Councillor Cornelius's Dolores
One Barnet : 23 days and counting
Only 29 days remained when Cllr Richard Cornelius, Tory Leader of Barnet Council, faced an angry public meeting of local residents at the bursting-at-the-seams Greek Cypriot Centre in North Finchley on 8 November. Other speakers were Cllr Alison Moore, Leader of the Labour Group, Lib Dem Group Leader, Cllr Jack Cohen and Andy Mudd of APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence).
On 6 December 2012, Tory Barnet Council intend to begin outsourcing 70% of their services - core services - to a private, profit-making company at a cost to the taxpayer of £1 billion pounds. There will be no way out for ten years even if things change or go wrong. There is no precedent for this magnitude of local government outsourcing so it is a gamble. The Council's declared motivation is that it will save money, but it was made clear at the meeting that the amount of savings "guaranteed" in the contract cannot be guaranteed in practice. The company who wins this contract will have the champagne corks popping, hardly able to believe its luck. That contractor could well be BT, who is eager to secure the One Barnet outsourcing contract while announcing last week that it is stopping its own outsourcing and getting its in-house staff to do these tasks instead to cut costs and save money.
There's a scene in the film The Man with Two Brains (1983) in which Steve Martin, a widower who regularly consults the portrait of his dead wife, stands before her hoping for a sign of approval for his new relationship with the evil, scheming, but irresistibly sexy, Kathleen Turner. "If there's anything wrong with my feelings for Dolores just give me a sign," he asks.
An anguished warning emanates from the portrait, a wailing of "No. No-oo. No-ooo. No-ooooo". The portrait rotates wildly, the wall cracks, the room flashes dark and light and a whirlwind blows objects crazily about. With the room in ruins and the portrait askew on the wall Martin seems to be oblivious to what has occurred. "Just any kind of sign", he pleads. "I'll keep looking out for it. But meanwhile (removing the portrait from the wall) I'll just put you in the closet".
One Barnet is Cllr Cornelius's Dolores. There were impassioned 'No-oooos' from the deeply concerned residents who complained that they have not been consulted. Many have been completely unaware that this is about to be thrust upon them. They have expressed their anger and have asked for a referendum. If anything goes wrong, the taxpayer could lose their core services and will have to financially bail out the Council.
Andy Mudd urged the Council to at least consider an alternative claiming that "Barnet is the worst contracting authority I've come across." And it is certainly true that Barnet contracts to date, including parking and maintenance have been a disaster.
'No-oooo' came from Cllrs Moore and Cohen, who complained that their participation has been stifled by a general lack of transparency. Relevant information and committee papers have been denied even to councillors. The right to speak out in meetings has been curtailed. Cllr Cornelius claims that secrecy is essential as the contract is "commercially sensitive" and in future the private contractor would also have the right to secrecy for the same reason. In other words certain parts of the contract may never be revealed.
Impassioned "No-oooos" came from every side. Even former mayor, Cllr Brian Coleman, sitting at the back of the hall, has declared himself against One Barnet since he has been relieved of the Tory whip. In the hall was a man who had travelled from Somerset to share the woes of outsourcing. His Council is being sued by their outsourcing partner Southwest One following a dispute over whether enough savings were being made and the quality of the procurement service. His 'no-oooo' came from bitter experience. Throughout the meeting, Cllr Cornelius sat smiling and nodding affably, and like Steve Martin, consigned the objections he didn't want to hear to the closet.
In fact, it became increasingly clear that Cllr Cornelius had not read the contract and does not know details of its contents. And he is still waiting for certain vital information to arrive. This is with less than a month to go. The Council has never explored the possibilities of a comparative in-house alternative that would avoid running public services for the profit of a private company at the risk of the taxpayer and would keep it local with all the advantages outlined by BT as well as boosting the employment and economy of Barnet. It is a shambles. Yet Barnet Tories are determined to push ahead with this life-changing, risky, irrational, irreversible move that could bring ruin to Barnet. Why? Cornelius has also consigned both democracy and reason to the closet.
He claims no-one has come up with an alternative, but alternatives have been proposed and continue to be proposed. They are ignored by the Council who are employing an outside consultant at massive cost to the taxpayer.
It seems there is little that can be done without a change of mind by the Council. In reality the Tories large majority will achieve the result they want. But will they decide that the risk to Barnet and to their own election chances in 2014 is too great for them to go blindly ahead? Andy Mudd advised that if the Council were minded, they could back out tomorrow and right up to the deadline on 6 December without any financial penalties. And apparently the coffers of Barnet are far from empty, so a period of reconsideration is affordable. The people of Barnet must fervently hope that it is One Barnet that Cornelius ultimately consigns to the closet and locks the door behind it.