Thursday, 30 June 2011

Strikes are good #3: Barnet teachers fighting for their pensions

To supplement an earlier post, here's Barnet NUT on the pensions demonstration in central London today. My sense of the day was that the strikes - those by teachers and civil servants, I don't know about lecturers, though I would guess those as well - were well supported, and spirits were high among those taking action. Certainly, people enjoyed the march and rallies (there were two since you couldn't fit everyone into Westminster Central Hall).

Ed Miliband has made a tit of himself today condemning the strikes; this evening he posted a really lame defence of his earlier remarks - the comments (most of them) are spot on.

Helen Davies, Barnet Unison, pays tribute to Alan Homes

Helen Davies, Barnet Unison branch chair, chair of Barnet TUC has paid this tribute to Alan Homes:
I’ve just read the news about Alan and on one of the most significant days for our movement we have to hear this terrible news. Alan worked very hard for his members and was clearly someone absolutely dedicated to the Trade Union movement. I worked with him and the other colleagues representing school staff on negotiating committees so many times.

Alan seemed to be a bottomless pit of knowledge about details relating to all kinds of agreements, laws and regulations which he seemed to relish regaling management teams with. He was firm and forceful in negotiations and very supportive to our union. I cannot say there were never any disagreements between us but they were fraternal and I had great respect for someone who had the patience to give me and others who were less familiar with the ropes time to learn and help us participate in the discussions we had.

I never really spoke to Alan about his private life, but if his dancing and exuberance at our social events was anything to go by, he lived life to the full.

Like so many others I’m sure he had so much more to give and his contribution would have been gratefully received. Our sincerest condolences go out to his wife and family. I wish he were still here.

Alan Homes

We had some sad news last night in the Barnet labour movement about the death of Alan Homes. Alan had suffered a heart attack a few days ago.

Alan was the representative of the NASUWT teaching union in Barnet (and wider) and a member of his union's national executive committee.

Alan was a stalwart member of Barnet trades council and, living in the borough, he was always ready to come out and do stalls and other events in the community. (I must find a lovely picture of him that I have on a stall in New Barnet last April, when we were campaigning against a BNP candidate in the council elections.)

I would describe Alan as the trades council's right wing - which is not to say that he was right-wing at all! When, early on, we had a discussion about how the trades council should relate to the council elections in 2010, whether it should back trade union based anti-cuts candidates, Alan argued that the Labour Party was still, for the unions, the only game in town.

The trades council resolved in that debate to get more political, but we also concluded that the trade union movement locally wasn't in any position to start organising election campaigns on its own account: apart from anything, because we didn't have agreement among ourselves to do it.

Alan was sensible like that. He was also good fun and would dance the night away whenever our events included a musical element!

The NASUWT isn't covering itself in glory in the current campaign to defend public sector pensions; I don't know where Alan stood on that. I would happily claim him as a comrade, however, and on a personal level I will miss him greatly; the Barnet trade unions and anti-cuts groups are going to miss him too.

I would like to send my condolences to Alan's family.

Strikes are good #3: civil servants, teachers, lecturers - all fighting for their pensions

Today around (!) 750,000 public sector workers will go on strike to protest against government attacks on their pensions.

Because of the variety of the pension schemes affected different groups of workers will lose different amounts, but they will all lose significantly. The unions involved are teaching unions the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (it will be the first strike in ATL history, and their origins go back to 1884); the civil service union the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS); and parts of the University and College Union (UCU).

There will be a number of picket lines at Jobcentres; Barnet NUT and their supporters will meet at 9.30am at Finchley Central and Golders Green tube stations before travelling to the central London march which assembles from 11am at Lincoln's Inn Fields; and Middlesex University UCU members will set off from the Hendon campus at 10.30am. I imagine that UCU members at Barnet College will be on strike, although I don't have any details.

Please support the strikers in whatever way you can today, since they are likely to take a hammering in much of the mainstream media. They are not greedy, irresponsible bastards who don't want to work and don't give a stuff what happens to those they serve. They are just people who don't accept that they should have their living standards attacked: this is a rich country and can afford to pay everyone - public and private sector - a decent pension.

P.S. NUJ members at the South London Press who were to have been on strike today will now go into work - because the action they have taken already was successful. Their management (Newsquest) have discovered that they can, after all, afford to fill vacant posts. Yet more proof that strikes are good!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Strikes are good #2: London Underground

Arwyn Thomas, RMT activist, turned down a six-figure offer by London Underground to go quietly
A harder sell this than Tindle Newspapers, but I maintain that strikes are good even on London Underground. Contrary to the picture conveyed by the Evening Standard, Boris Johnson et al, people who work on London Underground are not gung-ho for strikes.

I have a couple of friends active in the RMT union; they are socialists and want the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism - but even they, like the vast majority of their co-workers, take pride in their job and believe in railworkers running a good rail service (something they probably do better without interference from management).

You'll know that recently the RMT organised strikes over the victimisation of union representatives by London Underground management. The management basically used disciplinary pretexts to get rid of effective trade union organisers. In all three cases, Arwyn Thomas, Eamonn Lynch and Peter Hartshorn, the determination of ordinary RMT members not to have their union squished like a fly has made management back down. The three union members are now back at work.

All around the country, in all manner of workplace, people who try to join trade unions or organise effective union branches lose their jobs because of it. Sure, they can go to an employment tribunal, which often finds in their favour, and they might be paid some compensation, but in 99 out of 100 cases they do not get their jobs back.

If you want to understand more about these recent victimisations for trade union activity on London Underground, and how they were beaten back, a good account is available in the rank and file bulletin Tubeworker. (This is not an official RMT bulletin, but an independent initiative of a socialist group, Workers' Liberty.)

Here is an extract:
We kept going until we got our result. Management underestimated the determination of Arwyn Thomas, who turned down a six-figure sum, refusing to put a price on the head of a rep. Under pressure from reps, RMT’s executive voted to keep strikes on unless Arwyn was reinstated.

Legal decisions and negotiations with management need to be backed up with industrial action. Arwyn and Eamonn [Lynch] both won their employment tribunals, but the legal decision alone would not have won reinstatement for either. When LU finally talked to the union about reinstatement, it was only because the threat of strikes loomed.
You see, strikes are good.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Strikes are good #1: Tindle Newspapers

Tindle Newspapers journalists working on the company's North London titles, including the Barnet Press, recently took six days' strike action. They were protesting against their workload, the result of the owner of the company not replacing staff as they leave.

Times are hard for the local newspapers business, but Tindle Newspapers, owned by Sir Ray Tindle, is still making a profit. Sir Ray boasts that he has never made people redundant - but that boast was not worth much to our local reporters, sub editors and photographers who were being asked to churn out - that is what it was starting to feel like - title after title with fewer and fewer resources.

The journalists, through their union the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), negotiated for a year with the company, simply asking for one more member of staff, but the negotiations came to nothing. The chapel (that's what the NUJ calls its union branches) took the step of voting to strike. They simply wanted to show that they had had enough; they chose to demonstrate that it is their labour that produces the titles that Tindle is proud to put out in his name.

They struck for six days in April - though they were docked 10 days' pay. Vastly inferior issues of the papers were produced by management in south London. The Tindle strikers' strike was imaginative and won support from the communities they serve, including local politicians. But Tindle Newspapers went quiet. The journalists thought long and hard; the editor came on board in a second ballot for strike action, a vote which again was unanimous in favour.

Tindle Newspapers agreed to talk again, and met the group of NUJ sponsored MPs in Parliament. And, happily, the two sides have now agreed a settlement which ends this dispute - see the journalists' blog for the news:
Following a successful day of negotiations Tindle has agreed to reverse its policy of non-replacement agreeing to a six month moratorium on present staffing levels – guaranteeing that if anyone in editorial leaves over this period they will be replaced. They have also agreed an extra reporter to work for half the week to help out with the current workload. The situation after six months will then be reviewed.

It has also withdrawn redundancy consultation notices issued to staff on the eve of their first walk out.

Jonathan Lovett FOC at North London & Herts Newspapers said: “It has been a long, hard struggle but we are satisfied with the result and now look forward to working together with Tindle to ensure our papers are returned to the quality publications which our readers deserve. We have many ideas for the future of our papers and we look forward to sharing them with the Tindle management across the table.”
This result was achieved through trade union members 'withdrawing their labour', to use the jargon, and showing their employers just how valuable they are to the company. You see, strikes are good.

Save local newspapers - public meeting, 4th July
Enfield hosts the launch of a national, National Union of Journalists campaign on Monday, July 4 to save local newspapers. It starts at 6.30pm at The Dugdale Centre in Thomas Hardy House, 39 London Road, Enfield, EN2 6DS. There will be a range of speakers followed by a Q&A session with The Enfield Nine. All are welcome.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Barnet's week in the press: more bad headlines

Despite a budget larger than the GDP of the Maldives, Barnet Council has less than five full time auditors – and they spend most of their time highlighting serious concerns about the way council contracts are handled.
The report in the Ham & High of the Barnet council audit committee meeting on 16 June pulls no punches. The reporter, Georgia Graham, has written a lot about the MetPro scandal, and now sinks her teeth into the latest disgraceful failings revealed in the Internal Audit Annual Opinion.

Meanwhile, the Times Series picks up on what many of the bloggers and anti-cuts campaigners have noticed: the anti-democratic farce of the new-style residents' forums. Report of the Chipping Barnet residents forum here, and this is a report of the same meeting by a guest blogger writing on Mr Reasonable's blog.

The Barnet Press covers the bloggers' reaction to the MetPro scandal, and quotes yours truly and Mrs Angry. I reiterate what I said to the Barnet Press:
"There could be many more MetPros, but the amount of vigilance we have had to do in this one incident has been quite exhausting really.

“It would be nice if some of the councillors did the work to protect the interests of the residents."
At the end of a week where I had to pay proper attention to my day job and have found scant time for blogging or attending meetings, I feel that keenly. Councillors spend some time running surgeries to deal with residents' individual issues, but they are claiming £9k a year allowance. For that, they also need to address the big political questions that residents are no longer being allowed to raise at residents' forums - the MetPros, the One Barnet Programmes, and the library cuts.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Barnet residents respond to Barnet Council’s MetPro audit report

The letter below has been sent today to Barnet councillors, Eric Pickles, Department for Communities and Local Government and to the press.

Barnet residents respond to Barnet Council’s MetPro audit report

On Thursday 16 June 2011 the Audit Committee of the London Borough of Barnet met to discuss the internal audit report into the MetPro scandal.
The report was commissioned as a result of pressure from Barnet residents, who alerted the Council to problems with the MetPro companies that the Council’s own procedures had completely failed to identify.
While the audit committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Monroe Palmer, did an excellent job of identifying many serious problems with this vendor account, many issues which residents were concerned about were deemed out of scope of this investigation. Furthermore, the committee has no powers to impose any remedy, and can only aspire to “inspire the executive to do better” (to quote Maryellen Salter, Assistant Director - Audit).
In addition to the serious concerns about Barnet Council’s relationship with the MetPro companies, there are wider implications of this affair for the Council as a whole. The problems which remain to be addressed are:
A) Legal issues. The Council’s Internal Auditor cannot exclude the possibility that fraud may have taken place. The Director of Corporate Governance Jeff Lustig indicated that since there was no evidence of fraud, there was no need to investigate. This is a highly unsatisfactory response and appears to be in breach of the council's own policies and procedures.
The Council’s financial regulations are clear on this point:
“Any suspected irregularity involving any asset, or the exercise of any function, of the Council must be reported by the appropriate Chief Officer to the Chief Internal Auditor to inform the overall assurance that can be delivered and to the Corporate Anti Fraud Team (CAFT) Manager for investigation.”
B) Contract procurement and monitoring. Barnet Council are pushing forward with the One Barnet Programme, a major outsourcing scheme, even though the audit team has identified serious and fundamental flaws in the Council’s contract procurement and monitoring processes.
The audit report into MetPro confirmed that there had been a breach of EU procurement laws which ensure fairness and anti-discrimination as well as best value. The internal audit report is silent on compliance with procurement law; however, given that only the largest 180 contracts out of 9,700 vendors are audited, it is likely that there are other legal breaches. In view of the shocking findings of the audit report and the recognition by the Audit Committee that the focus on change and the One Barnet Programme had been a contributory factor in these failures, we believe that all but essential contract renewals should be put on hold until an effective system of contract procurement and monitoring has been put in place and tested.
The multiple failings detailed in the MetPro report and in the Internal Audit Annual Opinion must be addressed, and Council staff working in procurement fully trained in the Council’s own Contract Procedure Rules before the Council can even consider embarking on an expansion of outsourcing.
The chair of the Audit Committee said that the audit department is unable to perform its duties owing to lack of resources. Barnet Council’s audit team should be strengthened and ways found to ensure that its recommendations are carried out.
C) Project management. In 2006, Barnet Council launched a SAP system to manage procurement, at an initial estimated cost of £8 million. This was done to modernise the control of payments and purchasing.
The cost of this project has spiralled to £25 million, more than three times the original estimate. Not only has this system failed to prevent the problems demonstrated by the MetPro report, it seems that the promised benefits of automation have not materialised. MetPro invoices have had handwritten numbers and notes on them. Payments have been made to non authorised accounts, and it seems that no proper audit trail exists. How can a system that cost £25 million have failed to address all of these issues?
The SAP fiasco shows that Barnet Council cannot manage large projects, cannot control costs and cannot implement outsourcing projects that work. They should not be considering One Barnet outsourcing until they fix the problems with their project management that the MetPro scandal has highlighted.
D) Safeguarding. The issues of safeguarding raised by MetPro have not been addressed. In light of the contact with vulnerable adults and children at Barbara Langstone House by MetPro employees who were neither SIA licensed nor CRB checked, Barnet Council should investigate in conjunction with the police whether there was the potential for or actual incidents of abuse, not only in relation to MetPro, but also in relation to any other security firms engaged by the Council. In addition, Barnet Council should keep central registers of all CRB, SIA and other required checks for all people working with the Council. This issue should be addressed immediately.
Barnet Council should work with residents who were illegally filmed by MetPro at the Council meeting on 1 March to address any data protection issues that arose from that episode, and possible other actions of this nature, instead of, as it has done up until now, trying to wash its hands of all responsibility.
E) VAT and invoicing. The Council do not have procedures in place to ensure that invoices meet legal requirements. The example on the Council’s own website is deficient. It is clear that staff are not properly trained in dealing with payments. A training programme must be instituted as a matter of urgency, to ensure compliance.
F) Culture. It is of great concern that the Audit Committee has made similar criticisms in the past, yet there has been a further deterioration. This should be a disciplinary matter for senior management, since it is accepted by the CEO, Nick Walkley, that this is a widespread problem resulting from lack of proper operational management. It is clear that attempts to inspire an audit culture have failed.
There is a culture of complacency at the top of Barnet Council. Senior officers know that they will not be held to account for any failings that take place under them, and that they can expect huge payoffs if problems are detected. Senior posts are filled by contractors on short contracts, with no vested interest in the future of the Council. No effort is made to replace these interim appointments with permanent staff. Until this culture of complacency is eradicated, nothing will improve. Senior staff should not be contractors on temporary contracts with no vested interest in improving the procurement culture, since it is clear that a root and branch review is likely to uncover more issues which will require addressing.
As concerned residents, we call for all of the issues above to be dealt with immediately. We want an action plan to be drawn up, with short timescales, and published for residents’ information. Without this, the residents can have no confidence in Barnet Council, its executive or its leadership
SignedDerek Dishman, John Dix, Adam Langleben, Vicki Morris, Theresa Musgrove, Roger Tichborne
21 June 2011

Monday, 20 June 2011

In praise of absent fathers - a tribute to Brian Haw

Buying lunch today, I couldn't resist getting a copy of the Independent just for the nice picture of Brian Haw on the front cover. There were decent appreciations inside as well for the peace campaigner who died on Saturday, aged 62, from lung cancer.

I understand that Brian's peace camp and its satellites descended into bitching and paranoia, and that Brian himself could be irascible, not always the easiest political hero to like. But who could deny that his heart was in the right place and that he was a brave man.

David Cameron's Father's Day speech in the Telegraph on Sunday made me think of Brian Haw, as he spoke scathingly about absent fathers:
we need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go AWOL. It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink drivers, people who are beyond the pale. They need the message rammed home to them, from every part of our culture, that what they’re doing is wrong – that leaving single mothers, who do a heroic job against all odds, to fend for themselves simply isn’t acceptable.
Because, of course, Brian left his own seven children when he went to live in Parliament Square on 2 June 2001.

The thing is, Brian did this because he cared about children very much - other people's children. He initially established his camp to protest against the sanctions on Iraq that were causing so much hardship to the ordinary people there, while Saddam and his cronies were unscathed. It was soon afterwards, with 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that Haw's protest became a peace protest.

Brian's own father had symbolically left his children by killing himself when Brian was aged 13. Brian's father had been among the first British soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at the end of the Second World War. I don't think it's far-feteched to imagine that upset at the suffering of other people's children led Brian's father to leave his own children. Brian did the same thing, but in order to do something, yes, eccentric, but political and far more constructive.

All of us to some extent are pulled one way by the outside world and pushed another by personal pressures. To care about the world in general and to put time into trying to change it one has to some extent to harm oneself and sometimes one's loved ones; to put them second. This can be infuriating to friends and relations, who can end up seeing you as eccentric, neglectful, selfish, even egotistical. I rather suspect, however, that, whatever Brian's wife and children thought of him, Brian Haw's dad would have been proud of his son.

On the weekend that David Cameron made what might usually be reasonable criticisms of absent fathers, but in a completely infuriating way, Brian Haw reminds us that real life, people and their relationships are more complicated. I also think that Brian was justified in thinking, as he went off to do what he thought was the right thing, that 21st-century British society can afford to guarantee a decent living to any child whether or not there is a man in the house.

Brian Coleman's familiar

Looking at the pictures of my MP, Matthew Offord, at the weekend, with his dog Max, made me think of Eddie the dog and Martin from the sitcom "Frasier". There is another instance where one suspects that the pet is brighter than the owner.

If Offord is making the most of the Max the Dog storyline in order to boost his sagging profile, perhaps other Barnet politicians could try the same trick. I wonder which animal, for example, Brian Coleman might choose to soften his image and make himself seem more affable and approachable, more, erm, human.

A boa constrictor? Other suggestions welcome.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Proof, were it needed, that the world has gone barking mad

Dexter Whitfield (that's Professor Whitfield to you, councillor Rams) was on "File on Four" on Radio 4 today, detailing his research into the super-profits made on PFI schemes.

Dexter's organisation, the European Services Strategy Unit, has also produced more than 30 papers exposing the problems with Barnet council's One Barnet (mass outsourcing) Programme.

This week, Barnet council's audit committee discussed its scathing report into the MetPro scandal, and the no less scandalous Internal Audit Annual Opinion on the council - "a shocking report", in the words of one of the independent members of the committee. 72% of the areas examined had performance below satisfactory. (And an accountant friend of mine tells me that, in any case, satisfactory would be nothing to boast about.)

But what Barnet story grabs the headlines? What makes national lunchtime news today? A piece of fluff about Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon - my MP, as it happens - claiming that the House of Commons has breached his human rights by not letting him take his dog to work.

Although Offord risks looking stupid by making such a fuss, the real laugh, unfortunately, is on us. We've got real problems here in this borough, but we can't seem to rise above the level of farce.

P.S. Those critical audit committee reports are available here.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Barnet council - "obviously we are not in a good place"

Barnet council's assistant finance director Maryellen Salter, who wrote the Internal Audit Opinion on Barnet for 2010-11, summed things up well this evening - "obviously we are not in a good place". 72% of the areas of work considered in the audit are run less than satisfactorily. The situation has declined slightly since Barnet's previous audit committee meeting.

Well, that's shit, isn't it? Everyone in the meeting agreed that it's shit. The councillor members of the committee, the two independent members, the chair Monroe Palmer (I'm sorry, I don't do honorifics - not in my own blog, I don't), all the senior officers called to answer questions, the council's internal audit team itself, and the external auditors Grant Thornton all thought it was shit. Certainly the residents present in person and in the Twittersphere thought it was shit.

The question is, what will be done about it? My own question for public question time (which, despite the best efforts of Labour and, to be fair, Palmer, was limited strictly to 30 minutes), concerned who would take responsbility for the years and years of failings? Failings that previous audit committees have sometimes identified, but whose recommendations have made little difference.

I asked the question specifically in relation to the council's relationship with the MetPro security companies. Who decided to take them on? Do we know, will we ever know? How were they allowed to earn £1.4 million from the council in spite of no contract ever being awarded? Why did no one ever check whether they had CRB checks, SIA licences, etc? Shouldn't someone carry the can for this litany of embarassing and potentially dangerous failings?

It is not a question, certainly not on my part, of wanting to see people sacked. I just think that senior officers, heads of departments whose staff were not complying with the council's own Contract Procedure Rules, rules flouted systematically for years, such high-paid individuals should stop being high-paid individuals at Barnet council.

These are often the same people who preach the necessity for cuts to services, smoothe the path for closing libraries, shut youth clubs, cut grants to voluntary organisations, close the musuems, put up charges for social services, put up the charges in the Controlled Parking Zones. All this they do very assiduously.

And at the same time in their very own departments money is being squandered because work is given out on a basis that no one understands to companies that no one monitors. Useless!

The Chief Executive Nick Walkley turned in a particularly cheesy performance, I thought. He criticised the bad culture in the council, how not enough people 'buy into' audit and the lessons it tries to teach the council. The problems of this bad culture went back years, to, oh, as long ago as 2006 (before you were in charge then, Mr Walkley? Yes, we've got the message - you bear no responsibility for any of this).

The Internal Audit investigation that was reported tonight was separate from the MetPro report, and the work for it undertaken long before MetPro came to light. But what chance did its findings have of getting any attention had the MetPro issue not arisen alongside it? Scarcely any, I reckon. Especially given this 'bad culture'.

Committee chair Palmer did his best to make the bloggers and other residents feel welcome at the meeting and I do believe that he has found our questions and work useful. However, he seemed to think that we were only interested in MetPro, which is wrong: MetPro was simply one very egregious example of what is wrong across the board. We know that there is a lot that is wrong across the board.

It's clear audit does not have enough resources to do as much as it needs to do. The MetPro report was almost presented as an unwelcome distraction from the other work of the committee, taking up valuable staff time. That is totally the wrong way to look at things. If MetPro has brought the wider workings of the audit to the attention of more residents, the work we have done has served a very useful purpose indeed! Scrutiny goes on with and through residents, not in spite of them!

Unfortunately, many things that should have come out of tonight didn't:
- no senior officer said yes, I've fucked up; maybe I should go and work somewhere else and you can pay my enormous salary/consultancy fees (in the case of the Deputy Chief Exec Andrew Travers, £1,000 a day) to someone less smug and complacent;

- there is no commitment to put the One Barnet (mass outsourcing) Programme on hold;

- there is to be no inquiry into the neglected aspects of the MetPro scandal, to investigate whether residents were put at risk through the use of this unlicensed company.
However, a number of senior officers had to eat a small slice of humble pie and some of them looked pretty hangdog about it. The senior officers have committed to work very hard at carrying out Internal Audit's recommendations. And a dozen or so residents got a crash course in the wonderful world of audit. Why, we might almost understand more than the leader of the council himself, Richard Cornelius, and his new Cabinet colleagues.

Cabinet member Daniel Thomas did appear to say, in answer to a public question about whether Barnet was in any fit state to go down the road of mass outsourcing, "yes, we are: this audit committee report is fantastic - very timely, it shows us where we have been going wrong. In any case, we have some really great outside consultants (Agilysis) to advise on drawing up the monster contracts we want to offer for running key council services. What could go wrong?!"

Other than Thomas, however, I didn't see any senior Barnet Tory. This is pathetic. You have discussion of a report revealing that the council's own contract controls are in a mess, more honoured in the breach than the observance, and the new council leader can't be arsed to turn up to the meeting? It shows just how seriously the administration takes the recommendations of the committee, and how little pressure, apart from that coming from a handful of residents who have now sat through the whole discussion (and who helped to initiate it), will be put on senior officers to deliver on their promises.

What chance is there that Barnet will become a better place on the strength of this showing?

Here are some choice and alarming quotes from this evening:

Hugh Rayner, Conservative member of cttee: The recommendations seem so fundamental I wonder why weren't they being done already?

Maryellen Salter, internal audit: We can't make management [management, note] do what we recommend. We can only try to inspire people.

Nick Walkley: I agree that too often things go around and around and are not dealt with.

Richard Harbord, independent member of cttee: We can't defend the indefensible. The controls are there, the problem is making sure that they are done.

The problem [MetPro scandal] was found out by error, not by any process of the council. The internal audit can't give any assurance that this is an isolated case.

Nick Walkley: A process of devolution [of decisions on procurement] has gone too far. We need to bring back control. That will require a shift in the culture, which will be difficult for officers. There must be greater levels of direct responsibility for all senior officers.

Debra Lewis, independent member of cttee: It's a shocking report. Question for Andrew Travers and for [external auditor] Grant Thornton whether you are happy signing off the accounts given this big black hole that's been revealed?

Monroe Palmer: How will we audit services that have been outsourced has been a question at past committee meetings. We need to identify how outsourcing is helping or not helping us in internal audit.

Sorry for the long post, but I felt I had to do the content of the meeting justice.

Disclaimer: I am a layperson and writing here sometimes about things that I'm not fully au fait with, so if you don't quite understand something or disagree with something leave me a comment and perhaps we can all become more enlightened together.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Barnet - the borough where 'you couldn't make it up' comes true

I would urge readers, if you are free, to come to the audit committee at Hendon Town Hall tonight (Thursday 16 June) at 6.30pm (6pm to be on the safe side) where the audit committee reports on its investigations into Barnet council's relationship with the MetPro companies, and to hear residents' questions on this matter.

To whet your appetite here's the latest discovery in the saga, from Mrs Angry on the Broken Barnet blog. The blogpost is called Exclusive: the Mayor and the MetPro escort.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Barnet Press journos vote for more industrial action

Just a quick one to bring you news that the Tindle Newspapers journalists, producers of the Barnet Press, who struck recently to protest against unfilled posts and an impossible workload have voted unanimously for further action in a ballot. They'll be joined this time by their editor. Here's a report on the website.

The Enfield journalists will play host at the public launch of a campaign by their union, the NUJ, to defend local newspapers. Details:
6.30pm, Monday 4 July at the Dugdale Centre, Thomas Hardy House, London Road, Enfield Town, EN2 6DS; speakers include the local MP and the new general secretary of the NUJ Michelle Stanistreet.

Barnet's Big Society Innovation Bank - another gimmick that sticks in the craw

Today Nick Hurd, the minister for civil society, will come to launch Barnet's Big Society Innovation Bank (BSIB). The BSIB is offering £200,000 a year for the next three years for Big Society projects large and small. Details here.

There's an invitation-only launch event at the Arts Depot - ironic, given the council cut its funding - today, and tomorrow a meeting for people who think they might like to bid for a grant. Reserve a place (first come, first served) by emailing

I would like to wish everyone who is bidding good luck. But I have to say, "What a load of old shit!" Sorry for coming over all Nan, but, honestly...

Barnet council's cutting grants to voluntary bodies left, right and centre and offering gratuitous insults to the army of volunteers that run Barnet Museum, as it seeks to close the Museum down and flog off the building. Yet it's set up a Big Society Innovation Bank? Do us a favour. This really sticks in the craw!

And who's this Nick Hurd when he's at home, anyway? Who's ever heard of him? Nick Hurd? Thick turd, more like... (Nan, give it a rest.)

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Breathing down Richard Cornelius's neck

Richard Cornelius has been elected by Barnet's Tory councillors as leader of their group, which means he will be the next leader of Barnet council.

Your first chance to see the unctuous (not to be confused with avuncular) councillor in action will be at the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, "members to be appointed at the extraordinary meeting of the Council to take place on Wednesday 15th June 2011 at 6:30pm". This is the meeting where Cornelius picks his Cabinet, presumably his key supporters. The Cabinet meeting is straight afterwards; both meetings are at Hendon Town Hall.

I wonder who will be out and who will be in. Will Andrew Harper, deputy leader and acting leader, keep a place? What about Brian Coleman? Remember, he endorsed Mark Shooter. (Oh, God, as if we could be rid of him so easily!) The agenda for the Cabinet meeting is here and includes some important, far-reaching documents which I would think Cornelius and his new team would need more time to think about. They are a report into safeguarding (of vulnerable children and adults) in Barnet, and the Draft Corporate Plan 2011-13.

I don't know anything more to say about Cornelius than what I put in this recent blogpost. I hope I'm right and that he is sceptical about the One Barnet (mass outsourcing) Programme, and kicks a load of it into touch.

I think residents' and bloggers' campaigning can make a difference. Last night I emailed this document, a list of residents' questions sparked by the MetPro audit committee report, to Tory councillors to concentrate their minds on what a mess Barnet council's contract procurement and monitoring processes are in. And to remind them that the world is watching what happens next in the wonderful world of One Barnet.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Patrick Rolfe, 1987-2011

I'm feeling sad today, since Patrick Rolfe, a young man I knew, died last night. He had a rare type of stomach cancer, and had been ill for a few months. Friends had expected him to survive but he went downhill suddenly.

I met him in 2009 during that peculiar episode in my life I call Vestas. Patrick and some other idealistic young people went and persuaded some of the workers at a wind turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight to occupy the factory rather than meekly accept job losses when the Vestas company decided to close it down. I was roped in to run the 'Save Vestas' blog and it dominated my life for a good few months in 2009.

It was a pretty famous event at the time; the Guardian sold a lot of advertising space to Vestas on the back of it, as the company tried to persuade the country that they were public spirited really, not just in renewable energy for profit and government subsidies. It was about the time of the financial crash, and we hoped that the campaigning Vestas workers would inspire other sacked workers not automatically to join the dole queue but to fight for their jobs.

As well as being active in the radical environmental movement, Patrick campaigned against cuts at Sussex University; he was temporarily suspended for helping to organise an occupation there. He had just begun a PhD at Leeds University when he became ill; the topic was how windfarms can sometimes cause ecological harm, how to mitigate the harm, and how to involve communities in decision-making that might help them to embrace windfarms.

I remember Patrick above all as a very positive person. When you met him he would bowl up to you, fling down his bag, and be ready to get stuck in to whatever was going on. He was only 24 when he died and I know his good friends are going to miss him a lot, as will everyone who met him.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Brian Coleman deals a fresh blow to the Big Society

Brian Coleman is being accused by the organisers of acting to scupper the Finchley Festival. The Times series has the story:
A war of words has broken out between a controversial councillor and the organisers of a community festival over Barnet Council’s handling of the event.

Members of Finchley Festival’s organising committee say they have had to pull the plug on it because the council had tried to “monetise” it by bringing in a bigger funfair.

But Councillor Brian Coleman, who is in charge of parks, hit back describing last year’s event as a “rip off” and claiming the council is trying to save the show, which was known as the Finchley Carnival.
I haven't been to the Finchley Carnival since I was four years old - yes, it was already going back then - and I don't know what it's like these days. However, I am inclined to believe the Festival organisers' take on this argument. Especially when Coleman comes out with such choice, Big Society-friendly comments as this:
“They have been told that because of the appalling show they had on last year, which was a rip-off to the people of Finchley, they need to up their game.

“They can run a community event that weekend, but the council will bring in a funfair for them to enjoy and split it with the carnival committee to put on events.”
Way to go, Brian. How to win friends and influence people.

Anyway, what is it with Coleman and funfairs? I've noticed an increase in the number in Montrose Park near me. I guess the council gets a good fee from the fair organisers. It certainly seems rather tawdry entertainment for a man known for his champagne tastes.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Barnet council - keeping up standards

I meant to pick up a copy of the Evening Standard this evening, on my way to the London anti-cuts groups meeting (more on this another day), but I forgot. No one in the meeting had one; no one in the pub downstairs had one.

It was late when I got on the Tube to come home but a few passengers were reading copies, although there were none lying around free.

I sat in the most crowded part of the carriage where three people were reading copies, ready to pounce when they were through.

The man to my right tore out some of the pages to wrap his leaky kebab in. The man opposite me sneezed into the centre pages of his copy and coughed all over it. The man to the left of me took his copy of the Standard off the train with him, possibly the first person in history to do this.

I was reduced to looking in a bin outside Burnt Oak station for a copy - not a task to undertake lightly, I can tell you. I found a copy, but was mildly gutted to find no article on the MetPro scandal. I think it would have been in there if the paper hadn't spent four pages blowing its own trumpet over its reading campaign.

Still, you can't have a bad news story about Barnet in the paper every day, once a week is enough, and yesterday they covered the lollipop patrol cuts. Colin Dowland, the head at Dollis Junior School, has done a good job of keeping this story in the public eye.

However, plenty of publications did cover the damning MetPro audit report (and the report was watered down, I understand), including the Times series, Barnet Press and the Local Government Chronicle.

"MetPro report sparks concern if One Barnet plan goes ahead", "Audit report slams Barnet Council over MetPro scandal", "Barnet panned over £1.4m contract fiasco" - with headlines like these, it's as well the Standard left Barnet alone for one evening.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Interesting CVs #2: Barnet - spread her fame far and wide

In the job description for the chief executive of Barnet council is included this requirement:
Raising Barnet’s profile regionally, nationally and internationally is one of the Chief Executive’s key functions...
Why?, one really has to wonder.

If the postholder succeeded in making Barnet notorious rather than famous, would that be a sackable offence?

You can read Nick Walkley's full job description here.

Interesting CVs #1: All that glisters is not gold, Or: Will Richard Cornelius dump One Barnet?

The Times series today outlines the CVs of the three candidates for leader of Barnet's Conservative group and hence Barnet's next council leader.

Andrew Harper we know already, although I don't know what his day job is: deputy leader of the council perhaps. It attracts a pretty hefty allowance.

Mark Shooter is described as a "self-made millionaire, who plies his trade in the City". Sounds rather seedy, but then most things that happen in the City probably are.

The third candidate is described thus:
Totteridge resident and Hatton Garden Jeweller Cllr Cornelius will be able to rely on at least one vote, from his wife Cllr Alison Cornelius.
Let me stop you there! I shall eschew cheap gags about spousal loyalty and concentrate on Cornelius's profession. A Hatton Garden jeweller. Aha!

The only person in the Barnet council Cabinet who has ever, it seems to me, appeared sceptical about the claims made for Future Shape/One Barnet has been Richard Cornelius. Usually Cabinet members hammily ask rehearsed questions of the council leader or whoever is giving a report, so that their colleague can airily brush any possible objections to new policy aside. Whereas Richard Cornelius always sounded genuinely sour about One Barnet.

It could be the result of his professional training; he knows that all that glisters is not gold.

MetPro report: Barnet's contract procurement and monitoring systems are f***ed

The report of the internal audit into Barnet council's relationship with the MetPro companies comes to damning conclusions about the council's contract procurement and monitoring systems. I'm no expert in these things but even I can understand this:
Overall message

* The Council has failed to comply with its Contract Procedure Rules (CPR) and Financial Regulations, exposing the Council to significant reputational and financial risks.

* Internal Audit cannot give assurance that this non-compliance is an isolated incident, due to a lack of an accurate and complete centrally held contracts register and effective monitoring arrangements.

* We recommend that all spend over the stated threshold in the CPR be reviewed and matched to a central contracts register (in development) in a timely basis.
The report (available here) has been prepared in relation to the council's relationship with a poxy little security outfit based in Whetstone. How much harder is it going to be to get good value for taxpayers' money and ensure that contractors are complying with the law when Barnet is running with the big boys, Capita, Serco et al?

The One Barnet Programme of mass outsourcing is seriously up the spout, if the management and political leaders of Barnet take the proper lessons from this investigation.

Also I would think that some heads should roll in the higher layers of Barnet management. This report shows substantial failings over several years throughout the council. Someone - someone high-paid, not someone lower down the food chain - should take responsibility for that.

A central and alarming point to note is that none of this would have come out if it had not been for some pretty unlikely accidents:
* MetPro security overplaying their hand at the council meeting on 1 March and getting residents' and bloggers' backs up

* MetPro boss Kevin Sharkey turning up to a residents' forum and shooting his mouth off

* MetPro Rapid Response going bust at about the same time.
Had bloggers not done their own digging and delving into the council's relationship with MetPro, and told the press about it, none of this might have come to light - until we were well into the One Barnet outsourced council world and it was too late. And without all the unwelcome publicity that the bloggers' enquiries threw up, would Barnet council even have bothered to have this investigation?

The audit report makes recommendations to council management, all of which, of course, they now meekly accept. I have my own recommendations which I believe to be the correct political response to the report. It is up to Barnet Conservatives' new leadership (to be appointed on 15 June, the night before the audit committee meeting which will discuss MetPro) whether they accept these recommendations or not:
* halt the One Barnet (mass outsourcing) Programme

* determine who in the higher echelons of Barnet management should take responsibility for these failings and sack them.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Citizen Smith journalism is not for me

Alfie Meadows, a philosophy student at Middlesex University, appears in court this Thursday, 9 June, on a charge of violent disorder. It strikes me as highly unlikely that Alfie is guilty of violent disorder and highly likely he finds himself in the dock because he was hit on the head, nearly fatally, probably by a police officer, at the student demonstration in London on 9 December. That's the controversial part of this blogpost. I don't think the rest will be.

Supporters are holding a rally for Alfie at Westminster City Court, 70 Horseferry Road, at 9am on Thursday. If I can swing it, I'll go along there before I start work. If I do go, I'll take some photographs. What I won't do is share any photos with the local newspapers.

That's not because I don't like the journalists on the local newspapers. I do like them, and I'll happily help them out with pictures of local protests that I've had a hand in organising, when I know they can't send one of their own photographers to cover the event.

But I know there will be freelance photographers at the rally on Thursday for whom protests such as this are bread and butter. I'd quite like to have a stab at adding demo photography to my own CV - heaven knows, I attend enough of them! It's never going to be my day job though! (Have you seen my pictures?!) The temptation is there, however, to send a snap to the local papers. I could ask for money, and they'd probably say no, but if I asked for a credit they'd say yes and many people are happy with just that. There are few things as satisfying as seeing a photo you've taken in the paper.

I'm eschewing the pleasure, though. I've gone all principled. I'm not going to play citizen journalist in this instance, when I know I'd be depriving some other poor sod the chance of selling a picture - a fellow National Union of Journalists member at that!

Taking the moral high ground also lets me have a dig at Sir Ray Tindle, the owner of 200 plus local newspapers, including our own Barnet Press and associated titles. What's Tindle done that's annoying me? Stopped employing freelances on his north London newspapers.

Nine journalists there had taken two weeks' strike action to protest against their impossible workload, caused by Tindle not filling vacant posts. What has Tindle's response been? To dispense with the services of the freelance staff that fill the gaps and help the full-time journalists and photographers get their titles out each week.

Tindle boasts that he hasn't made any journalists redundant, even in the recession. But he leaves posts unfilled and increases the workload on those left behind so that they can't do the good job they want to do. What is Tindle's plan? Probably, ultimately, to plug the editorial gap with content provided free by "citizen journalists", sending in reports and photographs.

Tindle's newspaper group made £3 million last year. Tindle is a rich man, and his son will inherit his empire. Tindle has worked hard, but his journalists, many hundreds of them, work hard too keeping him rich and building up a nice pot for his heirs. I don't think Tindle newspaper readers should start feeding in their own labours for nothing on top of that! Let's have some pride!

Friday, 3 June 2011

What price justice? Sky-high if Barnet council has its way!

David Attfield, the lawyer leading the campaign against Barnet council's proposed CPZ fees hike, faces crippling legal costs if he loses in the High Court. Why? Because Barnet pushed for there to be no cap on the costs that the losing side must pay. And Barnet are making sure their fees go sky-high as they have retained a top QC, James Goudie, to represent them.

That's our money Barnet council are staking on the outcome of this court case!

David Attfield and the concerned residents of Barnet who live in a Controlled Parking Zone and resent the huge hike in fees have a right to test the legality of what Barnet is doing.

If Barnet council cared about justice and about justice being seen to be done they would accept that, accept a cap on fees, and just let the judge get on and decide the points of law. Instead, their action threatens to cheat the angry residents of their day in court by inflating the costs and frightening them into dropping the case.

I know that a number of residents met last night to discuss their response to this latest blow. I don't know what they have decided. If they decide to go all the way and Barnet council loses, it will be on the council's head as far as I'm concerned. I don't see why David Attfield et al should be morally blackmailed.

Here's the latest Times series report of the case and here is the Barnet CPZ Action blog.

Around 10% of Barnet residents live in a CPZ.

Friern Barnet library in the Independent

A great piece by the literary editor Boyd Tonkin in the Independent today, on the campaign to save Friern Barnet library - where he was a member as a child!

Enjoy! (That includes you, Mr Rams.)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Is Brian Coleman working too hard?

I have become a sort of secretary to the best London bloggers here in Barnet. They write great blog posts, I handle the press. I think of it as an apprenticeship.

Through doing this work I had to look up the emails for all of Barnet's 63 councillors. There were people in that list I've never heard of, and that is as it should be. Only the electors of Underhill ward, to take one example, need to know that they are represented by Rowan Turner, Anita Campbell and Andrew Strongolou (you did know that, didn't you?).

The anonymous, largely unsung heroes and heroines of local representative democracy don't do it for the glory, the fun or even, thankfully, the money (though they can claim £9,500 basic allowance each year, and most do).

They do it, I imagine, from a sense of duty, in the first place to their political party, but also to the community in which they live. Very few of them do it as a step on a political career ladder...

When I sent out the letter to councillors regarding the MetPro audit I didn't expect much comeback immediately but I did get a few out of office replies, one of them from Brian Coleman. It said:
Thank you for your e mail . As I receive a significant number of e mails only Council Officers and residents of Totterdige Ward will receive a reply

I will deal with your e mail if you are a Totteridge resident and have included your full address. If you a constituent and wish to contact me on London Assembly Buisness please e mail my office at City Hall on again including your full address.

Thank you
Lots of thank you's in there, you'll note. That's good, but why restrict himself only to replying to ward or GLA constituents? Coleman is a member of Barnet council's Cabinet, taking a large allowance for doing that job. When can we prevail on him to consider issues that concern the council as a whole such as the MetPro audit undoubtedly is?

If Coleman is struggling to fulfill all his roles properly, drop one of them. Don't be too proud, Coleman, we all have to learn our limits. You've clearly exceeded yours.

MetPro and Barnet Council: contract failures call One Barnet Programme into question

Five Barnet bloggers are publishing the letter below this morning; it was sent to all Barnet councillors overnight, and to the press. We do our homework! And we are preparing for the Barnet council audit committee report into the MetPro scandal on 16 June.
Dear councillor,

MetPro and Barnet Council: contract failures call One Barnet Programme into question

On 16th June the Audit Committee of Barnet Council will meet to discuss the findings of its audit of the circumstances surrounding the MetPro Rapid/Emergency Response scandal. The signatories of this statement believe that, while it is far from a suitable way to address the issues raised, the audit is likely to expose shortcomings in Barnet Council’s ways of working that will lend force to our call for a full, independent investigation into the Council’s relationship with the MetPro companies.

Those responsible for the failure to regulate the Council's relationship with MetPro are in many cases the same people assisting with the review. As such they have a vested interest in the outcome. We believe that this review is therefore not likely to be sufficiently objective, however useful its findings might be.

Despite assurances from Lord Palmer we are not satisfied that the audit will cover all the problems revealed by the MetPro case, particularly those pertaining to breaches of residents’ data protection rights and their potential exposure to harm through contact with inadequately regulated security staff.

Furthermore, we believe that the MetPro case proves conclusively that there is systemic failure in Barnet Council’s purchasing and vendor management systems and processes.

Given this, we believe that it would be grossly negligent to allow a major outsourcing programme such as the One Barnet Programme to proceed.

We suspect that, far from being an isolated case, the irregularities in the Council’s relationship with the MetPro companies are likely to be an indication of serious mismanagement on a much larger scale. We call for a full investigation not only into the general process of contract tendering and allocation but also into the role played by respective responsible Directors. Our own investigations so far suggest that this would result in major cost savings for Barnet Council and Barnet Council taxpayers.

With regard to the MetPro audit, we have identified the following significant areas of concern and we ask the audit committee to address these questions:

1. Does your audit review show failings that have been identified and reported to the Council officers previously by Internal Audit? For example, the Head of Internal Audit reported to the Audit Committee (29 September 2009, Item 8, pages 30-31) that the then Director of Major Projects (Mr Craig Cooper) had confirmed that effective spend analysis monitoring and monthly vendor monitoring processes were in place.

See link below to access the report:

2. Did the Directors agree to take actions to address reported failings?

3. Did the Directors fail to take actions to address reported failings?

4. Why did the Directors not take actions when they were supposed to?

5. What will the Audit Committee do to stop recurrence where Directors fail to address reported failings on time?

On the wider subject of the systemic failings of Barnet Council, we ask that the CEO Nick Walkley immediately institute the following measures:

I. A moratorium on all One Barnet Programme work, until such time as system failings can be shown to have been addressed.

II. A full investigation into the tendering process and the role played by the relevant responsible directors.

III. A review of the payment process including any transaction where purchase order was raised after receipt of an invoice.

IV. A process where all retrospective purchase orders are sent to executive level for sign off and review.

V. A full review of the democratic oversight process, to ensure that similar serious irregularities cannot occur in future.

As concerned residents we believe that these measures will go some way toward restoring public confidence in Barnet Council and, moreover, will save the taxpayers of Barnet a significant amount of money.

We ask all Councillors, regardless of Party affiliation, to support all of the above measures.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Vicki Morris
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne