Tuesday, 20 November 2012
In which Mrs Angry goes to Westminster. Again. And then writes to the Rt Hon Mike Freer, MP.
Last night around seventy or so Barnet residents attended a screening at the House of Commons of the second Barnet film, 'Barnet: the £1 Billion Gamble'. The room was packed, and many of the people attending were new to Mrs Angry - ordinary residents newly politicised by the growing awareness of the looming privatisation of nearly all our council services.
On our way to the meeting, Citizen Barnet and Mrs Angry wandered through the lobbies and passages of Westminster, gawping at the historical detail: trying hard not to be too impressed by the scale and significance of the Great Hall, for example, where the trials of Guy Fawkes and Thomas More were held, and the coronation banquet of Henry VIII ... up into the main building, past a scurrying Malcolm Rifkind, dressed in a rather furtive looking raincoat, and along through the committee room corridors, pursued not so much by the scent of power as a lingering smell of overheated school dinners. The atmosphere is distinctly public school, in fact, or perhaps more exactly, rather Hogwarts Academy.
Citizen Barnet storms the palace of Westminster. Sort of.
And then, as if by magic, along came Ed Miliband, sixth former, prefect, and Captain of Gryffindor.
Oh, Mrs Angry, it really is a sign of middle age, when the leader of the Labour party looks to you to be too young to be out that late, you know ... but standing in the corridor lined with ghostly white marble busts of worthy Victorian parliamentarians, it was hard to feel he has quite reached the level of gravitas they bore.
Equally, Mrs Angry considered, David Cameron, really, has more the quality of a waxwork in Mme Tussaud's than the sculpted authority of Gladstone, or Palmerston.
Perhaps we simply live in a different age, and no longer have the same respect for our politicians; or perhaps their careers take them to the highest level of achievement before they really have the chance to become the statesmen we really need.
Inside the committee room, many residents, councillors and activists had already arrived. Cllr Alan Schneiderman introduced Mrs Angry to Hilary Benn, the shadow secretary for Communities and Local Government: or rather he introduced Hilary to Mrs Angry, which rather perplexed him, as well it might. Mrs Angry had invited his government counterpart Eric Pickles to the screening, but as usual, these days, she was stood up.
See, Eric: you missed your chance with Mrs Angry, but Hilary Benn made the effort ...
Councillors Schneiderman and Arjun Mittra:
Also present were MPs Dave Anderson, and Bill Esterson. Dave addressed the meeting - what he said, Mrs Angry is unable to report, as even with her ear well attuned to the North East accent, he was hard to understand. Dave is from Sunderland, and a former miner who once worked in the same pit in Hetton le Hole as some of Mrs Angry's family, funnily enough. He is therefore an example of what is an increasingly rare thing: an MP who has experience of doing a hard day's work.
Bill Esterson spoke next, and referred to some of the well known outsourcing failures, such as that in his own constituency of Sefton, where the local authority was obliged to take back services from Capita, after, oh dear, a failure to produce the savings promised in exchange for a contract for £65 million worth of technical services.
Finchley traders' spokeswoman Helen Michael
The brilliant Barnet Casino film was show, with its guide to outsourcing, narrated by the mellifluous West country tones of fellow blogger Mr Reasonable, (who is now contemplating a new career in voiceovers for butter, chocolate and pet insurance adverts).
Mr Mustard, and Mr Reasonable
Then for the main feature, the testimonies from residents, the ramblings of local bloggers, the clips of our Tory councillors, the closing shots of a rally in Finchley. As the credits rolled, and the camera lingered on some of the people taking part, a young girl sings .... we can succeed, if we just try ...
Mrs Angry was struck by the magnificent, slow burning fury of the residents featured, their naivete not a sign of weakness, but a sign of righteousness, of moral strength, contrasted so sharply with the moral corruption and cynicism of the councillors and senior council officers who are so intent on betraying the trust placed in them by their own electorate.
At one end of the committee room in which the meeting took place, there was a large portrait of the great Victorian social reformer, Lord Shaftesbury, who did so much to defend the most vulnerable members of society from the exploitation and and greed of profiteering industrialists. What exactly, Mrs Angry wondered, would be make of the debate going on before him now?
Here we were, in parliament, the cradle of democracy, the representatives of a community where, as the Barnet Alliance's Barbara Jacobson put it so eloquently, we are being forced to watch the erosion of democracy itself.
In Barnet, we are seeing the lie of Pickles' localism agenda exposed: the dysfunctional relationship between the elected members of our authority and its voters demonstrates perfectly the powerlessness of residents to influence the actions of their representatives, once the election is won.
Residents John Sullivan and his daughter Susan were present last night. Susan has a disability, and solicitors acting on her behalf are now seeking to pursue a judicial review of One Barnet.
As John put it, 'bullshit tick box exercises called consultation' have been used to jusify the adoption of this reckless policy, whilst leaving the residents of our community entirely uninformed as to the real nature of what this massive leap into the dark world of outsourcing will really mean.
Even our elected representatives are not privy to the detail of the £1 billion One Barnet contracts, as admitted by 'leader' Richard Cornelius at the Barnet Alliance meeting a few days ago. They have no understanding of the massive undertaking they are endorsing, yet they see nothing wrong in extending their approval to a policy they are too lazy and too stupid to scrutinise, but which will, for the next ten years, affect the lives of everyone who lives in this borough.
This morning, after some reflection, Mrs Angry thought that she would write to her MP, Mr Mike Freer, the daddy of easycouncil/Futureshape/One Barnet, and see what he has to say about the monstrous creature that his baby has now become:
Dear Mr Freer
Last night, along with seventy or so other residents of Barnet, I attended a screening at the House of Commons of the film 'Barnet: the £1Billion Gamble'.
I understand that you were invited, but chose not to come, which is a great shame, as many of the residents who were there - including me - are your constituents, and one might have hoped that you would want to engage in debate on an issue which is of such huge significance to us - and to you.
It would appear, from the absence of public comment made by you in relation to One Barnet, that you are now reluctant to be associated with what clearly has now become a disastrous policy, and one which promises to end the career of many local Tory politicians, its toxicity not confined to the councillors who have endorsed the programme, but, as you must realise, to the local MPs who choose to avoid the huge concerns of local voters.
One Barnet is now a political liability, and will become even more so as the reality of the reckless gamble it represents begins to have an impact on the lives of residents.
One Barnet of course began life as the 'Easycouncil' model, metamorphosing into 'Futureshape' and now rebranded once more.
In its early stages, you claimed the intellectual copyright for the 'easycouncil' concept': you were then limbering up for your campaign as a parliamentary candidate, and it brought you a certain amount of media attention.
In fact, as we know now, this sort of model for local government is one that has been carefully encouraged all over the country by private companies such as BT and Capita, evangelising amongst the non believers in the public sector in an effort to increase their own market potential. All very clever, until the last year or so has revealed the reality of so many large scale examples of outsourcing which have failed spectacularly, and at such cost to local taxpayers.
Whilst researching material for a blogpost on this subject today, I have been reading and watching interviews that you gave in the run up to the last election, in which you discuss your 'easycouncil' idea.
Looking at these discussions once more, it becomes clear that the so called model you propose was then barely more than an aspiration, a sketch: totally lacking in detail, or any evidence as to how such a loose and unfocused idea would work in practice.
In your interviews you constantly refer to your desire to give residents 'more choice' over the way in which council services are used. You claim that 'easycouncil' is about 'transparency', and, oh dear - a 'relentless drive for efficiency'.
Fast forward to November, 2012.
Here we are facing the outsourcing of 70% of our council services, and the staggering amount of £1 billion worth of business opportunities for Capita, or BT.
It's a bit of a leap, isn't it, from wanting to give residents more choice, more transparency, to handing over control of our services to an unaccountable transnational company for ten years?
In one of your interviews you compare the wonders of the 'easyjet' model to the 'monolithic' old style airlines. One Barnet, of course, will be passing council services out of the hands of the democratic process into the hands of just the thing you so despise: a monolithic private enterprise, whose decision making process is exempt from scrutiny due to 'commercial sensitivity', part of a virtual monopoly of a handful of companies who have their hands on the public sector outsourcing market.
Is this really in the best interests of your constituents?
Many of the Barnet Tory councillors, we know now, having woken up rather late to the realities of the policy they have been told to endorse, have real concerns over the size and nature of the giant contracts about to be signed.
Your own erstwhile colleague Brian Coleman has admitted that One Barnet is an 'officer driven juggernaut' and doomed to disaster. Mill Hill councillor Sury Khatri has noted that the council does not have a mandate for the programme: at the last election, absolutely no reference was made to the wholescale privatisation of our services: any mention of easycouncil was as vague as the soundbite comments made by you in your various media interviews.
A lot has happened since your election. These days the media interest is focused on the campaign to oppose One Barnet.
This attention will only increase as we move towards the next local elections and then the next general election. If your Tory colleagues choose to ignore the demands of the residents of this borough to tear up the One Barnet proposals, there will hardly be a safe Conservative seat left in this borough, and the three local Tory MPs, none of whom enjoy a comfortable majority, or, frankly, much popularity, will be defeated, as residents blame them a long list of local Conservative policy mistakes, from the introduction of the catastrophic parking changes, to the closure of libraries and museums, and then, post One Barnet, for the inevitable loss of standards in council services and accountability.
To be fair to you, I think that you know that One Barnet bears almost no resemblance to the rather amorphous concept you had in mind a few years ago. The model that you imagined would offer more 'choice' to citizens has been replaced by a monstrous, wildly over ambitious privatisation scheme set to benefit the profits of the private sector - and the career paths of a few senior officers. There has never been an independent risk assessment of this programme for one very good reason: the risk factor is far beyond any tolerable margin: the savings that are promised will never materialise, and the whole programme is costing more in fees to consultants than will ever be recouped.
In the best interests of your constituents, then, your duty is clear - speak to the leader and cabinet members of Barnet council and persuade them to halt the One Barnet programme now, before it is too late. If you genuinely care about the future of this borough, or at least care about your own chances of being re elected, you really have no choice.
I look forward to your response, and I would really appreciate a personal reply rather than another copy of the version sent to other constituents.
He replied straight away:
Dear Mrs Angry,
I have no recollection of any invite to a screening at the Commons. In any event I had other engagements in the diary. Whilst I disagree with your assessment of the One Barnet programme, of my election chances et al. I will represent your views to the Leader of the Council. I suspect he may already know them but I shall forward them none the less by copying him in on this reply.
Mrs Angry replied:
Dear Mr Freer
Thank you for your prompt reply.
I cannot speak for the organisers of the screening, but if you did not receive an invitation this is a shame. I will ask them to send you a copy of the film.
I suspect Councillor Cornelius is indeed aware of my views, and indeed the views of the vast majority of residents, but he appears to be set on a course of political suicide.
This prospect does not entirely fill me with a sense of overwhelming regret.