Thursday, 10 October 2013
Lost in the wires: Capita comes to the Town Hall
Watching the live webcast of the antics at the #daftarrest council meeting in Carmarthenshire yesterday, (see previous post) was made all the more fun by the deadpan commentary, or rather translation, by an unseen voice, uncannily seeming to predict the thoughts of the councillors, as they lapsed in and out of Welsh, in their speeches.
Further enticement - if that is the right word: it is a lovely word, isn't it? lay in the fact that the rather alluring, husky tones of the interpreter sounded like the comic Rhod Gilbert, and gave the perhaps unfair impression that he had been tempted to pass on the benefit of his own pithy observations, but had thought better of it.
Mrs Angry thought about this interesting way of presenting the procedures of a council meeting, sat in the committee room of Hendon Town Hall, last night, waiting to watch the first contract monitoring committee dealing with our new friends at Capita.
One of the telling features of the at arm's length relationship that our council maintains with residents, similar to Carmarthenshire, is the way in which it does everything to deter interaction with the public at meetings. Remember the infamous use of illegally operating, blackshirted, jackbooted bouncers to bar residents from the council chamber, and film us - I say us, I mean bloggers like me, and other trouble makers intent on ... tssk ... filming the proceedings? That caused such a stir, when we proved the said bouncers were unlicensed, and the company that employed them had no contract, and oh - thousands of council arrangements had no contract, and ... mmm.
The real difficulty now, to be frank, is less dramatic: it is the fact that the sound system used in meetings is not fit for purpose, and makes it impossible for a free flowing debate to take place, or be heard. Proceedings are continually interrupted with 'can't hear you', and 'speak into the microphone', with members and officers continually surprised that this should matter, and that any member of the public should want or need to follow what is being said, on their behalf, by their betters.
This exclusion from the process is exacerbated by the reluctance of some senior officers to identify themselves, and their positions, and to speak in corporate jargon which may or may not make sense to themselves, but no one else.
Mrs Angry, fortunately, has acquired a working knowledge of this esoteric language: so stick your earphones on, and tune in, turn on and - well. Here we go.
Arriving just before the meeting, Mrs Angry was astonished to find the public gallery stuffed full not of, you know, the public, but infested by a swarm of dark suited officers, most of them new faces, the cohort of androids drafted in to populate the new colony, sitting obediently in the front rows, taking all the best seats, and forcing members of the public to sit at the back. The Suits had named seats, in fact, whereas members of the public, who should have had priority at the front, especially those with questions, were disregarded.
Translation: this is the way it is now, and will be, in Capitaville. Go to the back of the queue, and get used to it.
Mrs Angry sat down gingerly amongst some of the Suits, eavesdropped on their conversations - oh, I'm just here to give moral support ... in the cheap seats ... and read their notebooks, ha ... until they twigged, further into the meeting, after some strategic heckling, that she was not entirely on message with the old outsourcing dodge. Then the poor woman seated next to her became very keen to offer copies of documents and smile placatingly, as if Mrs Angry might rip her arm off, or ... tell someone what was in her notes, or propose an alternative model of local government not comprising a ruthless exploitation of the provision of council services, for the benefit of private sector shareholders.
Public question time. Muted, this time: don't worry, new friends from Capita, that was the lull before the storm. The Suits looked on, bemused, as residents tried to put supplementary questions to the Chair, Cllr John Marshall, and found them deflected, swatted like annoying flies, and no useful information passed on.
On to the contract performance reports, first the one with Keir, for school construction. The Tories preened themselves on the success of their school improvements. John Marshall, responsible for education, said how marvellous it all is. Andrew Harper reminisced about the glorious time when he had held John's portfolio. And then Labour's Barry Rawlings deflated their egos somewhat by suggesting that they should be rather less self congratulatory. Yes, they had kept within budget, but that budget had changed - oh, thought Mrs Angry, doodling in her notebook, as usual - you mean ... the goalposts have been changed?
No, not going there.
An officer was called on to explain this was because some of the planned buildings had been round, and then they found out the plots they were intended for were, erm - square.
Cllr Marshall said he did not want to go back in time to when children in Finchley Central were taught in a church hall.
Cllr Marshall, of course, is as old as time itself, and was tutored at home by his governess, before being sent to Eton - and reportedly becoming best friends with a nice young man called Eric Blair.
Mrs Angry's daughter went to nursery school in a church hall in Finchley Central.
Purpose built schools, that is what we want, said Marshall.
Grahame Park school was purpose built, and you shut it, pointed out Mr Shepherd, in the back row.
Ah: Councillor Shepherd, greeted Councillor Marshall. The Suits tittered nervously, probably wondering if he was, or was not.
On to the contract with HBPublic Law. That sounds exotic, like LA Law, doesn't it, conjuring up visions of beautiful, tousle-haired lawyers seducing colleagues in stationery cupboards? No: this is Harrow Council's legal service, whose lawyers, as far as Mrs Angry can tell, are neither tousle-haired, nor fond of liasons in cupboards, but have the heady duty of providing all support and advice to our authority.
Resident Barbara Jacobson had pointed out that not all HB Public Law KPIs had been finalised by the time the report was made. She asked why. She was given a clever evasive answer which implied this had been done. When she questioned this again, she asked was this really a KPI, and if not - why?
Kari Manovitch gave an interesting response, saying it is 'customary to have measures that develop'. Ms Manovitch is the perfect officer for Capitaville, and is likely to have a very successful career.
She is also one of the breed of officers who feel it necessary to preface every reply to a question from a councillor with - 'So...'
Translation: What I am about to say is cobbled together corporate speak which you will not understand and indeed you are not meant to, but it will suitably serve the necessary action of response. Please do not follow this up with further questioning.
On to Barnet Homes, the 'at arms length' housing organisation. Good questions from Labour councillors Geoff Cooke, Alan Schneiderman and Ross Houston, regarding homelessness, the impact of the bedroom tax, residents in temporary accommodation. Smooth words from Derek Rust, referring glibly to the 'under occupation charge'. We learnt that around fifty tenants have already moved 'voluntarily' out of the borough, but of course the real exodus of the poor, the exportation of those our Tory councillors prefer not to live here, will begin shortly, when despite what Ms Manovitch described as an 'holistic assessment' we will push large numbers of tenants over the border in search of a home they just might be able to afford.
As Ross Houston observed, the elephant in the room this time was the inadequacy of supply of housing.
We note your comments, remarked the Chair, peevishly. And on to the main course: the Capita contracts - first, NSCSO.
A number of Suits sat down at the table. Their names were hard to catch. It makes no difference. They said things, the sort of things you might expect them to say. And then they went back to their seats.
Geoff Cooke asked about demoralised staff. There was no response. Alan Schneiderman asked about the new call centre arrangements - had there been any improvement?
Mrs Angry's attempt last week to call the council to ask about the hideous new recycling bins was a complete waste of time - several disconnected calls, followed by a reply from someone who said he would put her through to someone who could help, which resulted in being lost in a virtual labyrinth of recorded messages.
Tory councillor Brian Salinger said he had tried to call to speak to the Leader, and no one knew what he was talking about. To be fair, this is understandable: Mrs Angry isn't quite sure what he is talking about either. Capita said they would investigate.
A man with a stentorian American accent gave a thrilling breakdown of statistics regarding the inch by inch progress of the call centre. Initially, he admitted, calls had been 'lost in the wires'. Agents were not utilised 100%. Agents? Wires? Are we still talking about phone calls to Barnet council, probably about wheelie bins?
So: yes we are, Mrs Angry.
On to DRS, the second contract, the matching pair of trophies awarded to lucky tender winners Crapita. Barry Rawlings highlighted an interesting fact regarding Hendon Crematorium, the place where many of us have relatives laid to rest - or so we thought.
As an afterthought, Hendon Crematorium was added to the outsourcing tender as what is rather horribly known as a 'sweetener' -an inducement to potential bidders, excited by the lucrative, not to say necrophiliac pleasures to be had from our deceased loved ones.
The most marvellous thing about the Capitalisation of Barnet, perhaps, is this: the chance for our deceased residents to play their part in the profiteering of One Barnet, and serve as a mute commodity for the marketing of private enterprise.
And it really is the privatisation gift that keeps on giving: residents are queueing up to take their place in eternity, watched over by Capita, in the gardens of Hendon Crematorium. More on this a little later. But here is trouble in paradise.
As Cllr Rawlings pointed out, in the report, there is a noted risk to this happy enterprise - from a possible reduction in death rates; in itself, of course, the target of healthcare policy in the borough.
What a terrible conflict this presents, and what a dilemma for our Tory councillors and Capita.
Encourage the residents of Broken Barnet to die more quickly, and more frequently, so as to protect the future profits of the Crematorium, or support the improvement of healthcare, and the needs of the chronically ill, and the housing needs of the homeless, and - oh, hang on. Unlikely.
No need to worry.
Time for Capita to take over. The meeting, clearly: yes, they've taken over everything else. Sit back and think of Broken Barnet, Mrs Angry.
Mr Mark Wyllie, who is the head of Capita in Barnet, is going to give us a presentation. With slides. Pay attention: look straight ahead at the screen. Try not to think of Eric Blair's most famous work. There is absolutely no comparison of Capitaville with any sort of dystopian, nightmare world. You are not being brainwashed. You are not a number - oh.
We are told we are on a journey. Good, good. We are being shown diagrams. Lots and lots of diagrams. Impossible for us to read properly, but then that was not the intention.
Sadly Mrs Angry's camera couldn't capture these masterly designs, but she made some rough sketches for you, which bemused the Suit sitting next to her who then went to the effort of showing Mrs Angry she had ordered the governance officer to, as Mrs Angry had suggested, in a wind up, put the presentation online for all to see.
No need to bother. Here, in a nutshell, or rather a customised Venn diagram, was all you needed to know: how Mr Wyllie and Capita intend to form a new relationship with residents ...
As the presentation continued, Mr Shepherd came forward to sit at the press table. As we know, he is a press baron now, like Rupert Murdoch, owning at least one share in the Morning Star, and wielding enormous influence in Fleet Street.In the middle of all the corporate claptrap, one of the two bags of clippings from his newspaper, which he carries everywhere, fell over, and the contents slid gracefully across the committee room floor.
Mr Willie informed us that residents would be at the heart of the new nation state of Capitaville.
As you can imagine, this assertion was met with raucous laughter and cat calls from the residents nestled in the heart of the public gallery, behind the Suits. Mr Wyllie looked rather taken aback by this reaction, and the ensuing heckling from the same sources.
Geoff Cooke asked a very, very interesting question. Would Capita allow Barnet's auditors to inspect the accounts?
Panic amongst the Suits. We will comply with the relevant obligations.
You didn't answer the question, said Mrs Angry.
It was asked again. It then transpired such a move would require a 'special agreement'. And would that agreement be forthcoming? That was unclear. You have to ask nicely, suggested a member of the public.
Earlier in the presentation Capita had made much of the 'liason' service to members that they would be offering. This they have clearly calculated to appeal to the indolent Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, who largely cannot be bothered to read reports, and singularly failed to read the contract with Capita.
An officer was trying to hear a question from Tory Cllr Khatri, but was having difficulty. Perhaps he needs help with his microphone, said Councillor Shepherd, thoughtfully. Get the Liason Service to turn it on.
More diagrams. Could just make out one with 'doing more things' on one side, and 'doing the right things' on the other.
Ah: now we are learning all about the Joint Venture, and plans to make Barnet the centre of new business for Capita's domination of the new markets offered in the South East of England.
We were then shown a map, of the sort that might be drawn by a child, with Barnet shown as bigger than London, and a range of scope for Capita which will be, we were told, from Cornwall to the Wash. This latterday Danelaw, in which Capita may plunder and pillage the new business opportunities offered by public sector bodies throughout their territory, is of course entirely aspirational, and if meant to impress us, failed miserably, and was indeed met with derision, and disbelief even from the Tory councillors.
NB: warning - possibly not to scale
Hold on: Brian Salinger, his jaw dropping open, asked, so you are saying that if Oxford city council want you to carry out some business for them, you will do that from Barnet?
Why, he asked, in amazement, can't Oxford set up its own Joint Venture?
Why didn't you ask these questions months ago, Brian, yelled Mrs Angry, as residents joined in, voicing their fury.
Councillor Marshall tutted at Mrs Angry. You are not a member of this committee. Laughter from the public gallery. Mrs Angry grinned at Councillor Marshall as insolently as possible.
Mr Wyllie and the Suits looked stunned at the level of hostility in the room.
I did, said Cllr Salinger, rather feebly.
But you signed the contract anyway.
Back to the matter of Hendon Crematorium. We were told Crapita will spend £400, 000 on refurbishing it. That does not match the £2 million we taxpayers were obliged to spend on it during the tender process to make it more marketable, sadly.
But what uttered out of the mouths of Capita now was simply beyond belief.
They intend to use the Crematorium grounds as 'an open green space'.
They intend to open a cafe, presumably in the listed Gatehouse.
They will turn the last resting place of my grandparents, aunts, uncle and other relatives into an open space but do so 'with sensitivity'.
Nothing could speak more eloquently than this, could it, about the ultimate exploitation of our borough and our residents by this grasping, profit driven company, than this loathsome proposition?
We all look forward to our next visit to the Capitaville Crematorium Leisure Facility. Come and watch grieving families place flowers on their family graves, or count the number of funeral corteges, and then have a cup of tea at the Gatehouse cafe.
We might speculate what lies behind this move. There is a lot of unused land in the grounds. Are they hoping to get their hands on it, and gain permission for development? They would have to put in a planning application. To the planning department. Which is now run by: Capita.
A new subject, a new question: Councillor Cooke asks who will own the new IT system?
And if it all goes wrong, what happens? Ah.
Tory Cllr Khatri asks an even more important question.
Please explain the payments of more than £30 million from Barnet to Capita over the last two months.
Interim, says, Mr Wyllie. NO, declares Mr Reasonable, who has been told by the Chief Executive exactly what the payments are.
Mr Wyllie could not answer. He turned to Kari Manovitch, who could or would not answer. She said she would speak to Cllr Khatri out of the meeting.
Why, we yelled, as Mr Wyllie looked on in clear dismay: we want an answer. It will be published online, they replied. I don't have the internet, said Mr Shepherd. Nor do I, said another resident.
The meeting came to a close. .
Councillor Marshall told Mr Wyllie, with wry amusement, you will be under scrutiny from this committee - AND from members of the public.
Mr Wyllie appeared to be less than pleased by that prospect.
In fact he was clearly shaken by his introduction to democracy, Barnet style.
He had better get used to it.
This is just the beginning.