Friday, 29 April 2011

Fair Pay for Royal Cleaners - it's not much to ask

Yesterday I took some pictures at a demonstration outside Buckingham Palace, to support the PCS union's campaign for a London living wage for cleaners in the Royal Household.

The cleaners currently earn £6.45 per hour while the London living wage is £7.85.

Please sign the petition here.

More pictures here.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Up the republic!

I had a strange day, full of emotion, but most of it vicarious. I went to Buckingham Palace for 12 noon, where the PCS civil service union staged a small demonstration to promote its Fair Pay for Royal Cleaners campaign. They are calling on the Royal Household to pay their cleaners an extra £1.40 an hour, in order to bring them up to the London Living Wage of £7.85 per hour. Calling for this now, while everyone thinks the Royals are wonderful, is a smart bit of PR. You can sign the petition here.

I would post a picture of that demonstration, and will do later, but I then went off on a seven hour-long circuit of central London landmarks capturing, or trying to, some of the sights as the capital builds up for the wedding tomorrow - and it's going to take me all night to download my pictures!

I'm a convinced republican, but I'm not stupid. I do know that people's emotions, including favourable emotions regarding the monarchy, are a real thing.

I've taken literally hundreds of pictures today, and tomorrow the papers will be full of far more interesting ones, of wedding dresses, hats foreign dignitaries and despots, street parties - including several here in Barnet - etc. So no one will ever want to look at the fruit of my labours.

But it wasn't entirely a wasted effort: I got lots of camera practice, I met some interesting characters, and I never have to photograph a central London monument again, as I think I have all of them now, including several I never even knew existed before.

I'm going to Red Lion Square tomorrow for the Republic street party. It had been due to take place in Covent Garden, but the big landowner around there, Shaftesbury Estates, objected. Covent Garden shopkeepers would have had a fairly sophisticated and tolerant attitude to the killjoy republicans. I suspect that in Red Lion Square we might be pelted with rotten vegetables by the occupants of the council flats overlooking us.

Hey ho, that's where sentiments stand.

P.S. Given the number of preemptive arrests of people suspected of plotting to protest against the wedding tomorrow, I hope I will get through the night without a knock at the door. I'm counting on that nice picture of Buckingham Palace at the top deflecting suspicion... The world's gone mad.

Mike Freer sorts the treasury tags

When I left university the first time, I spent 18 halcyon months as a civil servant. I was an Administrative Officer in Royal Parks and Palaces, funnily enough, part of the Department of the Environment. Generally I was fully occupied, administering rents for the Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London and arranging access for utility companies to the Royal parks.

Sometimes, things would go a bit slack though. On those occasions, my Grade 7 (boss), instead of doing the sensible thing and saying "Vicki, why don't you go and enjoy an hour in the sunshine", would do what all good managers do and find me something to do.

One day he struck on the brilliantly pointless idea of making me sort the treasury tags (illustrated). Now that we no longer use such things - and barely used them then - I should explain that these were used to hold sheaves of papers together in the days before widespread use of the ring binder and long before the notion of the paperless office was invented.

Treasury tags came in different lengths, so that you could hold more or fewer pieces of paper together. They were colour coded to some extent, I think green ones were quite long and purple or yellow ones very short, you get the idea. Of course, there was absolutely no point sorting them into separate piles; no one would bothered to remember which colour was long or short. No one ever said to themselves "How thick is my pile of papers? Just a few sheets. Then I'll need a red tag for that." before they hit the stationery cupboard.

Moreover, any intelligent human being needing a treasury tag would sensibly rummage in the pile, and hold a few up until they saw one the right length.

Never mind; my boss, not on the whole a bad man, thought he was saving the taxpayer money or something and saving me from dangerous idleness by making me do this.

I recently saw a news story which reminded me of treasury tags: apparently Mike Freer has been counting the mobile phones in government departments. Now, Mike Freer used to be a big fish in the substantial, but compared to government, relatively small pond of Barnet council. He used to be a sort of grade 7 - a boss. He had his own office and desk and most people knew who he was.

Now he finds himself at Westminster, for weeks he was without an office, presumably ignored at every turn. Whether he has been given the job of sorting the treasury tags, sorry, counting the mobile phones, by someone else who wants to make him feel valued, I don't know. I somehow doubt it. I rather suspect he has hit upon this way to show his usefulness by himself. Well, I've noticed Mike, someone's noticed.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

What does a guy have to do to get arrested around here?

Oh, yeah, that'll do it.

I don't know whether Alfie Meadows was involved in violent disorder during the student demonstration on 9 December, but it strikes me as unlikely. Almost any number of people were caught up in the pushing and shoving that went on around Westminster on that day. Why, if the police went through every bit of of film they have, they could probably make a good case against me.

I met Alfie Meadows during the campaign to keep the philosophy department open at Middlesex University a year ago. The students held an inpromptu demonstration outside Hendon Town Hall as it happens, on the evening of Barnet council's last AGM.

I didn't get to know any of the students well, but, from the little I did see, Alfie stood out as someone astute and rather brave. On one occasion the campaigners were discussing the next steps in their campaign, on the lawn in front of the Middlesex campus. One of the staff and a key figure in the campaign, Peter Hallward was holding forth. Alfie interjected to ask Peter to come clean on whether he was holding negotiations with Kingston University with a view to moving the postgraduate research department there. Don't such negotiations undermine our campaign to keep the philosophy department open here at Middlesex? asked Alfie. And, if you are negotiating, aren't you being irresponsible egging undergraduate students on to acts that could jeopardise their academic careers here at Middlesex after you and your research department have shoved off to Kingston?

He didn't come out and say so directly, but that was the import of what he said. In the event, the research centre did go to Kingston University, and the philosophy department at Middlesex stopped admitting new students. Alfie, as far as I know, is still a student there, one of the last to do an undergraduate degree in philosopy at Middlesex (or anywhere in the country possibly).

But Alfie and Peter seemed to have been on good enough terms on 9 December, because they were together at the demonstration, around the time that Alfie was seriously injured, hit on the head, he says, by a police truncheon. The injury he sustained caused bleeding on the brain, and he nearly died.

He has made a complaint against the police. How interesting that they should now make charges against him of violent disorder; he is bailed to appear at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on 9 June along with a handful of other defendants facing charges in relation to the 9 December demonstration.

One thing that I found very distasteful about this charge is the alacrity with which pro-police blogs reported it. Perhaps they think they are looking after their own. Well, in that case, I will look after my own and stand by Alfie Meadows.

Barnet council - more handwashes than Carex

I promised in my previous post to tell you the story of Nick Walkley and the Connaught workers. I think it illustrates perfectly some of the problems with Barnet council.

In September 2010 Connaught went bust. They mainly did building repairs and maintenance for local authorities. Barnet Homes had a contract with them. Once upon a time, the people working for Connaught doing building repairs had been directly employed by the council, but those workers were TUPE'd to Connaught (possibly to Barnet Homes inbetween - it gets complicated!).

TUPE'd is a trade unionist's shorthand for transferred from one employer to another. TUPE is the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations. I'll let ACAS explain:
The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE) protects employees' terms and conditions of employment when a business is transferred from one owner to another. Employees of the previous owner when the business changes hands automatically become employees of the new employer on the same terms and conditions. It's as if their employment contracts had originally been made with the new employer. Their continuity of service and any other rights are all preserved. Both old and new employers are required to inform and consult employees affected directly or indirectly by the transfer.
When Connaught went bust, a company called Lovell took over many of the Connaught contracts, but, for a while, it was not clear whether they wanted the contract with Barnet.

The former Connaught workers, many of them members of the Unison union, were left in limbo for several days, not knowing whether they still had a job. They received notice of redundancy, which was then withdrawn, and then reinstated, and so on, while KPMG, the liquidator, Barnet Homes and Lovell got their act together.

It was a very stressful time for the Connaught workers. Barnet Unison called for the workers and the work to be taken back inhouse - at least, for Barnet Homes to take it back. When Maggi Myland spoke to Nick Walkley about this in the lunch queue at NLBP, she was urging him to take an interest, to see what he could do to help sort things out for the ex-Connaught workers.

What was Walkley's attitude? It's nothing to do with us, the workers no longer work for Barnet council or even Barnet Homes - no matter that they were working on Barnet Homes properties. No matter that it had never been their choice to be transferred to the private sector.

Walkley's face, a picture of pure puzzlement. Me, have anything to do with the Connaught workers? In short, he washed his hands of the affair. While, from a purely legal point of view, he was correct, from a political point of view he was wrong. What happened with this contract was a matter for Barnet council.

As we know, Barnet council is planning to outsource the bulk of its services, which will mean many more council workers being TUPE'd. The example of what happened to the Connaught workers is just one reason for Barnet council workers' alarm at the prospect of being shoved into the private sector; it's why some of them are currently taking industrial action, and more of them are considering it.

Lovell did engage the former Connaught workers in the end, although a wrangle over who would pay them for some overtime they did in summer 2010 went on for a long time (it might still be going on).

Why I remembered this was the latest revelations on Barnet council's relations with MetPro. Mrs Angry has received a letter from Barnet council telling her that the council received one copy of a piece of film of residents made (illegally) by MetPro, and that they destroyed it. And that is where they think their responsibility ends. They also say MetPro assured them they had all the appropriate SIA licences - they didn't.

Barnet council thinks all the responsibility lies with the private company, not with them. Barnet council hasn't cocked up; it doesn't have a responsibility to check what contractors are up to, even when they are breaking the law.

Barnet council's upper echelons don't recognise that they need to take political responsibility, even where legal responsibility cannot be pinned on them, for errors committed on their premises, by their contractors (I use the term loosely because, as we know, they appear not to have had a contract with MetPro).

Barnet council thinks it can wash its hands of contracted-out employees? It thinks it can wash its hands of the fate of residents put at the mercy of contractors? You can take that puzzled look off your face, Nick Walkley. You're wrong, it just doesn't wash.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Nick Walkley's Illy habit

I'm so irritated by the facts revealed in Mrs Angry's latest blogpost concerning the MetPro scandal that I thought I'd at last dish the little dirt I have on Barnet council's chief executive Nick Walkley (because I hold him ultimately responsible for Barnet's handling of the MetPro fiasco).

Walkley earns more than £200,000 a year, paid by you and me. That's annoying, but that's not the dirt. We all knew that.

I've never said anything personally nasty about him before but I think it's now time to share something I've found out about him. It might seem a trivial thing, but I found it quite telling.

Once, as the guest of Maggi Myland, I was standing in the queue for the lunch counter at the Barnet council offices in North London Business Park. Who should join the back of the queue at that moment but Nick Walkley. A bit awkward. We all said "hello", as warmly as we could - we're fellow humans, after all, even if not much else unites us.

Maggi engaged Walkley in a conversation about the fate of people working for Connaught, which had just gone bust. That will be the subject of my next blogpost, and relates directly to the MetPro scandal. But let's get back to the lunch queue...

I couldn't find much to talk to Walkley about except what we might eat. Walkley said it was all very good. The catering operation at NLBP is run at cost, and it's great value.

"And you must try the coffee," Walkley said. "It's Illy, I insisted on that."

Now, I find that a bit rich. A man bent on admitting private companies to run our public services for profit. Yet who will use his position to insist that his own "at cost" lunch is washed down with his favourite coffee.

Of course, the argument will go that the private sector can run services cheaper than the public sector can. One, I don't buy that - the Barnet Future Shape programme only continues to rack up costs; two, when it does, it almost always does that by lowering standards - of employment for the workers, and, often, of the customer experience.

If they ever privatise the lunch counter at NLBP I'll bet you it won't be half as good. Or it will become more expensive to the diner. Walkley will have to pay a premium for his wretched Illy coffee. It would serve him right.

Barnet council and MetPro: evidence of small victories

Just before Easter, a clutch of Barnet residents, including some of its bloggers, sent off a letter to the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles.

We were renewing our call for an independent inquiry into Barnet council's dealings with the MetPro security firms. The reasons outlined, barring a few tweaks and embellishments, were those Rog T outlined in a recent blogpost.

It being Easter and likely a whole fortnight where things would move quite slowly, I expected that interest in MetPro would drop off slightly. However, that doesn't mean the issue has gone away.

Monroe Palmer, chair of the council's audit committee investigation of this issue, tells Roger the committee will meet in June. That's too late. He had hinted to Times series journalists that he would bring the investigation forward to April or May. That idea has been shelved, has it? It shouldn't be! We cannot wait till June!

The most alarming discovery of residents' and supporters' various investigations is that there are no records of any council contracts with MetPro: the council and the company merely had an "arrangement". The second most alarming discovery is that the council seems not to have monitored this "arrangement" once made. Since the council is hurtling into wholesale contracting out of services, any gaping holes in its competence in the matter of contracting need to be exposed as quickly as possible! Not in June!

I am waiting for a response from the Information Commissioner's Office about Barnet's handling of the data issue, when - only through the efforts of others - they found out that MetPro had been filming residents. I am also putting in an official complaint to the council on this matter.

With many of these measures, people tell me "don't hold your breath!", meaning nothing will happen quickly. And, even if it does, any remedy probably won't satisfy you. They could be right. The real value, however, is in propaganda. Going down the official routes yields fruit if accompanied by a publicity campaign.

That's what I and fellow bloggers and other residents intend to keep up.

To remind myself why I'm doing this, I visited the website of MetPro Emergency Response, the company that bought the assets and business of MetPro Rapid Response - you know, the company that went into voluntary liquidation on 14 March with debts of around £400,000, including £245,000 owed to HM Revenue and Customs ("the tax man").

I only had to visit the "Testimonials" page on MetPro's website to remember why it is all worth it. Whereas a few short weeks ago, Barnet council featured prominently as one of MetPro's most satisfied customers, today there is not a word about or from Barnet council. That is as it should be, but how was it possible? Only because of the campaign led by Barnet residents and bloggers. Only because we shone a light on MetPro and shamed the council into ending their relations with them. No one should ever forget that, least of all Monroe Palmer.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Who came off worst? The buffet or Brian Coleman?

Slimmed down Coleman?
Thanks to Adam Bienkov for retweeting a picture found by Helzbels. It's from the Facebook page of London Conservative Future (yikes!). The caption reads:
North Central NO2AV Action Day in Chipping Barnet with the Rt Hon Theresa Villiers MP (Minister of State for Transport), Marina Yannakoudakis MEP and Cllr Brian Coleman AM (16/04/11)
Now, to be fair, we all like a free buffet - it's just that some like one more than most! Boom, boom!

Actually, has Coleman slimmed down a bit? He's understood to have appointed a PR guru to remake his image in the run-up to the 2012 GLA elections. Perhaps he's taken out a gym membership as well... well, you know, not actually parted with cash but wangled free membership somewhere.

But wait, who's this I see coming down the streets of Chipping Barnet? That's more like the Brian Coleman we know.

P.S. A friend tells me Coleman had a go at one of his colleagues at LFB for daring to take a lift one floor!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Flying Scotsman - a reflection on St George's Day

I do voluntary work with a campaign called No Sweat. We raise money for workers fighting for their rights in other countries, generally in factories doing outsourced work for big corporations, in short, sweatshop workers. Possibly of more interest to my readers, however, is the fact that No Sweat's office is in King's Cross!

I spend a couple of days a week in a top-floor room leased from Housmans radical bookshop. The computer at the No Sweat office is hopelessly slow. The long minutes passing as the screen redraws or the computer performs the most basic task gives me time to gaze out of the window at the flats, shops and streets around about. King's Cross, half regenerated, half degenerate, affords plenty to see and think about.

A key feature of the area is the Flying Scotsman pub. Look this up on beerintheevening or fancyapint and you'll learn, as I did, that this pub is famous for its strippers.

I can see into the first floor where there appears to be a small bar and some stools. The clientele upstairs are mostly women - perhaps they are the turns resting between acts. There is also the men's toilet. Mercifully, that has frosted glass but you can still see whether a man is sitting or standing, and count the number of sheets of bog paper he tears off to wipe his arse.

The pub windows on the ground floor are painted over, a flat brown colour.

The Flying Scotsman is always busiest on a Friday evening; men pitch up in droves from mid-afternoon, desperate for a pint and an ogle.

I'm no connoisseur of strip joints, but according to the reviews (and the testimony of a friend who says he once popped in there when desperate for the loo) a noteworthy feature of the Flying Scotsman is that while one woman performs, the next act circulates around the bar with a pint pot. The more money the punters put into the pot, the more the woman on the stage reveals. It all sounds very depressing.

Anyway, yesterday afternoon there was quite a commotion outside the FS. A large group of white men, sporting little red rosebuds on their chests in honour of St George's Day, had just left the pub. They had brought an "official photographer" along for the day: a girlfriend or wife of one of them, who did her best to take some group photos - but it was not easy, since she was as drunk as her subjects.

The men shouted a lot and made disparaging remarks about some of the people passing, particularly anyone who wasn't white. Then at some signal the bulk of them lurched off in the direction of King's Cross station. One of their number tried to get back into the pub but the pub closed the door on him and there was an argument on the pavement. Two vans of old bill turned up and ticked the drunk man off - but the intervention of the forces of law and order came too late, well after the lord mayor's show had passed.

Everyone should know by now, but for the purposes of this post I still must mention, that the historical figure of St George was probably born in Palestine/Syria, and, of course, he never visited England.

So what did I witness yesterday? A group of white Englishmen too rude to be welcome in a strip joint. Invoking the name of a Palestinian/Syrian-born Christian saint in order to abuse anyone who didn't look like them. With women playing only bit parts in the drama (I use the word advisedly). How far from decency we still are.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Robert Rams' negative externalities, Or: Barnet, the dirty man of north London

As I visited one of my favourite parks the other day, Golders Hill Park, I reflected again on the words of Councillor Robert Rams of this borough as he proposed to cut funding to the Arts Depot, Barnet Museum and Church Farmhouse Museum:
“We have to bear in mind that Barnet remains part of one of the world’s great cultural capitals and we’re fortunate to have a rich variety of arts provision, much of it free, just half an hour or so away on the Tube."
At the time what struck me about this statement was only the philistinism: he doesn't much care about keeping art and cultural activities in Barnet, in any case, he doesn't see it as part of the council's job to promote arts and culture in the borough.

But as I sat on the lush, springy turf of Golders Hill Park, licking an ice cream and wondering what to visit first, the flower gardens, the butterfly house or the zoo, a second aspect of this statement struck me, more egregious than the first.

Golders Hill Park is one of the nicest parks in London and the citizens of Barnet are extremely lucky to have it on their doorstep. The point to note, though, is that it belongs to and is maintained by the Corporation of London. The wonderful Hampstead Heath, which Barnet citizens can and do use, is not owned or maintained by Barnet either. If you want a lively night out you go to Camden or into the West End. Etc. Who picks up the tab? Someone else. Not just someone else: in part, the ordinary residents of other boroughs.

Other boroughs mow the lawns, empty the bins, let out the refreshment stands, and, in the case of Camden on a Monday morning, clean up after a weekend of debauchery. Barnet gets all this for free.

I recently did a political science degree, and one of the concepts we were taught is "negative externalities". This is when one political authority does something that costs, but they don't have to pay, by accidents of geography, or so on. So if there is a nuclear accident in Ukraine, countries downwind get some of the fallout - but that's not Ukraine's problem (it has enough problems of its own). Less dramatically, when the customers from burger restaurants leave the wrappings in the streets, that's not the burger restaurants' problem - until the council makes a regulation that they must provide bins outside their shop. (Regulation is often the answer to negative externality problems.)

So we, I'm ashamed to say, residents of Barnet are negative externalities, when we go out of the borough for our entertainment which must be provided at their expense by other authorities, local or central.

Robert Rams' casual philistinism was worse than I had at first thought. There is another negative aspect to his statement, of course, that it is just plain stupid. The more amenities that close in Barnet the fewer people want to live or spend their money here, the more of a shithole it becomes, etc.

P.S. I picked up a copy of the North London Arts Guide in the library yesterday. It covers Barnet, Enfield and Haringey. Church Farmhouse Museum, listed there, is now closed, thanks to Barnet council, in the first place, Robert Rams, cutting its grant. Barnet Museum faces an uncertain future, thanks to Barnet council, in the first place, Robert Rams. Barnet's contribution to the culture of north London is dwindling, thanks to Barnet council, in the first place, Robert Rams. Haringey and Enfield councils, think on!

UPDATE: Another Barnet blogger put me onto this film about arts in north London: the only amenity mentioned in Barnet is the Arts Depot - which, of course, had its grant from Barnet council cut recently.

P.P.S. And that's without mentioning Brent Cross or Pinkham Way!

Friday, 22 April 2011

This week's Barnet Press: an inferior product

If you get a copy of this week's Barnet Press and wonder why it's looking a bit ropey, the reason is that it was produced in conditions of semi-clandestinity - probably at the offices of South London Press, although not by SLP regulars.

If it looks ropey, it's because it and other titles in the North London and Herts Tindle Newspapers stable were produced by who knows, because the staff that usually produce them have been on strike since Tuesday. They believe the only way the standard of the journalism in these papers can be maintained is to increase the number of journalists producing them by the figure of... one.

That's right, they are asking for just one more journalist to be hired on the papers. But the proprietor Ray Tindle has resisted this. After a year of fruitless negotiations, the NUJ members at the papers decided to organise a strike, Tuesday-Thursday this week, Tuesday-Thursday next week.

If you think the Barnet Press looks rubbish when it isn't produced by the regular staff, and if you want to support the standard of local journalism and the call for an extra journalist, please drop a line to Sir Ray Tindle:

Sir Ray Tindle
Tindle Newspapers
The Old Court House
Union Road

You can visit the strikers' blog here.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Barnet Press strike is about the quality of local journalism

It was a great day for a trip to Enfield Town to join the demonstration of the NUJ members at Tindle newspapers, Barnet Press and the rest of the North London and Herts stable.

I wouldn't have missed it for the world, particularly the experience of turning the tables and questioning the reporters, such as Kim Inam, who are usually phoning me for a quotation, and asking the photographers to pose for a picture for a change.

I spoke to the Father of the Chapel, Jonathan Lovett, the papers' arts correspondent, before the demonstration.
This dispute is not about pay. There are only three reporters now churning out nine papers, it's not enough to do a good job. When I joined, these were good papers.

The veiled redundancy threat made on the eve of the strike galvanised us. It threw petrol on the fire, when we had hoped there was a chance of conciliation, an 11th hour deal.

We are not sure where the paper is being produced now. There were rumours of the South London Press. But the NUJ chapel is strong there and they have seen no sign of it. Perhaps it is being produced at "Tindle Towers", the Farnham HQ of Tindle Newspapers.

The local titles have been losing money, but the company as a whole made £3 million profit: we argue they can support us. Why have newspapers if you are just going to abandon them when they are in difficulty? The readers still need a paper. That's why we are having this protest. These newspapers are suffering death from a thousand cuts.

But we want to raise them from the dead. During today's demonstration I'll be dressed as a priest; my message is one of hope.

We are striking for three days this week and next; we wouldn't have been working on the bank holidays anyway. We've heard, though, that we are going to be docked pay for the bank holidays as well, so for six days on strike we will lose 10 days' pay. We are getting money from the NUJ hardship fund; and we have received donations.

Last night we visited Birmingham and Coventry NUJ who made a generous donation.

Our ballot was for indefinite strike so after these six days we might announce further days.

There are signs that what has been happening to us, posts going unfilled, is happening elsewhere in Tindle Newspapers. The business model Tindle is trying to impose includes relying on readers to send in the stories.

We have been in negotiations for 12 months over pay and over unfilled posts. We wanted at least a guarantee that any more journalist posts coming vacant would be filled, and we were calling for another journalist to be appointed. We thought we had agreement on that, but at the last minute that demand was rejected.

We got nowhere. We understand that everyone is under pressure, and so pay is not the issue in this dispute. This strike is about the quality of local journalism.
Visit the strike blog here. Set of pictures here.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Support the Tindle newspapers strikers!

I know not everyone likes the Barnet Press (or any of the local papers) but I think we would all agree that we are better off having a local paper than not! In fact, I think the Barnet Press have done a good job lately of covering and even investigating local issues, including Future Shape, the move to get rid of sheltered housing wardens, and now the MetPro affair.

One thing that's certain is that the fewer journalists you have gathering news, the worse the newspaper! That is what has been happening at Barnet Press, whose journalists are going on strike for two weeks from Tuesday 19 April. Let's be clear, that's a long time to be out on strike. If you want to campaign for good local newspapers I would ask you to support the strike, which is against non-filling of vacant posts.

I plan to go and visit the strikers at their office on Tuesday or Wednesday. In the meantime, I can't do better to let you know what it's all about than reprint the journalists' press release, and ask you to support them in the ways they suggest at the end.
Staff at North London & Herts Newspapers say “enough is enough” in the first strike in Tindle Newspapers’ history

From Tuesday, April 19, journalists at the north London newspaper group will go on strike over the Tindle business plan that is leaving once award-winning newspapers to dwindle and die.

Bad for staff…

The company is refusing to replace members of staff when they leave, while expecting increased output from its already overworked employees – seemingly with no viable strategy to revive the newspapers’ fortunes.

Owner Sir Ray Tindle has claimed to be the “Saviour of local newspapers” and recently said: “Despite the doom-mongers regional newspapers are alive and well...”

Not in north London – here they suffer death by a thousand cutbacks. The company says our centre has to cut costs, but last year our employer Tindle Newspapers made more than £3million profit.

• More than a third of editorial staff have left without being replaced and key positions are not being filled.

• Just three reporters are churning out nine newspapers every week.

• In the past few weeks management has slashed the Sports section by half while the future of the entire Arts & Leisure section is under threat.

Bad for the community…

As a consequence of its refusal to replace staff an inferior product is being delivered to our readers and, therefore, our advertisers:

• Reporters do not have time to leave their desks, meaning they are missing stories of vital importance.

• We are unable to cover a range of council meetings, attend community events, court cases and inquiries and report them to the public.

• This leads to a failure to uphold the newspapers’ fine tradition of holding public bodies to account and the worst kind of “churnalism”.

Showing support

• NUJ members will be outside their offices in Refuge House, 9-10 River Front, Enfield, EN1 3SZ (just across from Enfield Town railway station) from Tuesday to Thursday over the next two weeks.

• Photo opportunity: Wednesday, April 20 from noon when a mass demonstration will take place featuring The Grim Reaper and a funeral procession.

• North London & Herts Newspapers comprises: The Enfield Advertiser, The Edmonton Advertiser, The Winchmore Hill Advertiser & Herald, The Enfield Gazette, The Barnet & Potters Bar Press, The East Barnet Press & Advertiser, The Edgware & Mill Hill Press, The Hendon & Finchley Press and The Haringey Advertiser.

• For more information call FOC Jonathan Lovett on 07917 871 421 or Barry Fitzpatrick on 020 7843 3706.

• To find out more:
Search Facebook for "Gazette, Advertiser and Press on Strike"
Twitter: @StrikeGazAdPres

"Localism = giving power to local people" Eric Pickles

Like many of you, I'm sure, I watched Communities Minister Eric Pickles on Newsnight on Wednesday.

Gavin Esler failed to give Graham Chapman, deputy leader of Nottingham City Council, what he promised and get Eric Pickles to say what happens next year when further cuts have to be made and particularly poorer councils are squeezed yet further. Whereas Pickles insists that councils only have to cut 4.4% on average, the councils with the most deprivation are having to cut the most: Nottingham City Council is cutting 16% this year, Liverpool even more.

That failure aside, the whole feature was very interesting.

I was particularly struck by Pickles' insistence (a jibe he made against Graham Chapman):
I’m afraid the councillor seems to think that localism is about giving powers to councillors. It’s not. It’s about giving power to local people...
There are many aspects of Pickles' "localism" agenda that do appear to give more power to local politicians, for example, he was promising to call in fewer planning applications than Labour did.

His bonfire of the statutory duties (although he insists that he just wants to trim a bit, not cut such things as the need to make a policy to tackle homelessness) will be of interest most to council administrations.

(Although I am sure there is a new hobby for trainspotter-type ordinary citizens of combing through all the 1,294 duties on local authorities, accessible here if you want to try it yourself.)

However, we must make the most of what Pickles says about localism meaning rights for residents to have more information about what local government is doing, and, by implication, more power over it!

That means insisting on what he has said about residents' right to film from the public gallery at council meetings, and opposing vehemently the proposed reductions in residents' rights to question the council at residents forums.

Mrs Angry has a comprehensive post listing what the council is proposing in this regard. Here is yet another subject, I feel, on which we must correspond with Eric Pickles.

Much as I dislike the man's politics generally, we have to use what this Tory nationally is saying about residents' rights, against what "our" Tories are saying locally.

If you want to leave Minister Pickles a comment on any of the ways that Barnet council is trying to curtail residents' rights to scrutinise, you can do it here.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Friday joke - sponsored by MetPro

Governance is ‘the highest standard of
integrity and
in the way in which the Council and its partners operate, embodied in a set of rules and procedures’.
Phnar! Among the documents accessible via the governance and democracy pages on Barnet council's website is its Contract procedure rules. I'll be poring over these this weekend (in between running an anti-cuts street stall in Burnt Oak, shopping and gardening, obviously).

Why? A resident has just had this reply to his Freedom of Information questions:
a) “How many companies tendered for this [council security] contract?”

b) “If any others did, what were the companies called?”

c) “What were the reasons that 'Met Pro Rapid Response' won the contract.”

Answer: We have searched our records and have not located any recorded information falling within parts (a) to (c) of your request.

Open letter to Councillor Lord Monroe Palmer re MetPro audit

Councillor Lord Monroe Palmer (phew, what a mouthful! I notice that the Times series can got the honorific right but mis-spelled his name - excellent! I might follow that approach...) has moved to reassure the public of Barnet that his audit into Barnet's relationship with the MetPro security companies
"will be done under the full glare of anyone who wants to watch.”

Cllr Lord Palmer, appointed to the House of Lords in January, denied there would be a cover up by council officers looking to protect colleagues.

He said: “At the end of it all somebody’s going to have to say who did this and who made the contract.

“I’ve asked the chief executive whether I’ve got his support for this being done and he’s in favour of that. We’ve got carte blanche to say who or what’s responsible.”
Dear Councillor Lord Monroe Palmer, I have a number of matters for your consideration. Presumably the audit is being undertaken to reassure the public about the nature of the relationship between Barnet council and the MetPro security companies. In that case, it is imperative that you:

hold the audit sooner than June! If that can't be done, any "special meeting[s] to discuss the issue" held earlier should also be in public and widely advertised.

You should tell the public well in advance what is the scope of the audit and invite suggestions on how it might be widened. Leave no stone unturned!

If you do not tackle some aspect that has alarmed residents, eg, who was in charge on the night of the council meeting of 1 March - police, MetPro, council officers, councillors? - we will not be reassured.

And say whether you will be prepared to put this affair in the context of wider politics, namely, admit if it calls into question Barnet's ability - as I'm sure it will - to monitor private contracts properly. This is alarming with the looming prospect of mass outsourcing.

Appoint some truly independent "judges" onto your panel. Having seen Conservative councillors "in action" (to be accurate, that should read "Conservative councillors' inaction") on scrutiny committees in the council, I have no faith that the three Conservative members on the panel can be truly objective. They will be under enormous political pressure to investigate as little as possible, and to spare the administration's blushes.

I have to believe that you - a lord! - can rise above party coalition considerations and be objective. Or I wouldn't bother writing to you. Still, that's three against three at the end of the day, if it comes to any vote that might censure the current administration. The audit bears the risk of being considered, at least to some extent, a whitewash.

You know what would also be nice and honest: some acknowledgement from you, your audit committee, the administration and chief executive Nick Walkley that it was independent public scrutiny by the residents of Barnet, chiefly its often reviled bloggers, that brought any of this to light in the first place. The first lesson that Barnet council needs to learn is to let residents into more of the council processes, not seek to shut them out [see the Broken Barnet blog for Barnet Tories' indefensible attacks on council democracy].

In the absence of all of this, I and I'm sure other residents will continue to call for an independent public inquiry into the MetPro affair.

Best wishes, Vicki Morris

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

MetPro and Barnet council - required reading

Mr Reasonable comments on a "rushed Delegated Powers Report highlight[ing] the failure to properly administer the MetPro Contract".

Read the article here.

The Delegated Powers Report, "Urgent Replacement of Security Service Provision in Council Properties", is available here. I'm going to look at it on my way to work (late start Wednesdays).

Barnet council meeting, 12 April - Pinkham Way Alliance vs. Cllr Gordon, Blue 9 vs. MetPro

Returned rather tired from (a couple of drinks in the pub after) the Barnet council meeting on Tuesday 12 April.

There was a large crowd of 200 or so protesters against the Pinkham Way development. Read more here on the website of the Pinkham Way Alliance.

They say:
One of the largest Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT) waste processing sites in Europe is coming to North London and it's much closer than you think. The North London Waste Authority (NLWA) wants to build an industrial site in our community to process waste from seven London boroughs. They plan to do this on land that is currently serving as a mature wildlife habitat and as a green buffer from the North Circular. It will also increase traffic congestion in an already congested area and will affect the health of nearby residents.
They kept up chanting throughout much of the council meeting, outside, their voices reaching those lucky enough to get into the public gallery. The main item on Pinkham Way, however, was at the very end of the meeting so, naturally, many of the families who had come to express their concern had had to leave by then.

A question raised by the Labour group about the need for wider consultation on the issue only got the response: we don't need to do that, the community have been consulted (those in the gallery heckled that they hadn't), and it was for Haringey council to decide what happens at Pinkham Way.

Councillor Brian Gordon (Conservative) distinguished himself with the crassest remark of the evening calling the residents (from Haringey but also from Barnet) "rabble" - twice.

The main event of the evening from a Barnet blogger's point of view was Labour's attempt to move an emergency motion on the relationship between the MetPro companies and Barnet council. Of course - yes, of course - the Tories voted it down, saying the internal audit would answer any questions that needed answering.

Blue 9 security, replacing MetPro (thanks to the work of Barnet bloggers, not through any effort by the council) distinguished themselves by their politeness, low-key dress - grey suits - and prominently displayed Security Industry Authority badges. Now, that wasn't difficult, was it?

Notable absentees from the council chamber were the council leader Lynne Hillan and Mark Shooter, who challenged her for the leadership not so long ago.

You can enjoy some more pictures of the Pinkham Way and other demonstrators on my Flickr site here.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Meet Nick Walkley, master of re-organisation, engineer of renewal

Aren't you proud? The Local Government Chronicle, in association with BT's local government consultancy arm, has voted Barnet council's chief executive Nick Walkley no.18 in their top 50 most influential local government figures for 2011.

Not only that, but Walkley is named as a "master of re-organisation, engineer of renewal". What has he done to deserve this accolade?
Barnet LBC’s chief executive is the force behind the ‘easyCouncil’ approach of a council that provides basic services and then invites residents to choose those they would pay for in addition.

The approach has been controversial and is not yet complete, but presents a radical and challenging response to spending cuts that may find followers.
Who writes this crap? Seriously, we all understood what the easyCouncil concept was, but has it been implemented in any meaningful way? We still have never had defined for us what "basic services" entail, or what we might have to top up for. Sure, lots of adult social services users are now having to pay for some of the services they received free before. But that's just called cuts, isn't it?

Max Wide, who was seconded to Barnet council from BT local government for a few years, at what cost and with what measurable achievement I'm not sure, is on the judging panel for this top 50, but still makes it into the listing at no.28.

I've never had any personal animosity towards Nick Walkey, and he's been civil to me when we've met. I like to keep my animus purely political. However, I can imagine Walkley cringing when he reads this verdict on his position:
Mr Walkley... is noted for wanting to bridge the gap between the best of private sector customer focus and that normally found in local government, even as councils let go of some things they have traditionally done.

But 2011 is the year when the theory is put into practice, and that puts Barnet’s chief in the limelight again. Sink or swim, the sector will be watching.
Not just the sector, Nick, old bean, not just the sector. Residents will be watching your next moves with interest: for example, will you have the courage to call a public inquiry into the council's dealings with MetPro? How will you handle the tension between serving the interests of residents and those of your political masters, the Tory administration? You're paid handsomely - more than £200,000. Do you feel you are earning it yet? I don't.

Monday, 11 April 2011

MetPro didn't have proper security licences...? We need an inquiry!

The Evening Standard is reporting today that the Security Industry Authority is looking into MetPro who it seems did not have all the licences needed for the jobs they were doing.

This makes it absolutely imperative that Barnet council comes out of its hidey hole and holds a full inquiry into its dealings with MetPro.

Join us at Hendon Town Hall tomorrow evening to lobby the council meeting, and/or email your councillor to support residents' call for an independent inquiry. Find your councillor here.

Sign the MetPro letter - hand-in tomorrow

If you would like to sign the statement calling on Barnet council to hold an independent public inquiry into the relationship with MetPro Rapid/Emergency Response, please drop me a line c/o

We would like to hand the letter in to Lynne Hillan at the council meeting tomorrow. However, I've been informed that there is no facility for us to present the letter during the meeting itself. As we know, when it comes to bossing residents around, this administration likes to do everything by the book.

(By the way, Barnet CPZ Action, who are opposing Barnet council's hike in CPZ charges, are in the High Court on the Strand today at 3pm if anyone is in the area and feels like lending them support!)

We won't get to do much more, I suspect, than sliding the letter under the door of the Conservative group office in the town hall. But we can at least do that! I understand the Labour group are going to raise the issue during the council meeting itself...

A statement elicited by the Barnet Press in their latest MetPro article is alarming:
Barnet Police Partnership Superintendent Neil Seabridge added: “I can state categorically that police did not authorise any intrusive surveillance at the council meeting.

“Nor did we tell anyone else they could use covert or intrusive surveillance, which is a highly regulated area which requires specific written authority by a police superintendent or above when police initiate it for very specific reasons linked to investigation or prevention of crime.

“Such a meeting at the town hall would not fall under any of these categories.”
Barnet council made a lot of their "safeguarding" duty in justifying their cuts package, implying that residents who would not swallow closure of museums, etc, were putting vulnerable residents using social services at risk.

In their management of the contract with MetPro, Barnet council has failed to "safeguard" residents from possible illegal filming: if that isn't an extaordinary situation I don't know what is! The promised "internal audit" at an unspecified date is not enough. We'll be at Hendon Town Hall tomorrow from 6.15pm (meeting starts at 7pm) to make that clear.

Weeks to save the NHS

I was looking forward to the all-London anti-cuts meeting on Saturday - and I was not disappointed. It's not often on the left one gets to say that!

There were at least a dozen borough anti-cuts groups represented, and some more sent apologies but are in the loop. We meet again on 11 May in some format. On Saturday there was a welcome absence of speechifying by labour movement worthies telling us how bad the cuts are/are going to be.

Instead we had grassroots campaigners, already in the thick of it, giving an overview of what is happening in their own borough, plus four practical workshops, and sharing ideas for next steps severally and jointly for all of us.

To my mind, this is the big one - a weekday evening demonstration in London in the week beginning 23 May against the Health and Social Care Bill. The government, not wanting to fight on too many fronts at once, and being alarmed by the vocal opposition from GPs, has announced a "pause to listen" over this legislation. The main ideas in the bill are likely to remain, however.

I've added a health and social care page on the Barnet Alliance for Public Services website where I'll post resources on this legislation and details of the campaign around it. If you want to know more, take a look.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

All-London anti-cuts meeting, Saturday 9 April

I'm (perhaps overly) excited about the meeting detailed below, taking place this Saturday.

Several far-left groups have organised launch events for organisations that declared themselves the umbrella for the anti-cuts movement. This on Saturday is actually much more what we need: a getting together of groups rooted in the boroughs. It's belated, but that's because too many people spent too much energy (and money) organising big conferences in expensive venues with top tables groaning with "celebs" that left no time for genuine discussion and organising.

I hope Saturday is not a disappointment! There will be representatives going from the Barnet Alliance for Public Services, and I'm going for Barnet trades council. I'll report back.

And it's open for anyone to attend.

London’s Local Anti-Cuts Alliances
Saturday 9th April 11am-3pm
South Camden Community School
Charrington Street, NW1 1RG

For all those involved in anti-cuts organisations in London, hosted by Camden United Against Cuts
Following the magnificent March 26 show of strength, how can residents and community groups, workers and trades unionists work together to resist the planned cuts, closures and moves to privatisation?
- How can we build an effective mass grass-roots movement to defend public services throughout every corner of London?
- An event for sharing and discussing our experiences and ideas


11am: Registration / picking up information / networking

11.30am: Round up of ‘what’s worked / success stories’ from campaigns

12.30pm: Workshops / discussions
a. Involving and building links with Trade Unions and workplaces generally
b. Involving and building links with Community Groups and residents generally
c. Campaigning around local health issues
d. Campaigning around local education issues

1.45 – 3pm Final session
To report back ideas for action in the coming weeks/months from the workshops.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

MetPro and Barnet council: internal audit is not enough

Barnet council is going to carry out an audit of its relationship with MetPro, according to this report in the Times series.

At least Nick Walkley, the chief exec, has noticed there is an issue to address! I'm wondering, though, whether he'd have bothered at all if this story hadn't been starting to get into the London/national papers - p22 of the Evening Standard today, with probably more on the way.

But I don't think an internal audit will do enough. The council's statement said:
“Once the council was aware MetPro had gone into liquidation it terminated its contract, as is normal practice.

“Given the circumstances of the termination, the Chief Executive Nick Walkley has asked for a full audit of the arrangements surrounding this contract with MetPro.

“This will also make sure that any lessons learned will be passed on to the rest of the organisation.

"Any such report would go before the audit committee as part of its normal activity."
What is the remit of the investigation? Will it take in all the issues raised by the Barnet bloggers? It needs to.

Frankly, there's a wider issue here of Barnet council's general competence. I think the fact that the council did not even know that MetPro were filming reveals incompetence. The council is about to contract with many more companies to deliver council services. This MetPro affair shines a harsh light on their lack of ability to do that well.

Just as with the MetPro case, residents will be the ones to suffer when these arrangements foul up.

I for one am not content with the internal audit as a means of getting to the bottom of this affair and "learning lessons". I will continue to call for an independent public inquiry. The biggest lesson it seems Barnet council needs to learn is humility: open the windows! Let the residents know what goes on in your world! Only a public inquiry can do that satisfactorily.

Barnet jumps the shark

If the MetPro/Barnet council saga were a soap opera, last night it jumped the shark.

For a while Barnet council denied that MetPro had ever taken film of residents at council meetings. This flew in the face of several statements by Mr Sharkey, one of the company's directors. Then on Tuesday evening the Times series posted this story: Barnet Council says secret footage taken by MetPro security firm of residents has been destroyed:
A statement from the council said: “At no point has the council ever authorised security staff carrying lapel cameras.

“As soon as we realised MetPro had filmed on our premises without authorisation we asked them to send in their footage and destroyed it.”
Do I feel reassured? Does any Barnet resident?

MetPro Rapid Response have had a contract with the council since 2006. When did they start filming? Did Barnet never realise? Don't they have a duty to ensure contractors comply with legislation - has MetPro breached data protection legislation? Does Barnet even know?

Barnet's "reassurance" is so half-baked it only serves to alarm me more. I imagine the conversation with the journalist going something like this:
Hello, hello, is that the Times series. Uh, yeah, I thought I'd just give you a quick bell. You know that filming business? Yeah, well, it turns out the bloggers were right after all, but there's no need to worry because MetPro stuck all the film/audio/photographs in a brown envelope and sent it over to NLBP (on a motorbike, perhaps). Yeah, we put it in the shredder... (Places hand over receiver but muffled voice is still audible:) Joe, what did you do with that load of film that arrived earlier? What do you mean you can't find it... you'd better bloody find it, and quick... etc.
Oh, my goodness!

Can I just point out that Barnet council should be thanking Barnet's bloggers for finding out for them:
(1) that MetPro has been filming residents without their or, apparently, the council's knowledge;
(2) MetPro was going to go bust (if Barnet council knew this before the Barnet bloggers did I will eat a pair of Brian Coleman's underpants).

I would strongly urge any Barnet resident who would like to sign the call for an inquiry into the relationship between MetPro and Barnet council to email me c/o

Monday, 4 April 2011

And because Barnet doesn't do things by halves: call for a public inquiry into legionella bacteria discovery UPDATED

Because I've been doing work on the MetPro story I haven't given this story nearly enough attention: the discovery of legionella bacteria in three Fremantle care homes used by Barnet council.

Barnet council has now issued an improvement order to Catalyst, who owns the homes. Barnet Unison, concerned for Barnet residents using the homes, their visitors, and care home staff, is calling for a public inquiry into this affair.

Like the MetPro affair, it shines a light on the risks inherent in the council/contractor relationship, particularly, as in this case, where the council contracts to a private company, who then sub-contract.

We need to get to the bottom of how it was possible that there was a legionella discovery at three separate care homes in order to ensure that it doesn't happen again. This story needs to be more widely known.

Read Barnet Unison's call for an inquiry and please sign the petition. Thank you.

UPDATE: This, from an email on 4 April, is how councillor Cohen has moved to put staff and residents' mind at rest about the discovery of legionella bacteria in three care homes used by Barnet council:

Dear Mr.Burgess
Thank you for your e mail. I am confident that this matter has been well handled by the department
I see no need for a public inquiry.
Have asked Rick Mason to respond to your specific questions
Melvin Cohen
Read Unison's response to Cllr Cohen here.

Barnet's dilemma: move to restore trust or embark on a game of brinkmanship?

Well, I know which I would choose, if I were Barnet council's ruling group: move to restore trust. I am talking, of course, about the council's relationship with MetPro Rapid Response (MRR) and MetPro Emergency Response (MER) which, while not the same company, merely a successor company, does, to my untrained eye, bear many of the features of being a phoenix company.

I realise I might be courting a libel writ, but, hey, I'm an inveterate thrill-seeker! Not.

I'm afraid raising the question of Barnet council's relationship with MetPro feels risky. But it needs talking about! I am a lowly Barnet resident, let me remind you and, in my view, residents who want to get to the bottom of this affair shouldn't be put in the position of feeling that we are embarking on dangerous ground. Yet, that is how it feels.

A number of residents have submitted FOI requests to Barnet council about Barnet and MetPro: so far, no answers and, for some concerned, the deadline by which Barnet should have replied has already passed.

Almost all of Barnet's regular bloggers, me included, today published a statement calling for a public inquiry into Barnet council's relationship with MetPro.

What would be the ambit of such an inquiry? Well, that would be up to the chair, but I hope it would be wide. We are getting conflicting versions of events from different actors in the story - we need to know who is right; and there are some other plain vexing questions which I would want to have answers to if my confidence in the council were to be restored.

My proposals for inquiry include:

- what was the chain of command on the night of 1 March at the council meeting in Hendon Town Hall? We know that the police had a view on how things should proceed, council staff had a view, councillors and senior officers had a view, and MetPro had a view. But were they all on the same page? Who, for example, should take responsibility for the decision to bar entry to the Town Hall to a group of distinctly unrowdy residents (see film on Rog T's blog).

Residents need to know, in order to ensure that our rights of access to council meetings are clearer in future.

- were residents filmed at the meeting? Have residents been routinely filmed at meetings for much of the time that MetPro have had responsibility for security at council meetings? If they have, how far back does that go? 2006, when MRR first got the contract?

If residents were filmed, did Barnet council know about it and did they order it? There are conflicting statements on this from Mr Sharkey, a director of MRR, and the council.

Residents need to know. They need to know whether MetPro or a successor company, or the liquidator dealing with MRR (which has gone bust, with debts of over £400,000 including £245,000 owed to HM Revenue & Customs) has film of them, and what they have done with it.

A number of residents are now taking this matter up with the Information Commissioner.

- has Barnet adequately handled its relationship with this contractor? Residents need to know. It fills me with horror that Barnet bloggers seem to have had wind that MRR was going bust before Barnet council did.

Barnet council is planning to outsource almost the entire council services to private companies. Many commentators have given warnings in the run-up to the implementation of the One Barnet plan (now in full swing) about the council's lack of capacity to handle mass outsourcing.

On the evidence so far, including this affair and the recent discovery of legionella bacteria at Fremantle care homes, residents have a great deal to fear in the Brave New Outsourced World of One Barnet.

- how did MetPro get the contract at Barnet? Forgive me if I am speaking out of turn, but when we already see a catalogue of doubt and confusion surrounding Barnet council's relationship with MetPro, I for one need my mind putting at rest about how MetPro got contracts with Barnet council in the first place.

If there is no wrongdoing, let's have it all out in the open. Residents need to know.

Barnet council needs to restore residents' trust. It shouldn't embark on a game of brinkmanship but open the windows on this whole affair!

To all councillors who might read this, particularly from Barnet Tory group, I would like to suggest that the biggest danger for you in this affair is not that Barnet bloggers might appear to be scoring points off Barnet council; the biggest danger here is losing your reputation for good with Barnet residents.

Call for a public inquiry into the relationship between MetPro and Barnet Council

A number of Barnet blogs are carrying this statement today. We are looking for more signatories, with a view to presenting the statement at the Barnet council meeting on Tuesday 12 April (7pm, Hendon Town Hall). To add your signature please email me at

Call for a public inquiry into the relationship between MetPro Rapid Response/MetPro Emergency Response and Barnet Council

Barnet Council has been engaging private security firms MetPro Rapid Response/MetPro Emergency Response to control residents’ access to council meetings, in particular the council meeting on 1 March 2011. One of the company directors claims the company has also monitored blogs by Barnet residents, and filmed Barnet residents at Council meetings.

Despite holding contracts worth several hundred thousand pounds with Barnet Council, MetPro Rapid Response collapsed recently owing around £400,000, including £245,000 to HM Revenue & Customs. The firm is now in the hands of liquidators; however, MetPro Emergency Response, a company recently set up by the same company directors associated with MetPro Rapid Response, continued for a while to be employed by Barnet after the collapse of MetPro Rapid Response.

As well as providing security for Council meetings, these firms provided security at several council locations, including some housing vulnerable people.

At the meeting on 1 March, it appears that MetPro security staff did not wear visible identification, breaching Security Industry Authority (SIA) regulations, whilst working for Barnet.

Statements made by directors of the company regarding the scope of their work for Barnet have been contradicted by executive officers of Barnet Council.

The full facts regarding Barnet Council’s contract/s with MetPro Rapid Response/MetPro Emergency Response must be revealed to the public. We need to know about the use of data collected by the company (with full consideration for data protection and human rights implications). We need Barnet Council to reveal the extent of the MetPro companies’ activities on behalf of the Council. Residents and Council staff have a right to know what activities their Council undertake. They have a right to expect the Council only to engage firms with a proven track record for such activities and to monitor such, ensuring, for example, that they comply with legislation, eg, SIA regulations.

The only way that trust can be restored in Barnet Council, following the MetPro debacle, is to hold a full public inquiry. We the undersigned call on Nick Walkley, CEO of Barnet Council, and Lynne Hillan, Council Leader, to immediately engage an independent investigator, enjoying the confidence of Barnet residents, to look into the relationship between MetPro Rapid Response/MetPro Emergency Response and Barnet Council. We demand to know what Barnet Council asked MetPro Rapid Response/MetPro Emergency Response to do and what Barnet Council has done with any information about residents it has had access to as a result of MetPro’s work.


Alexander Clayman (N12)
Derek Dishman (EN5)
Adam Langleben (HA8)
Vicki Morris (NW9)
Theresa Musgrove (N3)
Maria Nash (EN4)
Julian Silverman (N12)
Roger Tichborne (NW7)
Adele Winston (EN5)

Sunday, 3 April 2011

I will organise a republican picnic, but only if 3 or more households will get involved

I recently took a clever-clever dig at Barnet council for subverting Barnet PledgeBank into a tool to organise Royal Wedding parties, but I missed the actual story: Barnet council is subsiding people's Royal Wedding parties! That means I'm subsidising people's Royal Wedding parties!

Now, I realise that councils and their forerunners have since time immemorial paid for or subsidised royal celebrations of all sorts (apart from a sticky patch in the mid-17th century - they call it the English Revolution), but it still rankles. I know that loyalty to the monarchy is part of our constitution, and not, therefore, the same as a religious affiliation, but I still feel like appealing to "secular" principles here: I don't believe in monarchy, I don't want our constitutional monarchy, I don't see why I should contribute to Royal Wedding celebrations.

If people want street parties, let them arrange their own free public liability insurance. I realise that the council has to be involved with facilitating road closures: then let them charge for it! We're cash strapped, it could be a nice little earner.

I am going to submit a pledge to organise a republican picnic on the day. (Everyone round to my house!) Where's our free public liability insurance? Where are our traffic cones?

Assuming that my pledge is not successful, and you still want to go to an organised republican event on 29 April, the highly respectable Republic campaign are doing something in Earlham Street, Covent Garden. Details here.

I shall probably take myself and a few friends off for a picnic on Parliament Hill. I'm not going to do like some and migrate to France for the day. I don't know what happened on the cross-Channel ferry 30 years ago but it wasn't good.

Friday, 1 April 2011

No laughing matter: Barnet council cuts

Yesterday Church Farmhouse Museum closed; today children's centres began closing. All victims of the cuts.

Yesterday around 350 Barnet council workers lost their jobs. I venture to suggest that all of these people are good people, the competition at the Jobcentre will be that much fiercer now, and, of course, wages will be depressed in consequence. Those still working for the council will wind up working harder for no extra pay, perhaps for less pay.

I thought I'd publish an extract from the Barnet Unison weekly email to its members. It's fairly lengthy but stick with it, I think it gives you a flavour of what these cuts (and this year's cuts are just the start) mean for council workers.
A sad week

At lot of us have had to say farewell to colleagues as a consequence of the budget cuts. Some are friends and colleagues, I have picked up that the mood around the work place is low and staff are fearful of what is to come.

I think next week it is really going to hit home when staff see empty chairs where their colleagues used to sit.

BUT what next?

I hope that the 'more for less' mantra does not start up again. It has been apparent to me staff carry out an inordinate amount of overtime and in many cases it is unpaid. Often the reason is because staff place great store in being a public servant and the public sector ethos that goes with that.

In the coming weeks I will be arranging for UNISON meetings for members to provide feedback on their workplaces. E.g., how are they coping with the undoubted extra workload as a result of the loss of staff?

Farewell Maggi

Maggi Myland has been a friend and union colleague for more than 14 years. Maggi is one of the casualties of the Budget cuts. Barnet UNISON along with other council services has taken a cut, in our case it works out at more than 50%.

What can I say about Maggi? We are going to miss her terribly, but I think it is our members who will miss her even more. Her caseload is phenomenal and her empathy towards the members who are often in a terrible state of distress is unmatched by any other rep I have met.

The extra hours after work and at the weekend she has put in for members could never be reimbursed, but Maggi would never ask for it, because she belongs to a rare breed. Trade Unionism is in her blood. She is one of those unable to walk away from someone in distress.

Farewell to Return2Learn

It is sad to report that we have had our support for Return2learn (R2L) cut.

The R2L programme was a fantastic programme which enabled hundreds of staff to have a second opportunity to improve their skills and gain confidence to take further training and other qualifications.

The agreement we made with the Council Leader 6 years ago was ground breaking. A lot of councils talked about doing this but in Barnet we did more than talking.

I guess that training opportunities for Barnet staff are going to be harder to access, yet it is in times like this that learning new skills is even more important.

It is strange that in these difficult times a service that provides FREE training for the Council has been unable to escape the axe!
UPDATE A report in the Barnet Press on 8 April gives the job losses at Barnet council as "under 200". (It's probably just under.) The Times series gave the figure of 350 earlier.


I hope you've been enjoying the Barnet bloggers' April Fool's jokes. My own effort was pretty thin gruel compared to everyone else's.

I shall be writing up the recipe for Mr Reasonable (who gave me the biggest laugh this morning).

Rolling up my sleeves and looking forward to getting stuck in

I've been reflecting lately on what I'm doing with my life, how I'm spending my time. Being an almost full-time, unpaid agitator who does the odd spot of proofreading is not getting me very far, and I've been getting worn down.

It's confession time. I've applied for and been accepted to train as one of the new community organisers. The pay is not what most of my readers would be happy to accept but £20k is twice what I earned last year. (Yeah, I was pretty shocked too, but I just did last year's tax return, and that was the result.)

And for this I figure I'm going to get to do a lot of what I've been doing already - and get paid! I've got the attributes: I am involved in my community; I'm good at talking to people and finding out their issues; I suggest ways to get things done.

I've got a lot of skills to share: blogging (no, don't laugh!) and using other social media; project management; written communication; team work (plenty of that); and an ability to enthuse and motivate.

I think it's the right step for me right now. I only hope my readers can swallow it.