Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Democracy in Barnet: Would the first idiot like to come up and put her question?

I have just returned from the rally and Barnet council cabinet meeting (open to the public). Phew!

It was a good turnout, on a very cold night. From the meteorological angle, this campaign can only get easier from now on. We had large numbers of cheerful people, drinking coffee and tea, eating mince pies, carrying banners, waving flags and leafleting passing motorists; singing new campaigning words to old Christmas tunes; all ages, all backgrounds; trade unionists, residents, some experienced campaigners, some doing something like this for the first time. I'll get my photos processed tomorrow and post some here.

We all want: decent public services that are democratically accountable, and those who are working want decent pay, decent holidays, decent working conditions, and a decent pension at the end of it.

Then we went inside Barnet House.

Around fifty people sat in the public chairs in the Cabinet Committee room itself; the rest of us sat in two overflow rooms, with audio link to the main room. I was in the main room, because I, in the capacity of Barnet resident, had submitted a question to the Cabinet committee. I sat near some fellow Barnet residents, concerned about Future Shape, who had also submitted questions.

We had thought that we would be way down the list for questions, especially as we had only submitted our questions on the deadline. As it turned out, questions about Future Shape - six in all - submitted by concerned residents, were the ONLY public questions on the agenda. It makes one wonder whether the public even know these meetings happen, and how many questions are asked on average at them (responding to one question, Mike Freer said he didn't know how many members of the public knew about the meeting, and said it in a way that showed he doesn't care). We were called up one by one, and the Leader (wouldn't you hate to be called 'the Leader'? I know I would) read his answer to our question (submitted a week ago). We were then allowed to ask a supplementary question. For all those people who had submitted a question but were not present, Leader Mike Freer did not read out his answer - even though he had it prepared. We'll have to see whether he replies in writing to them, as he is supposed to do.

Those people do not deserve to have been dismissed in this way. I know that one of them at least was ill on the night.

I will post the questions and a precis of the answers in another post. The substance of the questions was less interesting than the style with which Mike Freer dealt with them. He treated us like the enemy, who must be cowed. The bloke lacks style. I know he knows we don't agree with him, but to diss residents who have taken the trouble to take part in the democratic process - a process that has put him where he is today - is naff.

The Future Shape item was moved up the main agenda, 'since it is of interest to some people here'. Mike Freer introduced the item with the usual rubric that 'not changing is not an option', saying the council will have to make savings in the future because the government is underfunding it. He did a lot of blaming things on the government, and Brian Coleman took up that refrain in his speech, saying Barnet were just trying to comply with the Gershon efficiency drive (like he knows a lot about efficiency!).

Then each Tory councillor making up the cabinet chipped in with a smarmily scripted endorsement of the Future Shape plan. Well, not quite every one, councillor Harper stuck the boot into the unions (Tory theme of the evening), dismissing their concerns as the reactions of dinosaurs that refuse to change, BUT he did say that he was worried about maintaining democratic accountability throughout an outsourced service model. Councillor Cornelius sounded the most sceptical of all. He called the document vague, and looked forward to more concrete financial details.

Cabinet members made quite vicious attacks on the unions, with Professor Whitfield's careful briefings scathingly and unjustly rubbished. The attacks were shocking at the time, but, on reflection, they show how concerned the administration is at the headway the unions have made in publicising and focusing public concerns about Future Shape. We must not lose our nerve.

The adminstration WILL attempt to smear the unions as 'protectionist' - and we should confess to wanting to protect our members' (less than princely) terms and conditions, better than what they might expect to get if outsourcing goes ahead (cf Fremantle). But we are not trying to protect vast wealth and privilege!

The cabinet lyingly claimed that the unions have made no positive suggestions for change: our positive alternative to Future Shape is explicitly to improve inhouse services through consultation with users and with those who deliver the services.

At the end of the evening, the cabinet voted to go ahead with the next phase of Future Shape, at a cost of £250,000. One councillor had asked earlier whether members of the public, if they had GOOD, CONSTRUCTIVE suggestions, would be able to feed into the process, and Mike Freer said they would, although he did not say HOW or WHEN, because, let's face it, he doesn't mean it.

On the night, the Tories closed ranks, even though some of them clearly have misgivings. I think they are making a mistake, branding the unions as the enemy. We are not going to be cowed.

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