Saturday, 31 December 2011

Here's to a better year in 2012! Even in Barnet...

2011 was a strange year. I've never felt moved to write corny greetings on New Year's Eve before, but I'm going to this year.

On a personal note, I've been reminded too many times for comfort this year that time and tide wait for no man and that I am a man. Well, obviously, I am a woman but you know what I mean.

In 2010 my dear grandmother died, but I didn't feel so miserable then as I have this year when too many people died untimely. Ali, Patrick and Alan I knew personally and will miss. People close to me have also lost loved ones, and one of those has had a big impact on my life this year.

We have lost some national figures as well, Brian Haw stands out for me.

In the world at large, I'm sure there have not been an extraordinary number of deaths, but there were many that were truly shocking, for example, the 77 Norwegians murdered by Anders Breivik, and those who died during the riots in August.

If I tried to enumerate the astounding international and national political events that took place this year, I wouldn't do it half as well as the Sunday supplements will tomorrow so I'll spare us both.

I wish everyone well always. But humanity is divided against itself, men from women, nations, races, religions, along lines of sexual orientation and physical ability, age and so on. In all these tensions, real and imagined, I don't take a side. But there is one way that people are divided where I do: class.

I don't believe that we can make progress in healing all our other divisions unless we end the inequality of resources and opportunity which stifle many of us as individuals and the absurd waste inherent in the capitalist system which stifles us as a species.

I don't expect most of you to agree with me, but I'm sure there will be times in the coming year when we will share views on the way things are going in Barnet - downhill! - and class, I believe, has a lot to do with that.

There, I have left myself wide open to some digs from David Duff. So I will end with something my grandmother said, which was hardly original but effective. She always said it as a toast: "Here's to those who wish us well, and all the rest can go to..."

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

I have tickets for Boris... or do I?!

The online form to apply for tickets to the TalkLondon event at the Peel Centre, Aerodrome Road on Tuesday 17 January seems to be OK now. They have removed the captcha thing which wasn't working.

However, while I now have my e-tickets (oh, yes, I'm bringing a friend), I'm also informed:
Doors open at 6pm and entry is first come first served.
So, do I have tickets or not? Anyway, I'll get there with some well thought out questions.

Thinking of organising a little protest beforehand as well; with it being held at the Peel Centre, there is no question of it not being well policed so it can't get out of hand!

P.S. Mr Mustard says, in response to an earlier blogpost, that Brian Coleman is due to chair the event - which I am sure he will excel at (not)!

Fly away, Boris!

I've just made it back home across the North Kent marshes, as seen in a Dickens adaptation on a television near you - part two of the very enjoyable "Great Expectations" is this evening.

As you might know, this area is where London mayor Boris Johnson would, if he got his way, site a massive new airport. Just today, a new article in the Independent gives an idea of what such a monstrous project would cost, but apparently architect Norman Foster having done this sort of thing before has ideas of how it could be done in North Kent.

Seeing the bleak landscape shown in Great Expectations - and it really hasn't changed much since, save you can now shoot right past it in minutes on High Speed 1 - you might imagine that the locals would be grateful to be rescued from mudflats as far as the eye can see and dragged into the 21st century with the addition to the area of a sparkling new international airport, but I understand most are opposed and I am with them.

I will be among the many chaining themselves to the bulrushes if Boris's vanity project ever seriously looks like getting off the drawing board. Good God, man, quite apart from saving the birds, that's where I learned to ride a horse!

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Barnet bloggers put another Yule log on the fire burning under the Barnet administration

Making it three posts in an afternoon - and me with a train to catch! - can I draw your attention to the Barnet council civic awards? Usually, not desperately exciting to most, the competition could be more interesting this year.

Barnet CPZ Action are nominating Barnet blogger Mr Mustard (aka Derek Dishman) for services to blogging and his part in the campaign against the CPZ charge rises, and David Attfield, also for the latter.

There will be other people who should be honoured, I would include all my other fellow Barnet Bloggers, Mrs Angry, Mr Reasonable and the incomparable Barnet Eye. The bloggers have done a great job this year scrutinising the failings of the current administration.

Private Eye has just honoured the Barnet Bloggers, Mrs Angry in particular, in its 2011 "Rotten Borough" awards:
The past year saw a growing trend for councils to use the law, or the threat of legal action, to stifle free speech and limit public scrutiny of the way elected representatives spend tax payers' money. Councils seemed particularly alarmed by the increase in 'citizen journalists' writing blogs and tweeting - and holding councils to account in ways that many local papers no longer have the balls to.

Highly commended: Tory 'easycouncil' Barnet was one authority which took fright at the interest shown in its activities by electors - in particular a busy group of bloggers. It seriously considered prosecuting one of them, 'Mr Mustard', under the data protection act, until the information commissioner told it not to be so silly. Meanwhile it hired security men dressed in black paramilitary style uniforms to intimidate members of the public who turned up for an important budget meeting. Hats off to the bloggers, in particular 'Mrs Angry', who revealed that the company, MetPro, hadn't got a proper contract, and used unlicensed, non CRB checked staff.
With all the plaudits rolling in, I don't think we'll be going away next year! To take part in these exciting elections - the awards ceremony would be a hoot - visit this webpage. You only have until 31st December to make nominations!

Recycling Christmas cards already!

I haven't had time to sort out a super-dooper Christmas card for you, so I've nicked one from Barnet CPZ Action! I hope they won't mind.

Barnet's traders in particular will be grinding their teeth at the callous indifference shown to their plight by Barnet's Tory council this Christmas.

Foregoing the 'amnesty' on parking charges in the borough, which they have implemented in previous years, the Tories have ploughed ahead with raising parking charges and made sure that a council debate on parking, called for by the Labour group, will now take place in late January when most of the damage has already been done.

The Labour Party are collecting signatures for a petition which could lead to a further council debate... in March. That's a fair way off, but it would shine a very unwelcome light on the Tories' policy in time for the GLA elections in May when incumbent Brian Coleman, the mastermind (I use the term loosely) of the parking policy, is hoping against hope to be re-elected as the representative for Barnet and Camden.

The Labour Party petition, hosted on the council's own website, says:
We, the undersigned, request Barnet council to reverse the parking charge increases implemented in 2011 that are having such a damaging impact on our local town centres and residents at a time when they can least afford it. We need action now to help small businesses and relieve residents. We believe that reversing the parking charges will increase the number of shoppers in our town centres, giving struggling local businesses and traders a much needed boost and helping our hard-pressed residents in these difficult economic times.
Sign the petition here.

Put the jam in Boris's doughnut, or something like that, on 17 January

TalkLondon, London mayor Boris Johnson's occasional roadshow, comes to Barnet on Tuesday 17 January.
Join the Mayor, Boris Johnson, Isabel Dedring, the Deputy Mayor for Transport, and a panel of local representatives, for an opportunity to question them on investing in Outer London.

When and where: Talk London Barnet will take place at the Peel Centre in Hendon, NW9 5JE on Tuesday 17 January, 7pm - 8.30pm. Doors open at 6pm. [6pm! Bring a sandwich and a flask of coffee!]

The panel will include:
  • Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
  • Isabel Dedring, Deputy Mayor for Transport
  • Cllr Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council
  • Gail Laser, Chair of Barnet Traders & Barnet Town Team
Follow us on Twitter @talklondon
It's irresistible, isn't it? But just try applying for a ticket online! I've tried twice on two computers now, and the Captcha thingy just isn't working for me!

It's worth noting that Brian Coleman, GLA member for Barnet and Camden, yes, the "local representative", seems to have been dropped from the panel - well, I swear he was on an earlier lineup that I saw. And that Barnet traders are now prominent. Some sort of compensation for the havoc wreaked on Barnet's local businesses by the council's increase in parking charges - a policy spearheaded by Coleman?

Keep trying for those tickets! All of you! Whatever you have to say to Boris, not forgetting Mr Indecisive, Dithering Dick, Richard Cornelius, Leader of Barnet Council. And maybe, after all, Brian will be putting in a special mystery guest appearance; why wouldn't he? This is his patch and how could he resist the chance to shine in front of all his potential electors! This will be the hottest ticket in town this January, I'm sure of it!

TalkLondon website here.

Friday, 23 December 2011

2011 - a year of protest in pictures including quite a few taken in Barnet!

Taking my cue from fellow Barnet bloggers – who have been an inspiration all year – here is my words and pictures review of Barnet 2011. What a year it’s been!

JANUARY – the Barnet march against cuts and privatisation marched slowly from Finchley Central tube station to the Arts Depot. The picture reminds me of the very diverse opposition to Barnet Conservative council’s plans that is there to be rallied. It also reminds me of the fun I have had taking pictures this year!

FEBRUARY – the struggles for democracy in the Middle East were inspiring to anyone with a heart. Although the future still looks rocky throughout the region, the courage and audacity of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria reminds us how dearly people prize freedom and how dearly they pay to win it. The picture is of a joyous demonstration in Trafalgar Square by Egyptians when Mubarak left power.

MARCH – the TUC at last, to use a phrase common among leftists, got off its knees and went so far as to organise a “March for the alternative” in London. Barnet trade unionists and residents were among half a million people who wended their way to Hyde Park where the speakers were quickly over and away. Ed Miliband rushed through the part of his speech, which said, “some cuts are necessary”. Most media attention was on the sideshow on Piccadilly – how protests are policed will be a recurring theme of the year.

APRIL – the Pinkham Way Alliance lobbied Barnet council against the proposed siting of a huge waste processing plant in their midst. The MetPro scandal, demonstrating the poor control Barnet council has over its procurement and contract monitoring, was surfacing at the same time so “Trust” was a big issue.

MAY – a weekday evening, central London demonstration against Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill was one among many manifestations of anxiety about the government’s plans to privatise the NHS.

JUNE – among the Conservative and Lib Dem government’s many attacks on working people, their plans to make public sector workers work longer, pay more and get less in pensions began to provoke anger among trade unionists. NUT, PCS, UCU and some smaller unions all struck on 30 June. Here is Barnet NUT on the central London march that day.

JULY – the anti-cuts and privatisation campaign Barnet Alliance for Public Services took a small protest to Westminster to the HQ of Capita, one of the big outsourcing companies bidding to run Barnet council services – for a small consideration of £275 million (that’s one of the "One Barnet Programme" contracts – there are more). While there has been a lot of protest about big business evading tax, there has not been enough public scrutiny or dissent over the handing over of big sackfuls of our cash to the MNCs to run our public services.

AUGUST – hundreds of Barnet council employees organised by their union Barnet Unison have taken industrial action this year, worried about the terms under which they will go into private sector employment if the council’s One Barnet privatisation plan goes ahead. Here workers in Revenues and Benefits picket North London Business Park on 6 August against an attempt to break their work-to-rule.

SEPTEMBER – dubbed “Barnet Independence Day”, 13 September saw a big strike by Barnet council workers being “bundled up” for transfer to the private sector. The picture is from a rally in front of Hendon Town Hall.

OCTOBER – central government has given local authorities less money this year so that rich bankers and corporations do not need to tighten their belts like the rest of us. Barnet council along with others has resorted to desperate measures to plug the gaps in its finances. In addition to making cuts, “Revenue Income Optimisation” involves such things as increases in parking charges, which are proving disastrous to local business, and the commercialisation of public spaces through charging funfairs a fee to use them.

NOVEMBERstudent protests against cuts, higher tuition fees and now the Higher Education White Paper resumed in the new academic year. A march on 9 November was effectively a moving kettle, as the police had tightened up considerably their control of protests. The young woman in the picture is looking at a companion “kettle” of electricians who have been striking and protesting to defend their pay bargaining system.

DECEMBER – the picture is from 30 November, the day of the big pensions strike, which saw perhaps two million public sector workers on strike. December has been a period when the government attempts to pounce on and stifle the dispute, which has so far united teachers, civil servants, local government workers and more.


My pictures from 2011 show the efforts of many throughout the year, which must be joined by the efforts of many more in the weeks and months ahead. To any faltering and wavering trade union leaders looking to settle the pensions dispute quickly and run, I say we’ve come too far to retreat now! To ordinary trade union members, I say hold your leaders to account and make sure they do what is best for you not them! And to anyone not yet in a union I say, isn’t it time you joined one?!

Here’s to the battles of 2012!

Further proof of my existence: Thursday was my birthday; plus a libraries update

I'm still working long hours and struggling to find time to blog - it's not that there isn't plenty of inspiration about.

I walked down Oxford Street this evening (Thursday 22nd); the lights, particularly at the western end, were quite spectacular. I came home via Golders Green where some sad garlands were strung across Golders Green Road; at the northern end a couple of shrimp-like creatures picked out in light bulbs were clinging to the top of two lamp-posts. If it's this bad in Golders Green I can't think how shoddy the lights will be in Burnt Oak.

On Twitter this evening, campaigners to keep Friern Barnet Library open have posted:
#FriernBarnetLibrary Open Xmas Eve 9.30am-1pm.Make sure you pop in & spread the festive cheer, it may be our beloved library's LAST XMAS :(
I don't know what progress has been made towards opening the "replacement" for North Finchley and Friern Barnet Libraries in the Arts Depot. If anyone has any updates, please let us know.

As things stand, Friern Barnet and Hampstead Garden Suburb Libraries are scheduled for closure at the end of March 2012. However, the council is currently reviewing the "community proposals" from campaigners at Friern Barnet.

My screensaver is a photograph I took outside Church Farmhouse Museum on the day it closed, 31 March, this year. There had been a community proposal to keep that building in public use, but the Council was not interested. They are interested in selling property.

Brent libraries campaigners have lost their latest legal appeal to keep six libraries open. They are considering whether to take their case to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the UK.

With the news this week that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have let big business off £25 billion of tax people surely cannot accept that their libraries will close to save cash-strapped councils a relatively small sum.

And while I am in a shopping-list mood, can't Barnet have some better festive lights?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Stop Barnet - I want to get off! (Includes suggestions for things you can do to make Barnet a better place in 2012)

Just thought I'd let you know that I am still alive and I am still living in Barnet. Every time I went to put fingers to keyboard recently some fresh horror arose, worse than the last... that or I didn't get around to it! It is hard work earning a living and being mother to two demanding young cats.

But it has not escaped my notice that the borough is in some kind of political meltdown, not without a reaction by its hapless residents.

1. The council's crazy plan to let out some of its public parks for private hire has so far provoked a big public meeting and a petition, with more to follow, I'm sure.
  • To contact the campaign around Victoria Park in Finchley email:
  • To sign the petition around Lyttelton Playing Fields, Barnet click here.
2. The council's bad relationship with Barnet FC has broken down irrevocably, it seems. I don't really get fandom but I recognise that I am in a tiny minority in this, and I do get football in general. I certainly get keeping a social focus in Barnet - we have few enough of them.
  • To sign the petition to keep Barnet FC at Underhill click here.
3. And Barnet Council leader Richard "Clueless" Cornelius, in the teeth of the howling opposition from shopkeepers whose business is being hammered, persists in the disastrous move to cashless parking (let alone the move to privatisation). Has he not read this tale of woe from Westminster Council showing that pay-by-phone has lost the borough money?
  • To sign the petition on Barnet Council's website calling on them to reverse this year's parking charge increases click here.
Barnet's Labour Group have called for an emergency council debate on the parking situation. If the debate goes ahead it is likely to take place on my birthday. I can't think of a more splendid way to spend one's birthday than sitting in the public gallery at such an important event. More details if I get them...

UPDATE: The council say no, apparently, to the request for a special meeting. The Labour Group will persist and try to get some movement in January, but the shopkeepers of Barnet were hoping for parking charges to be suspended over the Christmas period to help make up for the lousy year they have been having. (I hope the voters of Barnet, especially those normally inclined to vote Conservative, keep all of this in mind in elections to come.)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Keep Victoria Park, Finchley public! Meeting tonight

There is gowing resentment among residents about Barnet Council's plan to let out our parks for private parties. Residents near Victoria Park in Finchley are holding a meeting tonight, Wednesday 7 December, to discuss campaigning against this.
Residents are forming a petition and holding a public meeting tonight at St Paul's Centre, 50 Long Lane, Finchley at 8pm to discuss their concerns.
Read more in the Times series report "Residents concerned by Barnet Council plans to offer parks for hire".

Move over MetPro: another Barnet Council procurement scandal...

The Barnet bloggers are publishing the post below this morning and sending it to the press, ahead of the Barnet Council audit committee this coming Thursday 8 December.

Move over MetPro: here comes another Barnet procurement scandal - and this one is even bigger...

Barnet bloggers earlier this year exposed the scandalous use by Barnet Council of MetPro, an unlicensed security company which was paid a total of more than a million pounds worth of residents’ money despite the absence of any tender process, contract, or properly regulated payment system.

MetPro proved to be just one among hundreds of similar irregular arrangements sanctioned by the Tory authority, which is currently negotiating the outsourcing of £1billion worth of our council services to the private sector under the One Barnet programme.

During the months of the outsourcing tender process, in blatant defiance of the government’s stated policy commitment to transparency and greater accountability by local authorities, Barnet has consistently resisted, delayed or obstructed Freedom of Information requests by bloggers in relation to matters of public interest, including the much criticised procurement of contracts with service providers. We think we know why that might be.

At this coming Thursday’s audit meeting, 8 December, we are submitting questions to the committee about another case investigated by local bloggers involving the council’s long term use of another private company, RM Countryside, which has been paid more than £2 million pounds of local tax payers’ money with an apparent lack of compliance with the proper processes of tendering, contractual arrangements and the regulations set out in the Constitution.

We are questioning the efficacy of the internal and external audit procedures which are supposed to regulate the commercial activity of the London Borough of Barnet.

The integrity of the One Barnet outsourcing programme is clearly fatally compromised by the failure of the authority to regulate its own procurement, contractual and payment processes and we call therefore for an immediate halt to be made in this programme, and for an urgent, independent inquiry to be held into the disastrous lack of control of the authority’s commercial activities.

MetPro was a warning - a warning which has been ignored: now is the time to stop, investigate, and demand that the actions and decisions of our council in this and all other matters of concern are transparent and fully accountable to the residents and tax payers of Barnet.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Travers-ty of democracy

I've given a couple of interviews to the press about the protest outside a recent Capita-sponsored conference that Barnet council's deputy chief executive Andrew Travers was due to speak at. (I presume he did: we weren't allowed inside to hear for ourselves. We're only residents, after all.)

There was a short report in the Times series.

My main message on why I took part in this protest is that I think it is wrong for the big outsourcing companies, such as Capita, Serco, BT, to have the privileged access to those in local authorities taking the decisions on outsourcing that they get at such events. And that all this is done behind the backs of those most affected by outsourcing: residents and council staff.

This is surely what happened when Andrew Travers went to speak at the conference on 29 November.

I have submitted the following Freedom of Information request to the council today (my first).
Dear Sir or Madam,

I would like to see any information/data that the Council holds in relation to the Capita sponsored conference, "New Models of Service Delivery - Opening Up Local Government Services to New Providers", on 29 November 2011. This includes but is not confined to anything that relates to the appearance of the Deputy Chief Executive Andrew Travers at this event.

Thank you.

Vicki Morris

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Using the s-word: debate between a Trot and a former Tory

I've written such a long reply to DCMD's comment on my "Using the s-word" post that I have to publish it as a post. The debate does raise interesting questions about the role of trade unions today, but I'm mainly posting it because I do take debate very seriously. The passages in quotation marks and italicised are from DCMD (former Tory); the other parts are mine (Trot).

"We are both agreed that ‘scab’ is an unpleasant word. You originally claimed to have used it because 'that’s the word we have'. You now state that you thought long and hard before using the word and that you would readily use it again."

Hello, DCMD, to reply to some of your points:

I didn’t, as you say, think long and hard about using the ‘s-word’; I said I hesitated before using it... What happened was on Tuesday night I wrote two blogposts, one addressed to residents not in the affected unions, asking them to support the strike by visiting picket lines; one addressed to workers in the affected services, asking them to support the strike by... striking. I wrote both quickly fairly late in the evening. I came to write the headline for the second article, I hesitated over using the word ‘scab’, but I decided I would use it because... that’s the word we have. I haven’t said I would ‘readily’ use it again, I said:
I also think that, regretfully, I would use the word again [because that’s the word we have] and risk giving offence again.
That’s very different, DCMD. All debates start out like this, with both sides thinking they have heard the other side saying something that it turns out they did not say. (You are and I are so far apart politically that it might seem pointless to discuss this at all, yet I do think it is important to account for what we say even to people who we wildly disagree with.)

"This admission exposes the intolerance of the militant wing of the Trade Union movement."

You accuse me of an admission; I’m ‘admitting’ nothing because I haven’t done anything wrong.

"Rog talks above about intimidation by management, but in your narrow view of the world, premeditated intimidation by the union is acceptable because, presumably, it is for the perceived greater good."

Picketing is about unions putting to workers who might cross a picket line the purpose of the strike with the aim of persuading them not to cross the picket line and break the strike. I’m not in the business of intimidating people. Yes, picketing is premeditated; it is not intimidation. You are right about it being for the greater good... of the workers.

"Calling someone a ‘scab’ serves no other purpose than to humiliate and ostracise that person from the rest of the workforce. Unions are supposed to stop bullying in the workplace, but are quite happy to use bully-boy tactics to enforce their view."

To scab, to break a strike, these are verbs, these are what the scab or strike-breaker does when they cross a picket line. You do not see the harm that does to the interest of the greater number of workers who have gone on strike (and to the strike-breaking worker's own longer term interest). Scabbing or breaking the strike of a union of which you are a member makes absolutely no sense. Unions exist as collective bodies, with a common purpose. If you don’t share that purpose or you undermine it, you nullify the body you are a member of.

The picket, as I described above, is not bullying. It is (a) still legal; (b) sometimes effective in that the worker who might otherwise cross the picket line after hearing the arguments for why they should join the strike joins the strike. This actually happens; I’ve seen it happen.

"It is risible to talk about union democracy."

No it isn’t. Far from it...

"Whilst a majority of those who voted supported the strike, the turnout for the ballot was very low. The only conclusion we can draw is that most people were apathetic about the strike otherwise they would have positively voted for it."

There are many reasons why a turnout will be low. It is noticeable that the turnout in the unions representing higher grades alone or the more ‘professional-type’ unions had higher turnouts than the big, general unions.

Some workers can simply be too tired/busy to vote; some, as you say, could be apathetic. Some might think that a one-day strike is merely a token and that their unions don’t have a serious strategy to win the dispute.

Some workers might feel that the Government is kicking working class people from pillar to post on so many fronts that they will have their way on this one as with the others. Ie, the workers feel defeated in advance of the battle. (You probably think this is a good thing.)

I think most people expected that there would be a majority for industrial action. I certainly did. In that case, people can leave the voting to others. And so on.

No union should be satisfied with the turnout, and I know that they are not. I know that union reps worked hard to increase the turnout. The result is that the ballots for industrial action were won. Any attempt by government to legislate for super majorities before a ballot can be considered won would be outrageous. (I’m sure you’ve seen the argument about Cameron being elected on a minority, etc. I don’t want to go into that now; you haven’t brought it up, so I won’t go and look up chapter and verse on it.)

"But even if the union had won a majority vote on a 100% turnout, that does not mean you can forcibly impose your will on those who dare to hold a contrary position."

Who’s forcibly imposing their will (besides the Government)? Picketing is not designed to forcibly impose the unions’ will on people. It’s not, let me reiterate, about one force imposing itself on another, but about trying to persuade workers – including members of the union – that crossing the picket line is not in their interests. It is not in the workers’ interest, generally.

"How dare fat-cat trade union leaders like Dave Prentice (£127,000 salary package) tell other people when they can or cannot work."

Dave Prentis earns too much. I agree. Trade union leaders should earn no more than the average wage of their members, they should be elected annually, and so on. I have a longer list of demands to make for union democratisation than you, I imagine.

But your indignation against Dave Prentis is a bit of a red herring. Dave Prentis was not the only person asking people not to go to work on Wednesday. The call to strike was made in the first place by the union members who work, day in day out, alongside those breaking the strike.

I do think there is a case for hardship funds for people who are in real dire need to draw on; the unions should set aside strike funds and raise funds from non-striking sections of the unions; and pay strike pay where they can. But it is usually feeble of strike-breakers to plead poverty – there are plenty of strikers who are in just as bad a situation as those who break the strike.

"If you genuinely believe in democracy, then you believe that other people are entitled to hold a contrary view to yours, and can act according to their own beliefs."

Yes, of course I believe that. But I also don’t believe in just shrugging my shoulders and saying que sera, que sera. I am an actor in events, if I can persuade people to do something different I will try.

Democracy: who decides what views are heard and represented? I’m not just going to leave people to make up their minds based on what they read in the Daily Mail - or even the Guardian!

"When Conservative Councillor Kate Salinger defied the party whip in the vote for increased allowances, she was widely praised by the left for standing up for her principles."

I can’t speak for the rest of the ‘left’. For myself, I didn’t praise her. I think she did the right thing: what did she do right? Stand up for her principles? No, her principles are neither here nor there if I think she did the wrong thing. What she did that was right was say that the allowance rises were bad. She was right about that.

"Of course, you are allowed to have principles when opposing those evil Tories. You are not allowed to have principles when standing up to the Brothers."

Yes, people have principles when ‘standing up to the trade unions’ (crossing a picket line); often they are the wrong principles, however. Selfish, short-term principles. Or simply not thinking things through. Or not understanding the arguments.

Let people have whatever principles they like! Just don’t expect me or the ‘brothers’ to accept the status quo!

"Prentice and his disciples..."

- I take it you mean the millions of trade union members -

"...are a throwback to the 1970s."

You mean, to the days when there was effective trade unionism in this country.

"They have failed to recognise that the world has moved on..."

- You mean, That Margaret Thatcher’s government smashed the unions, enacted strict anti-union legislation; that Blair’s government kept it in place and boasted about doing so.

"and militancy has had its day."

Well, perhaps it will return. I certainly hope so.

"We can argue until the cows come home as to what (and who) caused the recession;"

Now, that is a topic really worthy of debate...

"the reality is that we are where we are"

Who is this ‘we’ you keep going on about? You surely don’t believe that the recession is affecting people equally. A few people are still in a very nice place, while most are at least fearful for the future; some are already living very bleak lives and are soon to be joined by hundreds of thousands of their fellow countrymen and women.

"and most people understand this."

Look at the opinion polls. It is not at all clear that people agree with you. Which is a great - and pleasant - surprise given that they have the media and politicians continually drumming into them that we must accept austerity, the cuts, ‘there is no money’, we have been living too high on the hog, etc.

"The public understands that the country is broke."

Ah, you think so too. It isn’t, it’s the sixth largest economy in the world (I think - certainly enormous).

"They understand also that the pension system is at breaking point."

It isn’t. Look at the figures for the teachers’ pension, for example. There is no crisis in the local government pension scheme. Its value as a percentage of GDP is set to fall.

"According to official statistics, average life expectancy has increased by 8 years over the last 3 decades. That is a phenomenal increase"

- and good news...

"and you don’t need to be an actuary to understand what this means in terms of pensions."

You know a lot about pensions. Could you recommend a book, before I do?

I don’t believe that we can’t afford to pay people a decent pension. I don’t believe that people will need to work till they drop. Look at the wealth in this society; think how much knowledge we have. Is it beyond our ingenuity to organise our affairs such that we can enjoy restful, comfortable old age? For all. I don’t think so.

"Gordon Brown plundered the private pension industry to the tune of £5 billion a year, affecting millions of private sector workers, how many strikes did Unison call in protest?"

I have to look your reference up.

Unison represents public sector workers. It would be good if the level of solidarity across the public and private sectors were so great that Unison would strike for private sector workers’ pensions but it isn’t.

(Given that you don’t think workers within Barnet council, for example, should show solidarity with each other, I take it you are just using this example to call the unions hypocrites, but I still think the accusation is unjust.)

Unite and the other unions organising in the private sector should call strikes and protests, that I agree.

The public sector unions have made an effort to argue for good pensions across the board; the civil service union PCS has been in the forefront of a campaign called ‘Fair pensions for all’. Their argument is that pensions should be levelled up across the public and private sector, not down.

"The strike on Wednesday was a spectacular flop."

No, it wasn’t. Most schools closed. There were other effects – we are making our assessments. A lot of disruption was avoided in the NHS, where high levels of cover were agreed between unions and management.

"The country did not grind to a halt,"

- it was never likely to; who said it would?

"and where people suffered inconvenience it was relatively minor. Many union members were not on picket lines but out Christmas shopping - no doubt showing solidarity with shop workers. Dave Prentice’s response was a classic diversionary tactic. Instead of apologising for failing to understand the mood of the public..."

- I don’t agree, there was a lot of public support for the strikes. -

"he feigned outrage to launch a pathetic attack on Jeremy Clarkson for making what was clearly a joke about shooting strikers."

I don’t think he feigned outrage. Clarkson’s delivery was jokey, but there is nothing funny about the subject matter. Trade unionists are killed in many countries for their activities.

We have had a good, long debate about this in NUJ circles: most of us are more outraged about the media’s poor coverage of the strike – though not surprised by it - than we are about Clarkson, reprehensible though his remarks were.

"How many times do we hear from hard-line left wingers who say they will celebrate when Margaret Thatcher dies?"

You’ve never heard it from me, so don’t go laying that at my door...

"Such rank hypocrisy is positively nauseating, but is par for the course for those who resent democracy and freedom of expression."

If you’re keen on democracy and freedom of expression, I hope you will be campaigning to open up the mass media to reflect a wider range of opinions than is currently possible. Then perhaps the unions and their millions of members would get a fair hearing. We might be able to do without picket lines then...

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Using the s-word

On Tuesday night I wrote a blogpost in which I urged workers in public sector workplaces where the unions had voted to strike not to scab.

Some people don't like the fact that I used this word. I hesitated before I typed the word, to be honest. I thought about it, should I use the s-word or another word beginning with 's' which means the same thing but which - I believe - is in much less common use: 'strike-breaking'? I chose to use the word scab because not to would have been ridiculously coy, in my view.

Words have different registers; two different names for the same thing can convey different meanings. That's true for 'scab' and 'strike-break'. Personally I don't see a lot of difference in the register between these two words, but others do. If I gave unnecessary offence by my choice of words, I regret it, but I also think that, regretfully, I would use the word again and risk giving offence again.*

But all this is really beside the point and slightly pretentious. The people who have moaned at me for using the word 'scab' don't actually support trade unionism, effective trade unionism. They think people should cross picket lines and face no criticism for doing it.*

Trade unions are collective organisations. The current state of trade union democracy is far from perfect, but, in essence, unions are democratic bodies. You join one and you take part in the decision-making process of the organisation: electing leaders, deciding whether to go on strike or not. The members should respect the democracy of the union or the whole thing falls apart.

A trade union is not just there to offer cheap car insurance, or to help out an individual worker when they have difficulties with their boss. Well, it is there for those things, but the point is that a union can do those things and more besides only if it builds - and sometimes uses - its collective strength.

That is why when the members have decided to strike to defend pensions, the members of the union should respect that decision and respect the picket lines. If they don't, the whole thing starts to become pointless. Unions are called unions for a reason!

I am far from being the only person who has upset others by using the word 'scab' in the past week. In the recent period we have also seen, because there was no alternative, the return of such supposedly outmoded things as pickets - including here in Barnet - and now, on Wednesday, mass strikes!

With the (in my view, long overdue) return of class struggle, it is not surprising that we find ourselves debating such things as the meaning and use of the word 'scab'.

Well then, what should I say instead? "I say, would you mind not crossing the picket line? Thanks, awfully."

The trade union movement faces a battle for its life. It has been hammered in the private sector as its bases, heavy industry and manufacturing, have declined (and that helps to explain the decline of the private sector pension in comparison with the public sector pension).

Because of that hammering, trade unionism is now strongest in the public sector. But if it cannot fight and win on the many battles facing public sector workers - and public service users - it is doomed here as well.

The trade union movement is not a set of institutions; it consists of its members, participating and working with fellow members to give the union relevance. It really is a case now of united we stand, divided we fall.

Not crossing picket lines is a key part of that.

* In Tuesday's blogpost I didn't make clear whether my remarks were addressed to union members or non-union members. My remarks were primarily addressed to union members; I'm not sure you can be a non-member and a scab. I would try to persuade a non-member not to cross a picket line and to join the union.

Just to muddy the waters further, 'strike-breakers', I understand, primarily refers to workers brought in from outside expressly to 'break a strike' by a regular workforce.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Barnet workers strike to defend their pensions

I don't have a full picture of the pensions strikes across Barnet today, but I would say that they were well supported. I went to Edgware Hospital on my way to work, on the offchance that there might be a picket line. There was. (See picture.) The unions had agreed, I would say, a substantial amount of emergency cover with management. Nevertheless, those on the picket line were upbeat about the strike, exuberant, I would say!

They enjoyed support from passers by, and residents visited them with hot drinks.

The unions represented were Unison Barnet PCT and Mental Health branch, Unison Occupational Therapists, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists and the Society of Podiatrists.

Those I spoke to expect that there will be more industrial action in the New Year. Frankly, there will need to be unless the government makes some movement. The new, higher pensions contributions are due to start in April.

The second picture here is of Barnet unions and their supporters at the wonderful TUC demonstration in central London this afternoon. The spirit was great!

More pictures available here.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Support the pensions strikes! Don't scab!

I went this morning to a protest outside Lancaster Hotel, Hyde Park. The conference was organised by the events management arm of Capita, currently bidding for £750 million worth of business from Barnet Council.

There the representatives of profit-hungry multi-national companies had privileged access to the executives of the public services who make the decisions about outsourcing. Barnet residents were not welcome inside; we were not allowed to come and give an alternative view of the One Barnet programme to that dished up by Barnet's deputy chief exec Andrew Travers. Not even allowed to put questions to him.

What is this all about? It surely isn't democracy!

And, be sure, the Government's assault on public sector pensions is intimately linked to their plan to privatise public services. They want to entice the big multinationals by saying, "here, you don't have to pay these guys so much when they retire".

That is why, if you are working in a service where the union has voted to go on strike tomorrow, you should support the strike. You are allowed to join in the strike even if you did not take part in the ballot and you can join a union on the day to cover you, if you are not already a member. Support the strike!

Support the pensions strikes! Visit a picket line!

There is a long list of picket lines in Barnet tomorrow. If you are not directly involved in the strike, please make the effort to visit a picket line and show your support. It makes a difference to the people who are on strike.

The press has not been all bad for the strikers. It is, after all, difficult to vilify a huge segment of the working population who will be on strike and still hope to sell newspapers to them. But many of the strikers won't have done it before, and are probably feeling slightly nervous. So a member of the public taking the time to say "we support you" will make a difference.

If you are a member of the public that doesn't support the strikes, do feel free to leave a comment. I am happy to engage in debate and try to change your mind (even David Duff).

I'll attempt to put here a list of picket lines that I know about, but there will probably be many more. (I am especially under-informed about NHS and Jobcentre picket lines. And, of course, most of the schools will be closed!)

The picket lines start in the morning; some last all day. Many strikers and supporters will head to central London around midday for a march organised by the South East Region of the TUC. Barnet folk are meeting at the Cochrane Theatre, Southampton Row, WC1 at noon. The march assembles in Lincoln's Inn Fields, from 12 and sets off at 1pm. It goes to Victoria Embankment for a rally at 2pm.
Picket lines in Barnet on 30 November

Barnet council sites:
North London Business Park N11 1NP (from 7am)
Barnet House N20 0EJ (from 7am)
Mill Hill Depot NW7 1BL (from 6am)
Hendon Library NW4 4BQ (from 9am)
Chipping Barnet Library EN5 4QT (from 9am)

Barnet College:
Wood Street EN5 4AZ & Grahame Park NW9 5RA (from 7.30am)

Middlesex University:
Hendon campus, The Burroughs

Civil service:
Barnet County Court, Regent's Park Road, N3 1BQ
Berkeley House, 302-304 Regents Park Road N3 2JY
If you can add any to the roll-call this evening, please do. I expect to make an album of pictures from the day, so if you have any photos to share please email them to

Monday, 28 November 2011

Join us at the Andrew Travers Capita claptrap roadshow!

If you are free tomorrow morning (rather early - 9am) and you think Barnet Council's outsourcing programme "One Barnet" is a lousy idea, please join a select protest at the Lancaster Hotel next to Lancaster Gate tube station.

One of the big outsourcing companies Capita is hosting a conference for movers and shakers in the world of outsourcing and local government. It is called "New Models of Service Delivery - Opening Up Local Government Services to New Providers". Barnet council's own deputy chief exec, Andrew Travers - Mr £1k-a-day - all paid for by you and me - is speaking at the conference. He has a 20-minute slot just before lunch to pronounce on the following:
The One Barnet Transformation Programme

• Creating a new relationship between public services and citizens

• Encouraging self-help and behaviour change

• Simplifying systems and access to services

• Creating a single customer services organisation

• A single Barnet insight function to support joint commissioning

• New ways of ‘bundling and delivering services’
I presume he will be saying that One Barnet is going swimmingly...

I explained today to the local papers why some of us were journeying to central London on a workday morning to make this protest. The reasons are so numerous they just rolled off the tongue. For starters:
• One Barnet is not liked by most of the council workforce, who have moreover been taking industrial action about the terms under which they will be transferred to the private sector.

• The council does not know whether One Barnet is liked by the residents, because they have never asked them what they think of it. In fact, they have banned them from talking about it at residents' forums.

• Why are the people most affected by the topics under discussion - the far more numerous residents and council employees - not invited to attend such events and give their views? Why do we only find out about such events by accident?

• Andrew Travers earns £1,000 a day as a "consultant" at Barnet council which is too much. (I will be taking steps to find out whether he is being paid to speak at this conference.)

• It is indecent that this conference is being held at a plush, central London hotel, and that attendees pay between £225 (concessionary discount!) and £575, at the same time as they are discussing how to make cuts to vital public services and how to lay off council workers.

• There is something fishy about Capita, one of the multinationals bidding to run council services, including here in Barnet, putting on events such as this. Their website says: "Capita Conferences is the UK’s number one provider of public sector conferences." Is anyone surprised, when they can hope ultimately to profit from the topics discussed at these conferences?

• There is something fishy about Capita, one of the multinationals bidding to run council services here in Barnet, inviting Andrew Travers to be a guest speaker at this event.
And so on. If you can join us tomorrow morning, here's the website for the venue, the sumptuous Lancaster Hotel, so you will recognise it! We'll be outside with our Barnet Alliance banner and distributing a leaflet to conference attendees.

No to One Barnet! And no to private sector profiteers hobnobbing with council officials behind our backs!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Barnet CPZ on the telly Monday night

The latest news from the Barnet CPZ campaign is mixed: a legal setback but money in the bank to fight on.

The campaign will feature in a programme tomorrow night. The campaign is telling supporters:
If you get the chance, please watch Inside Out on BBC1 at 7.30pm this Monday when they will be reporting on Barnet's outrageous CPZ charges and our campaign to overturn them. Will Inside Out conclude that Barnet's charges in fact are "in line with those in other London boroughs" as the Council has recently claimed?

If you miss the programme, you'll also be able to watch it on the BBC's iPlayer.

We understand that Barnet's CPZ charges will also featues in another current affairs programme before the end of the year.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Our Barnet newspaper: We want good pensions for all!

Issue no.3 of Our Barnet, the newspaper of the Barnet Alliance for Public Services, is back from the printers and should be on a street stall near you this weekend! Or even dropping through your letter box.

The front page article is about the pensions campaign, title "We want good pensions for all!" And, as you would expect, there is also plenty inside about Barnet council and its crazy privatisation plan One Barnet.

If you would like a copy for yourself or a few copies to distribute, please email

I've posted the pages on the Barnet Alliance blog. Front page, centre pages, back page.

Now I'm going for some kip!

Friday, 18 November 2011

Capita woes: TV licensing fee workers on strike

I read this story with interest. There is a strike in Bristol by the people who work for Capita collecting TV licence fees. (Did you know that Capita do that? I didn't.) They are members of the Communication Workers Union who also organise postal workers.
They are protesting about their pay, which is falling and falling. Overnight they were joined on their picket line by members of the Bristol 'Occupy' movement.

The Bristol CWU Branch Secretary said:

"It's great that they've come to show their support. One of the slogans on one of their tents was: 'Capitalism isn't working' - well today, it's certainly true that Capita isn't working."

Capita woes: for how much longer can they slip under the radar?

There's a vast area of economic life that goes unmolested by the anti-cuts, anti-corporate campaign crowd and that is the multi-national companies (MNCs) bidding to run public services. Companies such as Capita, Serco, who are bidding to run council services even here in our own fair Barnet, don't make easy targets because they are not household names.

I am involved with a campaign called No Sweat which campaigns against sweatshop labour, mostly in what are quaintly called developing countries. Someone got in touch recently saying did we want to help make a film for schoolchildren looking at the ethical record of MNCs. Yes, we said, who are you interested in? Primark is taken, they said, would you do Apple? Hm, yes, we can do Apple, I said; but how about doing Capita? Not interested, they said. The kids won't have heard of them.

You see, it doesn't matter how big and unaccountable you are, how fiercely you exploit your workforce, etc. If you haven't got a coveted label and you aren't for sale on the high street, you evade scrutiny, slip under the radar. Phew!

Well, I am on a mission to get more people to look at Capita and their like. In my view, they are getting away with too much.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Labour Party supporting 30 November strikes - at least in Enfield!


I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw the flyer above, too much to take in at once. Labour Party in anti-cuts public meeting shocker. Labour Party public meeting with trade union speakers shocker, etc.

But it is not just happening in north London. I'm hearing rumours from up and down the country that Labour Party branches and bodies are passing motions supporting the unions' industrial action on 30 November. Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament were pledging not to go into work out of solidarity.

The Labour Party was based on trade unions, to give 'labour' - working class people - a political voice. Many have tried to push the unions out of Labour but working class people will always need a political voice, their interests are different from those of the people who employ them. Their experience of collectivity and cooperation implies a different way of running society from the competitive system we have now. So may there be many more Labour Party meetings against the cuts!

This one in Enfield is near enough for people in Barnet to get to, I reckon, if you want to hear the union bigwigs outlining the arguments for the strikes on 30 November. I very much hope to go.

Barnet for Fair Pensions for All

We had a productive joint meeting of Barnet TUC and the anti-cuts group, the Barnet Alliance, this evening to coordinate our activities on Wednesday 30 November. I hope by now readers know that many unions representing public sector workers will take part in a national 24-hour strike on that day, to defend their pensions.

Below is the contribution to this evening's meeting by a member of the civil service union PCS, Ian Albert, of their national executive committee. I'll post some information in the coming days about what we are doing in Barnet to mark this day of industrial action, probably the biggest since the 1926 General Strike! But first Ian Albert:
I used to live in Edgware; I worked in the Department of Health and Social Security at Raydean House. I’m also a long-suffering Barnet FC season ticket holder. Barnet council treats Barnet FC very badly. Unions and community should forge links with the club.

PCS, NUT, UCU and ATL colleagues took strike action over pensions on 30 June. We are all public service workers performing a valuable service for the community; we organise people in a huge range of services. PCS even includes coastguards – a service currently under attack - and Beefeaters at the Tower of London!

Our struggle with the government is not just about pensions, but also about pay cuts and job losses. PCS has been putting forward an alternative to the cuts. Many of you marched for the alternative on the TUC demonstration on 26 March.

There are things that this government should be doing instead: tackling youth unemployment, for example, saving a million people whose lives will be destroyed for years to come. We saw such things under Thatcher; I hoped we would not see them again.

We see workers in Greece, Italy, suffering similarly. We need an alliance across Europe for the alternative

On pensions, the unions are uniting and coordinating to win. We must never let this government drive a wedge between those who work in the public sector and the private sector. Cameron says we have gold-plated pensions in the public sector (not true). But we have been doing better recently in the public than the private sector because we have stronger unions in the public sector. Many private companies have destroyed their pension schemes; private companies have been getting tax relief – making a profit - on pensions.

This is what explains the divide between public and private: a drive to the bottom. We are taking action on 30 November to stop this drive to the bottom.

Our members, who have been privatised, at Fujitsu, Capita, etc, are facing attacks on their pension schemes.

I would urge you to visit our website for the PCS briefing on “Fair Pensions for All” (download the pdf here). The UK is at the bottom of the table as regards pensioner poverty. Our campaign sets out the case for decent occupational pensions in the private and public sector, but also for decent state pensions. The rising age for eligibility for state pensions should be challenged.

I’m looking forward to hearing the contributions this evening about how we go forward from here. We can win if we stay united, if we are not bought off or distracted by statements such as the absurd remarks about union members avoiding loss of pay by taking 15 minutes’ strike action by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude recently.

My union, PCS, represents grades up to middle managers; for the first time in years we will be going out on strike with senior managers. To see unions such as NAHT, FDA, even non-TUC affiliates, all expressing support for the campaign is encouraging and something we must build on.

Unions in every town and borough should work together in the coming days, just as PCS nationally has forged good relationships with unions including Unite and NUT over the past few months.

It is disappointing that the Labour Party so far have not been more vocal in their support; I hope we can still persuade Ed Miliband to give support for our democratic ballots of three million workers.

Monday, 14 November 2011

It it's Wednesday, it must be pensions!

To paraphrase the title of a romantic comedy of 1969 ("If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" - the film sounds bloomin' awful, by the way). I mean that the "issues" are coming so thick and fast at the moment that I think there is a protest or meeting about something different every day.

I am in danger of missing the wood for the trees, however. This Wednesday's issue is the big one - public sector pensions, bringing with it the prospect of the UK's biggest industrial action ever in two weeks' time on Wednesday 30 November.

Barnet's trade unions and the anti-cuts Barnet Alliance for Public Services have organised a joint public meeting on pensions this Wednesday, 16 November, at the Greek Cypriot Centre, 2 Britannia Road, N12 from 7-9pm.

If you have any questions about the pensions dispute, any at all, please come to the meeting on Wednesday. All are welcome.

I should say that if anyone thinks the tabloids are right and that the unions only care about the public sector, they are wrong! We want good pensions for workers in public and private sectors - and for people who can't work at all!

We don't want levelling down but levelling up! We also stand for the rebuilding of trade unionism in the private sector as the best guarantee of a decent life for all.

Crumbs, I'm on my soapbox this morning!

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Friday joke... is on me

Q. What's the best dressed woman in Burnt Oak wearing?
A. Pyjamas.

That's a bit rude to women in Burnt Oak, isn't it? But I meant me today. I nipped up to the post office - which has recently crossed the road, there's a joke, a real one, in there somewhere - and halfway realised that I hadn't got out of my pyjamas yet, just flung an old coat on on top. Still, it's dark in the evenings now and I don't think anyone noticed.

Much less cared.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Buy Circle Holdings PLC - make Ali rich!

It's probably considered infra dig to talk about people one used to know at school or university who are now public figures, but I can't help myself! It's one thing resenting fat cats, but when you knew the fat cat personally and how they operate it becomes all the more intolerable seeing them making (or seeking to make) profits from the privatisation of our public services.

In this case I am talking about the announcement this morning that Circle Holdings PLC's bid to run Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire has been approved. The hospital has big debts and one stipulation of the contract is that Circle will wipe them out.

Staff will remain on NHS contracts - what, really? Fully? All of them? - and the buildings revert to the NHS at the end of the contract. But what about the equipment bought in the interim? You see, we here in One Barnet are getting wise to the wrinkles that can make an outsourcing deal better or worse for us, the poor saps who are paying for it.

It's interesting that the Hinchingbrooke contract is for about £1bn. We are looking at that sort of figure for the big customer service contract that Barnet council are currently negotiating. Circle beat Serco to the Hinchingbrooke contract.

The Daily Mail quotes Nigel Beverley, interim Chief Executive for Hinchingbrooke Health Care NHS Trust, saying:
'We have been bowled over by Circle's enthusiasm and the efforts they have taken to engage with staff, patients and our other partners.'
The only engagements that the companies bidding for Barnet's contracts have had are with council bigwigs and lawyers. The residents have not been consulted at all, so at least Circle have that over them.

What's my particular beef in the Circle/Hinchingbrooke case? The slick public presentation of this contract as representing win:win for the public and the company taking the hospital over. Circle is presented in the media as a John Lewis-type company, owned by staff. It isn't. The London Stock Exchange explains:
The Company's principal asset is its holding in Circle, an employee co-owned healthcare provider. Circle is 50.1 per cent. owned by the Company and 49.9 per cent owned by the Circle Partnership which is 100 per cent beneficially owned by Circle's clinicians and employees. 
(Naturally, Circle shares have gone up this morning.) What else? Perhaps Circle will deliver on what they have promised in this contract, but their game is not actually rescuing "failing" hospitals such as Hinchingbrooke. It is to make money from public services, that is, a portion of our taxes will go into the pockets of private shareholders and fat cats, such as chief executive Ali Parsa, the man I knew at university (he was then a leftist of sorts).

He will also seek to drive down staff pay and conditions. I would love to know what the terms for new employees will be.

Oh, yes, finally, where is Circle Holdings PLC incorporated? Jersey. You see, Ali wants to hang onto as much of our money as he can. Is this his just compensation for innovation, enterprise and risk-taking? No, it's just the dues we mugs pay when we fall for the spiel of a bloody good talker.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Student demo season comes around again

I went along on the student demonstration today. It was organised by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, a grassroots organisation attempting to fill the role the National Union of Students has largely abdicated from: defending the interests of students.

The NUS had voted to support the demonstration, but in the last few days student union managers have been getting calls and emails suggesting all sorts of reasons why they should be worried about the demo: have the stewards been CRB checked, have the organisers taken out public liability insurance, etc. Since when?!

I'm glad to say that around 10,000 students (I'm told - I was at the back of the march) were undeterred, and held a peaceful and lively march along a novel route that took us along Fleet Street, through Holborn, close to St Paul's, and ending up close to Moorgate tube station. Lots of sightseeing on the way, then!

The only 'incidents' I witnessed were when some of the students refused for a while to move on past the site where some protesting electricians had been kettled by the police. The electricians, members of the Unite union, are defending their pay rates, which the employers, led by Balfour Beatty, have decided to try and slash.

And some anarchists climbed onto some scaffolding in a sort of demonstration of solidarity, I imagine, with the building workers. The police weighed in heavily - I know, I was nearly felled in the crush - to arrest some of them.

Was it only a year ago that we saw such momentous student marches - since that incident at Millbank, among others? In that year a lot has happened. The global financial system, in the first place, the euro, appears to be spiralling into chaos, as this evening's headline on the Evening Standard spelled out; protesting has got more serious, as the police have hardened up; and, slowly, oh, so slowly, the trade union movement is lumbering into life, with the planned national day of strike action to defend public sector pensions coming up on 30 November.

Dark days, busy days ahead.

Monday, 7 November 2011

A new series of Mongrels - but has the world moved on?

I don't watch much TV but I did enjoy the first series of "Mongrels" on BBC3.

I rolled on the floor laughing my ass off, tbh. But now has the world moved on? Are things too serious now to find myself tickled by the scurrilous escapades of a puppet cast of animals leading their sordid fictional lives at the back of a pub in Bermondsey? (Besides, since the last series I have acquired two real-life manky moggies of my own.)

I fear so. Tonight is the first in the new series, a double episode at 10.30pm but to judge from this I think I really shouldn't watch it.

Don't forget Greece! Or: Who are the lotus eaters?

At school I didn't study the classics (or should that be Classics? You see how ignorant I am). One of the things I look forward to when I retire (I'm determined that I will retire one day! And on a liveable pension!) is getting a classical education at last.

But the classics are to me known unknowns so I can at least go and look them up on Wikipedia. This is how I am able to bring you this quotation from Homer's "Odyssey":

The passage, as you can read for yourself, concerns some mythical humans called the lotus-eaters.
"...on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly, I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."
When I was young, not getting a classical education but attending a bog-standard state school, there was a television series on late at night (you know, about 9pm) called "The Lotus Eaters". It was set on Crete among ex-pat Brits. My mum watched it and enjoyed it. All my mum's friends (trainee teachers) watched it and enjoyed it, and some of them, in their long summer holidays, set off to Greece for themselves to see whether it was really as nice as it looked. It was. And a wilder shore than Torremolinos.

John Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" makes me smile because one of my mum's friends had a mass-produced souvenir vase on her mantelpiece, brought back from one of her trips, which we all mused on during the cold winter months when we looked forward to being somewhere else.

In the late 1970s Greece was emerging from the right-wing military rule of the so-called "Colonels" (what is it about Colonels?). In 1981, the European Economic Community (EEC - forerunner of the EU) admitted Greece as a member in order to consolidate its new democracy. Spain and Portugal joined in 1986 for similar reasons. It probably also helped their accession chances that by the 1980s most north Europeans had had been to Spain, Portugal or Greece on holiday and realised how nice they are.

In 1986, "Shirley Valentine", a one-character play by Willy Russell, premiered at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool (it was later made into a film). It was about a working-class woman who escapes her humdrum life, first on holiday and then going to live in Greece.

People tend not to think about it, but "Shirley Valentine" was a play based on something that was already happening, rather than a play that inspired people to emulate it. What I mean is that when Russell wrote his play, there were already tens of thousands of north European women making lives for themselves in Greece, usually working in the tourist industry. My mum was one of them! When I went to university in 1984 she went to Greece, and didn't come back, except on holiday and, towards the end, for winter work, for 16 years.

Of course, I have visited Greece several times and have my own dear memories of the place.

Many generations of Brits over many centuries have odysseyed to Greece; my own visits are only a package holiday, low-rent version but nonetheless cherished or colourful for that.

So, what about the mess that Greece is in now? Well, let's be clear, it is not all Greeks that are in a mess. At a talk I went to recently, the lecturer illustrated the size of the Greek debt - the one for which the economy is being ruined and that is bringing down governments - as one apple, while the amount of money that rich Greeks have on deposit in Swiss bank accounts he illustrated as five apples. If the EU were a real family, the sort of trouble that Greece has got itself into equates to a teenage son or daughter badly overspending on their pocket money, perhaps taking on a bad mobile phone contract. But the EU is not a family and there is this thing called the global economy to contend with. When the money markets panic over Greek debt, and there is a threat of contagion, of them panicking over Italian or Spanish or even, God forbid, French debt, familial solidarity and even good sense do not prevail.

Of course, there are many ways that Greece as a nation can be vilified as feckless, dishonest, tax-avoiding, etc, but few people who have ever met a Greek could say that they are lazy. They simply aren't. For various reasons, the tax take is low, but who is getting away, relatively speaking, with paying the least? Rich Greeks.

In any case, is the “national” offence all that great?

In European terms, Greece was a relatively poor country, with a small population, that was, remember, occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War and suffered a bitter civil war and various other travails afterward.

I find it hard to believe that when they let Greece into the euro EU allies did not know that they were taking a bit of a gamble (and Greece is not, after all, the only country to cook the books). But it seemed at the time a gamble worth taking. For a time the gamble paid off, as richer countries enjoyed the increased export market for their goods that membership of countries like Greece has allowed – isn’t that what the EU is about, after all? – and, let us remember, banks always take a risk when they invest in other countries.

Were individual Greeks – people like you and me – any more culpable than richer north Europeans when they took on personal debt and enjoyed the good life that European integration seemed to offer? I don’t think so. And would any of the dodgy accounting matter very much were it not for the sub-prime crisis in the US in 2008 with its knock-on effects that have exposed wrongdoing and recklessness throughout the whole global financial establishment? Greece’s crime, as far as I can see it, was to get caught.

It is ugly to see how readily the rest of Europe now turns on Greece/”the Greeks” (which ones? The ordinary people like you or I, losing their jobs?) and finds fault, without remembering our shared history, past and recent.

I’m writing this post partly out of loyalty to a Greek friend, who has escaped Greece to spend a winter in Brussels – I know how little he likes a north European winter! – to get away from home for a while because everyone there is so miserable. (It also helps that he has been offered work!) But also because I owe Greece, and I rather suspect many of us do, quite a lot. A lotus eater vision, where we forget work and enjoy holidays, the fantastic weather, scenery, the laid-back (yes, there is a lot to be said for laid-back) atmosphere, the simple, tasty food, the folk music (the best in the world, I think), etc.

Are we so quick to forget all that? Where is our solidarity now?

When it comes to Greece and its current travails, I don’t know who is a lotus eater. In the “Odyssey”, the actual location of the island where the lotus grew is not known but it is not in Greece at all. Wherever it is, we should refuse to go back to our ships!

Barnet council on the brink: an open letter to Barnet residents

The MetPro scandal, exposed by Barnet Bloggers, was a shocking case of incompetence and poor practice that continued over a period of several years. It placed vulnerable people at risk but it took local residents only a few weeks to uncover the problems. On Friday 4 November an equally serious issue was uncovered, again by a Barnet Blogger; an issue that runs to the very heart of democracy in Barnet and in Britain.

On 16 May this year Barnet Council applied to the Information Commissioner’s Office to complain about one particular blogger, to question whether they should be registered under the Data Protection Act and to ask if they had breached the act. The Information Commissioner’s website suggests that if such a situation exists you should “First, tell the organisation concerned and give it an opportunity to put things right. Many data protection problems can be solved quickly without us getting involved”. Did Barnet Council inform the blogger concerned? No, it simply submitted the complaint.

On 7 June the Information Commissioner’s Office responded that it did not consider that a blogger should be registered as a data controller and had therefore not breached the Data Protection Act. For most organisations that would have been sufficient and they would have left the matter there. Not Barnet Council. They responded on 23 June citing a European Court of Justice judgement, not something which just comes immediately to hand. Appealing a decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office is not a step taken lightly. Taking this action must have required approval from someone very senior at Barnet Council and possibly involved taking legal advice.

The Information Commissioner’s Office responded to Barnet Council on 11 July again rejecting the Council’s complaint. It went on to say in its reply:

“The balance of privacy versus freedom of expression relies on taking a proportionate approach. Requiring all bloggers to register with this office (ICO) and comply with the parts of the DPA exempted under Section 36 would, in our view, have a hugely disproportionate impact on freedom of expression”.
This incident comes on top of changes to the borough’s constitution limiting debate in Council meetings, imposing draconian new rules for residents forums and disbanding the only committee able to scrutinise the One Barnet programme.

For all that Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities, talks about the need for armchair auditors, the reality is that local councils, and in this case a solidly Conservative Council, see them as a nuisance and something to be disarmed at all costs. The fact that a local authority should have worked so hard to stop citizens exercising their legal right to ask questions should be something of great concern to every single voter in Barnet.

Over the last few years the Council has looked increasingly out of touch with the community in which we all live. In recent months this tendency has escalated. A much more strident approach has been adopted by the most senior managers and cabinet members, an approach which is becoming unsustainable. The Bloggers of Barnet recognise that there are thousands of hard working council staff struggling to deliver good quality service whilst under immense pressure to cut costs and worrying whether their jobs are about to be privatised or deleted altogether. These people deserve our praise and recognition. It is the very top layer, the officers and consultants on six figure salaries and the Cabinet elite that work with them, that are the problem.

We call upon the Council leader to pause for reflection, for councillors to re-engage with their residents, and senior officers and councillors to start listening to citizens. This should include:
  • The Council setting out in a public document fully and clearly what the One Barnet programme means for residents;
  • Publishing all currently secret One Barnet reports;
  • Allowing in-house team bids for all services;
  • Stop putting out false information about bloggers; and
  • Relax the rules and allow residents to ask any questions they like at the Residents Forums. 
Failure to do so will lead to a Council that is completely isolated from the majority of residents in Barnet and one that ultimately will fail.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Students protest against creeping privatisation of higher education, Wednesday 9 November

Students organised in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) are holding a national education demonstration this coming Wednesday 9 November. The focus is the Government's White Paper, a complex document which basically aims at creeping privatisation of higher education.

You can read more about the march on the NCAFC website. Detail here:
Protesters will be marching to derail the government’s higher education white paper, which has been described by academics and students as a chaotic and regressive attempt to introduce markets and private providers into education, effectively ending it as a public service.

Michael Chessum, from the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, said: “In marching on the City, we are sending a message that we will not let the Government to hand over education to the markets. Education should be a public service, accessible to all – not a corporate enterprise.”

Students will be joined on the day by thousands of striking electricians, who are marching with Unite the Union in protest at a 35% national pay cut. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts is fully supporting the electricians’ strike as part of a broader opposition to pay and pensions cuts ahead of the November 30th strikes, and the two mobilisations may link up on the day. UK Uncut have also indicated support for the demonstration.
Middlesex University students and staff (who are fighting a battle against 300 proposed job cuts) will join the demonstration. They are assembling at 11am outside the main entrance of the Hendon Campus to go together to the march assembly point (ULU, Malet Street, nearest tube station: Warren Street/Goodge Street).

Barnet Council - hands off Mr Mustard!

Barnet councillor Daniel Thomas recently made some disparaging comments about blogger Mr Mustard's use of Freedom Of Information requests, to a news website

Mr Mustard has been defending his name against the insinuation that he is wasting council tax payers' money, and asked Cllr Thomas to justify his claims. Here is Mr Mustard's account of progress so far.

Now the Barnet Eye blog has discovered - through a FOI request - that Barnet council complained about Mr Mustard to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The ICO has cleared Mr Mustard:
...the information he is using appears to be information which is in the public domain (and, in some cases, was put in the public domain by the people he is writing about). It is clear that he has a low opinion of the Council employees he is blogging about, but he is ultimately entitled to express those opinions without breaching the DPA [Data Protection Act]. Of course, if the published statements constitute libel or harassment then the individual affected is entitled to take action along these lines. The DPA would not be the appropriate piece of legislation to use in these circumstances.
In short, Mr Mustard has been expressing his opinion about matters of public record. Whoever has gone complaining to the ICO - we're not sure who it is - is simply looking for means to restrict his freedom of speech. In fact, in this instance, to get the strong arm of the state to intervene to shut down his blog or at least to neuter it.

That's what Barnet council top brass don't like: scrutiny. The surest way to guarantee that they get more of it is to try to attack Barnet's blogging community! Barnet Council - hands off Mr Mustard! An injury to one is an injury to all!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

From Jarrow to Barnet (via Hatfield): march against unemployment

The Youth March for Jobs, recreating the Jarrow march of 1936, has been on the road since 1 October. The original Jarrow marchers, unemployed men from north-east England demonstrating against the lack of jobs, finally arrived in the capital via Barnet. And that is what the 2011 march will do tonight. They are due to reach the Spires shopping centre in Barnet at 5.30pm.

The Barnet Alliance for Public Services and Barnet trades council have arranged to meet them. We'll walk down to the Greek Cypriot Community Centre, Britannia Road, N12 with them for a reception from 7pm. If anyone is free this evening, I would encourage you to join us, either at the Spires or at our meeting.

The Youth March for Jobs is organised by the Socialist Party. I disagree with some of their politics and methods of organising. This march nevertheless offers a chance to highlight a serious problem: youth unemployment.

The Barnet Alliance is currently preparing a third issue of its Our Barnet newspaper. If all goes to plan, it will include a feature on some of the problems of young people in Barnet: it is not just young people from the north-east of England who are struggling to find work - good work - these days.

Finally, on the subject of the original Jarrow march, I would recommend a Radio 4 programme made in 2008 by Michael Portillo (!) where he explores the march in the wider context of the time. In fact, it was a late example of the Hunger Marches, which, in general, were far less polite affairs than the Jarrow march. Think less of footsore men coming cap-in-hand, and think more of occupations and riots! The programme doesn't seem to be available now to listen to on the BBC website, but I hope it will be repeated soon.

It's official: the One Barnet Programme is a high stakes gamble

Last night the Famous Five (five Barnet bloggers opposed to the One Barnet Programme) sent the following letter (or one very similar: we mixed up our drafts - the version below is the later, more polished one) to all of Barnet's councillors.

This follows the leak to us of a document published in March 2011 outlining the "One Barnet Procurement Principles" which you can read in full on the Future Shape blog, part 1 and part 2.

The One Barnet Programme: a high stakes gamble

Dear Councillor,

As you know the Council is embarked on a massive outsourcing project, the One Barnet Programme. This programme has never been put before the borough’s residents for their comments let alone their approval. It was not in the manifesto of the winning party at the local government elections.

No Conservative councillor or senior Council officer has ever appeared in a public forum to defend the programme. It has been left to concerned residents such as ourselves to make their own investigations into the scope and implications of the planned changes.

We have recently seen a copy of the procurement principles adopted by senior council officers in March 2011, early in the process of beginning the outsourcing. They would alarm any resident who cares about the state of the borough. You can read the document here:

We do not know whether these principles have been modified in the course of the process. The fact that that we do not know is in itself a matter for deep concern and only highlights the problem that residents are being kept in the dark about what the Council is doing with their services and their money. We must insist on residents’ right to know more about One Barnet.

It might well be that councillors themselves are also in the dark about what the Council is doing. Yet you have a duty to represent your constituents and we think you should therefore seek out and share information about One Barnet with them. You should feed back any concerns residents have to the Council Cabinet and senior officers.

The document was produced before the MetPro and other existing procurement failures came to light. Nevertheless and in spite of this, we think that the principles we have seen probably are those along which the One Barnet Programme is proceeding. Those aspects of them that alarm us most and which we think particularly need public discussion are detailed below.

One Barnet is likely to cost jobs in the borough

The Council appears to have decided that there will be no requirement on the companies awarded contracts to create new jobs within the borough. Moreover, they have decided that services do not have to be delivered locally: that is, staff currently employed by Barnet Council could be made redundant and their jobs done by people in another part of the county or even overseas, most probably in a call centre.

Staff made redundant will be offered basic TUPE terms, which, as we have already seen with outsourced services in Barnet, usually means that sooner or later staff will be re-employed on worse terms. That is bound to affect the quality of the service to residents.

There is a high risk that residents will foot the bill if One Barnet fails

The document is shot through with anxiety about who will bear risks, including financial risks. For example, the Council is looking into taking out insurance against contract failure, and it is worried about the implications of outsourcing for paying the pensions of transferred staff. Here is one particularly startling quotation regarding the pension fund:
“At the end of the contract period, there are risks of potential large deficits being built up by the new employer during the contract period. A recovery plan will need to be put in place well before contract ceases.”
The ostensible reason for going down the outsourcing path is to save money, but if contracts fail in any way, it will cost us money and disruption in our services. Other areas of provision will wind up needing to be cut to make up gaps in the Council’s budget.

The quality of our services is in jeopardy

In the document senior officers acknowledge that contractors are interested in the One Barnet Programme for one reason alone: to make money. Take this, for example:
“There are... many examples of long-term partnerships where the commitment and enthusiasm of the provider has waned over the duration of the contract. Major... organisations will generally resource extensively during the first year, or two, of a new contract but this level of resourcing diminishes as the contract moves to a more stable business as usual position.”
Residents, however, care about the quality of their services, and councillors should too.

We believe that councillors have a duty to inform themselves about these issues as a matter of urgency so that they can discuss them with constituents.

The One Barnet Programme has major implications for the future of the Borough’s services and finances and for the way it is governed. One day the discussions behind closed doors must spill out onto the streets, as residents feel the impact of the changes to their services. That will be too late for them and you suddenly to be involved in the debate.

We therefore urge you to take an active interest in One Barnet now. Speaking for ourselves, we oppose the programme; we believe One Barnet will jeopardise local finances, the quality of services and democratic control over them.

You must act now.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne

2nd November 2011