Updated Sunday 22nd May:
Fellow blogger John Dix, also known as Mr Reasonable, has just noted something that puts this shameful tale into an even more scandalous perspective.
In the log of contract variations going to the next Performance and Contract Monitoring committee, there are listed numerous added on services which Capita have managed to convince our supine councillors to allow them to perform, over and beyond the core contract agreement.
This sort of extra charge, as John has pointed out, over and over again, is how Capita is making so much money out of Barnet taxpayers, and the supposed savings that the core contract was meant to make have been dwarfed by the additional payments for other charges, and gainshare payments.
In October 2012, Barnet Tory councillor Hugh Rayner stated at a council meeting, with heart warming candour:
"I let out contracts myself to various customers and what I learnt in the contract is the word change or variance, because I know they are tied into me for the contract and this where I make all my profit and make up for the low price at the beginning ..."
Now take a look at the log of contract variations, and in particular:
CRO75: Freedom Pass Renewals: Processing of appropriate Freedom Pass renewal requests, not covered in the original Output Specification (one-off cost) - £99,829.
Raised by the Service Provider.
That is to say, by Capita.
In other words, Capita suggested to Barnet Council that for nearly £100,000, they would relieve the authority of the role of administering passes, and this suggestion was readily approved by the council.
Who signed that off, I wonder? Are our Tory councillors yet again going to shed crocodile tears, and claim they knew nothing about it? If so, as Mrs Angry pointed out last week, this proves how little control they have or interest in the way Capita are running this borough's services.
If you recall, or may read below, when questioned, Tory Leader Richard Cornelius said he thought that this extra payment to Capita represented good value for money, for Barnet taxpayers.
And yet, as a result, as we know, from what had been a straightforward process, this extra earner for Capita turned, somehow, into a scheme that meant 600 disabled residents were deprived of their passes, and were wrongly caused - are still being caused - immense distress and financial loss as a result.
If this is not an absolute scandal, I really do not know what could be worse - or a greater indictment of this contractual agreement.
And how perfectly, and horribly, this story illustrates, the real cost of privatisation, and the impact on our local services, especially those on which our most vulnerable residents depend.
There are various ways of measuring the extent of discomfiture amongst the Barnet Tory councillors, when attending a meeting where an awkward subject is being raised. The shifting in seats, the avoidance of eye contact; an uncharacteristic, sullen silence from councillors whose ill formed opinions are usually voiced the loudest, and most frequently: and the degree of choleric indignation reddening the face and neck of the Tory Leader, Richard Cornelius.
All these signs, and more, were evident, at last night's Policy and Resources Meeting, in the gloom of a committee room, begrudgingly half lit by Crapita, through the medium of the barely luminous, nineteen thirties wall lights, part of the original decor carefully maintained in line with the curious, unthinking, outdated Conservatism that guides the latter day aldermen who sit on the council benches, and wait their turn to play Mayor, and have their portraits lining the stone staircase and echoing corridors of Hendon Town Hall.
The unease amongst the Tory councillors last night was clear, as soon as they entered the room, with officers, from a private pre-meeting, into a room already full of residents in the public gallery, unusually for a P&R meeting; but it was not the unease of men - and they are all men - with troubled consciences, wracked with remorse for the terrible policies they impose on even the most vulnerable residents of this borough, but a sense of embarrassment, and fury, at being caught out, and exposed to widespread condemnation for something truly shameful: yes, the continuing story of the Freedom Passes cancelled through the administration run by their private contractors from Capita.
They took their seats, and we launched straight in to the public question time, to which Mrs Angry had submitted 28 questions, targeted so as to reveal further details of the scandalous process which has seen so many dependent disabled residents subjected to the distress, and financial hardship caused by the removal of their access - their right - to these vital travel passes. The full questions, and immediate responses, can be viewed here.
As Chair, the Tory Leader was responsible - in theory - for answering Mrs Angry's supplementary questions: this is always a high risk activity for Cllr Cornelius, speaking without continual briefing from his officers, prone as he is to making ill advised remarks. And last night was the perfect demonstration of this tendency, as it happened.
Reading through the responses published at 4pm, it had been immediately evident that some of the information given earlier in the week to questions put to the Monitoring Officer and Tory councillor Sachin Rajput were ... at odds with the answers given here, or overshadowed by an even worse set of revelations.
Disabled resident Maria Nash watches the debate about the Freedom Pass debacle
First was the admission that renewals for 2016 numbered 1,021, compared to 1,993 in 2015. In other words, the number has been halved. Was that what all this was about, wondered Mrs Angry, this scheme? Very successful, if so. No real response, from Mr Jamie Blake, or the Leader. Well, no need: the facts speak for themselves, don't they?
Next question: how many residents with disabilities were sent letters regarding the renewal of passes, since January?
Response: in brief - all of them.
Even though the passes are valid until 2020?
Even those who clearly have statutorily defined eligibility, already proven - including those with conditions such as autism, and Downs Syndrome? Did they know that one parent had been reduced to writing in big letters all over his letter MY SON STILL HAS DOWNS SYNDROME?
Has Capita perhaps found a cure for these disabilities?
Why then, as the passes are still valid until 2020, would they put vulnerable and disabled residents through such a distressing process for a pass to which they are already entitled?
Silence. The men from Capita looked nervously at each other across the table.
There is no answer, is there, observed Mrs Angry?
No satisfactory answer, admitted the Tory leader, in a way which suggested he laid the blame on others.
Deputy Leader and failed Assembly candidate Dan Thomas jumped in. Sitting there, he was, all lovely in a true blue blazer, like Alan Partridge, with a crisply ironed handkerchief, just popping out of the top pocket. Mrs Angry, as always distracted by irrelevant details, wondered now how the Tory boy from the Welsh Valleys had coped with life in a former mining region, if he had dressed like that in his home territory.
Cllr Thomas had thought up an awfully good excuse. The obvious answer, he threw out now, with a dismissive wave of his arm, was that ... they might have moved ...
Trust you, Cllr Thomas, remarked Mrs Angry, to find an answer like that ...
True Blue Dan Thomas, Scrutineer Extraordinaire Anthony Finn, & Tom Davey, praying for forgiveness
Moved, see. Obvious.
What, all of them? Where to? Yes. Crafty, these disabled folk, always trying to outwit the council with their peripatetic lifestyle choices, wandering about the country in search of benefits and concessions, and a life of luxury, fraudulently enjoying free bus travel all over the place, at the tax payers' expense.
Would the possibility of a new address not suggest a simple test of residency, rather than a so called medical assessment, or being 'known' to two separate nominated agencies, over and above the statutory criteria of eligibility?
This pathetic clutching at straws was Thomas' only contribution, of course. No apology for what had happened, only a desperate casting about for a justification for something unjustifiable.
It had been implied in the earlier set of - painfully extracted - responses this week that 207 people had lost their passes as a result of the spurious renewal scheme.
In fact we now learned, from the questions here, that figure related only to 2015: the current year an additional 'cohort', as they put it, of 379 residents were assessed as no linger qualifying - in all nearly 600 in total had been affected - confirmed now, at the table. There was a very swift explanation, of course, ready prepared, as to why the larger number had not been given before.
Q 6: again - why renew these passes at all?
Cornelius: we should check them, we shouldn't hand them out Willy Nilly ...
Not handing anything out Willy Nilly: Cornelius right and left, acting CEO, John Hooton
Mrs A, stoutly resisting temptation: We are talking about disabled residents with long term conditions: are you saying you doubt their medical evidence?
Cornelius: ... I'm not saying that ...
So who was responsible for the 'renewal' scheme?
This question from Mrs Angry now: Was the decision discussed, or at any stage approved by elected members?
The written response was:
There was no decision, and there was a process set down to be followed. Therefore this was not discussed with London Borough of Barnet Elected Members.
Mrs A: Cllr Cornelius - were you aware of this scheme, because if so, that was fairly shabby, I would say, that you allowed it to continue, and if not, does that not prove yet again that you do not have a competent control of the local services that are supposed to be under your management?
Cornelius: I'm sorry. You must try and keep up with the Constitution ...
Mrs A, who apparently is now expected to become a constitutional expert, as well as a lawyer and world famous auditor: Sorry? I don't understand that answer.
Cornelius: There is no answer that can be made to your question ...
Mrs A, to a chorus of laughter from the public gallery: No, there isn't.
Cornelius: ... that is Designed to Annoy ...
Mrs A, who admittedly was designed to annoy Tory councillors, from the moment of her conception, some six years ago now:
Did you know about this scheme, was the question, you didn't - and that makes the point, that you have no idea what Capita is doing, in your name, to the residents of this borough, and the most vulnerable residents ...
Cornelius: Is that a question? I didn't really understand that.
Mrs A: Go away and think about it then.
(At this point, Cllr Finn, the Chair of the committee which is supposed to scrutinise the contractual performance of Capita, but who has said that he believes scrutiny should not be critical, but an act of positive suggestion, after a noticeable build up of indignation, decided Mrs Angry was being impertinent.
Impertinence, to a Barnet Tory councillor, quite often means 'asking difficult questions, and being female', especially from someone they can't shut up, of course.
Finn now demanded that Mrs Angry 'show some respect'. Mrs Angry explained that she felt respect had to be earned, which went down awfully well, as you can imagine).
Naughty Mrs Angry, failing to show respect to her elected representatives
Ah. Now then. Question 8: was the decision (to implement the so called renewal scheme) tested in terms of lawfulness, and if so, when?
The written reply merely referred back to the previous response, which was deliberately pointless, as there was no mention of legality. So Mrs Angry asked the Leader of the Council directly:
Was it or was it not lawful?
Cornelius: It was lawful.
Mrs Angry smiled to herself. ( For future reference - this was stated at about 8.19 minutes into the footage).
Mrs A: How do you know that? (Note the body language of the commissioning officers, and the men from Capita, at this point ...)
Cornelius: Because the policy was laid down, and the criteria were laid down, and the testing was carried out appropriately and bla bla bla ...
If it was lawful, Mrs A began, and was going to ask 'why did you stop the scheme', but a sulky Cornelius, probably grateful for the excuse, said he would not answer as she had interrupted, and she had had her answer.
I have had my answer, and thank you, said Mrs Angry, very pleased, writing down:
The Leader of Barnet Council says the Freedom Pass 'renewal' scheme was lawful.
And yet: days earlier, Mrs Angry had asked the Monitoring Officer if legal advice had been taken in regard to the implementation of this process, and was told it had not been.
Of course it may be that Councillor Cornelius is qualified to assess the lawfulness of council policy, without reference to counsel, but Mrs Angry has asked the Monitoring Officer to confirm that his statement is accurate.
The next question saw Cornelius admit that the council did not assess - or rather 'needed to look at' the impact of the renewal process in terms of vulnerable residents, and the duty of care that the authority holds to them. Some looks were exchanged at this point, between officers.
A physically disabled reader of this blog left a comment recently, describing her experience, and the distress and fear she felt as a result, of being compelled to attend an 'assessment' by the council, in order to be considered worthy of retaining her travel pass. She was obliged to walk up and down some stairs, and to a bus stop, in front of her assessor. She feared the loss of her pass would make her dependent on her children, who would have to become her carers, as she would lose her independence and ability to look after herself, without a bus pass, being unable to afford the transport costs that would result. Mrs Angry referred to this example and had asked who had decided to subject residents to such a humiliating process?
No, this is a professionally established test, said Cornelius.
Like the Atos scheme, asked Mrs Angry? No proper reply, as apparently Cllr Cornelius has never heard of Atos - but an awful lot of dark looks across the table.
Next question, again, why put residents with long term conditions that clearly meet the statutory criteria through the 'renewal' process, and put them at risk of finding themselves without a valid pass, in distressing circumstances, without any warning.
Cornelius tried to deny, to angry remarks from the gallery, that it would have been without any warning. It will be done with the maximum sensitivity, the testing, in future, he said.
(Or perhaps it was the 'Maximus' sensitivity, if Cllr Cornelius isn't so keen on Atos?)
Why does it need to be done at all?
Because, said Cornelius smugly, borrowing the straw clutched by his deputy leader, someone may have moved out of the borough.
This infuriated the public gallery. Order, order, said Mr Shepherd, from the back of the room.
No, said Mrs Angry: that's not the reason, you can easily verify someone's address ... Pointless. Next question.
Q 13: Who was responsible for drawing up what appear to be criteria in conflict with, and more restrictive than, the statutory criteria?
The council, we read, bases its criteria on Dept for Transport guidelines. However, the council is now reviewing its methods for assessing the criteria to ensure it still fits the ethos of the Care Act.
Mmm. Good to seem mention of the word 'ethos', remarked Mrs Angry. Thing is the criteria are not 'guidelines', but set in law, in the Transport Act 2000, and should not be 'based' on anything to do with the Care Act. And Barnet's sudden interest in the Care Act would appear to be because of the phrase they have picked out, about extending 'independence'. We all know what that means, in Barnet: just as the Tories did when dropping meals on wheels - removing something from somebody, on the pretext of 'choice' - isn't that why we are now talking about the Care Act?
Discussion next of what happened to residents who found themselves unable to use their passes, when trying to access public transport, even when their 'appeals' were supposedly being considered, such as Mrs Fairclough reported, in her daughter Jenny's case. At this point it emerged that Mrs Fairclough was present, and Mrs Angry suggested to Cllr Cornelius he might like to apologise to her.
Jamie Blake, who is the commissioning officer supposed to safeguard the best interests of residents in the delivery of contracted services by Capita, was asked by Cornelius to comment. You can see his contribution at around 14.40 minutes.
Labour's Cllr Or-Bach, who really ought to have far more responsibility within the Labour group, if they had any sense, asked a question about whose decision it was to adopt the Barnet eligibility. The response was evasive, and did not address the point that the criteria being applied now are not the statutory ones. 'Based on', is not the same thing at all.
Councillor Alon Or-Bach, centre
Safeguarding, next. The issue of vulnerable people, perhaps with a learning disability, left stranded and confused due to not being able to use their passes? Again Mr Blake claimed that should not have happened, but - it did, and there should have been proper consideration of the impact or risk of such an eventuality. Letters were sent, he said. Would someone with a learning disability necessarily understand the implications? He absolutely agreed with that point. Bit late now, observed Mrs Angry.
Next then: why did staff continue wrongly to inform residents that the renewals were due to London Councils changing the criteria?
We apologise if staff miscommunicated the situation to residents. We will address communication and the tailoring of communication to meet residents' needs as part of out review into the Freedom Pass process.
Mrs Angry thought it was interesting, the use of the word 'miscommunication'. Was that similar to someone who 'misspoke', she mused, thinking about Hillary Clinton, and Trump.
Cllr Cornelius did not like the suggestion that some sort of corporate untruth had been perpetuated in regard to the story given by officers to residents that the reason for the 'renewals' was that it was all the fault of London Councils changing the criteria. He may not like it, but as then she now explained, Capita officers were caught out saying this, apologised, and then weeks late repeated the 'untruth' to Mrs Angry. Cornelius then admitted that that was 'plain wrong'.
Why was the scheme only stopped once publicised on local blogs, and then reported to the Monitoring Officer and Cllr Rajput?
Oh, there had been complaints (true, Mrs A has seen the emails, which were not followed up in any effective manner) and then they realised there were 'shortcomings' with the process, rather than restricted to 'isolated cases'. In other words, too many complaints, too well publicised. Why were these 'shortcomings' not spotted earlier? Where was the monitoring of the process?
Cornelius, mumbling: of course it should have been spotted immediately ...
Should have been spotted in advance, remarked someone in the public gallery. Was that you, Julia?
Q 20: who was the senior officer responsible for this scheme?
Mr Blake: Me.
You created the scheme, did you?
No. But I am the senior officer.
Do you think you ought to resign, then?
You've asked your question, interjected Cornelius. In fact, Mrs Angry wanted to say perhaps those ultimately responsible are getting away with it, ie the councillors who are now keen to be seen washing their hands of responsibility, but who certainly knew about it when complaints were first raised - if not before - and did nothing to stop it.
Questions then, about why the letters of apology going out to residents wrongly deprived of their passes cannot also inform them they have a right to compensation, rather than, as previously stated, sitting back and waiting for anyone who dares to ask for it on a 'one to one' basis? A lot of nodding went on between the senior officers at the table, who then graciously indicated to their obedient 'Leader' that this could be done.
Next, regarding the investigation which the Tory Leader had promised: another example, as Mrs Angry pointed out, of the time honoured tradition, here in Broken Barnet, of officers investigating themselves for possible wrongdoing. Wouldn't it better to have an independent investigation, and to what extent will members have oversight of it anyway?
No, said Cornelius, with the air of the Earl of Grantham, asked to look into a mix up involving a scullery maid and the boot boy: this is an operational matter. If only the butler, Travers, had not left, in such a hurry - by, the back door, and by mutual agreement, after that unfortunate business with the missing place cards at Lady Grantham's bingo night. He would have put on his white gloves, and tails, bowed: yes, milord, and dealt with all the unpleasantness, while the footmen laughed up their sleeves at the dinner table.
Apparently your elected representatives are not paid to oversee investigations into the behaviour of their employees. Or much else, as far as anyone can see. But it will be reported to members. In reports written by officers - see? Easy.
Mrs Angry's questions earlier in the week had included one asking if Capita, through this scheme, was eligible for any gainshare payments or charges. The response was No, no gainshare payment. There was no reply to the part about charges. Yet here we were, reading a response which said that Capita has been paid a whopping £100,000 for administering this 'renewal' process, for passes which are still valid. No, I don't understand it, either. That works out about - kerrching - £26 for every pass 'processed', according to Mrs Angry's accountants ...
Did Cllr Cornelius think this represented good value for money?
You do? So taking disabled people's passes away is a good way of spending a £100,000?
That's not what I said ... it's money well spent on renewing the Freedom passes.
Mrs Angry begs to differ.
And last of all: when you think about your record of 'helping' disabled people in this borough: are you proud of what you've done?
You've taken respite care away from disabled children, you've taken travel passes away from disabled residents, you've taken meals on wheels away from the elderly, so pretty much from birth to death, in this borough now, you're being punished for being disabled, aren't you?
No one's being punished for being disabled, said Cornelius.
Well, it must look like it to them, replied Mrs Angry, gathering up her notes, and leaving the table.
If you want to, you can watch the footage that follows of the speech, or whatever it was, made by the Labour leader, Barry Rawlings on the travel pass fiasco. Better probably to skip further on and watch the contribution made by Labour councillor Paul Edwards, who understands the issues at stake here, and eloquently expressed the anger so many feel about what has happened, describing the devastating impact this iniquitous scheme, and the loss of his pass, on one of his constituents:
"I want to share an example of one case in my ward of a 50 year old man with learning difficulties still living with his family and who has been in receipt of a Freedom Pass since he was 18.
He received two letters from Assisted Travel both dated 13 April 2016.
The first letter, says “Thank you for your application for a Disabled Freedom Pass", and the second letter says "Renewal of Your Disabled Freedom Pass: your appeal regarding the renewal of your freedom pass is not upheld because you must be registered with the Barnet Council Learning Disabilities Team……I would like to emphasise that the decision is final and the matter is closed.”
Both of these letters do not have any named officer, nor a specific telephone number or email of a named officer and neither have been signed.
I did a search of the websites of LB Barnet, London Councils and the Transport Act 2000, all state the 7 categories of disability for a mandatory travel concession, but none say my constituent must be ‘registered with the Learning Disabilities Team'.
When I clicked on “Renew my Disabled Freedom Pass” on the LB Barnet website I arrived at “Page Not Found” (THIS HAS NOW BEEN REMOVED AND YOU NOW HAVE TO WAIT UP TO 5 DAYS FOR AN ELECTRONIC RESPONSE!)
Not only is this man being made to prove he is known to the Learning Disabilities Team even though there is no published requirement to do so, he can’t even renew his pass on line. What’s he meant to do?
In relation to the two letters, until it can be proved otherwise I contend that the decisions to stop his Freedom Pass and refuse his appeal have been taken by the same person, and in so doing has denied his human right to an appeal against a decision taken against him by someone in authority independent of the first decision maker.
I welcome the Leader's contention that we have a duty of care and that “of course those with a life long condition should have a pass.”
The manner in which the disabled have been treated by officers of Capita has seriously damaged the reputation of the Council.
The answer to question 30 of the public questions states “The management of the Freedom Passes was not part of the (CSG) contract, but when the renewals came to light, Capita were asked to carry out the renewals process on the Council’s behalf." If the work is not part of the core contract I call on the council to bring this work back in house to restore confidence and fairness towards our disabled residents."
Paul is an experienced politician, a former Barnet union leader (and former colleague, and comrade, of Mrs Angry, therefore) who again, deserves a bigger role in the Labour opposition. He is unlikely to be given one, as things stand, which is a great shame.
The Tory leader will get his report on the Freedom Pass fiasco, and then nothing much will happen, and probably many of those who were affected won't be properly compensated, and then - a new system will be invented, no doubt incurring more charges for Capita, with what so far, would seem likely to be another version of Barnet's own criteria of eligibility ... oh, hang on ... UNLESS, of course, it should transpire that there is some sort of challenge to the lawfulness of what they are doing, which seems pretty likely, in the circumstances.
Amongst the residents in the room was Siobhan Fairclough, the mother of Jenny, whose story has been featured here, in the local press, in the Standard, and elsewhere. She was pretty cross that no one seems to understand the significance of the eligibility criteria, and handed Mrs Angry a note which said 'Autism is not a mental health condition!' Jenny is so happy, to have had her pass returned, a pass which should never have been removed in the first place - but now the family are deeply worried that the return is only temporary, and that she will see it taken away again. One can hardly blame them for feeling concerned.
Also present was 'Calvin', a very charming young man whose pass, unfortunately, was taken too. He shook hands - several times, and showed us his new - temporary - pass very proudly.
How sad it is that someone should have to be so grateful for something that is theirs by right. We told him he could ask for compensation for the money he has lost: a substantial amount. Cllr Edwards' constituent, a middle aged man who had held his pass for thirty years, now had to spend £90 a month on transport fares - from a salary of £360. (One hopes that Capita is directly footing the bill for this, incidentally, and not the long suffering tax payer).
Many residents may well be in the position of not understanding their rights in regard to the pass, of course, let alone how to apply for compensation, or they may not have anyone to help them.
Many residents may well be in the position of not understanding their rights in regard to the pass, of course, let alone how to apply for compensation, or they may not have anyone to help them.
Compensation, arguably, might well be due for the distress caused to disabled residents in what may be considered to be an unlawful, and possibly discriminatory process. Those affected could consider taking legal advice, perhaps, to establish if this might be the case.
This is the face of Tory Barnet, then - and the reality of living in Capitaville.
Extracting profit from those least able to bear the burden of payment, until caught out, and shamed - and not by the people paid to monitor the contractors, or by your elected representatives.
Leaving the Town Hall, and saying goodbye to Calvin, as he went off to the bus stop with the temporarily restored pass, it was hard not to feel a sense of despondency.
So hard to fight this sort of thing, and so little hope of anyone else, other than a handful of maverick Labour councillors, grabbing these sort of issues, as they should be, by the throat, and showing the Tory council and their partners in commerce for what they really are: uncaring, cynical, feeling only discomfort, not remorse, for what they have done, and for what they have failed to do.
And nothing, nothing at all, that occurs as a result of the contractual bondage we have entered into with Capita will ever persuade the Tory councillors to accept that it was a mistake, because that would be bring too much responsibility back to them, and damage the last remnants of their tattered political reputation.
If, as most people will surely be, you are appalled by this story - of you or a member of your family has lost their travel pass; if you are furious about the plans to destroy your library service; if you were turned away from a polling station and not allowed to take part in the London elections; if you are fed up with the parking madness that is ruining our high street businesses - at the next full council meeting, on May 24th, at 6.30 pm, outside the Town Hall, in Hendon, there will be a protest for residents, to express their fury to the Tory councillors. There will be speakers, and representatives from all local campaign groups. Do come along, and make your voice heard too.