Sunday, 27 January 2013

Truth or dare, in Crapita Barnet

Are you a scrounger? The man from Capita thinks he knows who is, and who isn't ...

Mrs Angry is a little late with this story, due to other distractions this week, but this is too good a tale to ignore: the story of Cornwall County Council, Capita, and an astonishing proposal to use a lie detecting service for phone calls from benefit applicants, the adoption of which has led to the resignation of the Cornish Conservative group leader Fiona Ferguson. Full story in Wednesday's Guardian, see here.

Mrs Angry is a keen follower of political events in Cornwall, for several reasons: a personal attachment to the county (if you need a stroppy blogger moving down there to take over one of those empty holiday homes, please let her know, as she is quite keen to escape the foetid air of Broken Barnet*) ... but Cornwall is also of no little fascination,  because of its parallels with the situation here in Barnet, and the battle we are having over the proposed outsourcing of our public services. Mrs Angry follows the tweets and blogposts of Helston councillor Andrew Wallis with great interest, and recommends that you do the same.

Cornwall's tradition of independent political activity leads to a refreshingly different and less predictable pattern of decisions and policy making than we are lumbered with here in Broken Barnet, where our empty headed Tory councillors blindly follow the party line, and show no interest in intellectual debate, or an approach to public office based on a sense of duty, principles, or even conscience. 

Whereas our own mass privatisation of services has been nodded through by an unquestioning, uninterested group of Tory councillors, the Cornish councillors have taken their role as representatives rather more seriously, listened to the deep concerns of their constituents, and thrown out the proposals.

Cornwall said no to their version of One Barnet, then, but some Cornish Tory councillors are still keen to avail themselves of the temptations offered by outsourcing providers, hence the enthusiasm by leader Jim Currie for the 'VRA' software offered by Capita,  'voice risk analysis' - a system sold to them in order, it is claimed, to prevent fraud and produce huge savings for the council.

How does this work? Capita says that VRA is 'capable of identifying stress and emotion in a caller's voice pattern'. Well: fancy that.

The Tory leadership in Truro is keen to avail itself of this software, and has knocked up a cunning plan to catch out the many scroungers they imagine are making false claims for single person discounts on their council tax bills. 

Telephone interviews will now be conducted with residents, using the 'lie detector' technology to spot potential cases of fraud. The council asserts that this screening of claimants, using a system delivered in a contract worth £50,000, 'could' repay its cost by returning 'at least' £1 million. Oh. 

Where have we heard of this sort of aspirational saving, here in Broken Barnet? Aha: yes ... scattered amongst the 8,000 pages of our own rather larger contract with Crapita, of course. 

Subjecting ordinary residents to such an indignity,  in the course of attempting to secure a benefit to which they are entitled: this is an absolutely outrageous course of action for any local authority to undertake, but it is what we must expect from a future whose ugly face leers over us, courtesy of our Coalition government, looking down with contempt on those of us who are poor, or vulnerable, or ill, or dependent in any way on support, a future where such citizens are necessarily becoming an object of suspicion, a scrounger, a member of an underclass: an outcast. 

How does the detection of stress or emotion in a phone call signify an indication of intention to defraud? Most of Mrs Angry's phone calls, if monitored, would be likely to exhibit high levels of stress, and emotion, especially this week: but this is not due to any interest in fiddling her council tax, or any sort of fraudulent activity ... And many people would naturally be rather uncomfortable in such a conversation, especially if they know they are being scrutinised in such a way - assuming that they will be informed of the detection system.

We are told that 'a number of claimants' will be selected for this humiliating form of assessment. How will this selection be made? On what basis?

We are also told that the new screening process is necessary because, Cornwall County Council asserts:

"research carried out in other areas of the country suggests 4% of single person benefit discounts could be false claims."

Hmm. Whose research? And in other areas of the country: which areas? Are they comparable to Cornwall? And this 'research' only suggests that 4% could be false claims. So unattributable evidence taken from a totally different context is being used as a pretext to pay Capita to subject a number of residents, the vast majority of whom are bona fide claimants, to a screening process which would seem to represent a clear infringement of civil liberties.

There is seemingly little to suggest that this process is effective, anyway: the Guardian article reports that a pilot scheme of this type used by our neighouring borough Harrow was not continued, but more significantly:

"the techniques used by Capita were used by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on a trial basis in 24 local authorities on the processing of housing benefit between August 2008 and December 2010.

A subsequent report said: "From our findings, it is not possible to demonstrate that VRA works effectively and consistently in the benefits environment. The evidence is not compelling enough to recommend the use of VRA within DWP."

What has this to do with Broken Barnet, you may be wondering? Everything. Our Tory councillors are in the process of flogging off up to £750 million worth of our public services to Capita for their profiteering pleasure, and of course Capita is almost certain to get hold of the other package of DRS services as well.

And as we read in the Barnet Press here, despite the heading:

 'Council distances itself from scandal as Capita is discovered to use lie detectors', 

... and a statement from a council spokesperson that: 'there are currently no plans to use the technology in Barnet', our deputy Leader, Councillor Daniel Thomas, claims he has not heard of VRA but is quoted as saying:

'It is part of our contract that Capita will look closely at groups of residents where there may be an element of fraud. The council offers several million pounds of discounts and over the duration of the contract Capita would be able to save the council a lot of money by tackling fraud.'

If you are a connoisseur of Barnet Tory easycouncilspeak, this statement will set the alarm bells ringing: Thomas does not reject the possibility of using such technology ... so watch out, citizens of Broken Barnet: Big Brother will more than likely be listening in to you, in the near future.

You will note that lie detection monitoring software is not offered by Capita for the use of local taxpayers and voters when obliged to listen to the utterances of our Tory councillors.

Mrs Angry would imagine that a pilot scheme which offered this facility would prove to be highly effective here in Broken Barnet, where truth is a commodity in short supply, and so many corporate statements, so much false information, so much obscured information, are routinely used to mislead the residents of this borough.

Take for example the interesting statements made by senior Tory councillors at last week's Full Council meeting, and elsewhere, in regard to the Judicial Review. Leader Cornelius was reportedly informing the councillors on Tuesday that it was irresponsible to hold up the One Barnet programme by this legal challenge, that it would cost tax payers £1 million a month: how dare we, the plebs, question his judgement in consigning the next ten years of our lives to Capita, without any mandate, or consultation? 

Well, hard luck, Richard: we do dare, see?

And then deputy leader John Thomas has claimed that the council has secured an expedited hearing for the JR, which will take place in the second part of March.

Oh dear: Mrs Angry's patent pending crapitacrapometer is bleeping ... 

Naughty Councillor Cornelius: where have you found this £1million figure?

Ah: lost 'savings'. That is rather like the lost lottery winnings we all have on a Saturday night when we omit to buy our ticket: an aspirational fortune lost, no more, and besides, as blogger Mr Reasonable has pointed out, when he has previously asked the cost of any delay to implementation, he was assured that any loss would be made up in the course of the programme. 

So £1 million a month will not be billed to the taxpayers of Broken Barnet. 

Which is just as well, as we learnt a the same meeting that we are being forced to hand over the staggering amount of £50,000 PER DAY to external advisers in the course of this reckless programme.

As for the equally over imaginative John Thomas: the Judicial Review is taking place within the expected timetable, as all JRs do. 

And here is an interesting fact which Thomas chooses not to share with residents and fellow councillors: Mrs Angry is very reliably informed that up to 70% of all applications for Judicial Review are rejected as having no case to answer. 

The very fact that this application has been successful indicates the strength of the persuasive argument that this particular challenge presents. 

Our Tory councillors are worried. 

They should be. 

But it is an iniquitous statement to suggest that to dare to apply for such a review is irresponsible: this action has only become necessary because of the inaction of Tory councillors, and a serious failure properly to scrutinise and manage the One Barnet programme, and worst of all, their failure to comply with the statutory requirement for meaningful consultation with the people whose lives will bear the impact of this wholescale privatisation of public services.

When this case goes to court, the highest legal authority in the land will consider the arguments regarding this programme, fraught as it is with a risk of failure on the most catastrophic scale - so: if the judges have decided there is a case to answer - well, there is a case to answer, and whatever the outcome, the law which binds us all to the truth, and the cause of justice, must and will be obeyed.

*NB, Tory councillors: don't get your hopes up just yet - Mrs Angry still has work to do here in Broken Barnet ...

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

... and no, the photo is not of a young Brian Coleman, although Mrs Angry can see what you mean ... Brian of course always tells the truth, so this procedure would be pointless.