Sunday, 31 July 2011

A brighter side of Burnt Oak

I went to Burnt Oak library on Friday to see the exhibition of photographs by local young people. (Article in the Times series on how the project came about.)

Burnt Oak library shares its building with various council services, DWP and Inland Revenue these days. The security guard (yes, we need one of those when accessing public services) showed me where all the photographs were, hung on the walls among people talking about benefits claims, tax rebates, etc.

The photographs are good. The young people (or the person who curated the exhibition) had tried to show the brighter side of Burnt Oak. One big picture of the fabric of the area could not disguise a gaping pot hole in the path of an oncoming bus, but most of the pictures showed colourful shop signs and displays of food for sale in the market: fruit, vegetables, fish. It was an interesting choice of subjects which says a lot about Burnt Oak.

The faces of the people who live here, many of them coming from overseas, are the brightest sight to see, and it is important as a place to buy food, clothes and home furnishings. I'm going to seek permission to reproduce some of the pictures.

The exhibition is a testament to the work of the young people and their determination to see beauty in unlikely places and I urge people to go and see it. Alas, I'm not sure that the youth service that organised the exhibition is even open anymore.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Labour Group response to MetPro "urgent questions for Barnet councillors"

The Barnet bloggers are collating councillors' responses to our "Urgent questions for Barnet councillors" regarding the MetPro scandal. We will publish them with a commentary next week.

Here is the reply that group leader Alison Moore has sent on behalf of the Labour Group.

It's admirably long so doesn't read easily on this blog. I advise copying and pasting into a text document for easy reading!
1. Are you aware of the issues concerning the MetPro security companies and Barnet Council?

The Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Alison Moore, raised the alleged filming of members of the public directly with the Chief Executive after receiving a complaint by a member of the public. She was informed that an investigation by officers was taking place into the matter.

Cllr Moore, and at least one other Labour councillor who had been contacted by another member of the public on the secret filming by MetPro, submitted a series of questions to officers enquiring into the nature of the contract with MetPro. Replies to these questions were received on the 12th April 2011, by which time the Barnet Bloggers and the media were quite rightly running stories about the company.

The Labour Group and Shadow Cabinet have discussed the issues concerning MetPro, and wider issues around procurement and contract management of services, including the One Barnet Programme at Labour Group and Shadow Cabinet meetings. Actions taken:

* Labour raised MetPro in an emergency motion submitted to Council the day after the news emerged that the company was not properly licensed. The motion called for a full public inquiry. The motion was not chosen for debate by the Conservative administration, despite the public interest in the matter. Text of the motion can be found here.

* Labour called-in to the Scrutiny Committee, Cabinet decisions relating to the outsourcing of services proposed by the One Barnet Programme (see answer to question 5 below for specific examples).

* Labour raised concerns about procurement and contract management with Cabinet Members at Council Question Time (see examples at question 5 below) – even prior to MetPro.

* Labour raised concerns about procurement and contract management of outsourced services at One Barnet Scrutiny Panel meetings.

2. Are you satisfied that the Council has managed the issue properly?

There should have been a full public inquiry;

Our continued concerns about the mass outsourcing of services under the One Barnet programme while procurement is still a weakness have been met with glib responses from the Cabinet Member who seems to think that procurement will be sorted out by outsourcing it;

The One Barnet programme (OBP) should be stopped – at least until procurement is sorted out. In general our view is that outsourcing services is not a panacea to improve the quality or efficiency of services, but it is being treated as one by the administration. All but two of the services that have undergone an options appraisal under OBP are now being outsourced.

The administration has now scrapped the One Barnet Scrutiny Panel, making it virtually impossible to properly scrutinise proposals to outsource services due to the limited time available at Budget & Performance Scrutiny. The Labour Group will be asking Full Council to reinstate the One Barnet Scrutiny Panel to ensure that this work is given enough time and resources.

Cabinet Members regularly fail to attend Scrutiny Committee meetings where services in their portfolio are under discussion. The Leader of the Labour Group has written to the Leader of the Council to ask for his support in ensuring that they do. His public answer follows:

12 July 2011 Council meeting:
Question 18 Councillor Alison Moore (Labour):
No Cabinet Members attended the last meeting of Budget & Performance Scrutiny, including the Cabinet Member responsible for Resources, and the Cabinet Member responsible for the easyCouncil programme. Does the Leader think this is acceptable, when important reports on the management of resources (MetPro and others) and important reports on easyCouncil outsourcing projects were on the agenda, and does he think this damages Barnet's reputation on accountability?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius, Leader of the Council (Conservative):
I regret that I was not able to be at the meeting and further regret that no Cabinet Member was available to be questioned or comment. However senior officers were there and able to answer. Clearly it would be much better for relevant Cabinet Members to be in attendance.

3. Do you agree with the comments of Lord Palmer, chair of the Audit Committee, that Barnet Council’s Internal Audit is under resourced?

The Labour Spokespersons for Audit and Resources, Cllr Geof Cooke and Cllr Alan Schneiderman respectively, have raised the under-resourcing of the audit function at Council meetings well before and following the MetPro scandal. See below exchanges.

Council meeting on 12 July 2011:
Question 6 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):
The special Internal Audit report on procurement of security services from MetPro exposed dreadful failings in the procurement function in Barnet including a lack of any central register of contracts but earlier routine reports on the central procurement team twice gave a verdict of ‘Limited Assurance’ rather than ‘No Assurance’. Are there any plans to increase the staffing of Internal Audit?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):
Resource levels are kept under constant review and will be maintained at a level sufficient to maintain a robust internal audit service.

Following a review of internal audit by the external auditors, the external auditors submitted a report to the Audit Committee and noted in their conclusions that no significant issues were identified with internal audit's work, the CIPFA Code had been applied in all significant respects and the work was produced to a satisfactory standard.

Council meeting 25 January 2011:
Question 27 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):
Why did the Cabinet endorse cutting the Council’s internal audit service when officers believed that the proposed cut would reduce the service by an unacceptable level?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):
The Council faces tough choices on spending cuts, and no area of the Council should be exempt from reviewing their costs and coming up with more efficient ways of delivering services. Officers have been working up alternative proposals that would not reduce the level of service to the level initially indicated.

Supplementary Question 27 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):
Thank you Mr Mayor. When I raised the internal audit cuts back in October I was told that it would not affect the internal audit service which is now acknowledged not to be the case. So it is good to see that this ill-thought cut out is now been reconsidered, but why has he and the rest of the Cabinet approved it as an option given the warning that officers had given.

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):
Mr Mayor, the Cabinet were right to be ambitious with savings across all the services in the Borough and it now transpires that the One Barnet approach of sharing back office services may actually save costs. We are now talking with Enfield, and sharing the service with them should be able to realise all the savings in the proposals. So, I’m glad that we have been ambitious and quite clearly the Labour Group would not have been as ambitious.

Council meeting July 2010:
Question 43 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):
Does the Administration "buy in" to the internal audit process?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):
Yes, the Administration fully supports the internal audit process as a key element of effective corporate governance.

Supplementary Question 43 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):
Why then had Cabinet Members not required senior officers to co-operate with the internal audit process and thus avoid the need for the external auditors to comment on the lack of buy in?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):
Mr Mayor, I am not aware of Cabinet Members being involved in the audit process that to the extent that they had encouraged services not to buy in to audit. I can state quite clearly now that we are bought into the audit process, we have restructured the audit function, we brought it under the finance directorate, and we co-operate with the Committee and the auditors. And it is for the Audit Committee to oversee all this and to raise any concerns either with the Chief Executive or the Director of Finance.

4. Have you personally spoken to the Leader of the Council about your views on the MetPro scandal?

Individual councillors will respond to this issue directly, although it is quite clear that the Administration wish to view this as an officer level failure, as was the case with the Icelandic banks saga.

5. Besides the MetPro scandal, do you believe that there are other serious problems with purchasing in Barnet Council?

The Labour Group Leader issued a statement about other incidences of poor procurement and contract management: Times series report

Adults Services: The recent Serious Case Review into the death of a vulnerable adult and the recent annual Safeguarding report has shown there are still problems with commissioning and procurement in Adults Services. A few years ago there were also problems in the procurement of the Meals at Home Service, which the Leader and the previous Deputy Leader of the Labour Group expressed concerns about, and tried to call-in to scrutiny, but the decision to agree the contract was taken by an officer under delegated powers so it could not be called-in and challenged. The Meals at Home service failed on the first day with meals not delivered to vulnerable adults, and invoicing problems for some time afterwards (you may recall invoices for hundreds of pounds were sent to elderly people just before Christmas). Labour’s Health & Adults Services Spokesperson has raised concerns at Council around the reliance on Telecare following the scrapping of sheltered housing wardens – Telecare received a “no assurance” from audit – a proper Service Level Agreement with the support service was not in place (see the exchange with Cllr Cornelius that is re-produced below).

Environment: The procurement of technical and complex contracts to deliver the bridge replacement project at Aerodrome Rd ended up in hundreds of claims from contractors against the council, and an overspend of around £12m. There have been problems with the contract management of the cashless parking service which audit have picked up on and given a “limited assurance”. There have been complaints from residents about the street lighting PFI – in particular where lamp posts have been placed in front of driveways, and directly in front of bedroom windows – Cllr Cooke also raised the Streetlighting PFI at Council in November last year – the exchange is re-produced below. The Labour Group have raised concerns over the quality of road maintenance and believe the contract specification may be to blame – see the below motion submitted by Cllrs Kath McGuirk & Claire Farrier to Council.

Central services/Finance: Barnet has £27.4m frozen in Icelandic banks as a result of not following Treasury Management Practices properly. There have been problems with the procurement and implementation of council IT systems (Housing Benefits and Council Tax systems and SAP).

Labour councillors have called-in to Scrutiny Committee virtually all the One Barnet Cabinet reports, and raised the issue of procurement and contract monitoring/management at those meetings including BMOSC, the now defunct One Barnet Scrutiny Panel, Budget & Performance Scrutiny, other scrutiny committees as well as General Functions and the now defunct Joint Corporate Negotiation Committee that both deal with staffing issues and TUPE. Links to the call-in requests regarding procurement/contract monitoring/service monitoring are shown below. It is interesting to note that on only one occasion in each of these instances (the Parking Service Business Case) have administration members on BMOSC supported Labour’s call to refer these outsourcing plans back to Cabinet, and in that one case, when Cabinet met to discuss the reference back, Cabinet simply re-affirmed their original decision:

Business Management Overview & Scrutiny (BMOSC) 11 July 2011:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the Annual Safeguarding Report to raise issues of procurement; also the New Support Services (including procurement) & Customer Services outsourcing plans: committee papers

BMOSC 1 June 2011:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the Cabinet decision to proceed to procurement in the Adults Services Business Case – contract monitoring was raised: committee papers

BMOSC 21 March 2011:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the New Support Organisation & Customer Services Options Appraisal and raised lack of service specification prior to procurement: committee papers

BMOSC 16 December 2010:
Cllrs Barry Rawlings and Kath McGuirk (Labour) called-in Cabinet decisions relating to the potential outsourcing of Adults Services, the Parking Service, the Passenger Transport Service, Development & Regulatory Services and the One Barnet Framework – to delay procurement and request more robust business planning figures.

The Sub-Committee referred the decision on the Future of the Parking Service back to Cabinet for the following reason:

“That the procurement should be delayed due to a lack of robust evidence of financial information and for a full options appraisal to be carried out, including the in-house option.”

Cabinet, 10 January 2011 (Decision item 10) – resolved that decision item 10 (Future of the Parking Service) taken by Cabinet on 29 November 2010 be reaffirmed: committee papers

BMOSC 13 September 2010:
Cllr Kath McGuirk (Labour) called-in Cabinet decision to re-focus road maintenance work – asked for recommendations to be changed to make reference to monitoring of contractor quality and performance: committee papers

BMOSC 8 April 2010:
Cllr Alan Schneiderman (Labour) called-in the Treasury Management Strategy – proposed an additional recommendation that should set out what the specific member monitoring arrangements of the service are and should be: committee papers

BMOSC 16 November 2009:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the updated Future Shape report.

BMOSC 7 September 2009:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the Cabinet Decision relating to the procurement of Community Advice Services following the axing of the Welfare Rights Service. Asked about the procurement process, and the need for a proper service specification that has taken account of a comprehensive needs analysis prior to procurement: committee papers and further

BMOSC 13 July 2009:
Cllrs Alison Moore and Barry Rawlings (Labour) called-in a further iteration of the Future Shape Report and here.

BMOSC 18 June 2009:
Cllr Barry Rawlings (Labour) called-in Cabinet Report on Aerodrome Road to ask about risk and project management.

Cabinet Overview & Scrutiny (COSC) 10 December 2008:
Cllr Alison Moore (Labour) called-in the Future Shape Report.

Labour councillors with audit and resources in their Shadow Cabinet portfolios have asked questions on audit and privatised / contracted out services at Audit Committee and Full Council eg:

April 2009 Council meeting:
Question 27 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):
In the light of the ineffectiveness of the internal auditing of financial procedures within Treasury Management which failed to pick up breaches of the Treasury Management Strategy, will the Cabinet Member reconsider the £100,000 cut from internal audit in this year’s budget?

Answer by Councillor Mike Freer, Leader of the Council (Conservative):
As highlighted in the Scrutiny working group report, Internal Audit has reviewed the treasury management functions every year since 2002/03 and did not highlight any compliance issues to the relevant senior managers. A full investigation is to be initiated of both the internal and external auditing practices regarding treasury management and, as a result, I do not feel able to comment further at this time.

Supplementary Question 27 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):
It is true that breaches of the Treasury Management Strategy weren’t picked up by Auditors but is that not a case for actually putting more resource into auditing rather than cutting them?

Answer by Councillor Mike Freer, Leader of the Council (Conservative):
Councillor Schneiderman talked earlier on about asking the right questions. Well, perhaps, in one of his rare meetings with the Officers, he might like to ask the proper question of how this reduction was arrived at, because actually it is not reducing the internal audit headcount.

The £100,000 reduction is broadly based in two parts; one is a reduction in fees paid to Deloittes for external work and the one is the deletion of a post of an information co-ordinator, neither of which are to do with internal audit and the internal audit headcount remains unchanged. If he had asked the right questions perhaps he would have had the answer to this before tonight.

July 2009 Council:
Question 46 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):
Can the Cabinet Member detail the contract monitoring activity for all currently externalised Council services?

Answer by Councillor Lynne Hillan (Conservative):
There are at least 400 contracts in place across the council, some of which are provided by external organisations and partnerships, and it would not be possible in this reply to provide comment on them all. Some contracts, such as the Primary School (PSCIP) Contract with Kier and the leisure contract with Greenwich Leisure London are managed centrally within Major Projects, though the majority of contracts are managed and monitored across the organisation by Directors and their heads of service. The Corporate Procurement Team manages corporate contracts and is available to provide advice and support to service directors in carrying out their contract monitoring responsibility. The monitoring of contracts and effective delivery of services remain important elements of these commercial arrangements.

July 2009 Council:
Question 15 Councillor Barry Rawlings (Labour):
In the Internal Audit Annual Report no assurance could be given regarding the ‘Telecare’ system. This report was issued on 01/06/09 – a week before the cabinet meeting discussing the future of wardens in Barnet’s Sheltered Accommodation and in which Telecare was cited as a major component of future provision. Were Cabinet informed that there were ‘weaknesses in control that put the systems objectives at risk’ before making their decision?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius (Conservative):
The Telecare system is a valuable technology that enables people in need of assistance to summon help immediately. This system has additional functions over and above the basic alarm service and is in its third year of operation.

Barnet’s alarm monitoring service (Assist) has dealt with Alarm calls since 1989 from Sheltered Housing schemes and others. This operates 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. This exceeds Telecare Service Association good practice in terms of response. This will continue to provide service to all Sheltered Housing Residents.

The Telecare audit raised the issue of a service level agreement not being signed with the response support service. This agreement is now being finalised and will contain performance targets, reporting expectations and information sharing. The Cabinet made its decision regarding the replacement of the warden service in sheltered accommodation as a forward looking improvement and no specific allusions to the audit of past and present telecare system were made.

Supplementary Question 15 Councillor Barry Rawlings (Labour):
Would you agree with me given this wasn’t discussed with the Cabinet, that there has yet to be a full and frank discussion of the issues with the Cabinet?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius (Conservative):

July 2009 Council:
Question 17 Councillor Barry Rawlings (Labour):
In the Internal Audit Annual Report, no assurance could be given regarding the Meals at Home Service. This is more than 2 years after the failure of the invoicing system that caused so much distress to users of the service. How many years will it take to get it right and is this not further evidence of the administration’s lack of competence?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius (Conservative):
The audit of the meals on wheels service was initiated by the Director. The report recognised that improvement work had started prior to Audit. The assessment and invoicing function continues to improve. All concerned are working to ensure that the invoicing will be right, very quickly and not in a timeframe measured in years.

Supplementary Question 17 Councillor Barry Rawlings (Labour):
Can Councillor Cornelius enlighten me, getting it right will not be in the timeframe measured in years? Was he looking for epochs, aeons, millennia to get it right?

Answer by Councillor Richard Cornelius (Conservative):
I was looking for a short period of time but I was reluctant to commit myself to a specific date.

Nov 2010 Council meeting:
Question 36 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):
The Council’s street lighting PFI contractor customarily blocks the pavement while replacing lamp columns. On average per lamp column, for how long do pedestrians have to walk in the road and what is done by the Council to minimise that time?

Answer by Councillor Brian Coleman (Conservative):
It is not possible to provide a definitive timescale per lamp column, as the works required at each location may vary depending on site circumstances and underground obstructions. It is not customary to block the whole of the pavement while replacing lamp columns. However, on those rare occasions where the whole of the footway on one side of the road is closed due to an excavation the opposite side is, whenever possible, left unobstructed at that point and signage is installed to guide pedestrians to that effect. Therefore, one would expect the general public to cross the road and use the unobstructed footway. Unfortunately, it is not possible to prevent those pedestrians who seem to prefer to walk along the road to pass the guarded excavation from doing so. If Councillor Cooke wishes to report such cases I am sure Officers will deal with them.

Supplementary Question 36 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):
Is it not the case that the Council’s contractors can literally go along a road digging holes around existing lamp columns and blocking off the pavement; and then leaving the road for days on end before they come back and complete the work? And isn’t the absence of an answer to the last part of my written question an indication of future shape of things to come because this contract is not being supervised properly?

Answer by Councillor Lynne Hillan, Leader of the Council (Conservative):
I’m afraid that you have 2 different contractors – you have got the contractors who go and fix the lamp post and you have got the contractor who does the electrical work. That is standard practice as I am sure you do not want people who fix lamps getting involved in electrical work and it is against health and safety. Actually, do you know what, we have replaced so many lamps around the Borough and the only one complaint that I have ever had is you, Councillor Cooke.

Council: Tuesday 20 April 2010:
Opposition Policy Item in the name of Councillor Kath McGuirk (Labour) – Potholes in Barnet - Amendment in the name of Councillor Claire Farrier (Labour)

“Council notes the extraordinary number of potholes in Barnet – with over 3,000 reported by local residents since October last year, and 2,560 the council have identified as of 12th March that still need repairing.

"Council notes that maintaining our roads and pavements was a key manifesto commitment for the Conservatives in the Local Elections in 2006, but despite spending tens of millions of pounds the state of Barnet’s roads has barely improved, and in some cases is worse than before.

"Council believes this is a direct result of the policy of patching and of poor quality maintenance of our roads over the last eight years which has now been laid bare by the extreme winter weather. In addition, the Barnet Conservatives have cut the winter maintenance budget year on year, compounding the problem further.

"Council welcomes the extra £176,000 that the government has given Barnet to help repair roads after the winter weather, but notes that the administration has allocated little new money in the budget for road and pavement repairs in future years.

"Council believes that maintaining our roads and pavements is a basic and core service that the council provides, and that it should continue to be so.

"Council asks Cabinet to consider reviewing the state of our roads and pavements, what resources and policies are needed to maintain them properly, as well as how road maintenance is procured and what contract specification is used.

"Council also asks Cabinet to work with any Scrutiny task and finish group set up to look into or review this.”

"Council asks that Cabinet closely monitor the progression of pothole repair work.”

Council meeting 12 July 2011:
Question 28 Councillor Alan Schneiderman (Labour):
Does the Cabinet Member now accept that it is not acceptable to have a target of reviewing only half of the contracts held by the Council and if so what will the target be raised to?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):
I believe that it is appropriate for the council to agree a performance indicator for 2011/12 to review 100% of contracts held by the council in excess of £25,000.

6. Do you think a halt should be called to the One Barnet Programme while investigations continue and basic procedures in procurement and contract monitoring are improved?

The Labour Group are on record saying that One Barnet should be stopped as a result of the procurement failures – but also before MetPro occurred:

Labour Group position on One Barnet post MetPro revelations: Times series article.

Council meeting 12 July 2011:
Question 24 Councillor Geof Cooke (Labour):
What is your assessment of the risk of progressing with a major expansion of outsourcing under ‘Easy Barnet’ before the Council’s procurement operation has demonstrated over a sustained period the capacity, organisation and competence to support current outsourcing?

Answer by Councillor Daniel Thomas (Conservative):
I believe that risks are being mitigated against now that a Procurement Action Plan is in place and that the Council will be working with an implementation partner when outsourcing.

Labour Group position on One Barnet just prior to MetPro revelations: Times series article and

Labour Group position on the publication of the first major iteration of the Future Shape project:

7. Do you believe that as a councillor you have a responsibility to prevent such scandals arising in future?

All councillors have a responsibility to scrutinise council services and raise concerns where they have them in order to prevent scandals of the MetPro kind. The full support of Cabinet Members, administration scrutiny members and officers is required in order to achieve this. The Labour Group looks forward to working with colleagues cross-party to try and prevent anything like this occurring in the future.

8. Have you read the internal audit report into the MetPro scandal?

Individual councillors will respond to this.

9. Are you happy with the decision to remove nine staff from Barnet Council’s procurement team, as proposed by Craig Cooper at the General Functions Committee on 30 June 2011?

Cllr Alison Moore, the Labour Group Leader, issued a statement once the General Functions report was published saying that cutting posts in procurement was a bad idea. Labour councillors on the General Functions Committee voted against the proposal when it was discussed at General Functions committee: Barnet Times article

Friday, 29 July 2011

Filming: belatedly recording a victory

I've been so distracted with all the other misdeeds of Barnet's Tory administration that I didn't have time to mark a victory! The recent climbdown over filming from the public gallery at council meetings. The councillors, including Tories, voted at the council meeting on Tuesday 12 July to allow this.

Since then former Tory councillor Daniel Hope has been filming away, including with a tripod. The results appear on his Barnet Bugle video channel. I always wondered why Mr Hope was so hot on this issue, but now I see that he has simply been dying for the opportunity to try out his own equipment in public (sorry, I'm thinking about my holiday at the seaside again and those naughty postcards I saw).

I'm not sure what the councillors decided with regard to looking into the council spending some money to get professional filming done (no disrespect to Mr Hope). My own view is this would be good: just check out Haringey council's television coverage. Yes, it's like watching paint dry, some of it, but it does aid transparency, and helps councillors to remember to behave well. Yes, it costs, but democracy does, and I think the savings deriving from more democratic scrutiny will easily outweigh the outlay.

I did some campaigning on this filming issue myself, including getting a legal opinion via Bindmans on it, so it's good to register a victory! Of course, it was only a matter of common sense to give in - with modern technology and the talk of transparency, how could filming reasonably be stopped? But common sense is in short supply in Barnet's Conservative administration so we should count ourselves lucky that this went through.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

"They've outsourced too much..."

Listen here to Bernard Jenkin (Conservative) MP, chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, speaking on Radio 4's "Today Programme" this morning. The Committee has just produced a report damning the over-reliance of government on outsourcing for its big IT projects. The problems they expose could be extended to other major areas of outsourcing; the basic gist is that the government does not have the expertise to handle the big contracts it is putting out to the private sector, and is getting ripped off as a consequence.

The report is called "Government and IT - 'A Recipe For Rip-Offs': Time For A New Approach". You can read it here.

Here's one quote to give you a flavour. This is Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude speaking to the Committee:
the quality of our central data is very poor. When we were renegotiating contracts last summer with the biggest suppliers, the central data was woefully inadequate, and we only got the data in the first instance by asking the suppliers themselves.

My big, fat Barnet council contract #2: New Support and Customer Services Organisation, worth £750 million

To give an idea of the massive scale of the One Barnet outsourcing Programme, here, extracted from a notice on the Barnet Council Procurement Portal, are details of the contract offered for a New Support and Customer Services Organisation. Value of contract: £750 million over 10 years.
Title attributed to the contract by the contracting authority: New Support and Customer Services Organisation

Short description of the contract or purchase:
Services furnished by business, professional and specialist organisations. Information systems. Financial and insurance services. Corporate finance and venture capital services. Financial consultancy services. Real estate services. Development services of real estate. Development of residential real estate. Development of non-residential real estate. Residential property services. Non-residential property services. Energy-management services. Building services. Building consultancy services. Building services consultancy services. Construction-related services. Construction management services. Construction project management services. IT services: consulting, software development, Internet and support. Information technology services. Information systems or technology strategic review services. Project management consultancy services. Document management services. Provision of services to the community. Benefit services. Miscellaneous business and business-related services. Customer services. Customer-care services. Financial management consultancy services. Human resources management consultancy services. Procurement consultancy services. Project-management services other than for construction work. Building and facilities management services. Facilities management services. Business organisation services.

The London Borough of Barnet is seeking to appoint a Strategic Partner, whether that would be a single bidder or a consortium, to manage various support and customer services functions under a partnership arrangement. This is to enable the council to meet its objective of service transformation and innovation to match customer need whilst ensuring business as usual activities are not compromised. The grouping of Barnet Council's support and customers services provides the borough with the opportunity to create a truly citizen-centric council. It provides partners with the opportunity to work innovatively with a forward thinking public sector body.

Remodelling support services delivery will provide improved services to internal and external customers. It will ensure the sustainability of the services in the light of a changing customer base due to the One Barnet programme and central government funding.

Barnet has been at the forefront of personalising services and the delivery of customer services is key to providing customers and residents with a positive experience of dealing with the council delivering a citizen centred council and developing deep insight as the basis for future commissioning decisions. The services in scope are as follows:
o Procurement
o Customer Services
o Estates (Asset Management, Building Services, Property Services)
o Finance
o Human Resources
o Information Systems
o Revenue and Benefits

The function of major project management, currently carried out predominantly through the Corporate Programmes Team, is also in scope for delivery by a provider.

This partnership is intended to run for approximately 10 years with the option to extend for a further 5 years and will be procured through the use of competitive dialogue process.

Estimated value excluding VAT:
Range between: 600000000 and 750000000
Currency: GBP

The contracting authority considers that this contract may be suitable for economic operators that are small or medium enterprises (SMEs). However, any selection of tenderers will be based solely on the criteria set out for the procurement, and the contract will be awarded on the basis of the most economically advantageous tender.

The London Borough of Barnet is currently anticipating that one or more of the following contracting authorities (and their statutory successors and organisations created as a result of reorganisation or organisational changes) may wish to join this procurement:
- Barnet PCT
- any GP consortia to be established in the Barnet or adjacent area(s)
- bodies with responsibility for education and/or educational facilities in Barnet and adjacent areas including but not limited to:
- voluntary aided schools (and their governing bodies);
- academies established or to be established within Barnet and adjacent areas;
- Diocesan authorities and trustees
- Third Sector bodies.

The contracting authority wishes to discuss with potential providers a range of delivery options for the services. Potential providers will be expected to consider a range of delivery options, including companies limited by shares/guarantees, LLPs or other emerging models. Given the aspirations of the Authority for the partnership, as part of the dialogue process, tenderers may also be requested to consider growth models for the partnership with the view to grow it on an incremental basis (at the discretion of the Authority).

My big, fat Barnet council contract #1: Development and regulatory services, worth £275 million

To give an idea of the massive scale of the One Barnet outsourcing Programme, here, extracted from a notice on the Barnet Council Procurement Portal, are details of the contract offered for Development and Regulatory Services. Value of contract: £275 million over 10 years.
Title attributed to the contract by the contracting authority/entity: Development and Regulatory Services

Short description of the contract or purchase:
Services furnished by business, professional and specialist organisations. Land management services. Architectural, engineering and planning services. Technical planning services. Urban planning and landscape architectural services. Architectural services for buildings. Miscellaneous building structures. Housing services. Development of residential real estate. Feasibility study, advisory service, analysis. Project and design preparation, estimation of costs. Draft plans (systems and integration). Calculation of costs, monitoring of costs. Approval plans, working drawings and specifications. Determining and listing of quantities in construction. Supervision of building work. Supervision of project and documentation. Architectural, engineering and surveying services. Architectural and building-surveying services. Construction management services. Funeral and related services. Funeral services. Cemetery services and cremation services. Cemetery services. Cemetery maintenance services. Cremation services. Work environment services. Civic-amenity services. Car park management services. Civic betterment and community facility support services. Facility related sanitation services. Disinfecting and exterminating services. Pest-control services. Rat-disinfestation services. Fumigation services. Services related to noise pollution. Noise control services. Noise pollution protection services. Noise pollution monitoring services. Noise pollution advisory services. Environmental institution building or planning. Environmental issues consultancy services. Environmental planning. Urban environmental development planning. Environmental services. Environmental management. Environmental impact assessment other than for construction. Risk or hazard assessment other than for construction. Environmental standards other than for construction. Environmental indicators analysis other than for construction. Environmental Impact Assessment EIA services other than for construction. Environmental monitoring other than for construction. Highways engineering services. Highways consultancy services. Administrative housing services. General public services. Administration services. Engineering design services for the construction of civil engineering works. Quantity surveying services for civil engineering works. Health and safety services. Health and safety consultancy services. Advisory and consultative engineering services. Building services. Building-fabric consultancy services. Building consultancy services. Building services consultancy services. Building surveying services. Building-inspection services. Infrastructure works consultancy services. Structural engineering consultancy services. Environmental engineering consultancy services. Noise-control consultancy services. Environmental impact assessment for construction. Risk or hazard assessment for construction. Environmental standards for construction. Environmental indicators analysis for construction. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) services for construction. Environmental monitoring for construction. Commissioning of public lighting installations. Structures and parts of structures. Structures and parts. Miscellaneous structures. Parts of structures. Road traffic-control equipment. Traffic control services. Traffic monitoring services. Records management. Road transport services. Public road transport services. Support services for land transport.

The London Borough of Barnet is looking for a Strategic Partner (SP), single bidder or consortium, to transform the delivery of its Development and Regulatory Services. The London Borough of Barnet wishes to work with the SP to provide a joined-up environmental regulation, design and management function that will develop and maintain the quality of the built environment and help to ensure the health and well being of our citizens.

The services in scope are as follows:
Strategic Services:
* Regeneration
* Strategic Planning and Housing Strategy
* Highways Transport and Regeneration
* Highways Strategy

Operational Services:
* Building Control and Structures
* Planning Development Management
* Land Charges
* Highways Network Management
* Highways Traffic and Development

Public Health, Consumer and Regulatory Services
* Environmental Health
* Trading Standards & Licensing
* Cemetery & Crematorium
* Registration and Nationality Service

The London Borough of Barnet will select whichever service delivery model the competitive dialogue identifies as best meeting our desired outcomes. We will examine strategic partnerships and the option of setting up a legal vehicle jointly, e.g. a joint venture vehicle. We will be open to the discussion of other vehicles and will select our preferred model on the basis of best fit. Different partnership models to maximise the benefits of the partnership and to encourage ongoing innovation and value for money in the provision of services to the public may be discussed as the dialogue progresses.

The interested parties are invited to the Bidder Briefing Day on 5 April 2011...

Opening the gates to hell? Barnet Council's Procurement Portal

Since scores of private companies, we are told, pitched up to Barnet council's “New Support and Customer Services Organisation” (NSCSO) market day on 8 July, and since the council is spending a small fortune advertising events such as this, I figured that it was time to go Googling "Barnet NSCSO".

What did I find? Lo and behold - and, reader, you might have seen this already, but I hadn't - a rich seam to mine for alarming One Barnet (outsourcing) Programme blogpost material.

Welcome to the Barnet Council Procurement Portal. Not the sort of thing most residents ever get to see, and struggling to mis-spell basic words the same way twice (assessable/assessible), this is one of the places where companies large and small (but mostly large) read about the contracts up for grabs at London Borough of Barnet. And the really big ones are on there...

Appearing under the rather odd title of "Services furnished by business, professional and specialist organisations" we find the tender notice for the massive NSCSO contract.

I reproduce extracts from the notice, to give an idea of what is in scope for this massive outsourcing project, in a subsequent blogpost.

The website also carries a plug for the company that, so far as I can tell, designed the website "BiP Solutions and... their PrOJECt product for placing EU public notices".

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Barnet is good for Capita but would Capita be good for Barnet?

Capita looks like it is leading the field in the race to win one of the big, fat contracts at London Borough of Barnet, perhaps the £750 million contract for the “New Support and Customer Services Organisation” (NSCSO).

The NSCSO will incorporate revenue and benefits, human resources, finance, procurement, customer services (ie, call centre), and information services. The plan - part of the One Barnet Programme - is that private companies will offer to run these services and in return Barnet Council will pay them £750 million over 10 years. There could be the possibility of extending the contract for another five years, ie, paying them a further £375 million. So, in all, this particular "bundle" of outsourced Barnet council services could represent a wad of cash to the private sector of £1,125 million.

Well, that's got to be good news to this company that isn't doing as well on the stock market as hoped (although it looks like it's doing pretty well to me, but it's all relative I guess). The Financial Times reported on 22 July:
Shares in Capita have underperformed the FTSE 100 by 23 per cent since the 2010 general election... There were signs in Thursday’s figures that Capita had put the worst behind it: £1.1bn worth of contracts and renewals were more than double the value secured in the same period a year ago. Yet a premium to peers would be hard to justify for now. The proportion of profits that Capita had converted into cash – down from 121 per cent to 93 per cent – should be a concern. Investors would also be forgiven for being cautious about the latest financial forecasts given that in February the group guided towards flat organic sales for this year. It was now predicting a 6 per cent decline.
Capita's chief executive Paul Pindar (who is paid £14,500 a week) said the company had turned the corner and commented:
I do think you’ll see substantial amounts of the public sector move into the private sector.
Our services, their profits - whoever they are: Capita, Serco, BT...

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Library closures - Barnet council buys itself time

The Barnet council Cabinet this evening discussed the Strategic Library Review (SLR), including the proposed closures of Friern Barnet, Hampstead Garden Suburb and North Finchley libraries. There were a lot of campaigners there from Friern Barnet, in particular, who asked some excellent, probing questions.

The opponents of closure were supported by councillors John Marshall (Conservative) for Garden Suburb library, and Kate Salinger (Conservative), Barry Rawlings and Pauline Coakley-Webb (Labour) for Friern Barnet library - who seemed to be on the same side in this issue, despite being from different parties.

It was an impressive display, which resulted in (or at least confirmed a prior decision of) the Cabinet amending their proposal. The Strategic Library Review was passed, including the planned closures, but subject to
consideration of the feasibility of any community initiatives that come forward from residents on or before 31st October.
What does this mean? I am going to put the most cynical spin on it, based on the information that has come out about the council's negotiations with the Arts Depot.

The simple fact is that the council has no agreement yet for the Arts Depot to house the new service that is to replace Friern Barnet and North Finchley libraries when they are closed. The closure programme is predicated on that new facility being opened, and they are nowhere near getting that.

They were pressed on this point. Could Friern Barnet and North Finchley libraries close before their replacement opens? asked Pauline Coakley-Webb.

The seeming climbdown basically buys the council time. They need it. They need it because they can't afford legal challenges.

And they have played a clever trick: they have put the ball back into the court of the residents campaigning to keep their libraries open. "You come up with a viable plan to keep your local libraries open, and we'll look at it in the autumn," they have said. It sounds generous, but it's nothing like.

I gave my small piece of advice to the residents outside afterwards: I don't think it is your responsibility to spend the next three months working (unpaid) on a plan that you don't know will succeed.

If the council is so sure of its plan, sure enough that they will win any legal challenge, it should have voted it through. If they are not sure, they don't have the right to make residents jump through hoops.

Robert Rams mentioned a residents' plan to run Barnet Museum, which has had its grant from Barnet council cut. Encouragingly, he intimated this was a good plan. But there is a big difference between Barnet Museum and the libraries: the campaigners for the Museum were already running the Museum, have been for decades! The coalition that has formed to defend the local libraries is ad hoc, recent, and doesn't have the capacity to run the libraries! They shouldn't even have to try!

I'm so irritated on the residents' behalf at the Cabinet's cowardice, for that's what I take it to be. There were hints this evening that Richard Cornelius in the Council Leader's chair was finding it all "too upsetting" - an echo of his response two years ago to the decision to cut the wardens from sheltered housing schemes.

He was happy to defer the libraries closure decision to the autumn. Other Cabinet members, more hard-nosed, will be happy to defer the decision to the autumn in case the residents can come up with ways to save the council money. Others still, even more hard-nosed, are probably just worried about the lawyers. I think they are right to be.

Garden Suburb library

There were good points made about how the costs given for the service provided at Garden Suburb library were distorted by the rent they were having to pay. John Marshall raised issues of incompetence, how the council had failed to negotiate a lower rent when it had the chance. Other council-owned property was available to run the service from. Residents didn't use the Institute much and didn't view a self-service collection housed there as a substitute.

Daniel Thomas made himself obnoxious by saying that he lived 100m from the Garden Suburb library but believed the Institute service would be much better. Yeah, bollocks.

Cabinet meetings are like a badly scripted, miscast and under-rehearsed crap play. Daniel Thomas' role is to be the man who reminds everyone ad nauseam that "every council department has to make a sacrifice - or the children, elderly and disabled get it". Let us remind ourselves that he is now the Deputy Leader of the council as well as Cabinet Member for Resources and Performance.

Robert Rams, Cabinet Member for Customer Access and Partnerships, has overseen the SLR. He read from his script this evening, but added very little to the drama. His main role was to stress how the SLR aimed at providing a library service fit for the 21st century, and how it was focused around improving child and adult literacy - as if anyone would be against that!

It is little wonder that David Longstaff, the new Cabinet Member for Safety and Resident Engagement (guffaw) and an actor, said nothing this evening, just sat at the end of his table looking mildly disgusted. "I can't work with these amateurs!" he must have been thinking.

A message from Victim 57

I don't need to worry what I call my blog. Readers make their own sense of what they see or don't see. After the Barnet council Cabinet meeting this evening I met some readers who introduced me to each other as Victim. (We hardly need to ask who is the perpetrator.)

More on the Cabinet meeting later...

Save Friern Barnet library, cabinet meeting tonight, 7pm, Hendon Town Hall

Via Barnet Alliance...
About 350 people attended the Friern Barnet Library party on 16 July. This, of course, clearly shows the need of the local community for this library to remain open.

The next stage of the campaign is to present questions to Barnet council’s cabinet on its meeting Tuesday 26 July (7pm Hendon Town Hall, the Burroughs - the public is welcome). Meeting starts at 7pm, get there early to meet the campaigners and ensure your seat!

According to the council’s pamphlet ‘The Council Tax and Business Rate in Barnet 2011/12′, “Our One Barnet programme will make over £13m of savings over the next 3 years and this, along with other improvements to efficiency, will account for the bulk of our savings.”

However, according to the One Barnet Programme Report for the year 2011/12, the expenditure on this program will be £6 million per year, which is £18 million over 3 years… (Mr Mustard’s blog)

That’s right: £18m spending to achieve savings of £13m!!!….

Can anyone see the sense in these figures???

A BAPS member has asked the cabinet: How many new libraries can be opened if the council will scrap its One Barnet Programme NOW?

Come along to Hendon Town Hall tonight (Tuesday 26 July) to support Friern Barnet people and hear the public questions and councillors’ answers.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Colindale - can you feel the rhythm? Or do you need someone to take your pulse?

These figures are taken from Barnet council's "State of the Borough report":
Already London’s most populous borough, with 349,800 residents in 2011 ...The Barnet population is projected to grow by 5.5 per cent over next five years – an increase of 19,400 people.
And they are all going to live in Colindale.*

Below are pictures of a few of the major building sites springing up around Colindale ward. It's all tremendously exciting, I can tell you. My questions are what will the newcomers do in the area of a weekend - I'm at a loss - and how am I going to get a seat on the tube in future?

New Hendon Village, private flats for sale, built on the former Grahame Park open space
New Hendon Village, private flats for sale, built on the former Grahame Park open space
What's in the regeneration for the tenants of Grahame Park?
Demolition of Grahame Park continues apace... make way for more of New Hendon Village. In the background you can also see the massive development at Beaufort Park
Colindale tube station is in there somewhere
Colindale: yes, it fair pulsates; development on Colindale Avenue on the old Colindale Hospital site
Another Fairview development close to the Pulse. This one has rhythm...
* This is a slight exaggeration, for comic effect, but only slight. These are the figures: Colindale (+10,900), Golders Green (+7,300), Mill Hill (+2,000) and West Hendon (+1,900).

Stop the world, I want to get off!

A bit of a tour of Colindale/Hendon today. I noticed that the 11-day funfair has packed up. Now we know that Barnet council has cottoned on to the fact that it makes money out of funfairs (see how it foisted one on the Finchley Festival) we can expect many, many more.

Montrose Park is becoming a favourite spot. The latest one ran for 11 days and there wasn't even a bank holiday in there anywhere. Term's just broken up, so you can't even say it was for the bored kids.

I imagine the people living opposite the entrance to Montrose Park will begin to feel quite jaded about the constant noise pollution, plus the added crowds walking past (not that it can have attracted many people this time).

I walked through the park this evening as the fair folk were packing up. I don't know if Brian Coleman, the major advocate of fairs with everything, has noticed the similarities between fair folk and travellers, who he despises.

P.S. Lest anyone suspect that I despise travellers, I don't. Now is a good time to plug the demonstration on 10 September (or sooner - it depends on when the eviction begins) to support the travellers of Dale Farm who face being booted off their site in Essex for reasons, it seems, of spite more than anything else.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A new name for my blog?

A well-wisher has suggested I change the name of my blog. "vickim57" is a mouthful and only means something to me: it was the name of my Hotmail account back in the days when Facebook, blogging, etc, were just a twinkle in someone's eye - oh, all of about 10 years ago. I wanted to be vickim but there were loads of them already (some of you will remember this kind of dilemma). I picked vickim57 because of the old Heinz slogan about 57 varieties.

The slogan has added significance to a Trot like me because there is a Stalinist joke about there being 57 varieties of Trotskyist, referring to the fissiparousness (wow!) of the Trotskyist movement - its tendency to split and form new, ever smaller groups (People's Front of Judea vs. Judean People's Front syndrome).

My choice of this name indicates, obviously, my extremely self-deprecating nature. So if I am to have a new name it will have to be something fairly modest. And I'm definitely a Ms, of course, rather than a Miss. Myself, I am thinking along the lines of "Comrade something" or "Citizen something."

If anyone has any suggestions, feel free to leave a comment. I'll even take gratuitiously rude ones: better to be hated than to be ignored.

Barnet council selling off Church Farmhouse Museum

When Barnet council cut its grant to Church Farmhouse Museum and mumbled about allowing the community to take over the building, we suspected it was all baloney and that really they wanted to flog the building. Now we know it was all baloney. The next Cabinet Resources Committee (the one that decides what Barnet council is going to get up to next) has a report going to it
To seek approval that the property be declared surplus to the Council’s requirements and that it be advertised on the open market to enable submission of schemes and initial bids for the Council’s freehold interest. The appraisal and result of the open market testing will be reported to a future Cabinet Resources Committee meeting for consideration.
Yeah, they're going to flog off the building. Report available here (item 7). Under "corporate priorities" the report says:
The Corporate Plan 2010-2013 commits the Council to delivering ‘Better services with less money’. A key principle of the medium term financial strategy is to continually review the use of Council assets so as to reduce the cost of accommodation year on year and to obtain best consideration for any surplus assets to maximise funds for capital investment and/or the repayment of capital debt. The sale of the Church Farmhouse would provide a capital receipt which would support the Council’s priorities and bring this currently unused area of land back into use.
Under "background information" it says:
The Site was originally purchased by the Middlesex County Council for museum purposes, on the 21 February 1944, and became vested in the London Borough of Barnet in 1965 following the abolition of Middlesex County Council.
But we can't be bothered with museums anymore in Barnet.

Under "planning advice" it says:
The museum building is of historic significance and will involve full consultation with English Heritage.

A range of development opportunities exist including residential and/or community and education uses. These may serve as stand alone or enabling development to secure improvements to facilities if identified on or off-site.

Residential densities should reflect the character of the surrounding area and in relation to enhance and protect the historic fabric of the building.
This sale represents a disgraceful loss to the community of a shared asset. In future only a few wealthy individuals will benefit from it. I wish we'd occupied the museum when we had the chance...

Friday, 22 July 2011

Burnt Oak - alright, as shit-holes go

I can't quite believe this, but in a pub the other night I noticed on the wall a small advert for a play that's starting tonight at the Leicester Square Theatre called "Burnt Oak: Life and Death in London Town" (written by Laurence Lynch, directed by Nathan Osgood). I hope I get to see it. If I do I'll review it, you can be sure!

When people ask me where I live and I say "Burnt Oak" and they look blank, I say "top of the Northern Line, Edgware branch" and describe a tuning fork in the air, attempting to emphasize the westernmost prong. "Oh," they say. Then, if they can be arsed, "What's it like?"

I pause before answering truthfully, "It's a shit-hole." I soften the blow by saying, "But not a demoralised shit-hole." By which time they've usually wandered off. Are you still with me?

Well, I think Burnt Oak, the material fabric, the place, is a shit-hole. It would be hard to conceive of a more ugly built environment, a cankerous main street (Watling Avenue) nestling within a cheerless grid of major arterial roads leading north out of London. As I walk about my neighbourhood, I marvel to myself, "there is nothing beautiful here."

One day I'll tell you why the f**k it is I live here, but not today.

So why isn't it more demoralised? Leaving aside the spate of violent assaults and murders in the neighbourhood recently, I am quite impressed that people here aren't nastier to each other than they are. I hope I'm not being naive. I admit I don't live on Watling Avenue itself, but even there violent events are rare. It has a new bustling lease of life as a centre for grocery shopping.

Some local youth hassled some of the shopkeepers for a while, but I haven't seen any trouble of that type recently. The customers became too thick on the ground, and the callow youth of Burnt Oak finally twigged that they would never scare off blokes who learned their trade in places such as Kabul.

I live between Burnt Oak and the more prosperous Colindale. When I come back late at night, I come to Burnt Oak tube station precisely because it feels safer.

Going to Colindale, I'm worried I'll meet the Colindale Crotch-grabber on quiet Booth Road (that's my name for a man who sexually assaulted women in the area on several occasions - I suspect he was the guy who harassed me a couple of times, though luckily I came to no harm).

Yes, as shit-holes go, Burnt Oak is alright.

What links the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Brian Coleman?

Old Methodist chapel, Tolpuddle, Dorset

After my very pleasant stay at the Sandbanks Hotel last week I enjoyed a day-trip to Studland Beach, run by the National Trust, then a walk to less idyllic but nevertheless interesting Bournemouth.

Then I headed inland to the village of Tolpuddle for the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival. This enjoyable annual event commemorates an important early date in the history of British and world trade unionism: the transportation to Australia in 1834 of six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle, Dorset for the "crime" of organising a union. The protest against their treatment was so great that the "Tolpuddle Martrys" were brought back to England in 1836/7. You can read more about these events on the website of the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Museum.

My friend and I broke away from the music and the cider for an hour to visit some of the landmarks of the martrys' lives in this tiny village, including the sycamore tree under which they plotted to form their union, and the Methodist chapel they attended (picture above).

I've read enough of E P Thompson's great book The Making of the English Working Class to know that Methodism became one of the non-conformist creeds that warned the working class off rebellion, but in villages like Tolpuddle there is a clear distinction between the established church, that upheld the traditional hierarchy, and the tiny chapel (of whatever denomination) that attracted the lower classes. In Tolpuddle Methodism was the religion of the rebels.

It makes me laugh, then, to see Barnet councillor Brian Coleman associated with the Methodist Church. He must sometimes wish he belonged to a posher church, don't you think? Still he's done alright out of it: a two-bedroom flat at a below-market rate. Which would all be perfectly alright if he weren't preaching the virtues of the free market to everyone else! Practise what you preach, Coleman, and people might take you more seriously.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Barnet council and the Sandbanks Hotel - a picture paints a thousand words

Barnet council executives have become notorious lately for their 'working trips' to the Sandbanks Hotel in Poole, Dorset, paid for by Barnet residents. This four-star hotel is located right on one of the best beaches in the UK - and 120 miles from Barnet. I visited Sandbanks in July 2011 to find out what draws the Barnet council elite here: from these pictures, I think we can begin to understand.

Welcome to the world famous (at least in Barnet) Sandbanks Hotel
Enjoy views of Poole Harbour (picture taken at the front of the Sandbanks Hotel)
The Sandbanks Hotel gives onto one of the finest beaches in the UK
At the end of a long, hard, erm, day in the conference suite, take time out to relax on the beach

Sun, sea and the Sandbanks Hotel

I was on my way to Tolpuddle to take part in the annual celebration of Dorset’s most famous sons, the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival.

I needed a break and I thought a couple of days by the coast would set me up nicely. Where then? Why, Poole’s in Dorset, I thought, and it’s also the location for the Sandbanks Hotel, beloved of Barnet council executives for “working breaks”. While I’m in Poole, I’ll have a look, I thought.

I booked a cheap train ticket then checked hotel prices – pretty steep for what you get. After all, Poole has become a playground for the rich, and the Sandbanks peninsula a place where billionaires make their home.

I looked on a late booking site: a single bed at Sandbanks wasn’t a lot more expensive than anything else on offer and I would be able to find out for myself just what is the appeal to Barnet council senior executives. I would find out how the other half live - at our expense!

So what is Sandbanks like? It’s a four-star hotel; it’s nice. It’s got everything you need plus bags of room. But it’s not super-luxurious.

The main point to Sandbanks is its location. Now, obviously, it’s a long way from Barnet in north London – about 120 miles, two and a half hours by train from Waterloo. In that sense, it’s a completely lousy location for a work meeting and particularly for a work meeting that aims to help you think about Barnet and its problems. But, no, it’s an excellent location! Why, it’s bang on top of one of the best beaches in the UK and close to wonderful countryside.

I took some work with me, of course, on my own trip to Sandbanks. A book I’ve been meaning to read for a while, Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. It’s a favourite read for the likes of Barnet chief executive Nick Walkley, racking their brains for a way to persuade feckless Barnet residents to behave in a more socially responsible manner.

I thought: if I can read that book I can maybe understand how they think, these senior council execs. But, do you know what, once I got down there, got a sight of that lovely sand, the blue sea, the bar by the beach, I just couldn’t be arsed. Nudge stayed unread. Instead, I went for some lovely walks, had a swim in the sea, enjoyed the serene atmosphere of the dining room... (Not like any seaside hotel I’ve ever stayed in before, I’ll admit.)

Our council execs come here to think about Barnet, which they’ve left miles behind them. Frankly, if any of them manages it they must be mad. You would have to be mad to go to Sandbanks and work! To save them from this appalling dilemma, I have hit upon an excellent solution: no more work trips to Sandbanks! It’s simple. I’m submitting a petition to the Barnet council website and I urge you to sign it and get your friends, family, neighbours and workmates to sign.

I’ll share the link here - just as soon as it is approved...

Stalker or investigative journalist?

I felt vaguely creepy coming to Sandbanks, like some kind of stalker, but why? It’s not as though I am following our senior council execs on their private holidays. I don’t give a stuff where they go or what they do on their own time. The point is that Sandbanks trips are done on Barnet time and at Barnet residents’ expense. It’s not a holiday and we have every right to know where they are going and to imagine how much work they do when they slope off down to the South Coast.

If they want to get away from things to do some brainstorming, a suite at the Holiday Inn Brent Cross would be far more appropriate. They’re always telling us how nice Brent Cross is. They can keep tabs on the development plans while they are there!

I have nothing against the Sandbanks Hotel – it’s a nice place and, my goodness, Barnet bloggers have given them plenty of free publicity over recent months! I just think it’s inappropriate for the senior employees of the council to be spoiling themselves using residents’ money and at the same time as they parcel the rest of the workforce up for the private sector where, without guarantees, they are likely to see their pay and leave entitlements severely reduced. Day trips to Bognor more the order of the day, all round, I think, if the One Barnet Programme goes ahead. (And, yes, I have been to Bognor as well so I know what I’m talking about.)

Finally, in my own defence, at least I can say that my trip to Sandbanks was funded solely by me!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

MetPro: urgent questions for Barnet Councillors

Barnet bloggers - the famous five? - are posting the letter below to councillors.

MetPro: urgent questions for Barnet Councillors

Dear Barnet Councillor,

Many Barnet residents have been disturbed by recent revelations that Barnet Council paid the MetPro security companies more than £1.4 million without making checks on the status of the company, or even having a contract.

The authors of the Barnet blogs, recently praised by Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for their work uncovering this scandal, are writing to you now to ask you to complete the survey below.

The results will be posted on our blogs to allow voters to see how seriously our councillors are taking their responsibilities. We will post the results ward by ward; we will also note non-response.

As councillors are accountable to the electorate, we think it is right and proper that you engage with the electorate and keep them informed of your views and opinions. This survey will help you to do that on a matter of keen public interest.


1. Are you aware of the issues concerning the MetPro security companies and Barnet Council? Yes / No

2. Are you satisfied that the Council has managed the issue properly?
Yes / No / Neither / Don’t know

3. Do you agree with the comments of Lord Palmer, chair of the Audit Committee, that Barnet Council’s Internal Audit is under resourced?
Yes / No / Don’t know / No opinion

4. Have you personally spoken to the Leader of the Council about your views on the MetPro scandal? Yes / No / I am the Leader of the Council

5. Besides the MetPro scandal, do you believe that there are other serious problems with purchasing in Barnet Council? Yes / No / Don't know

6. Do you think a halt should be called to the One Barnet Programme while investigations continue and basic procedures in procurement and contract monitoring are improved?
Yes / No / Don’t know / No opinion

7. Do you believe that as a councillor you have a responsibility to prevent such scandals arising in future? Yes / No / Don’t know / No opinion

8. Have you read the internal audit report into the MetPro scandal? Yes / No

9. Are you happy with the decision to remove nine staff from Barnet Council’s procurement team, as proposed by Craig Cooper at the General Functions Committee on 30 June 2011?
Yes / No / Don’t know / No opinion

Thank you for your time. We look forward to receiving your answers to these questions. Of course, we would be happy to hear any comments you would like to make on the matters raised.

Yours faithfully,

Derek Dishman, John Dix, Vicki Morris, Theresa Musgrove and Roger Tichborne

Friern Barnet library: walk to the library week and Saturday party

This week campaigners to keep Friern Barnet library open have organised a programme of events for children, after 3pm each day, including crafts and reading sessions. They're calling it "Walk to the Library Week". And on this Saturday 16 July they're having a party from 2-4pm.

Read more about the campaign on the Save Friern Barnet library blog.

Download their wonderful poster via the Barnet Alliance for Public Services blog here.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Barnet council under the hammer

On Friday 8 July Barnet residents protested outside and - briefly, until we were turned back by security - inside North London Business Park where Barnet council has its offices. The council was hosting a "market day" for private companies, including Capita and BT, to come and find out about the more than £1bn worth of contracts up for grabs.

We got a lot of support for the protest from Barnet council staff walking and driving into work. They, of course, are carrying out their own form of protest against being sold to the highest bidder: industrial action. I plan to report properly on this next week as I think it holds the most hope for stopping this insane mass outsourcing.

Senior execs putting on a show at Barnet council can pretend that everything in the Barnet garden is rosy but beyond the atrium at the North London Business Park, where the suits gathered, there is seething resentment among staff at being handed over to the private sector without having a say in the matter.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Mass outsourcing: when do Barnet residents get their say?

This anonymous looking address, 71 Victoria Street, is the headquarters building of Capita. One of their subsidiaries, Capita Symonds, is a likely bidder for one of the big contracts to run Barnet council services.

Some Barnet residents visited it on Thursday for an hour to protest against the mass outsourcing known as the One Barnet Programme. I explained this protest to a local journalist:
On Friday a number of big companies will come to Barnet to discuss the contract for outsourcing. There are two big parties to this issue that are simply not being consulted: the staff and residents. Mass outsourcing was not in the Tories' manifesto for the local elections. No one has ever asked residents what they think.

Capita and other companies think they can just pitch up to Barnet council offices to discuss outsourcing with the senior executives. They'll get their respective lawyers to draw up the papers and work out the details. We are visiting Capita to say that there is another party in this issue, residents, and many of us are not happy with the outsourcing. The big companies and Barnet council's executive officers think they can sort this out over a chat and over our heads. They're wrong. We have something to say as well.
It was really only when I said this that I grasped the injustice that is being done. A billion pounds worth of business is being transacted by a handful of people and the people it will affect the most - staff and residents - get no say in the matter. It is a travesty of democracy.

Capita were slightly nervous on Thursday; four police officers were there to keep the peace. They need not have worried. There weren't many of us; we had a successful leafleting of the public and chanted a bit and went home. As we moved off furtive Capita staff began leaving the building. Evidently we had been detaining them longer at work than they would have liked. What did they think that we might to do to them? Talk to them? Can't have that!

Capita fact

Capita's chief executive Paul Pindar is paid £14,500 per week. And you were peed off at paying Nick Walkley's wages!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A good day to bury bad news in Barnet? Nah!

On the day that Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles publicly lambasted Barnet council over its MetPro failings, its arrogance toward residents, bloggers in particular, and its lousy procurement practices, in front of the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), the bottom has to fall out of Murdoch's media empire. You couldn't make it up.

As an NUJ colleague Rich Simcox tweeted earlier:
Press officers, take the rest of the week off. You can forget that thing you were pitching. Whatever it was.
No! We don't like things too easy in Barnet, we thrive on a challenge, we persist in trying to catch people's attention when all eyes are turned the other way.

So I will report on our protest outside the HQ of Capita this evening, I will remind you that Capita and other multinationals (hm, multinationals...) are coming to Barnet council's offices tomorrow to be schmoozed (surely it should be the other way around) and enticed to bid for massive multi-million pound contracts to run the services that we've managed so far to run quite well ourselves - and not for profit - and I will crow once more over Eric Pickles siding with Barnet's bloggers against Barnet's complacent Conservative administration.

Rupert Murdoch, who he?

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The gannets descend: a tender goes out at Barnet

Now I like birds, and seabirds in particular, but the undignified image of gannets diving into the ocean after fish comes to mind when I think about Barnet council at the moment. Or, rather, about those big private companies flapping around at a great height watching for the shiny One Barnet morsels just beneath the waves.

I understand that a flock of gannets will descend on Barnet council on Friday, for a presentation on one of the big tasty contracts that are up for tender - I forget whether it's the £275 million contract for regulation and development (a "bundle" of services that includes such things as environmental health, planning and, bizarrely, Hendon cemetery) or the £750 million contract for revenue, benefits and the Customer Service Organisation (aka Barnet call centre).

I don't suppose the companies care much either what they are bidding to provide. If a contract's big enough to attract their attention, they will find a way to fulfill it, subcontracting where they have to in order to meet the brief, as we have seen with such resounding successes as the contract to maintain the Fremantle care homes - you know, the ones where legionella bacteria were discovered recently.

We have seen, through the MetPro scandal and their own recent damning internal audit report, that Barnet council are crap at procurement and crap at monitoring what happens when services are contracted out. So I think we can safely assume that, in the months and years ahead, we will also be getting a lot of that other thing you get when gannets gather in large flocks: guano.

Anyway, a few of us Barnet residents are venturing outside the borough tomorrow, Thursday evening, to make a protest outside Capita HQ at 71 Victoria Street, SW1. We will be there from 4.30-6.30pm; join us if you are in the area, whether you agree or not. We are always up for a debate!

Capita's subsidiary Capita Symonds is one of the companies bidding for one of those big contracts. Other companies will not escape our attention in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Happy birthday, NHS: 63 years old - can't retire yet!

I shall sneak out between bouts of feverish editing today to go on this march to celebrate the 63rd birthday of the NHS, oppose the cuts it's facing and warn that the government still plans to go ahead with the creeping privatisation of the service through its Health and Social Care Bill - paused but, alas, not abandoned.
March to defend the NHS from cuts and privatisation

The Unite union and Keep our NHS Public organised march to defend the NHS from cuts and privatisation takes place this Tuesday, 5 July, from 5:30pm.

Assemble at Savoy Street, Strand, WC2E to march along the Strand, past Trafalgar Square down Whitehall. Finishing point and rally: Old Palace Yard, opposite the Houses of Parliament

Speakers include: Len McCluskey (Unite General Secretary), Dr Wendy Savage (Keep our NHS Public)

Organised by Unite and Keep our NHS Public