Brian. Look at this shamelessly brown nosing letter published in the local Times newspaper in December 2009:

"I applaud Brian Coleman for speaking his mind.

I was present in the public gallery recently during Mayor’s Question Time when Labour Assembly Member John Biggs was continuously berating the mayor.

His constant interruptions were both irritating and obnoxious and nothing short of a feeble attempt at political point-scoring.

Perhaps Brian Coleman’s description of him as an “odious toad” should be regarded as a compliment, as I would have described him more akin to something a little more primate.

Barry Evangeli"

Charming, don't you think?

At the beginning of the post I mentioned that we cannot be certain who exactly Barry Evangeli is. What is his background? Well, in regard to the award he won in 2009, it is stated that he is a music producer and dj.

Barry Evangeli, it seems, was a music producer in the eighties, running a label called Proto records. His name was not familiar to Mrs Angry, but then she spent most of the eighties with her fingers in her ears, not being a big fan of new romantics (apart from the look sported by John Marshall, seen above). Barry also produced some stuff by Divine, the actor, singer & drag queen who starred in some of the films of cult director John Waters. Hold on: we are in danger of making Councillor Evangeli sound interesting - so let's move on.

Dj, then? Aha. Mrs Angry happens to live up the road from the London Greek Radio offices ... could it be? She looked at their website, searched for any dj named Barry and, no, no Barry Evangeli, but, oh look: someone called Barry Leventis, who bears an uncanny resemblance to our man. Barry Leventis presents a drivetime show, and has worked both here and at Spectrum Radio. Hmm. I think we have our man.

If you want a laugh, take a look at youtube: there are several clips of Barry Leventis in action, including a ha ha ever so funny film of him running around in folk costume and welllies, pushing women off chairs.

Which came first, then, the chicken or the egg? Leventis or Evangeli? Who knows. We ought to know, though, don't you think, citizens? In the interests of transparency and all that.

After all, there are strict rules, for one thing, in regard to broadcasting and the participation of candidates in UK elections. How can residents be confident that these are observed, if there is a lack of clarity over a presenter's identity?

In 2006, Councillor Evangeli's Tory colleague Andreas Tambourides - yes, husband of Joanna - got into a spot of hot water with OFCOM over his newsreading at London Greek Radio. Mrs Angry is sure that Barry Leventis/Evangeli has always observed the protocols regarding this issue, and that there has not been any complaint in regard to his broadcasting during an election period. On the other hand, if he insists on keeping his broadcasting career private, and using an alias, and withholding his declarations of interest from online access, this might reasonably be seen as unhelpful to the process of public scrutiny.

Mrs Angry therefore urges Councillor Evangeli - and his Tory friends - to bite the bullet, do the right thing, and put their interests on the online register. If you do, Barry, Mrs Angry might even buy you an ice cream. Or Mr Mustard might let you have a lick of his cornetto (although I hear Barry prefers a Magnum).

Failing that, I am afraid your performance appraisal score is going to be low. Any councillor who withholds their declarations automatically gains a negative rating, and your Coleman letter is another grave error. On the other hand ... I do like John Waters movies, and I have a sweet tooth too. Minus one is the best we can do, I think, in the circumstances.

Who will be next on the sofa, I wonder?

Recall: performance appraisal for Councillor Longstaff

Broken Barnet's favourite stand up comedian

Well, it's been a hard week again, hasn't it, and a difficult weekend -or is that just me: my life, eh, who would believe it? So let's have some Monday fun, as we continue our personal sofa audit of Tory councillors here in Broken Barnet. Coming later.

Before we summon the next councillor to Mrs Angry's parlour, though, we must pause and recall the last subject, for a bit of a telling off. Yes, I'm talking to you, Councillor David Longstaff. Stand up when Mrs Angry is speaking. Oh, you are? Fair enough, so.

Mrs Angry recently reviewed the many performances, clothed and unclothed, of actor, comedian and Tory councillor Mr Longstaff in 'The business that is show in Broken Barnet'. Councillor Longstaff's appraisal was very popular, you know, and drew attention from a global audience: even the scientists at NASA were moved to take a very close interest in his performance assessment, although possibly not in the way he may have expected. There are some very naughty scientists, ladies and gentlemen, working on the space project, with too much time, and one or two other things, in hand now the shuttle has landed for the last time, it seems.

Back to earth, though. Last week, fellow blogger Mr Mustard sent a polite email to all Barnet Councillors, wishing to draw their attention to an important report in which he had found some very serious errors. A perfectly reasonable matter to contact them about, you might think. Unfortunately, Councillor Longstaff took a different position, and sent the following response:

Dear Mr Mustard, Please remove me from your mailing list.

I have no wish to read any more of your anonymous blogs, that contain gratuitous insults about Barnet Officers and Councillors.

These are decent people; and whilst you may have some points to discuss regarding the borough, they would be better served without the rudeness.
Cllr. David Longstaff

PS As to your ‘urgent’ emails regarding procurement, which I found slightly manipulative, I’ll decide what’s urgent in my life, Mr *******, not you.

Ooh, er: get you, Councillor Longstaff: Mr Mustard immediately grabbed hold of his handbag, I am told. Now, in Mrs Angry's view, not only was Mr Mustard perfectly entitled to raise a legitimate issue of concern with our elected representatives, in this case it was particularly appropriate as David Longstaff happens to be Mr Mustard's local councillor. Amusingly, this councillor has also just been appointed as a Cabinet member by the new Tory leader, Richard Cornelius. Oh, his responsibilities? For 'safety', and er ... 'resident engagement'. Yes, really.

What is it with the Tory councillors of the Chipping Barnet Conservative association? With one or two honourable exceptions, it would seem, frankly, to be something of a nest of vipers, seething with Tory troublemaking and hard line, and noticeably disengaged, political sympathies. It's no wonder a couple of disaffected Tories who felt their views marginalised within this network of numpties took to blogging to publicise their discontent. Or maybe it was the incessant routine of fundraising candlit suppers and garden parties from hell that drove them to despair - I've seen the photo gallery: goodness me - imagine Brian Coleman sat in a deckchair clutching a glass of lambrusco and a tupperware plate of sausage rolls, and you'll get an idea of the sheer unbridled horror of such events.

Perhaps it is the rarefied atmosphere of Chipping Barnet, the highest point for miles around, which breeds such contemptuous Tories: there they sit, like the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, hatching their plots, and meddling in the lives of we mortals down below. Of course that wouldn't explain Brian Coleman's lofty attitude, as he has somehow tumbled all the way down to the foetid, MetPro guarded lowlands of Totteridge: a descent into hades, maybe.

On balance, however, thinking it through, I would say that, even in Broken Barnet, with its history of institutionalised contempt for the opinion of the borough's long suffering residents, a Cabinet member paid an extra allowance for the duty of engaging with the community probably ought not to be, and I am trying to be polite here, so intemperate and dismissive, wouldn't you agree, citizens?

But let's get to the bottom of all this. Was there something more behind the bare faced cheek of such a response?

Mr Mustard is a lovely man and very well mannered, and does not deserve to be spoken to in such a way. Mrs Angry suspects, in fact, that in this case he may well be the whipping boy for Councillor Longstaff's reaction to her performance appraisal, which concluded, I seem to remember, in a mark of, let me just look it up in my ledger: ah yes, 2/10, or D-. Oh dear, not very good, and now Mrs Angry must deduct a further three points for impertinence: that will be -1/10, and unclassified, I'm afraid. Please try harder: stay behind after the next council meeting, and write out a hundred times - 'I must remember that I am an elected representative of the residents and tax payers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.' There's a good boy.

As you know, Mrs Angry has felt compelled to offer, in addition to her Pickles approved armchair audit service, her voluntary appraisal system for our grasping Tory councillors, after they have mysteriously failed to honour the promise they made to submit to such scrutiny, last year, when they tried to sneakily award themselves whopping great rises in the allowances we pay them, whilst at the same time lecturing us on the necessity for crippling budget cuts, and staff redundancies - and preparing to emasculate the council consitution in order to minimise the rights of opposition councillors and residents to take part in the local democratic process.

Councillor Longstaff put himself on the shortlist of urgent appraisals - and Mrs Angry will decide what is an urgent appraisal, councillors, not you - after his rather abrasive performance at the last full council meeting, where yet again Mrs Angry spotted signs of latent Colemanism in his attitude. This is not a good thing, and she advises Tory councillors to cleanse themselves of this dangerous tendency, before their turn comes around.

Mrs Angry was reminded yesterday of the exemplary behaviour of former Conservative councillor Leslie Sussman, who sadly passed away recently. Mrs Angry understands that this gentleman, and she uses the term deliberately, appears never to have claimed an allowance for his long service to the community, simply because he saw his work as a contribution to the public good, and a position of honour. How times have changed.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Hackgate: the curious tale of Steven Nott, and a story the tabloids won't touch

*Updated again, Monday, see below

Shall we dare to step outside the boundaries of Broken Barnet once again? Yes? Ok.

Do you like a good conspiracy theory? Mrs Angry does.

Does Mrs Angry believe any conspiracy theories are ever true? Sometimes. By the law of probability, some percentage of all such speculation must be true: the art lies, of course, in distinguishing between what is credible, and what is fantasy.

The wildly imaginative side of Mrs Angry is occasionally susceptible to belief in stories of this nature, but this loopiness is generally balanced out, eventually, by the more cynical, boring and rational side of her nature, usually persuading her to reconsider the evidence. And as is frequently is the case in Mrs Angry's life, what seems at one point to be an interesting possibility usually turns out to be an enormous disappointment.

There are exceptions, however. Recently, for example, after becoming slightly alarmed by some of the weirder visitors to this blog - and despite some mirth in certain quarters over her latent paranoia - Mrs Angry raised her concerns with someone who happens to be one of the few people in the country who has, well, a priviliged overview of such matters. This person not only confirmed her suspicions, but left her reeling with an insight into the whole issue which was far worse than she could have guessed. I wish I could tell you more. You would be horrified, especially if you have any concerns about civil liberties, invasion of privacy and all that old wishy washy liberal stuff.

And talking of invasion of privacy, and conspiracy theories, or not, here comes another story which you may like to consider.

A twitter follower recently brought this information to the attention of Mrs Angry, and she has been mulling over the contents since then, undecided whether or not to bother with it, until she read about the latest developments over night in this constantly evolving story, and thought she ought to mention it.

According to the Independent today, former Mirror journalist James Hipwell has alleged that phonehacking was widespread in Fleet Street at a period much earlier than has previously been admitted: he worked on the Mirror under the period of editorship by Piers Morgan and claims that in his time at the Mirror the practice of hacking by reporters was 'endemic; and 'seen as a bit of a wheeze'.

Mr Hipwell has something of a chequered past himself, of course, having been convicted of a form of 'market abuse' related to buying shares while working on the 'City Slicker' column. And Trinity Mirror (who have been known to call in on Broken Barnet from time to time: hello boys) have disputed these allegations, claiming that they are 'totally unsubstantiated, and stated: 'Our journalists work within the criminal law and the PCC's code of conduct'. As MP Louise Mensch noted on Newsnight last night, of course, the statement uses the present tense and does not refer to past practice.

Let me now draw your attention to the case of a Mr Steven Nott, whose contribution to the phone hacking scandal can be read in full at his own site:

Mr Nott's interesting story begins at some point early in 1999, when he was a salesman working for a food manufacturer, based in Cwmbran. One day on his travels, Mr Nott had some sort of prolonged difficulty in using his mobile phone. He contacted Vodafone in order to sort this out, and explained the problem he was having in accessing his voicemails. To his amazement, the Vodafone operator explained that this would be easy to overcome, as he could use a default number, which she passed on, in order to gain access. This number was applicable to all customers.

By further investigating this procedure, he soon realised the enormous implications such open access must have for the security of all those using similar phones: he was horrified at the potential consequences for national security, political communications, and of course the ease with which the press might be able to use this method of monitoring politicians, the Royal family, leading figures and celebrities. Mr Nott resolved to do something about his accidental discovery, feeling it was necessary to publicise the matter as soon as possible, as a matter of public interest.

Sometime in the summer of 1999, Mr Nott approached the Mirror newspaper, and explained to them at some length the enormity of the discovery he had made: he claims that the paper was extremely interested in the story: 'they said it's possibly going to be one of the biggest stories that decade' ... This was, as it turns out, a fair assessment of the importance of the story, of course: just got the wrong decade, didn't they? Steven Nott tells us that the Mirror reporters repeatedly assured him that the story would be featured, but after twelve days of being told this it became apparent that the story would not be run after all.

Two weeks after first contacting the Mirror, Steven Nott approached the Sun, where at the time a certain Rebekah Wade happened to be the deputy editor: he says he went to Wapping for a meeting with a representative of the paper who again assured him that the story would make the front page because of all the implications, not least the potential threat to national security.
Again, despite all the promises, the story was not used.

Mr Nott contacted the BBC: they filmed an interview with him sitting on Percy Thrower's bench in the Blue Peter garden, but nothing further happened. He did an interview with Adam Kirtley for BBC 5 Live, broadcast on October 22nd 1999.

Steven was so determined to keep up his campaign he directly contacted the security services, New Scotland Yard, and even the DTI, as well as his own MP: he says nothing came of any of these approaches. He was filmed at home for ITN and was interviewed by Chris Choi, but this was not aired. Even now he is finding difficulty in getting his story out into the wider public arena: why could this be, do you suppose?

Reading this story it is clear that Mr Nott worries that instead of drawing the attention of the relevant authorities, and the general public, to the threats posed by the vulnerabilities in the voice mail system, that he may perhaps have inadvertently given this information to the tabloid press and enabled them to spend the next twelve years spying on the private lives of figures in the public eye. As well as feeling guilty, he feels hugely frustrated that his concerns have been ignored by so many sources for so long. He states that he has now been interviewed as a part of Operation Weeting, and awaits the outcome of that investigation.

On his site there is an edited clip of footage with Steven giving an account of his attempts to publicise his involvement with the phone hacking issue. He appears perfectly credible to me. Does it matter, though, what he is saying, if true?

It is significant because even if he did not alert the tabloids to the possibilities of such easy access to voice mails,and of course they may well have been practising the dark arts of phone hacking long before, clearly he did have extensive contacts with the press and media, and the decision was repeatedly made not to run the story which would have exposed the practice. If James Hipwell's allegations are correct, the timing of this story to the summer of 1999 would fit very well, and would suggest that in fact more than one paper was using hacking at least by the latter part of that year.

Why was Steven's story not run? Here we go then: you now have the choice of two explanations - conspiracy, a decision to retain the use of a powerful and lucrative method of obtaining material: or was it simply indifference?

After the week we have just had, I think I know which way my money will go.

How about you?

* Updated Sunday 6.30pm: via twitter, @DavidAllenGreen, legal correspondant of the New Statesman, who also blogs as 'Jack of Kent', reminds us of an interesting paragraph in a Guardian story, published on the 1st May, 2002, which includes an alleged mysterious remark from Sun editor Dominic Mohan, in regard to Vodafone: take a look. Whatever does he mean? -

**Update Monday morning: Steven Nott has now left a long comment on the Jack of Kent blog, which you might like to read.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Brian Coleman and the Rev: Private Arrangements, and A Private Function

Tea - and sympathy for his landlord: Brian Coleman entertains at Broken Barnet Town Hall

photo: Sierra Express Media

Take a look at today's Ham & High. Hurry through, no, no, ignore page two ... go to page 14, where Mrs Angry is yet again mouthing off about being filmed by MetPro, and Mr Reasonable is, well, his usual lovely, reasonable self. Oh and where Barnet Tory leader Mr Richard Cornelius tells us that, in addition to the bloggers of Barnet providing a full Pickles approved armchair audit service for him, we must now film his council meetings for him for free, with no thanks, and still no apology for his council's own secret filming of us, in order that he can 'share the workings of local democracy with the general public', because he won't pay for the sort of official filming that all respectable councils already have in place.

Not only that, but according to the Ham & High, Mrs Angry is now officially in charge of Broken Barnet, rather than Mr Cornelius, and do you know, readers, this is a heavy burden to carry. I'm not sure I can take the strain. Another trip to Champneys could be on the cards. What? Barred? Mrs Angry? Don't you know who I am?

Anyway: turn to page 2 of the Ham & High now. Oh look: 'Cllr Coleman disputes low rent claim' ... the story tells us:

'One of London's highest paid councillors has hit back at claims that he lives in cut price church housing in Finchley. Barnet Councillor Brian Coleman has lived in a flat owned by the Finchley Methodist Church for at least two decades, paying rent well below the commercial market values for the area ...'

This is of course not a new story, and last year veteran journalist and aspiring Barnet blogger David Hencke somehow acquired a copy of documents suggesting the rent may be as low as £546 a month, for a five room flat, which is, as Mrs Angry can confirm, around half the going rate in this area.

Brian Coleman has often expressed his views about those good for nothing London firefighters who dare to supplement their income by part time work: apparently these rascals are now all modelling for Armani (please send Mrs Angry a photo if you have one - for research purposes, you understand) and they are all such divas, that they will only fit in a bit of firefighting in their spare time. Brian, in contrast, has selflessly turned down many offers of work from Models 1 and Select to concentrate on the four publicly funded posts he has accrued, and which bring in total annual salary of around £130,000.

Last week you may recall Mrs Angry reported the council meeting where Brian Coleman was rolling about in trouser splitting fits of laughter while a younger Tory councillor ranted about union leaders whom he claimed lived in subsidised housing. Hmm.

The property in which Coleman lives is owned by the local Methodist Church. Brian is of course widely recognised as a devout Methodist and is, we must all agree, a truly humbling example of the Christian faith in action.

According to the Ham & High, Brian told them that the rent figure was 'incorrect' but that he did not wish to discuss his living arrangements. He refused to say how much he was paying for the flat.

The church's minister, Reverend Michael Giles, is also tight lipped about his tenant's rental agreement. He told the Ham & High that the church had a 'private arrangement' with Councillor Coleman. Reverend Giles confirmed that the Totteridge councillor paid less than other church tenants, but blamed this lower rate on the restrictions of long standing tenancy agreements and housing laws.

Finchley Methodist Church is now a registered charity. If you look at the Charities Commission website, you will be able to look at the church's details, and in theory, you might be able to look at information relating to accounts, so as, say, to establish how much income the church derives from property rentals. But, oh dear: unfortunately, according to the website, surrounded by a big red outline, we find a note stating that certain key documents are overdue: the annual return is already twenty two days late.

This is not acceptable from any charity, but for a church to be so remiss seems particularly naughty. Mrs Angry would remind the Reverend Giles of the admonition we find in Matthew, 22.21: 'Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's ...' and while Mrs Angry is feeling moved to reflect on matters of spirituality, she would like to draw the attention of Councillor Coleman to the words of the founding father of Methodism, John Wesley: 'When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.' Or indeed, Matthew, 19.24: 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God ....'

The picture above shows Brian - or His Worship the Mayor, as he was then - (no wonder he cried when he had to hand over to the new one shortly afterwards: can you imagine how he must have enjoyed being worshipped for a whole year?) - entertaining his landlord, the Reverend Giles, to a nice cup of tea at a reception in the Mayor's parlour, in April last year. This reception was held to welcome a visit by Eddie Turay, the High Commissioner of Sierra Leone. One of Brian's other guests - get a load of this - was, bizarrely, Raine, Countess Spencer, stepmother of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the daughter of the redoubtable romantic novelist Barbara Cartland.

The gentleman in the middle of the picture, incidentally, was the Reverend Emmanuel Samuel Ndanema, Senior Pastor and Founder of All Nations Pentecostal Church UK, in West Hendon, who is also CEO of Solid Rock TNV International Limited. The Reverend is to be commended for combining the duties of Christian ministry with the heavy burden of responsibility for his company which has a wide range of interests in Sierra Leone, but deals primarily with the buying, selling, and exporting of uncut diamonds, gold, and gold dust.

To be fair (yes, we must, even in Broken Barnet) to the Rev and His Worship, there is no reason to believe that they were well acquainted with this individual, but it is an unfortunate fact that Mr Ndanema's church, which has links with some interesting countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, appears, according to the Charities Commission website, to have an irregular accounting history, with accounts overdue since June 2009. Perhaps the pastor is now devoting more time to his business interests.

At the reception, we are told, the High Commissioner urged those present to visit Sierra Leone, helpfully informing the gathering that corruption and trafficking of money were now serious criminal offences in his country, which is reassuring. No doubt His Excellency was impressed on his visit by the equally high standards of probity and transparency that recent audit reports have shown to be the hall mark of the current Tory MetPro friendly administration here in Broken Barnet.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

MetPro: still no answers from Grant Thornton

Broken Barnet, audited by Grant Thornton

Last week, you may recall, Mrs Angry and Mr Reasonable had an interview with Mr Paul Hughes, the representative of Grant Thornton, external auditors of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.

Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry spent more than an hour and a quarter with Mr Hughes, and had lots and lots of interesting things to tell him.

Poor Mr Hughes had not expected to see Mrs Angry, and a sighting of the wicked witch of Broken Barnet as he arrived at the council offices that morning had evidently given him an unpleasant surprise. Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry were duly informed that Mr Hughes would not see the troublemaking pair together, in case they ganged up on him, and made him cry.

Mrs Angry sent word back that she promised to be gentle with Mr Hughes, (obviously she could not speak for Mr Reasonable) and he pulled himself together, and kindly agreed to see the two armchair auditors at the same time.

Mr Hughes, who is a personable enough man, and has a lovely, soothing, Alan Bennett style of speech, which makes you think about tea and biscuits, and long, wet afternoons in Southport, sat and listened to a long list of issues which Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry felt moved to bring to his attention, while his assistant took notes, as did Mrs Angry.

Did you know, citizens, by the way, that Maryellen Salter, the head of Internal Audit at Barnet, used to work for Grant Thornton?

Mrs Angry watched with interest, throughout the course of the discussions, as Mr Hughes, the champion pen jabber of the MetPro audit committee meeting, became increasingly red in the face, and by the end of the session had been reduced to a double handed, chin gripping state of anxiety, which was, shamefully, a sight that Mrs Angry secretly rather enjoyed, and which she had hoped reflected an intention to do something urgently about the more pressing concerns which had been raised. Mrs Angry can be surprisingly naive at times.

Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry agreed that they would not publish the details of their discussion with Mr Hughes until he had had a chance to reply to the points they had raised, and they have stood by that decision - until now.

Unfortunately, we have now received responses from Mr Hughes which suggest to us that the issues we have brought to his attention will not be the subject of any hasty consideration, if at all, despite the urgency of certain aspects of matters raised. Writes Mr Hughes:

"Over the next 2-3 weeks we are carrying out a programme of work to review the Council's response to the issues raised by the internal audit report, discussed in the Audit Committee meeting and reiterated in subsequent communications.

We will report our findings in our Annual Report to Those Charged with Governance, which will be presented to the 6 September Audit Committee meeting. Until we have completed our work and presented this report we will not be issuing any further comment on this matter.

As noted in our previous letters we will not rule out the possibility of further reporting, including under our statutory reporting powers, should it be required after this time."

In other words, the position of Grant Thornton has not changed from the one explained to us at the beginning of the meeting. Mrs Angry has reason to believe that other letters very similar to this have been sent to Andrew Dismore, and at least some of those who contacted Mr Hughes, after his email address was published in this blog, and also by up and coming blogger Mr David Hencke, about ten days ago.

In fact this response could have been written at any point since Mr Hughes' refusal, some three weeks back, to allow a public interest inquiry into the MetPro scandal on the curious grounds that it was unnecessary, too expensive - and would tend to undermine confidence in a public body.

You might be wondering why any of this matters. Let us explain. Mr Reasonable will tell you all about the issues he raised, and the wealth of material which he brought to the attention of Mr Hughes. I will tell you about some of the things I mentioned.

Obviously the subject of MetPro was the first issue we wished to discuss, and the decision by Mr Hughes, as the borough's external auditor, not to allow the public interest inquiry. Mrs Angry expressed her strongly held conviction that public confidence in the London Borough of Broken Barnet was already at an all time low, and that the only way in which this might be restored would be if there were a further inquiry into what was quite clearly, whether or not Mr Hughes liked to admit it, a matter of public interest. She also patiently explained the existence of a widely held perception that there was a potential conflict of interest in the decision to proceed with an inquiry being in the hands of Grant Thornton, who were themselves so intimately involved in the issues under scrutiny.

Mrs Angry reminded Mr Hughes of the annual audit letter his company had produced for Barnet for the financial year of 2009/10, in which the borough's finances were, rather surprisingly, perhaps, given a clean bill of health. Mr Hughes was unfamiliar with the details of this letter, but unluckily for him, on her way to the meeting, Mrs Angry had just had time to grab a look at the copy published on the Audit Commission's website. She was happy to remind him that the letter had announced that 'managing finances continues to be a strength area for the council', and had even praised improvements made in areas such as commissioning and procurement. Grant Thornton had also found no 'control issues'.

Mrs Angry assured a nodding Mr Hughes and his assistant that she was of course just an empty headed woman with no understanding of the complexities of the audit process, but still she did find it odd that in the years in which MetPro has been so happily employed on such breathtakingly unregulated terms, and being in fact only one case symptomatic of an entirely unregulated system of procurement, contracting, monitoring and payment, that this should somehow have passed unnoticed by the borough's auditors, who were, after all, paid rather a lot of residents' money to look after the financial health of their council's administration.

Oh dear. This observation was not, Mrs Angry felt, entirely welcome. But there it was, hanging in the air like a foul smell: the stench of MetPro, like a rotting corpse under the floorboards, getting more and more noticeable by the day.

And talking of which, the conversation moved to the conclusion made in Lord Palmer's MetPro audit report that the possibility of fraud could not be excluded. We pointed out to Mr Hughes, at some length, and in some detail, why Barnet's bloggers and many other residents were concerned about the apparent lack of interest by the authority in investigating this extremely serious aspect of the MetPro scandal. You must draw your own conclusions, ladies and gentlemen, as to whether or not we were wasting our breath.

Mrs Angry has noted, incidentally, some very interesting visits to her blog in the last couple of days, arriving via search terms which indicate a significant new line of interest from a particular public body, and Mrs Angry would hope that all the appropriate parties, including our auditors, are aware of this, otherwise it could prove to be rather awkward for them.

Moving on, then: early in the meeting we had discussed a matter relating to Barnet's stealthy and unhealthy increasing reliance on the use of so called 'interim' contracted 'consultant' senior officers, on very generous rates of pay, and with no signs of their posts becoming formalised or even fully published in the online expenditure. Mr Reasonable will fill you on all the details.

Mr Hughes mentioned in passing that the scrutiny of declarations of interest, gifts and hospitality of senior officers came under his remit as auditor. This was a timely discovery for Mrs Angry, who explained to him that she was concerned about the refusal of Barnet Council to respond to a Freedom of Information request in regard to the attendance of senior Barnet officers at any events organised by BT. This request is weeks over due, and Mrs Angry has heard nothing since the 6th July, when, after more than one enquiry, she was eventually given an apology for the breach of statutory time limit, and told that, oh dear -yawn -the officer was 'still getting the information together'. No further information has been forthcoming. Why does this matter? Well, read my post 'Only Connect: BT and the cult of Vital Vision' for the wider perspective, but there is a more acute reason for concern.

On Friday 8th July, our council held a 'market' event for various profit hungry companies that might be interested in the banquet of business opportunities that is being laid out for their delectation, as part of the One Barnet outsourcing of our public services. Attending this event, we are told, were the obvious contenders such as Capita - oh, and BT.

Surely it is perfectly clear to any reasonable person that in these circumstances, with such huge business contracts at stake, and bearing in mind the disastrous state of management of our financial administration, that there has never been any more pressing need for transparency over the matter of the declarations made by our senior officers? What justification can there be for withholding such information? In the next few weeks, who knows what sort of negotiations will be taking place. How can the residents of Barnet be assured that these negotiations will be made in accordance with the highest standards of probity and transparency? Well, they can't, in my view, as things stand.

We pay a massive annual fee to have our council's financial management scrutinised by external audit. We are told by the devotees of the One Barnet faith that they are committed to 'better services for less money'. Do the residents of this borough think that we are getting value for money from our contract with Grant Thornton? I think it is a fair question, don't you?

No wonder Eric Pickles is so keen on the free services offered by the the citizen journalists and armchair auditors of Broken Barnet.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Thresholds of Materiality

Like everyone else, Mrs Angry watched the questioning this afternoon of Rupert and James Murdoch by a parliamentary committee, and most of the later session with Rebekah Brooks. Apart from the immediate significance of the event, and everything this told us, or failed to tell us, about the pernicious influence of the Murdoch empire, and the dark intricacies of the phonehacking scandal, there were also, she reflected, resonances of another shameful issue, on a smaller scale, but one rather closer to home: the MetPro affair, our own locally grown scandal, born and nurtured here in Broken Barnet, and still unresolved, despite the best efforts of those of us who have investigated the matter and brought it out into the light of the public domain.

It could be argued that the time honoured ritual of the committee system is actually Britain's most important contribution to the march of civilisation. Long after the sun has set on the last corners of our empire our bureacratic systems and traditions still continue to rule the world. In every country you can think of, wherever you have a group of people who have to make a joint decision, you must have a committee, with a chair, and members, and motions, agendas and reports. This could only be invented by the British, or even dare we say, only by the English: it is so suited, is it not, to our innate sense of fair play, and the need to attempt to control the uncontrollable, and bring order out of chaos?

Take a committee, and add to its responsibilities an inquiry, and you make an Englishman or woman very happy: you've added another well loved tradition, the detective story: whodunnit?

As in any good murder mystery, the parties under suspicion in the Hackgate case sat today and played their roles before the investigation with complete sangfroid, their lines carefully rehearsed. We were given a display of a clever combination of wide eyed innocence, combined with just the right sort of hand wringing for terrible things which happened but which were, of course, the fault of other people.

Earlier today we heard evidence from the two most important policemen in the country, who have resigned from their posts because grave mistakes were made while they were in charge, and so they felt they could not continue with any credibility. Of course it is easy to say that they have only resigned once certain known facts were in the public domain, rather than on a point of principle, or that they went before they were sacked, but at least they have had the grace to step down.

Compare this to the usual reaction by any politician or high profile corporate figure accused of wrongdoing, especially those in positions where it is almost impossible to dislodge them without their agreement. There is no honour in their eyes in resigning on a point of principle, or admitting responsibility, no need to to be mindful of the demands of accountability to shareholders or electors.

The Murdochs were not aware of any malpractice in their companies. Everything wrong was blamed on someone else. The lack of clarity on the company's control of expenditure, for example, was nothing to do with them. They trusted their managers to follow the deeply ingrained sense of ethical standards they expected of their employees. They asked no difficult questions.

Was it not, they were asked, a 'cultural problem' within the company, where people will only tell things you want to hear? To curry favour? Oh no, that could not be, thought Rupert: he could see through people like that. On the other hand, he could not see any of the bad things he had subsequently been told about, to his great shock, because he had been left in the dark. Reminded that 'wilful blindness' was not an acceptable excuse, he simply rejected the possibility of such a charge, although he then admitted that he may have been guilty of a certain 'laxity'. Others might see it as incompetence, of course, but that doesn't matter either, apparently.

As in News Corp, so in Broken Barnet. The MetPro Audit investigation certainly revealed 'cultural' problems, systemic failures of financial control, and a senior management team whose 'hands off' approach to executive administration neatly matches the delegated oversight of the Murdochs.

The News of the World's shameful use of phone hacking, and the gross invasion of privacy of the victims of crime, and grieving families, of course far outshadows the appalling acts of maladministration that MetPro has uncovered, but even here we have seen children and vulnerable adults put at risk by the incompetence of senior management, who refuse to investigate the harm which may have resulted from such negligence, and, let us not forget, because I certainly have not, that some of us have also had our privacy invaded by illicit filming and 'monitoring' by council employees: a practice for which no one has taken responsibility, or apologised. Whether it is due to 'wilful blindness', laxity, incompetence: no one here has taken the blame, or lost their job as a result of what happened.

In his performance at the committee, James Murdoch went to great lengths to appear saddened, and contrite, and talk about moves to make their company 'what it has always aspired to be', whilst still retaining his family's manic grip on the business.

Here in Broken Barnet our CEO, on £201,000 a year, and his deputy, the Chief Finance Officer, on a £1,000 a day, remain in post, talking in hushed tones about lessons learned, and action plans, whilst hurrying in, with indecent haste, the introduction of massive outsourcing of public services, and a freshly gutted corporate body in which less fortunate employees will lose their jobs, while the fat cat companies of the private sector grab the new opportunities for profit.

One lesson has certainly been learned by all of us, has it not? Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of private profit: whether it is a media empire or a billion pound local authority, ethical considerations have no material value, and in the corporate world, behind all the theatricality of public posturing, will always be an irrelevance.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Brian Coleman - more handbagging by Dismore

Not Brian Coleman, AM, FRSA, supporting the Mayor's cycle hire scheme

Oh dear, after a couple of blog posts about showbiz, celebs phonehacking and the media, back to earth with one about Brian Coleman. Sorry. Of course Brian would love to think he is a big shot, and has been trying to muscle in on the story of the day by calling for the resignation of John Yates, the Met police Assistant Commissioner, but back here in Broken Barnet, we citizens are more interested in stories directly relevant to his duties as our elected member on the GLA. And so is Labour GLA candidate Andrew Dismore.

Dismore has issued another press release today complaining about Brian's apparent lack of interest in transport issues: he has written to Transport for London asking for copies of correspondence sent to and from Coleman in regard to the following:

1. facilities for cyclists in Barnet and Camden, including cycle routes

2.the London cycle hire scheme, and its extension to Barnet and Camden

3.the Northern Line

4.bus services in Barnet and Camden

5.public safety on the transport system

The statement continues:

Mr Dismore said:

“It is astounding that since he was last elected, Mr Coleman has had nothing to say about the strategic issues relating to transport in Barnet and Camden. To be fair to him, he has managed to rouse himself to raise an average of one individual casework complaint every 2 months, but the London Assembly is supposed to be a strategic role and his indolence is truly appalling.

He has written nothing to TfL about the delayed modernisation of the Northern Line under Boris Johnson. He moans about Camden Town station to the local press, but has not written to TfL to make any representations about it since the last election. He has not corresponded with them over the contentious issue about splitting the Northern line at Camden Town either. He has made no written representations about the strategic bus network, either in Barnet or Camden. And there is not one item of correspondence concerning cycling either in Barnet or Camden. He has not raised any letters about the growing demand to extend the cycle hire scheme beyond the centre of the capital. And bearing in mind he branded the Safer Transport Teams a “gimmick” when they were first introduced, it is probably not surprising that apart from one individual casework item, he has nothing in writing to show he is concerned about public safety on the network generally.

If he is not going to do the job for which he was elected, then he should not be standing for re-election next time”.

Frankly, Mrs Angry thinks Mr Dismore is being very silly. Why on earth would Brian Coleman, the patron saint of cabbies, be interested in cycling, or public transport? His divine being is usually carried about the streets of Broken Barnet on a litter, gladly borne by grateful citizens, and whenever he is called into town for a luncheon engagement, or to attend a banquet, or to have a tantrum in a GLA meeting, he quite rightly hires a taxi to convey him there, at our expense. He has been rumoured to have travelled on the underground once or twice, but is unsuited to this form of transport, as TFL refuses to allow the reintroduction of first class carriages, and he has to sit next to common people, and socialists.

Of course, as revealed by the Guardian this morning, Mrs Angry is herself a champagne socialist, and as such, might be expected to eschew such vulgar forms of transport, but she feels she must set a good example to others, and gives her patronage to the underground, buses and the overground, and would dearly love to see her GLA representative get off his fat backside, and do something constructive to improve tube services, especially, on this part of the Northern Line, perhaps by giving his support to retaining staff at the stations, in order that ordinary residents might continue to feel safe when travelling late at night - and unable to arrange for a publicly funded taxi to get them safely home.

The idea of Brian Coleman on a bike is something that many residents of Broken Barnet would probably pay an extra few pennies on their council tax to see, but it ain't going to happen, is it? The excercise would do him good, though. Need to be fighting fit for next May, Brian. And when you lose your GLA post, you'll need to get on a bike, Tebbit style, to look for work, won't you?

According to stories on twitter (so it must be true) Boris Johnson reckons Brian Coleman has been hacked: ha - love to see the transcript of that one - and I know that fellow Tory AM, and blushing secret admirer of Mrs Angry, Mr Roger Evans, has also raised the possibility of AMs being targeted, in his City Hall blog. Mrs Angry rather naughtily suggested this was unlikely to be true as they are all so boring, but then she had forgotten about Mr Evans and the shameful incident in the ladies' shoe shop in Romford in 1984, which no one is supposed to talk about. (Don't ask him, whatever you do). Roger must be deeply concerned. Brian, too: we all know how shy he is, how he avoids personal publicity of any kind, and the possibility that he might have ended up in the national press must have been a deeply abhorrant thought.

On the other hand, re Yates: Coleman does seem to have a bit of a thing about uniformed authority, doesn't he? What's the Coleman phrase - a 'robustly' challenging attitude ... Do you remember the good old days, when Conservative politicians loved law and order, and defended the police and police funding to the last breath of their righteous little Tory bodies? All very different now, isn't it? All the old world order has fractured, and we don't know where to place our trust anymore. As for Coleman: there is something more at stake here, but what it is Mrs Angry cannot imagine. Our Brian only has to see a brass button and whoosh, there he is, off on a rant. Policemen. Firefighters. Salvation Army. Some issues there, Brian? Make an appointment at Mrs Angry's counselling clinic and we'll talk it through.