Saturday, 24 November 2012

Barnet is revolting


 Barnet is revolting

Tory Barnet Council is arrogantly, and without remorse, ripping its own Borough apart with no accountability, without democratic process. This week its Leader, Richard Cornelius, and his inner Cabinet of rubber-stampers, announced their first major decision regarding 'One Barnet'. They provisionally awarded a £320 million, ten-year outsourcing contract of Council services to Capita. This follows the announcement last month that the Home Office is ditching Capita when its ten-year contract expires in March 2013. “There’s a suspicion that Capita has been earning too high a margin on certain central government contracts,” we read in The Times. Has Barnet Council contacted the Home Office to ask what went wrong? Has Barnet Council taken a couple of minutes on line to read about other disastrous Capita contracts that were terminated early?  And there is the well-known case when in March 2009, Capita SIMS (Schools Information Management Software) sent a truancy warning notice to the family of a Cheshire school student who had died two months earlier.

The lack of concern of the Council for those who elected them was revealed two weeks' earlier at a public meeting where Cornelius was reminded by angry residents that when parking was privatized in Barnet all the Council employees in the parking department lost their jobs which were located elsewhere at a lower cost. Was this going to happen on a grand scale when most of the services were outsourced? Cornelius shrugged his shoulders and smiled as if he expected everyone to appreciate his next remark: "It is, of course, very sad (he didn't even try to sound as if he meant it), but they're all living on the same planet, aren't they?" 

The residents had a point. Yesterday, at 5.11 on a Friday afternoon just before Christmas, a cold, callous email was sent to Barnet Council employees telling them to go home and prepare for redundancy. In other words, employment in Barnet, the financial benefits it brings to the community, the welfare of the employees and their experience, knowledge and expertise, is not a priority, not even a consideration. There was no offer of a meeting, a face-to-face explanation, a show of concern at how the lives of these people might be affected. No word of comfort or support. This devastating news was delivered in the weekly newsletter from the Deputy CEO with the advice that more information could be found on a screen saver or on posters. The evidence clearly shows they couldn't care less. 

To contact the Borough by phone in future, if 'One Barnet' is agreed on 6 December, we've now learned that locals will have to ring a call centre in Blackburn. Who knows where it might be located in 5 or 10 years' time. Capita doesn't have a great record in managing call centres. Their management of call centres for the London Congestion Charge was transferred to IBM after its first stage, much to Capita's embarrassment.[1]  But don't worry. There will be an online information service - fine for those who are online, but there is no proposed alternative provision for those who are not. 

How does all this fit in with Eric Pickles' vision of 'localism'? This week things have moved fast in the London Borough of Barnet. Alarmingly fast. In Tuesday's "Guardian"[2] Cornelius claimed "Forget public v private. We just want the best value for taxpayers' money". He must have meant 'forget public' as he has only ever considered a private option, so how would he know how a public, in-house future for Barnet would compare on price? And although Cornelius claims that £111million of savings over ten years are guaranteed in the contract - his justification for implementing 'One Barnet' - it has been pointed out to him repeatedly that this is impossible to guarantee in practice. 

On Tuesday night, two weeks before the contract is due to be agreed, the 8,000-page contract was seen for the first time by Cornelius and his Tory group. The next morning he declared in an official Council notice: “I will be recommending that my colleagues approve these proposals when we meet on 6 December." In an email he was sure the contract could be read and fully scrutinized in a week. If the Council is unfamiliar with the contents of the contract, how can they recommend it and how will they be able to monitor it? Will they rely entirely on the advice of their own pet consultants who are costing local taxpayers millions of pounds? Will they be guided by the profit-driven contractors? If this is the case, the Councillors will have no role to play and could themselves be candidates for redundancy. The alarm bells are deafening.

" Put simply, democracy is close to being snuffed out. " John Harris wrote on 11 November in the Guardian[3], and he was right. There is no Democracy in Barnet. The Council is autocratic, corrupt, uncaring, but worst of all, inept. 

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?  After all, this is my life and the lives of four generations of my family who all live in Barnet. There is a judicial review in place. Local residents and organisations are united in their determination and vision to defeat this hairbrained scheme. And on Friday Cornelius was beginning to sound a little insecure. Why the emphatic: "My party is backing me" and "the members of my group are happy that we're going ahead. There is of course room for dissent and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't but this is the decision we've taken."  Was he trying to convince himself? Leader of the Lib Dems, Cllr Jack Cohen has said that the Tories have a majority, so it is going to be impossible to defeat them. Well it appears that if only 6 Tories vote against, 'One Barnet' will be defeated. 

Do Cornelius's words reveal a welcome wobble? Can every Tory Councillor in the Cabinet feel easy with and totally in favour of 'One Barnet' going ahead knowing that we now know they have been nodding this through at every stage without being in possession of the facts. Perhaps they are beginning to realise their "the peasants are revolting" "let them eat cake" attitude to the people who they have been elected to serve will guarantee that from 2014 we shall never look upon their like again. They should know that Barnet is revolting. We haven't given up yet.

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