As predicted by this blog, Barnet Council have responded to the judicial review brought by Maria Nash by blaming everyone but themselves and using the argument that because it costs a lot of money to bring a judicial review, people should let the council get away with whatever it likes.
I read with complete disgust these two reports in our local papers.
These stories have clearly been written at the behest of the Barnet Council PR machine to besmirch the reputation of Maria Nash and her right to be consulted.
When the Barnet PR machine put the boot into Maria claiming she's cost
the taxpayer £500,000 they neglect to mention that this is less than
they've been paying the One Barnet Consultancy team EVERY MONTH. These
are largely a bunch of external consultants on TAX EFFICIENT CONTRACTS.
By my calculations, in allowing such practices within Barnet Council,
the council may have been costing the taxpayer in excess of £250,000 a
year in avoided taxation (of course this is merely a guess because all of these contracts are "commercially confidential"). Has the council briefed the press on how much
these consultants have avoided paying in tax? Can they tell us how much these individuals have avoided? If my sums are correct then over the four years of One Barnet, the total cost could to the taxpayer could be £2 million.
Lets be 100% clear about what Maria has taken the council to court about. She is disabled and she relies on the services provided by the council to maintain her quality of life. Because the council carried out no meaningful consultation with Maria and people in her situation, she has absolutely no way of knowing what the changes, which the council itself have been selling as a massive change, will affect her. The council has a statutory responsibility to consult with people such as Maria. The express purpose of this is so that they can assess whether there will be problems brought about by the new arrangements and to feed back to the council vital information which teams of consultants, who have never had to deal with real issues of vulnerability, may have missed. The council, in their legal defence, claimed that they didn't need to consult people such as Maria, but any fair minded person would surely agree that if the whole mechanism for provision of council services is being changed, then surely the new process should be rigorously examined by the people at the coalface.
During the court case, I wanted to stand up and intervene. When the council stated that because the services were remaining the same, it was only the provider that was changing, I wanted to explain my own personal experience with my mother to demonstrate the fallacy of this argument. My mother used to receive meals on wheels. These were provided by an in house team. In 2007 this was outsourced to a multi national company called Sodexho. My mother was told that she'd see no difference in the service and that she'd get "more choice". She became extremely anxious about this. She was given pages of menu forms to fill in, which completely confused her. She'd had a stroke and found even the simplest paperwork incredibly difficult. Filling in a months worth of menu choices was like having to read war and peace and write a dissitation on it for her. She was also upset because the "nice lady" who had been delivering her dinner was being given the boot. At the time, I bought the line that this was "all necessary for efficiency" and didn't share her concerns. My mother however became so anxious that she insisted my sister flew over from Florida to be with her for the change. As it turned out, she was right and I was wrong. The new firm was a shambles. During the first week some days lunch didn't arrive at all. Other days it arrived at 5pm and was cold. The quality was abysmal, with the lunches being sent straight over for our dog to have for dinner. It turned out that Sodexho had scheduled each driver to deliver 40 meals in a two hour period. That is three minutes between drops. Anyone who has ever had to knock on the door of an elderly relative will know that it can take three minutes for them to open the door. The stress of what happened completely freaked my mother out. She had been used to receiving her meal at noon on the dot. The fact that the delivery time seemed completely random caused her to become ill. She relied on this meal and given her medical condition and her requirement to take medication with food, it was devastating. This was a change that we were assured would "be an improvement". We were assured that the only thing that was changing was the company delivering the food. We were also assured that the "quality of service would improve". All of these things were complete lies.
That was the moment when I got involved in the struggle to prevent anyone ever having to suffer such indignity again. If you are fit, well and able bodied and have never had an anxious, frail elderly relative who is at the mercy of an uncaring bureaucracy, you will probably not really understand why this matters. The point is that it is not your concerns or views which matter. It is the concerns and views of the people who are on the receiving end of the service. The council are not in court because Maria Nash is a trouble maker or wants to waste taxpayers money. They are in court because there seems to be a case that they have not undertaken their statuatory obligations.
Let me draw a parallel. When the 9/11 atrocity happened and aircraft crashed into the Twin towers, the buildings collapsed after the impact, killing thousands of people. The buildings were designed to withstand heat & fire and not collapse in such a manner so quickly. Engineers calculated how long the buildings should stand up after such a shock. Forensic engineering reports concluded that during construction corners had been cut which may have compromised the cladding and fire resistance of the steel structure of the buildings. The contractors who had put the building up had cut a cut down on fire cladding of steel columns, thinking that it was highly unlikely that a situation would ever occur where there would be any repercussions. For years the buildings worked perfectly well. Had a bunch of terrorists never crashed the planes into the buildings we'd still be none the wiser and that little bit of cost cutting would never have been recognised. The New York fire department allowed their men into the building because they had been given engineering reports that said the buildings integrity would remain intact for a given length of time. Sadly that little bit of cost cutting on the cladding meant all of the figures were wrong and dozens of brave firemen died in the collapse.
The lesson I draw from what happened in 9/11 is that private contractors will always seek ways to cut costs. Such companies exist purely to generate profits for their shareholders. Now I don't believe any of the contractors in the 9/11 towers construction teams or in One Barnet would ever knowingly endanger lives, but if you get your processes and controls wrong, because you want to cut costs, you are opening the door to all manner of unforeseen consequences. That is why it should be necessary to consult with the likes of Maria Nash. That is why nobody should criticise Maria for exercising her legal rights. If the council wants to save the taxpayer £500K, then there are two things they could do.
1) Treat local residents properly and consult them about changes, avoiding such challenges.
2) Abolish the practice of employing consultants on tax avoiding contracts on long term assignments.
At times it seems to me that Barnet Council is not being run for the benefit of the people of Barnet, rather it is simply seen as a cash cow for a cabal of senior managers, many of whom are contractors, supported by a bunch of tame councillors who pocket large allowances, whilst doing nothing for the people in Barnet who most need their care and support.
I must finish off by saying I am a little disappointed that the local papers have taken such an uncritical view of the council PR spin, whilst ignoring the issue of the tax avoidance by many senior staff employed as contractors. This surely is far more of a burden on the taxpayer.