Monday, 16 January 2012

Barnet: a tale of two petitions

I thought I'd post my answers to a questionnaire someone put to me recently. The starting point was a petition I created against the One Barnet Programme. Answering the questions was an interesting exercise for me, in reviewing the activities of the past few years (!) and where we are at now with the campaign against One Barnet and the cuts more generally (because One Barnet is partly about the cuts as well as privatisation).

I wrote it in a candid mood and make no apologies for that. I hope it'll be useful as well to anyone who has ever thought of using an online petition as part of a campaign.

Why did you start this petition? What do you hope to achieve with it?

The petition was started on 9 May 2011, that's the one on the GoPetition site: The same text is also on Barnet council's own e-petition site: - I think I put it there on 27 May 2011.

I hoped it would be a tool to show people's opposition to the One Barnet privatisation plan; at least, it could be a way to publicise it and raise awareness.

How is it going so far? Can you tell us about any successes? Or, alternatively, any obstacles/difficulties you've had to face?

The petition gathered quite a few signatures at first, but we did not promote it enough (by 'we' I mean Barnet trades council (Barnet TUC) and the anti-cuts group Barnet Alliance for Public Services).

To make such petitions work you have to continually plug them, I've experienced this already when I was trying to promote a petition about Brian Coleman's behaviour towards the Fire Brigades Union in 2010: I started a petition then, but it only grew if everyday I plugged it on websites, Facebook, etc. In the end, you realise that you would probably be more effective doing something else to publicise your issue.

However, petitions can be effective; if they 'go viral' and grow very quickly. Or if they might lead to a realistically achievable practical outcome, such as this petition on the Barnet council website opposed to rises in parking charges: This petition is organised by the Labour Party in the first place. If it gets the required 7,000 signatures by 14 March the council has to hold a debate on the issue.

Have you been affected, or know anyone affected, by the One Barnet Programme?

One Barnet is a big issue affecting many aspects of Barnet council services. It is part of the overall response of the council to the cuts imposed by central government. It seems that all the work the council is doing towards One Barnet is distracting it from what it could be doing to find ways to save money and make efficiencies without privatising services. From that point of view, I believe it is wasting money and – already, before it even happens – harming services.

I do directly know people affected by the cuts that have taken place, with attempts to cut money paid by adult social services for care delivered at home to someone I know very well.

I also think that Barnet is a pretty dreary place to live, dirty and for the most part cheerless, particularly in my own part of the borough, the west. That is only getting worse as services are cut. A museum close to me – Church Farmhouse Museum - has closed, and the council wants to sell the site. I can’t visit that museum now; and I am worried about what will happen to the look of that area if the building is sold (the building is historically interesting). I’m quite depressed about all that, actually.

People I know who work for the council are worried about their jobs, either being privatised, which is likely to lead to them receiving less pay, or losing their jobs altogether.

And in order to stem the public criticism of One Barnet, the council has moved to shut down some of the democratic processes by which residents hold the council to account. If in future all our services are delivered by private companies working to a contract, democratic accountability will be enormously harmed - what we have seen so far is a taste of what is to come.

Do you think the goal of the petition can be achieved with the current Barnet council in place?

Would the ruling Conservatives change their policy? I think if they thought the political price they paid for One Barnet was too high, they would. The petition can contribute to that – if it is used effectively (which I don’t think it is at the moment!).

The Labour Party is opposing the One Barnet Programme. If they replace the Conservatives I very much hope they will scrap the programme. Lib Dems locally oppose the plan as well, although I don’t know what their party nationally would say and they are the minor opposition party in Barnet.

Have you tried any other ways prior to this petition to remove One Barnet?

We have been doing many other things since the One Barnet Programme started up in 2008 (!), including several protests outside council meetings, publicity (such as the Our Barnet newspaper), etc. We have attended council meetings, including committee meetings, and put questions to the council about their plans. In January 2011 we held a march of 1,000 people (estimate). We have been very active!

Do you think the petition has a good chance of removing the Programme?

I never imagined that the petition would gather enough signatures to stop the programme: it was one tool among many; with other campaigners I thought about organising one massive petition, to be promoted on street stalls and so on, that might lead to a referendum on the One Barnet Programme, but we could not find out for certain what the legal position was – we did not want to do all that work and find out it would not make a difference. And we were not sure if it was a good tactic. It is quite difficult for people – including most Conservative councillors! – to understand the full scope of One Barnet, so it is a hard issue to have a referendum about.

What will you do if the petition does not succeed? Do you have any other plans or measures to remove the Programme?

We certainly continue to campaign. We have been supporting the industrial action by the local government Unison branch about the terms on which they might transfer to the private sector, and we will continue to do so; and we organised a protest outside Capita, one of the companies that wants to take over running our services – for a price! We will do some more of that. More of a spotlight needs to be shone on the activities and the motives of the multinational companies that want to move into running our public services.

If the petition does succeed and you get the signatures required, what are the next steps?

The petition has succeeded in getting attention for the issue, but by itself it cannot stop the One Barnet Programme. You have drawn my attention back to it with these questions: perhaps it is time to promote it again!

I have found the comments that people have left on the GoPetition site, revealing their concerns about the One Barnet Programme, very illuminating. I’m not sure whether – for data protection reasons – I’m barred from publishing them, for example, in a blogpost, but I would like to.

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