Sunday, 9 December 2012

Residents take over the town hall, Or: A lesson in manners

I've returned from a weekend away recharging my batteries after the last manic couple of weeks campaigning against Barnet Council's 'One Barnet' outsourcing programme. On a personal note, I suppose, I was keeping a low profile as well, since I was one of the 'ringleaders' of the residents' brief sit-in at Hendon Town Hall on Thursday 6 December and, you might be surprised to hear, I don't much like being the centre of attention or making a fuss in public.

The Cabinet was meeting to vote on whether to approve an outsourcing contract with Capita for a New Support and Customer Services Organisation (NSCSO), worth at least £320 million over 10 years. The champions of One Barnet say this means 'back office' services, things such as getting cheaper human resources management and stationery. They say - and said in the meeting - it wouldn't directly affect 'front-facing services', and residents wouldn't notice the difference.

Of course residents will notice the difference, because one of the big chunks of the NSCSO contract entails channeling all of our telephone calls to the Council through a Capita call centre. 200 jobs at least are likely to be lost from the borough and 'exported' to another city, for example, Belfast, Blackburn or Sheffield, as a result.

There are just two examples of the difference that NSCSO will make to Barnet residents.

At the Cabinet meeting, Barnet Alliance for Public Services decided to disrupt the vote. We knew that the Cabinet members would adjourn to another room to take it and that our protest was only symbolic, but we wanted to make the point that the public, insofar as it has even been told about One Barnet, rejects it.

At the meeting there were public questions, Labour leader of the Opposition Alison Moore spoke (and was challenged by the Tory Cabinet), and we didn't want to stop those. In the event, we timed our intervention slightly wrong; we thought Daniel Thomas was about to announce the vote, and started our protest prematurely, but in fact, when the Cabinet adjourned to another room, there was still some comment from the other Cabinet members. It's a shame we did not hear it, but I wonder, also, whether the Cabinet members' questions would have been any more probing or less stagey than usual.

For example, something along the lines of the box-ticking you usually hear:
"Has the Leader considered the potential impact of x proposed policy change on disabled people in the borough?"

"Yes, I can reassure the member that we have carried out a full Equalities Impact Assessment."
The necessity of carrying out Equalities Impact Assessments was a hard-learned lesson for Barnet Council when they first lost a legal challenge over their proposed (and carried through) policy of removing residential sheltered housing wardens.

There are now two legal challenges being brought against One Barnet, as Maria Nash sent a Pre-Action Protocol letter to the Council on Thursday to add to the action already initiated by John Sullivan on behalf of his daughter Susan.

I am learning that a lot of what Cabinet members say in public is more for the benefit of lawyers in case of a potential legal action, than for us the residents.

Why we disrupted the Cabinet meeting

The purpose of our intervention on Thursday night was not so much, as I have already said, to make impossible a vote, as to make the point that none of the decisions the Council is taking in relation to the One Barnet Programme has democratic legitimacy.

After the Cabinet members had adjourned to a side room to conclude their deliberations, we residents 'took over' the committee table and held an impromptu residents forum.

In May 2011 Barnet Tories changed the Council's constitution - possibly illegally - to BAN residents at the Council-run residents forums from talking about:
  • policy
  • Barnet-wide issues
  • anything discussed already in the past six months.
What this effectively was, was a ban on public discussion by residents about the One Barnet Programme.

The disruption we caused on Thursday night was noisy and not particularly polished - we are only learning how to protest - but it got a lot of publicity for our basic case: residents have not been consulted about One Barnet. Residents should have been consulted about One Barnet. We should be fully informed about and, if we want it, involved in ALL decisions that affect our Council services and the expenditure of our money.

Much as it causes me some personal embarrassment to be captured on video as the woman on the chair (I took my shoes off first, I'll have you know), leading the chanting, I'm very glad that we took the decision to protest in this way and, even more, that we had the guts to carry it through. Possibly contrary to appearances, I think the Barnet Alliance is growing up politically.

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