Saturday, 14 May 2016
Cry Freedom: at last - victory for disabled residents, wrongly deprived of their travel passes: 'sorry', say Barnet Council, & Capita ...
On 3rd May, Mrs Angry wrote to Davina Fiore, the Monitoring Officer of the London Borough of Barnet - or the 'Assurance Director', as she is now known - to ask her about the authority's new 'renewal' scheme for Freedom Passes, run by the council's private contractors, Capita.
As a result of this process, free travel passes, it had emerged, had been withdrawn from many disabled and vulnerable residents, some of whom had only discovered that their passes had been cancelled in the most distressing circumstances, when unable to board a bus, or enter a tube station.
Dear Ms Fiore
I should like to ask you to confirm, in your capacity as Monitoring Officer, that the current exercise being conducted by Capita, on behalf of the London Borough of Barnet, to 'renew' Freedom Passes for disabled residents is lawful, and indeed that the authority took steps to ensure that it is lawful, and does not discriminate either in principle, or practice, against residents with disabilities.
If legal advice was taken, please tell me when that was.
If not, please explain why not.
Please explain why residents contacting the team responsible for issuing and 'renewing' these passes are being told, quite wrongly, that the eligibility criteria have been changed by London Councils, when the eligibility criteria are statutory, and remain so?
Please explain why disabled residents have had to suffer the indignity and distress of finding themselves stranded and unable to use their passes because they have been wrongly revoked by the authority?
Please tell me how disabled residents who have wrongly had their passes revoked will be compensated by the authority for their financial loss, and the distress caused to them, and how many residents have been affected, and lost their passes since this process began.
Finally please tell me if Capita would be eligible for any form of gainshare payment as a result of delivering savings from this exercise, or extra costs as a result of processing this 'renewal' scheme.
I look forward to your earliest response.
Ms Fiore immediately responded - unusual for a senior officer in this borough, which was suspicious in itself - and agreed to investigate the matter.
This wasn't the first request for information: on 27th April Mrs Angry had submitted several questions via FOI to the council, and also written to the Tory councillor who is responsible for 'Adults and Safeguarding', ie Sachin Rajput, who agreed to look into the scheme, and then confirmed that it had been 'suspended', pending enquiries.
All very well: except that it then became clear that 'suspension' meant only that no further passes would be withdrawn, for the time being, but that those who had already lost their passes were still being subjected to the new criteria of eligibility, apparently made up by Capita, on behalf of the authority, criteria that appeared to be created in defiance of the statutory definition that protects the right of those with disabilities to travel free of charge on public transport.
One resident, nineteen year old Jenny Fairclough, who attends Oak Lodge School, the borough's special school for secondary pupils, and whose disabilities include autism, as well as other health problems, had had her pass removed, and now her mother was told she must still go through the appeal system with 'proof' of her daughter's needs as defined by the new scheme, rather than the statutory criteria.
Mrs Angry pointed out to Cllr Rajput that the so called suspension was not what it seemed, and he then told a senior officer called Jamie Blake, who is the commissioning director responsible for this scheme, to explain why not.
Why Cllr Rajput did not know what was going on, and why it took all week for an officer to respond to the Tory member, is not clear.
Mr Blake was apparently reluctant to respond, and despite reminders to him from Cllr Rajput, and for the rest of the week, no reply was forthcoming.
A pretty extraordinary state of affairs, you might think, but then that is how things are, in this borough, with policy driven not by elected representatives, but the senior management team, the members of which, as Mrs Angry perhaps rather tactlessly suggested to Cllr Rajput, seem to think that councillors are accountable to them, rather than the other way round.
A rather dramatic - and rare - demonstration of a reversion to the proper balance of power was seen, if only temporarily, of course, at the beginning of this week, when Tory Leader Richard Cornelius remembered that he was, in fact, Leader, and he and the Chief Executive came to a 'mutual agreement' that he should leave his post, after the election cockup which meant many residents were unable to vote for the first few hours of polling day.
Not until the last moment on the last day of the week, however, did a reply to Mrs Angry's questions arrive in her inbox: a response from enquiries made to both the Monitoring Officer and Cllr Rajput, and although formally signed by Jamie Blake, forwarded in the name of another officer, from the 'Contract Performance Commissioning Group'.
What this statement amounts to, quite simply, is a staggering admission from Barnet Council: that Capita, on their behalf, has been subjecting a large number of vulnerable and disabled residents of this borough to the most distressing, unnecessary, and probably unlawful process, a spurious process, ostensibly in renewal of their travel passes but clearly intended to remove those passes from as many people as possible, so as to make 'savings' from the budget allocated to such provision.
This is not the end of the matter, of course: Mrs Angry has submitted a series of further questions to Tuesday's Policy and Resources Committee in pursuit of more information about the curious background to all this. But here at least is the first flag of surrender, from Barnet, and Capita:
Mrs Angry's comments in red: council responses in blue ...
Dear Ms Musgrove,
Re: Withdrawal of Freedom Pass
I am in receipt of your email dated 3 May 2016 that was sent to Ms Davina Fiore, Assurance Director, regarding the withdrawal of Freedom Passes.
In response to your questions, please find my responses below:
Q. If legal advice was taken, please tell me when that was.
In relation to the renewals process London Councils’ advice was to conduct retrospective eligibility checks and that if the authority was minded not to do this, they should seek their own legal advice. As the decision was taken to conduct the checks it was not considered necessary to seek legal advice at that stage.
None of this response makes any sense.
Why would London Councils give Barnet/Capita advice about a renewal process that was unnecessary in the first place, as passes are valid until 2020?
Retrospective eligibility checks: really? If so, why? Had Barnet given out passes without any proof of disability? But then it says, 'if the authority was minded not to do this, they should seek their own legal advice' ... clearly the authority was minded to do this, and did it, inventing its own criteria. So where was the legal advice? The last sentence is a clever bit of misuse of syntax, subverting the real meaning, which is, of course, we decided to conduct the checks, but ignored the bit about legal advice.
Q. Please explain why residents contacting the team responsible for issuing and 'renewing' these passes are being told, quite wrongly, that the eligibility criteria have been changed by London Councils, when the eligibility criteria are statutory, and remain so?
The criteria has not changed; we follow the criteria set out by the Department for Transport and London Councils.
Rubbish. The criteria are statutory, and set out by an act of Parliament, and the criteria that Barnet/Capita invented, ie being known to a certain council team, and seen by them once a month, and also known, in other cases to a unit of a local hospital, is nothing to do with the law, but an imposition apparently adopted in order to make it easier to exclude disabled people from entitlement to a pass. A strategy that was successful, on a large scale, as we shall see.
Residents should not have been told that there has been any change and we have instructed our customer contact centre to reflect that in any interaction with residents.
You were caught doing this some while ago, and carried on doing it: why?
Q. Please explain why disabled residents have had to suffer the indignity and distress of finding themselves stranded and unable to use their passes because they have been wrongly revoked by the authority?
We are very sorry to all disabled persons’ Freedom Pass Holders that have been affected. As far as we are aware, passes were not cancelled without notice as residents were sent letters informing them that their pass was to be removed. We are currently investigating how these letters were sent to residents and if they were suitably clear.
Good that you are very sorry, although clearly only because you have been caught out: there is plenty of evidence that disabled residents have only found out their passes had been cancelled, from the statements about cases where this has happened on boarding a bus, or trying to take the tube. Clearly when dealing with people who may have learning disabilities, there is a safeguarding issue here which was not addressed, quite apart from the apparently discriminatory process itself.
The cancellation letters gave residents the opportunity to appeal. However, in some cases, passes were removed before residents had a chance to fully progress through the appeals process. Again we apologise for this.
The council has apologised to eight residents that have complained about their passes being removed. All other residents who have had their passes removed will also receive a letter of apology.
Utterly disgraceful. To subject vulnerable people with disabilities to such distress, and only apologise once you have been found out, is simply inexcusable.
Q. Please tell me how disabled residents who have wrongly had their passes revoked will be compensated by the authority for their financial loss, and the distress caused to them, and how many residents have been affected, and lost their passes since this process began.
Of the 230 passes that have been removed, 207 of these will receive a new temporary pass. The remaining 23 passes will not be reinstated because the pass holder has either moved out of the borough or no longer need their pass.
Since the scheme began in January, 230 people have gone through the experience of having their passes taken away, who depend absolutely on those passes for their mobility, and access to public transport. You admit now that this was wrong, and yet here you are only handing out temporary passes in replacement. Are you hoping to carry on with the scheme, once all the fuss has died down? Hard luck. Expect a legal challenge, if you do.
Any claims for compensation will be considered on an individual case by case basis.
Bearing in mind that this mess is your responsibility, and the needs of most of the people whose passes you snatched, you should be actively offering to refund all costs incurred as a result, not sitting back and hoping no one takes the initiative to contact you.
Q. Finally please tell me if Capita would be eligible for any form of gainshare payment as a result of delivering savings from this exercise, or extra costs as a result of processing this 'renewal' scheme.
No – they will not receive any form of gainshare payment.
Hmm. Well, perhaps the savings you managed to screw out of the pass holders, nipped in the bud at this stage, don't amount to enough to do that.
And we note that you make no comment about extra costs.
Capita have been paid to administer the Freedom Pass renewals process for 2015/16 and 2016/17.
We are in the process of reviewing our Freedom Pass policy, eligibility criteria and processes to align with the ethos of the Care Act which emphasises the importance of promoting independence.
Well, it certainly is good news that Capita and Barnet Council are now intending to comply with the law, and have discovered a new interest in ethos, and the Care Act, but ... oh dear 'the importance of promoting independence'.
That strikes a familiar note, doesn't it, readers? Not so much the ethos of care, so much as taking away vital support from those that need it most, and pretending it is to enable 'choice'. Just as Barnet has taken away 'meals on wheels' from vulnerable residents, on the pretext of 'choice' but really to save money.
This is the Tory way, nationally, and locally: seeing those who depend on public services as 'scroungers', after something for nothing. The ethos of something for nothing, of course, is reserved for our elected representatives, in Westminster, or the Town Hall, where our Tory councillors annually vote themselves free parking permits, subsidised by the public purse. Don't call that scrounging: it might disturb their sense of entitlement.
We recognise that our process has caused pass holders inconvenience and distress.
Big of you. Even if you only recognise that because you've been exposed to public shame.
In the interests of fairness, we are going to temporarily reissue disabled persons’ Freedom Passes whilst we carry out a review of our Freedom Pass process. On conclusion of this process review, we will reassess individuals’ Freedom Pass eligibility based on the revised criteria.
You insufferable people, the only criteria that you can use is the one set in law, as a right.
Should you have any further concerns not addressed in this response, please feel free to contact Sam Pandya, Contract Performance Officer, on 020 8359 5640.
Commissioning Director, Environment
Mrs Angry would add: please direct any further concerns where it should really go - to the Tory Leader Richard Cornelius, Councillor Sachin Rajput, and Mr Jamie Blake, all of whom are apparently of the opinion that they can shift the responsibility to someone else.
Let us say this again, for the benefit of all those, including councillors of both parties, who really should know better, and if not, make the effort to find out, that this scheme was never supported by any legal oversight, and should have been immediately challenged on this basis.
The Tories are in a spot here. If they approved the adoption of this policy, it means they willingly subjected Barnet's most vulnerable residents to the humiliation, distress and financial hardship that the scheme has created.
If they did not sanction the 'renewal' process, and claim to have known nothing about it, that would represent yet another example of officers taking major policy decisions in the absence of any democratic control or approval, and in terms of the Capita contract, would demonstrate the clear and present danger of handing over control of our local services to a private contractor, when no proper mechanism of scrutiny is in place.
The other important point here is that this dreadful story was only acted upon when investigated and publicised by local bloggers. Behind the scenes lobbying and questioning should not be our role, but should be the natural activities of your elected councillors. Why they chose to sit on their hands and do nothing much to put a stop to it, is a mystery: and yes, they did know about this as early as February, and Mrs Angry has seen proof of this, from several sources.
A few years ago now, not long after Mrs Angry first arrived on the scene, to torment the Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, she wrote a piece for the Guardian, describing the life of a local blogger, or 'armchair auditor'. The conclusion of this article still applies:
Finally, to be a successful armchair auditor, perhaps the most important quality to have is an instinct for misinformation, and a deep seated suspicion of the way in which local authorities operate.
Always assume the worst.
You will almost always be right.
Perhaps I should have reserved the title of the last post on this subject for this one: the price of freedom, after all, is eternal vigilance.
That should be the role of scrutiny, as an act natural to the democratic process. Increasingly, in this country, in this most rotten of boroughs; it is not so.
Freedom is always a difficult concept, for Conservatives. They claim to believe in liberty, and choice: but what they mean is liberty, freedom, and choice for themselves. People like us. the rest of you can go to hell: and it will be a hell of our making, and our choice for people like you.
Earlier today Jenny Fairclough's mother Siobhan told me that her daughter had just received another Freedom Pass, to replace the one that was wrongly taken from her by Barnet Council, and Capita.
You would think it is a birthday present, as she is so happy, she said.
What sort of people are they, that hold the rights and best interests of someone like Jenny, or the other 230 disabled residents who lost their passes, in such contempt?
Don't ask me: I didn't vote for them - and neither, last week, did you.
The lesson is quite clear, for those with eyes to see.
Broken Barnet, May 2016