Thursday, 30 January 2014

A process in the weather of the world: a damning report, and calls for the sacking of the 'Daftarrest' Chief Executive

Mark James after his High Court victory (left)

A hugely significant development today in the story of Carmarthenshire County Council's Chief Executive Mark James, with the publication of a damning report by the Welsh Audit Office, which has found that two payments to him from the council in regard to his pension, and a legal indemnity, were unlawful. See here for the report.

In regard to the pension payment, Anthony Barrett, the Appointed Auditor, holds the payment to be 'contrary to law' on the following grounds:
  • The Council does not have the power to remunerate staff to mitigate the effect of pension’s legislation.
  • In making the decision, relevant considerations were not taken into account (in breach of Wednesbury principles).
  • The Council failed to have due regard to the public sector equality duty.
  • The decision amounted to indirect discrimination.
  • A senior officer who had a disqualifying personal and pecuniary interest in the decision, participated in the decision making process.
 Commenting on the libel indemnity, the Auditor has found:

"that the Council does not have the legal powers to make such payments and there were inadequacies in the processes adopted by the Council when making the decision".

This report has important implications for Welsh blogger Jacqui Thompson, who writes as @caebrwyn, and whose arrest in 2011 for daring to film a few minutes of a meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council provoked a huge outcry, and led to a libel case between her and the authority's Chief Executive, Mark James. 

James had left some controversial comments on another blog in regard to Jacqui Thompson's arrest, which she felt were libellous. 

Jacqui Thompson, arrested and handcuffed after Mark James called police to stop her filming a meeting with her phone   pic: Alex Murray Smith

In response, he issued a counter claim, and in an extraordinary move by Carmarthenshire County Council, received an award of public money in order to cover his costs. This move was widely seen as an attempt by the authority to pursue a blogger who was causing severe embarrassment by raising so many issues of public concern, and focusing attention on an authority which local politicians have criticised for existing in a state of democratic deficit, with senior officers acting beyond the definition of their roles, and failing to be accountable for their decisions in the way that meets the demands of transparency.

The finding in the libel case by Judge Tugendhat was devastating - deeply condemnatory: he rejected her action in regard to the comments made about her by Mark James, and completely accepted the argument put by James's counsel - that Jacqui Thompson was engaged in a malicious and personalised campaign against Mr James, and refuted the case in her defence, that she was indeed acting in the public interest. 

The terms of his judgement were harsh, and severe, and provided the basis for a punitive award of costs and compensation, the size of which necessitate the loss of Jacqui Thompson's home. At the very least, as legal blogger David Allen Green commented, it was an 'illiberal' judgement.

Since then, many of the issues raised by her in her blog have been taken up by politicians and the media and shown to be matters of genuine public concern. The generous award of money and land to the extreme evangelical Towy Church body, was followed by the announcement of highly controversial plans for a 'Mercy Ministries' hostel for vulnerable young women; the intimate relationship between Carmarthenshire County Council and the Scarlets rugby team has been brought to the attention of European Union authorities. 

One related matter which is yet to reach any conclusion is the curious case of the 'snooping' by council officers on emails sent by Councillor Sian Caiach at the time of the comments left by Mr James' about Jacqui on the Madaxeman blog, see here:

Jacqui's criticisms of the pension payment, and, more importantly in this context, the libel indemnity, have been proved today to be correct, and legitimate issues of public concern. In court, the unfair representation of her case, including her allegations in these matters meant that the judgement dismissed out of hand such concerns and had a direct bearing on the level of costs and compensation that were given against her. Take one comment from the judgement, which you may view in full here: 


Finally, the abuse argument based on the grant of an indemnity by the Council to Mr James is also without foundation. As discussed in the Comninos and McLaughlin cases, there are procedures by which the grant of an indemnity by a Council to an employee in respect of the costs of litigation can be challenged. The fact that Mr James has received such an indemnity cannot make his Part 20 counterclaim an abuse. In any event, whether or not the grant of the indemnity was open to legal challenge would require investigation of the reasons for it which have not been adduced in evidence by Mrs Thompson.

 Another interesting aspect of the finding were the terms which Judge Tugendhat found to be objectionable:

  1. There are five publications by Mrs Thompson about which Mr James complains. Four are very similar in that they all contain the words "slush fund", and the fifth (the third in order of time) is quite different, where the most objectionable word is "Pinocchio". Mrs Thompson's first point in her Defence to these Part 20 claims is that they are an abuse of the process of the court. I address that submission below.
The term 'slush fund' referred to the libel indemnity, now held to be unlawful by the Auditor, and 'Pinocchio' referred to a comment in a humorous post regarding the choice of a name for a local theatre, whose name was voted for by the public, but for some reason was ignored by the council in favour of the name that came second. The judge held that the use of the name 'Pinocchio' was defamatory in regard to Mr James's integrity and reputation as the local Returning Officer.

Other aspects of the court case included a refusal to allow a trial by jury, on grounds that were unclear.

This may or may not be related to objections by the other party to references to the details of her arrest, handcuffing and detention in a cell, until she agreed not to repeat her perfectly lawful act of filming a council meeting with her phone, and the peculiar reluctance to allow some of her witnesses to take the stand. 

(Only recently, incidentally, some correspondence from local police in regard to her arrest has been published by Jacqui Thompson here:

The then deputy Chief Constable made clear his disapproval of the behaviour of council members and officers in the course of this incident.)

During the libel trial, Mr James's employees from the council, junior officers, were allowed to speak, and their evidence was accepted by the court.

At another point in the proceedings, Mr James' counsel implied that Jacqui had unfairly raised the question of a potential sympathy by Mr James towards Towy Church. As you can read from a post linked below:

"Mr Speker thought that she had suggested council members or officers were 'loyal followers' of the church. Jacqui denied this, saying she did not know of any who were such followers. When it was put to her that she had made insinuations that Mark James is a member, she denied this too and said she had no idea if he is.

 Another suggestion from Mr James counsel: that 'every time ... you see corruption by officers'

No, she retorted. The council should be open to criticism.

Just before sitting down, he had stated, in a remark which went unchallenged, that Mr and Mrs James were not members of Towy Church. 

As  you may read here:  - in fact Mr and Mrs James are members of another very similar evangelical church, yet Mr James made no declarations of interest in regard to this at any council meeting. Grants were also awarded in closed sessions. 

Without implying any wrongdoing in regard to any agreements with the church body, we now know that the Auditor has found the award of payments to be unlawful both in principle and in terms of the process during which declarations were not properly made due to a failure to follow the correct procedures:

There were failings in governance arrangements and processes adopted by the Council 
The decision was unlawful as the Chief Executive participated in the decision-making process whilst having a disqualifying personal and pecuniary interest in the decision

It would therefore appear that there is need of a wide investigation into the failure by senior officers of this authority to abide by the constitutional procedures that require full declarations and recusal from meetings that involve a member or officer of the authority.

Jacqui's interest in this subject was, it may now be reasonably argued, after all, perfectly valid - and not as suggested, a personal and malicious obsession, but a matter of public interest. An objection to the lack of transparency of a local authority was justifiable, and it was wrong to present this as a personal resentment of the Chief Executive. Doing so, however, allowed the authority to support action against one of its most vociferous critics. 

Here then is the significant point for all journalists and bloggers who dare to uncover the various inconvenient truths, secrets and lies that permeate the activities of local goverment, or indeed any public body that is evading the glare or scrutiny and accountability. Those bodies will try to shut you up, whether it is by foul means or fair, trying any or all tactics, from continued breaches of the Freedom of Information Act, obstruction of the right to film meetings, the redaction of data meant to be in the public domain,  the  data protection act ... or the threat of litigation.

The law is meant to be the safeguard of our rights and liberties, and our freedom of expression. To misapply the law to silence an opinion we do not like, or an act of scrutiny that reaches too near to the truth, is an abuse of process, and an injustice.

In this case, a motivation of public interest was rejected by the judge's finding,and this conclusion led to the enormous burden of costs and compensation which Jacqui Thompson now carries. A high price to pay, for the loss of her own libel action, and the success of a counterclaim, unlawfully funded by public money.

Having been present throughout the trial, and appeal, and followed this story from the time of the arrest, I believe that although Jacqui was ill advised to pursue the libel action, and some of the comments in her earlier blogposts may also have been ill judged, in terms of the severity of the outcome of the findings of the libel trial, and the resulting punitive burden of cost, there has been a serious miscarriage of justice.

And local MPs and other community figures have voiced concern over the way in which members of the council and senior officers have blocked discussion of the Audit investigation into the two payments in council meetings, despite protest from other elected members. 

It is also clear that accountability and transparency is not properly served by the culture of secrecy which has become embedded in the administration of this authority, and local politicians have been quick to demand resignations or dismissals as a result of the outcome of the Audit reports. Here is a press release from Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards and AM Rhodri Glyn Thomas:

Politicians respond to damning Wales Audit Office reports into Carmarthenshire County Council

Senior officers and elected leadership must go, say Plaid Cymru MP and AM 
Following the publication of two damaging Wales Audit Office reports into the indemnity and pension arrangements of Carmarthenshire County Council’s Chief Executive, Mark James, Plaid Cymru politicians Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP have issued the following statement.
Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas said:

“There is no way in which the council can gloss over what are two significantly damaging reports.  This is a very dark day for Carmarthenshire, a dark day for democracy in Carmarthenshire, and is an example of what happens when you have a very weak executive and a council controlled by powerful unelected officers. 
“The decision taken by the political leadership of the council to approve an indemnity for the Chief Executive was based on a sexed-up dossier that did not reflect the legal advice provided.  The gross misconduct of the council officers involved in drawing up the report has brought the council into disrepute and should be countered by instant dismissal. 
“Councillors were misled into spending taxpayers’ money doing something the Council was to all intents and purposes cautioned against.  Members of the Executive Board have been exposed as incompetent in safeguarding public money and inept in holding highly-paid officers to account.  They further approved unlawful expenditure to suit the tax arrangements of the Chief Executive.
“The reports reaffirm our grave concerns that Carmarthenshire council has been gutted of all democracy as pre-meetings of the ruling Labour-Independent Executive Board take place behind the scenes before tokenistic rubbing stamping exercises follow in public, if at all. 
“To restore public confidence there must be political accountability.  The Leader of the Council and former leader of the council should accept responsibility and do the honourable thing to enable a political reboot. 
“Plaid Cymru has worked hard over the last year to introduce greater accountability into the remuneration packages of local authority chief executives, and has been successful in seeing changes to salaries being scrutinised by the independent remuneration board. 
“We’ve done what we can to bring greater transparency on payments to senior council officers.  The Welsh government must now get a grip of the situation.”
Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards added:

“For almost four years we have raised concerns with both Welsh & UK governments about the legality of the council’s indemnity for the Chief Executive’s counterclaim.  The Welsh government’s refusal to intervene in a council run by its Labour colleagues has seen Carmarthenshire taxpayers’ subjected to these unlawful expenditures when this could have been stopped.

“The unlawful indemnity and unlawful pension arrangements have seen over £55,000 of public money spent for the benefit of the Chief Executive who, on the basis of these reports, can no longer continue in his role.

“We agree with the Auditor that the indemnity should be withdrawn and we believe the almost £30,000 spent on this indemnity should be paid back in full.

“The Executive Board has acted wrongly in both instances – approving decisions worth tens of thousands of pounds without raising any formal questions or concerns.

“We pay tribute to the Appointed Auditor for his thorough report and his determination in bringing these issues into the public domain when Carmarthenshire Council had the audacity to tell him to keep his nose out. 
“The Welsh government should immediately put the council into special measures to enable a new cross-party coalition to be set up to bring an end to this dark chapter in the history of local governance in Carmarthenshire. 
“We call upon all Labour and Independent councillors whose parties run this council to look seriously at these reports and join us in restoring democracy to the county.  Carmarthenshire needs a complete reboot and new political leadership which it has so desperately lacked. 
Even more seriously, potentially, for Mr James and Carmarthenshire County Council is the statement from local police this morning in which they stated that they are in discussions with the Auditor in regard to the report.

Dyfed-Powys Police said: “We can confirm that we are aware of the reports issued by the Wales Audit Office, and while the matter hasn’t been referred to us, we are in discussions with the Auditor and will be making an assessment in relation to any appropriate action by the police.” Western Mail

It seems that Carmarthenshire County Council has yet to issue any statement.


Sunday, 26 January 2014

Those people: a gesture, a gimmick - and a car crash appearance for Barnet's Tory leader on the Sunday Politics Show

Oh dear. 

Poor Richard Cornelius. It's not been a good week for him, has it? After his crass, mean mouthed performance at this week's council tribute to Nelson Mandela, he has further demonstrated his lack of political gravitas by a cowardly refusal to face residents at this week's Question Time in Edgware, and now this morning excelled himself by a shambolic performance on the London section of the Sunday Politics Show.

The Tory 'leader' appeared after an introductory film exploring the impact of the Barnet Tories' decision, matched only by one other authority, to go further than even dear uncle Eric wanted them to go by freezing council tax, and to indulge in some ideological grandstanding, by cutting tax, by 1%. 

This tiny cut may seem insignificant, and it is, in terms of returns, £1 1/2 million, and a few pence each week for each resident, but this will mean one and a half million pounds less in the budget that is so desperately needed in order to support our vital services. 

Already the council has begun consulting on cuts to services such as adult social care. Is the real hardship that this will create for vulnerable residents really justified by such a small return?

The BBC spoke to Janet Leifer, an elderly resident whose husband died recently, after suffering from advanced dementia. Her quiet and dignified description of her own struggle, after a policy change by Barnet council,  to pay for vital day centre respite care, which had previously been free, was in marked contrast to the shameful self justification which followed from Richard Cornelius.

Some footage from this week's Question Time in Edgware - see previous post - included a contribution from Libdem leader Jack Cohen, who remarked that the Tories' tax cut was 'a gimmick'.

This was a suggestion followed up by Tim Donovan in the following discussion, with Cornelius, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, and not very much support for Cornelius, it must be said, from Tory MP Greg Hands.

As Cornelius smiled, Donovan asked him if the cut was indeed a gimmick. No, it was 'a gesture'. It shows, he claimed, 'a direction of travel'. An aspiration.

Hmm. Tim Donovan referred to the case of Janet Leifer. Cornelius stated that it was important that they are 'fair'  in everything they do. He claimed that the policies which had created the burden borne by people like the Leifers 'had proved popular', and that they were fair.  The £37 a day charge to Mrs Leifer, who herself has disabilities, was 'not a shock'. She was, he said, 'treated very kindly'. 

Tim Donovan suggested again that the tax cut was a gesture, or a gimmick, timed for the forthcoming election, which of course it most certainly is.

No, said Cornelius, in his unctuous way. It was important to 'give something back'. 

Jeremy Corbyn's turn.

He pointed out that Barnet has spent £80 million in preparation for the privatisation of council services. Democratic control over these services has been lost. This act was damaging for the very poorest and most vulnerable residents. Barnet's housing strategy was all about building houses for sale, when there was a desperate need for housing with an affordable rent. The Barnet model for local government makes easyjet and Ryanair look efficient. The cut was an awful proposal, and it was not popular with residents. And I can't understand, he said, why you can't go to a public meeting to defend it.


It hasn't cost £80 million to prepare for privatisation, retorted Cornelius. 

He's right, in fact.

It cost £82.9 million, as Mr Reasonable demonstrates here:

As for the sell off of Barnet's council services: it was not a sale. It was an outsourcing. Ah. A giveaway, then, not a sale?

No, no: a contract, a payment for someone to do something, that we were, frankly, less able to do efficiently.

And there, readers, you have it. The admission that is the most telling thing he could have said.

Capita has got a contract with Barnet, in which the most profit is to be had from procurement. And yet it was the Barnet blogosphere which uncovered the culture of institutionalised incompetence in procurement, and which revealed there were literally thousands of non compliant 'contracts' with suppliers, which had wasted countless millions of local taxpayers money. 

The action necessary to put this appalling lack of efficiency was perfectly within the grasp of Barnet council. But it chose to submit to the pressures from its own senior management team, accompanied by the blandishments of various private consultants, and the interested parties in the outsourcing industry, and bring in Capita to sort it out, give Barnet some pocket money in the form of very limited savings - and pocket the rest, in the form of huge profits for shareholders.

More interesting claims from Cornelius. He repeated the folktale about the mass privatisation of our council services being no more than a handful of 'back office' functions. 

This is NOT true. There are very few council functions left inhouse.

It was, he said, a 'no brainer'.

Clearly, Richard. Or you would not be promoting it, one suspects.

Oh: recycling. Our Tory leader wanted Britain to know that Barnet had taken back recycling, and this was proof that they were not 100% committed to outsourcing.

The truth is that Barnet have cocked this up too: spending £4 million on new bins, and a staggering £8 million on new lorries - outright, not even leased - when it seems this equipment may not be compliant with new legislation that takes effect in 2015. No, they didn't check it out properly. Who will pay for this? You and me. Cornelius claimed that we will see the savings the recycling programme will achieve in the next cycle. Has he factored in the expenditure of £12 million? 

You're believing the hype, said Cornelius to Tim Donovan, that was from some of those people at that meeting ...

What do you mean, asked Jeremy Corbyn, 'THOSE PEOPLE?' They are the residents of your borough, you should be more respectful of them!'

'... who occupied and disrupted a council meeting', snapped Cornelius. He meant this: 

Yes: a proud moment in the history of Broken Barnet, for Mrs Angry, and all of us who value democracy, and justice, and who refuse to lie down and let Capita extort profit from what should be a public service, given to each according to their needs, and according to their means, rather than in order to facilitate the shareholders of a private company.

Tim Donovan commented then that in May it would be the people, those people, Councillor Cornelius who would decide what mattered. 

And so it shall.  

Here is the footage of the Politics Show item. Watch it, and decide what matters: the needs of Janet Leifer and her husband, and the most vulnerable residents of our borough - or a gesture, a gimmick  - an extra £21 a year for the millionaire residents, and Tory donors, of Totteridge and Hampstead Garden Suburb.


Friday, 24 January 2014

Where's the democracy? Showing UKIP the door, and a hustings that wasn't

Where's the democracy? UKIP's Adrian Murray-Leonard heckles from the doorway

Events in Barnet, as Mrs Angry has often observed, have often occurred according to a pleasing order of psychogeographic synchronicity, centred around the network of lines leading to Finchley, cradle of Thatcherism, and now the hotbed of radical activism, here in Broken Barnet.

It is undoubtedly true, however, that one unfortunate consequence of this is the tendency to forget the rest of the borough, especially the western side, where the culture of decadent bourgeoisie is markedly less prevalent, and people are too busy struggling to survive to give much time over to raising their political consciousness.

Barnet Alliance against the cuts is aware of this centralist tendency which sometimes excludes other parts of the borough, and is trying to be more inclusive in the arrangement of its meetings. The series of question times it is holding to kick off the run up to May's elections therefore, were scheduled to begin with Wednesday night's meeting in Edgware. 

Oh: back to synchronicity and pyschogeography, then, for Mrs Angry, who was born in Edgware, and raised in Edgware, and whose son was born (after causing a lot of trouble, as usual) in the same hospital as herself, closed by the Tories, exactly 21 years ago this week. His birthday, I mean, not the closure. Anyway.

When Edgware General was closed, it was a portent of doom: spelling out the future course of Tory policy for this borough, with a gerrymandering provision of the best healthcare, housing, education and public transport in the comfortable, affluent, Conservative voting areas. 

We are now seeing the culmination of this fateful policy in the lifetime of a local Tory council which encourages the creation of a borough where only the prosperous have rights, and those in need of support are seen as an unwelcome burden. If you are sick, or having a baby: travel across the borough on three buses to get to a hospital. If you need a council house: show us you deserve it. If you want a good school for your children: pay for it, or pay for a tutor so there is a chance of getting in through a selection process, or move to a middle class catchment area.

Edgware has changed in the last twenty years or so: once a mostly middle class area of mostly non religious Jewish families, blackcab drivers from the East End, and men who made their money in the rag trade, is now more diverse, with a smaller but more orthodox Jewish community, and a significant middle class Asian population. There are also less affluent areas, and a fair amount of social housing - or rather there was.

Who would turn up to the panel discussion, Mrs Angry wondered, as she walked up to the hall in the dark, feeling a sense of menace in the now unfamiliar and deserted back alleys that leads there?

The hall was filling up pretty rapidly, and up to maybe a hundred or so were eventually packed in the seats, and standing at the back. Some familiar faces, true, but pleasingly there seemed to be a substantial number of more local residents.

On the panel were Labour leader Alison Moore, Libdem leader Jack Cohen, Green party spokesperson Andrew Newby, and from Barnet Alliance, Barbara Jacobson.

Also present were the BBC, to film footage for the Sunday Politics show - oh, and one or two unexpected guests, or rather one uninvited guest, who arrived as we were just sitting down at the panel table. Yes, I'm talking about UKIP. 

Despite being told they were not welcome at this meeting, after allegedly threatening to 'hijack' the event, their representative Adrian Murray-Leonard came anyway, and stood in the doorway, grinning across the room at Mrs Angry, who has had one or two amusing conversations with him, in the past. Unknown to Mrs Angry at the time, the Barnet UKIP chair, Chris Apostolou was in the audience too, but he caused no trouble and indeed is reported to have asked Murray-Leonard to leave, at one point during the consequent disruption.

Why, demanded Mr Murray-Leonard, was I not invited to be on the panel? Is it because I am racist? Where is the democracy? ... Or is it something more sinister? You're a joke ... You're undemocratic. Etcetera, etcetera.

Members of the audience, including, incidentally, some of our friends from the Occupy movement, helped to facilitate the departure of Mr Murray-Leonard, and the police were called. You can see some of the drama here, if you wish: (you will have to avert your eyes from the horrible sight of local reporter from the Barnet Press, Dan O'Brien, in his Christmas jumper).


It was only after the event that it occurred to Mrs Angry how funny it was to see members of Occupy evicting someone from someone else's premises, but there you go: this is the way things are, in the upside down, inside out world of Broken Barnet.

Barnet Alliance had every right not to invite UKIP to be on their panel. It was not a formal hustings event: the fact that a blogger was asked to go on it clearly demonstrates that. They were welcome to be there as part of the audience, but not in order to take it over and push their own manifesto of dubious policies: and certainly once the threat of force was made, there was no chance the Alliance would be bullied into letting them take part. 

Having said that, Mrs Angry has no problem with debating with them: it would have been rather interesting to have them on the panel, if only for the entertainment value. Because how can you possibly take their ideas seriously? 

Look at the list of some of their policies, as highlighted yesterday in  the Guardian when it was revealed Nigel Farage had disowned their own 2010 manifesto: giving MPs more freedom over their expenses (dear Christ: no, no, no) the same income tax level for rich and poor, letting schools bring back the cane, abolishing statutory maternity pay, and getting rid of most equality and discrimination laws. 

And those are the less barking mad policies. 

Other proposals included: repainting all trains in 'traditional' colours, restoring the crown symbol on pint glasses in pubs, restricting foreigners in football teams, and encouraging proper dress in hotels. 

(In fact, Mrs Angry approves of that last one, the same thought occurring to her at the last Labour conference, all those scruffy hacks and politicians lounging about half cut in the Grand Hotel, and barely a cravat or a masonic cufflink in sight. Tssk. ) 

What else, on the UKIP policy list, now under review. Oh, being a bit racist, but in a careful, nod and a wink, dog whistley sort of way, referring to foreigners, instead of  - you know, what the PC lot don't allow you to say any more, now that we're run by ... foreigners, and  - you know, what the PC lot don't ... oh, anyway.

All panel members were given three minutes to give a quick speech on their views on four issues relevant to life in our borough: public services, housing, social care and regeneration.

Jack Cohen remarked that three minutes was the amount of time which our Tory councillors have dictated will be the new limit that a resident can address their elected representatives at council meetings - reduced from five minutes, in a further act of repression of free speech, from the party that has learnt absolutely nothing at all from the recent High Court judgement in regard to One Barnet, in which they were found to have breached the law on consulation, a finding based on the evidence of a policy of silence and censorship. 

At least at this event we had two hours to explore the issues we should be able to debate with the Tory councillors, but never can. They were of course invited to this discussion, but refused to come.

Jack Cohen also referred to the very interesting question he had asked at this week's full council meeting which lays out the full listing of payments in the year so far to Agilisys, Trowers & Hamlin, Capita, Re and Commensura - do take a look at the answer here on page 23.

Mrs Angry wrote earlier in the week that as yet there was no sign of any party manifestos. Well, hold the front page: in her three minute speech Labour leader Alison Moore announced a set of pledges that give us a hint of what is on offer: says Labour -

We are listening. Here's one example. Our parking pledges include 30 minutes free parking in town centres, saving you money and boosting local business.

We will consult on all major decisions. We will also ensure your voice is heard in all Council meetings by displaying your comments live in the Chamber at #mybarnet.

We will give you a say. We will set up neighbourhood budgets and you will decide how this money gets spent in your community. 

We will be accountable. We will open up Council meetings to a half hour of Public Question Time and webcast all council meetings so decision making is open, transparent and we are fully accountable. 

We will put residents first. Our FIRST step will be to revoke the Tories' outrageous councillors' free parking permits and reduce the councillors' allowances bill.

Consultation? Accountability? Nah: that'll never catch on, here in Broken Barnet.

Well, even if Mrs Angry wasn't a Labour voter, she would be standing at the Ballot box, slip in hand, first thing on May 22nd, purely on the basis of the last pledge, if nothing else. Performance by results, councillors, might concentrate your minds a little better, in a Better Barnet, mightn't it?

Andrew Newby, from the Green party mentioned the Capita takeover, and the failure of the council to consider an in-house bid. Mrs Angry has never met Mr Newby before, so it was good to know the Greens had formed an opinion about this, a little late in the day. (Sorry Poppy).

Barbara Jacobson, for Barnet Alliance spoke about the scandal of so many empty homes and shops, the iniquity of the bedroom tax, the urgent need to get out of the Capita contracts, the urgent need to take Your Choice Barnet, and the care of disabled residents, back in-house.

Mrs Angry's turn. 

What was significant about the meeting, of course, was not those of us who had come, but those who had not come, that is to say any representative of the Conservative party. The Tories

She read the statement by Tory leader Richard Cornelius, who defended his non-attendance, as you may recall, thus:

"It is not a public audience ... It is an audience of BAPS people. I'm sure there would not be an open debate and the panel is against us."

Mrs Angry pointed out the supreme irony of this statement from the man who did everything he could, including forbidding the mention of any council policies in public meetings,  to prevent open debate during the One Barnet procurement, leading to censure by a High Court judgement condemning the lack of consultation with residents over the privatisation of our public services ... 

In the absence of any Tory representative, therefore, Mrs Angry thought she would take it upon herself to remind the audience of their record in office.

Public Services? We don't have any. Almost all of them handed over to Capita to make profit from. And, as Mr Reasonable revealed this week, in only nine months One Barnet has cost us - you - a staggering £82.9 million. In order to save - what is today's plucked out of the air, aspirational, mythical figure? £160 million, over ten years.

Housing? In the last 20 years, the council has built no social housing. Recently it announced it would set this right, and build ... three new houses. The stock of social housing has shrunk due to the right to buy legislation, and those being persecuted by the bedroom tax have nowhere smaller to move to. 

Any new housing developement should pretend at least to include some 'affordable' housing. In Barnet we see projects that obtained approval by doing so backing out of such promises. And some make none anyway - look at the Gateway House plan, which will make huge profits for the developers, with luxury flats, no affordable housing, and a library that we do not need, as there is already one across the road. 

As in #BBCQT, members of the audience had submitted written questions, on all the sort of issues you might expect - the politicians gave their expected responses. Mrs Angry rambled on in her usual way. The most interesting answers were from Jack Cohen, who rather charmingly seems to forget that his Libdem colleagues at Westminster are in a coalition government with the Tories, and stoutly maintains his status as an opposition leader here in Broken Barnet.

There seemed to be much concern about housing and development policy in Barnet. As Jack pointed out, Barnet is a soft touch for developers, who face few demands from the local authority in terms of providing significant amounts of affordable housing or other tangible benefits for the wider community.

Mrs Angry remarked upon the ideological inflexibility that underpins Tory policy on these issues: a ruthless indifference to the needs of the homeless, and a neo Victorian sense of moral judgement applied to the allocation of housing, and a system that gives priority to the deserving poor. 

A young man named Derryl David, who has spoken very well at one or two recent council meetings, talked  about one of Barnet's latest development approvals, which will see his local sportsground at Pavilion Way, where his team, the Burnt Oak Rangers, plays football, sold for housing and a free school. 

Derryl David addresses the audience

Of course this is in a disadvantaged area of the borough, where there is a need for organised community activities like this to engage local kids, and keep them out of trouble. But the Tories are not interested in anything other than making a quick buck, and anyway, it's in a Labour ward, so there was never any real question that they would give it the go-ahead.

Mrs Angry commented that where we see a park, or a sports ground, or a library, or a museum, our Tory councillors see only a potential property development. Andrew Newby rightly pointed out that reports have shown there are plenty of brownfield sites in Barnet that could be used before we resort to using such locations for development. 

A discussion about equalities issues evolved from a question from a Mr Clampitt about the inaccessability of his local park to someone like himself, who has to use a mobility scooter. The consensus was that Barnet pays only lip service to such considerations, rather than taking such concerns as the focus of any proposals, and consulting 'protected groups' that are directly affected by the decisions they approve.

Sitting among the audience were some of the occupiers from the People's Library, and the Bohemia. One of them, Don, asked about the empty properties lying vacant for years and why that is permitted when people are so short of housing. 

Andrew Newby asked him if he was registered to vote. He said he was, but that he was not sure if he would use it. Andrew reminded him that if he did not, the Tories would be back in power.

Mrs Angry reminded everyone of the occupiers' role in saving the library, and made a comment that we are at a point now that direct action was sometimes the only effective form of protest, in the face of injustice. Some members of the panel were uncomfortable with that idea, which amused Mrs Angry, thinking back to this week's council tribute to Nelson Mandela, a man for whom direct action in the face of institutionalised injustice was the only honourable course of action.

Cue for the occupiers to unfurl the banner that they displayed outside local Tory MP and anti-squatting legislator Mike Freer's office recently, with a quotation from Isaiah: 

 'Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights' 

The most significant question was kept til the end: the interesting question of the Capita contracts, and how we could end them - could we end them?

Jack Cohen warned that if on May 23rd, the Tories were still in power, they would go straight to their senior management team and tell them to draw up plans to outsource every last council activity that had not already been given over to Capita. He is undoubtedly right.

Barbara Jacobson said we did not want to hear that leaving the contracts cannot be done. We want to hear it can.

Mrs Angry said it most certainly can be done, and the process of doing this is being considered even now in Birmingham, once an unthinkable move. She also asked the Labour leader to tell us what the official position on this is. Ah.

Alison Moore said that 'we would review the contracts'. If performance was inadequate, they would investigate the cost of withdrawal. She wasn't saying that wasn't going to happen, but pulling out would be really difficult if they were performing. They could not afford to go to court if the cost would be so high as to necessitate cuts in vital services.

But of course there may well be more savings to be made from withdrawing from the contract, commented Mrs Angry.

Yes, said the Alison, looking rather dismayed at the effect her first response had had. 

The meeting was over, and people packed up and went. It was not the best way to end the evening, perhaps.

The Labour leader was clearly taken aback by the level of disapproval that this apparent equivocation provoked. But Mrs Angry was neither surprised to hear her statement, nor disheartened. 

The truth is that the arguments in favour of trying to withdraw will prove much more compelling than perhaps the Labour leader yet understands.

As last week's contract monitoring committee demonstrated, few councillors have a grip on how to hold Capita to account, and are easily satisfied, so far, at this earliest stage, by the fudged KPIs, and a lack of available data. 

But it is not just a question of performance, but of the framework of the contract itself which needs proper scrutiny, in order to make the case that not only is it possible to withdraw, in terms of value for money for Barnet's residents, and the long term best interests of this borough, it is absolutely vital that we pull out, as Birmingham is about to do. 

We have an advantage over our friends in the Midlands: we have copies of the contracts, and we have, in the place of councillors who have yet to show they are capable of monitoring this partnership, a community of residents, bloggers and campaigners ready and willing to do the job themselves.

In fact, we've already started.

Here is the full, unexpurgated footage of the meeting, courtesy of the Barnet Bugle. Mrs Angry can't bring herself to watch, but if you are short of entertainment, go ahead: