Sunday, 15 July 2012

Yet another scandal about to overwhelm Barnet Council

Over the last four years, the Barnet bloggers have uncovered scandal after scandal at Barnet Council yet Councillor Robert Rams, a Conservative Council regularly sneers at us bloggers. A classic example is on his latest blog. He says
I read with interest this evening that John Dix writes on his blog that,
“Conservative Councillors labour under the belief that all private companies are good and all public sector staff are bad”
This is simply not true.
I can’t speak on behalf of all Conservative Councillors but this one believes in this tough economic times – better services for less money. Hence why the One Barnet project is looking at all our services and looking at better and cheaper ways of running our services.
The library service is a classic example of this.
By making changes to the way our service is run, moving Friern Barnet library and North Finchley library into the Arstdepot and letting the community run HGS library ( an offer which friern residents were given in Friary House) we are able to,
Spend more money on books
Put literacy at the heart of everything we do
Open our libraries longer
And make every primary school child a library member.
Other services will be outsourced and some will be merged with other boroughs – all to make the services better, cheaper and keep council tax down.
And our recycling service has been outsourced for years with out any problems!
But you will not read that on his blog!
John Dix replied
If what you say is true why did Barnet Council expressly preclude an in house bid for the two massive outsourcing contracts? Without a public sector comparator how can residents be assured we are receiving best value? Given the massive costs of implementing the contract so far, the huge redundancy costs and the experiences of other public sector outsourcing contracts which have gone horribly wrong I remain extremely concerned that this outsourcing project will simply not deliver the objectives which I am sure all residents want, an effeicient and effectively run council. As you know Robert I have no idealogical problems against outsourcing. My issue is the scale and complexity of this contract without a pilot and which cannot be reversed should it go wrong.
Earlier this week, Robert Rams had a go at me on his blog. Perhaps the most interesting point was that Rams criticises John Dix for not publishing facts he doesn't like on his blog, yet he failed to print my riposte to his comments. Rather oddly, Rams takes John Dix to task for a statement he made, yet completely fails to address the point. Nowhere in his blog does Rams state that public sector staff are the equal of private sector companies or that the public sector is better at providing some services than the private sector. 

For some rather strange reason, Mr Rams seems to think that giving the example of shutting two libraries and replacing them with one in a location which is less convenient for the majority of the users of the original libraries is an improvement. Mr Rams fails to state how many books were kept at the previous locations and how many will be available at the Arts Depot Library.

I visited the new Arts Depot libary on the day it opened and it had about 1/5th of the floorspace of the former Friern library. Is this an improvement?

But all of this is a little bit of a sideshow. Why has Mr Rams chosen now to have a go at Mr Dix. If I was going to attack any of the Barnet bloggers on the issue of honesty and credibility, John Dix is the last person I would start with. I happen to believe that all of the Barnet bloggers are honest, decent and intelligent people and write blogs out of a sense of public duty. I know first hand how much work goes into the blogs and how much of a personal commitment it takes. Unlike this blog, John Dix doesn't allow his personal prejudices and emotions dictate his agenda. John is thoughtful and intelligent in his writing and I suspect he chose the name "Mr Reasonable" for his blogging because he wanted to put some distance between his style and content and that of myself and perhaps some of the other Barnet bloggers (that is purely conjecture though, I've never actually asked him). 

Whilst it is well known that Robert Rams has a personal dislike of bloggers and has operated an agenda against them in his publicly funded role at the GLA since 2008 (Mr Rams boasted that he'd finished my blogging career in 2008, when he got the Hendon Times to shut my blog on the papers website down, following my campaign against an anti semitic video Barnet Council had posted on YouTube), it still surprised me to see his attack on John Dix. So why the attack? Why now?

Well sadly, the anyone who follows the Barnet blogs will know exactly why Mr Rams has chosen this moment to attack John Dix. You see a group of three Barnet bloggers (I am far too lazy to bother going) attended the Council offices, to exercise their statuatory right to inspect the books. There is a short period every year, where the law allows residents to check the accounts to see whether the council has spent our money wisely. The law says that members of the public can see anything they like and the council has a duty to cooperate as fully as they can. 

When Mr Mustard, Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry turned up, they were taken to an office, offered no refreshment, given escorts to the toilet and when the documents appeared, the contents were heavily redacted with page after page crossed out. The bloggers found evidence that some of the contracts they requested to see were heavily redacted as "commercially sensitive" even though the companies who had the contracts had not asked for confidentiality. 

Furthermore, some of the requested documents did not appear at all. Given that the Council has a legal obligation to supply the information, we are now in a situation where there is a technical breach of the law. Anyone who follows these blogs, knows that Barnet Council is rather keen to involve the law in the most petty of disputes. Helen Michael has now had four visits from various police officers regarding a poster she and other traders displayed in their windows, concerning parking charges. She was reported by Nick Walkley, the Council CEO. We wonder whether Mr Walkley will report himself to the Police for failing to supply the bloggers with the information they were legally entitled to see.

So we have a situation where the council has failed (yet again) and the bloggers (yet again) find themselves asking why. Have the council obstructed the bloggers investigations purely to be awkward, or is there something they wish to hide? It is not beyond the wit of man to figure out that the bloggers asked for specific documents for a specific reason. I was not surprised to hear of the obstruction.

I do wonder about who actually advises the council in these matters. Have they not yet realised that the Barnet bloggers have excellent press contacts. As a result of this blog, I've been interviewed on the One Show, contributed to ITV Tonight, been interviewed on BBC London 94.9 and written articles for the Guardian newspaper. The bloggers also have excellent contacts with magazines such as Private Eye. I have no idea whether the council have figured out what is about to happens and sent Rams on a pre-emptive strike to try and undermine John Dix or whether Mr Rams has embarked on a half baked freelance mission. One thing I can assure all of my readers of is this. 

Whatever the reason, I would suggest that all that will happen is that Mr Rams will end up (yet again) looking  extremely stupid. On Friday, I attended Barnet Museum. The Londonist was recording it's weekly podcast and I was invited to participate. Before the recording started, Nick Quinten Woolf, the presenter had a chat about the museum and the threat of closure. He was bemused as to why Barnet Council should want to shut such a fantastic asset. During the course of the conversation, the name Robert Rams cropped up. 

When we were about to start the interview, Mr Woolf gave us a few guidelines. The final one was to "not mention Councillor Rams by name as I don't want a libel writ". It may (or may not) surprise you to know that the comment wasn't directed at me. It is pretty clear to me that, given the fact Rams has the job of press officer for the GLA on his CV, he really is pretty useless when it comes to dealing with the media. He has launched a tirade against John Dix, shortly before John Dix takes a major part in exposing a disgusting scandal at Barnet Council. I eagerly await Mr Rams attacks on Mrs Angry, Mr Mustard and Citizen Barnet

This issue is going to be a big story. It is not  a story the Barnet Eye has any role in, other than a bystander, it is a story for the other bloggers and a testament to their hard work. 


Mrs Angry said...

Rams has picked on Dix I suspect because a. he talks the most sense of all of us, and b. everyone who knows John will have been struck by his innate decency and good manners. Rams thinks he is a safe target, unlike the less well behaved members of the blogosphere (you and me, mostly).

Rams is also incapable of logical argument: unlike some of the other younger and rather immature hard line Tories, he does have a latent naivete and desire to be liked which is at odds with the idiotic political positions he puts himself.

He is in a very precarious position - after the three election defeats there are no longer any safe Tory seats left in Barnet, and he knows it. Eventually it will dawn on him that the One Barnet shambles will bring him down in the next election. When that thought filters through, he will have to re orient himself, & start to see sense. Think it through, Robert Rams.

As to the outrageous obtruction of the right to examine the accounts: yes, this is a very, very big mistake. Watch and see what happens. A small correction: it wasn't some material which was redacted to the point of uselessness, it was practically everything, making the point of inspection, in order to raise concerns with the auditor this week, completely impossible.

Or so they thought.

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Mr Mustard said...

One can argue that the council is entitled to redact the name of a private individual, e.g. you can't ask to see Nick Walkely's payslips, but on many of the invoices I asked for some absolutely stupid redaction went on, like a reference number was redacted and the detail for a line amount worth 40p yes 40p not £40m or £40,000 forty pee and the joke is that I know what the 40p was for. It was 2 lots of 20p for passing on payments made to PATAS (why they bother hasving that charge is another question)