Monday 8 October 2018

Barnet Eye Birthday Week - How Mike Freer and his cronies destroyed the Council

On Thursday, The Barnet Eye will be ten years old! It has been a roller coaster ride. When I started the blog, I never thought for one second I'd still be writing it ten years later. But then, there are many things I wouldn't have predicted in October 2008 when I started writing the blog. Remember October 2008? Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. #Brexit was a pipedream of a few on the edges of the political spectrum in UKIP. Boris Johnson was getting his feet under the desk as London Mayor. Barnet Council and Capita had not become synonomous with bad adminstration, in fact Barnet Council was rated as four star by the government inspectors ! To quote then council Leader Mike Freer (now Finchley MP) in 2008

"Now Barnet has been judged by Ofsted as the best Local Education Authority in London. The planning team – everyone’s favourite whipping boy – is not only the 2nd busiest in London, but amongst the best. The progress is down to a huge effort by Council staff to pull things around.

Does it matter being 4 Star? Maybe not – no doubt some of you will post your own complaints – fair enough. One of the key benefits, however, is that our staff who have worked hard to make changes, have been recognised and a 4 Star Council will be able to attract and keep the best staff."

It has only taken Mike and his cronies ten years, but they have transformed the council into a basket case.  In 2008 Mike Freer trumpted a glowing OFSTED report. In 2018, following a damning OFSTED report, Barnet Council Childrens services is in special measures and being run by Essex County Council. What reward did the Staff of Barnet Council get for their efforts to make Barnet outstanding in 2008? Mike Freer decided that as the council wasn't broken, he'd smash it to bits and outsource the whole lot. Some were made redundant and their jobs transferred to other parts of the country, some were TUPE'd to Capita and found their loyal service counted for nothing.

The planning department that Mike Freer trumped in 2008 is now run by "Re" a joint venture between Capita and Barnet Council. Has it improved? We've seen contentious planning applications that should have gone before a planning committee passed by default, because Re failed to process the paperwork. The council has lost control of its affairs to such they did not even have acceptable access controls on bank accounts or a list of staff authorised to make payments to suppliersn extent that a Capita employee committed a multi million pound fraud. A report was commissioned that was absolutely damning. It revealed that none of the usual financial controls one would expect for an organisation spending your taxes would have in place.

Barnet Council interim and agency spend
And what about the wondful aspect of being a four star council, whereby Barnet Council can attract and retain staff? No one wants to work for Barnet anymore. How can this be measured? Well if you can't get staff to work for you, then you employ temporary or contract staff. My blogging colleague Mr Reasonable has pulled together an excellent blog showing the extent to which this is happening and the huge cost to Barnet council taxpayer. This chart shows how we are now spending more than twice what we were on temporary staff than we were in 2010. Just in case you were wondering why it's so low this year? Well it is up to July and is for the financial year. Mr Reasonable has calculated " All the indications are that the total bill for the year is likely to hit £19m, a million more than last year."

It is not just the staff that Barnet Council can't keep hold of. Barnet Council used to have a collection of "Crown Jewels". These were items of value and heritage that the council had collected over the years. Some were gifts from delegations from other councils and countrys. Others were bequested to the Borough for safekeeping to maintain our heritage. Here is just one example - Item 288: a gold crown from Korea, 24k gold, National Treasure #188.  As is the way in Barnet, the council put this collection in the care of Capita and it has disappeared. My fellow blogger Mrs Angry has documented what has happened at some length.

And what about Barnet Council's relationship with its residents? One expects the council to be honest. Back in May, the Conservatives were elected with a pledge to "maintain weekly bin collections". What they didn't do was add an "* Conditions apply". What they didn't tell us was that they has abolished the composting of brown bin waste and would stop collecting Brown bins altogether. The Barnet Tories completely mislead the public and sadly, they didn't even get their sums right. My fellow blogger Mr Mustard explains just what an awful and dishonest decision this is.

At the Councils audit committee in July, it was reported that the audit only gave limited assurance.
Once more to quote Mr Reasonable

All the reports are all here  In particular the Internal Audit Opinion is something the Council has not received since 2010/11. It includes statements like:

    There has been a weakening of the organisation’s control framework, with an increasing number of findings which demonstrate weaknesses and non-compliance in the framework of governance, risk management and control;

    An increasing number of high risk and medium risk findings relate to the financial management practices in place at the Council, specifically those around income and expenditure monitoring;

    Roles, responsibilities and reporting lines were not consistently defined or understood, leading to gaps in delivery and oversight;

    Data quality and integrity issues were noted across some areas at the Council, particularly regarding Pensions, HR, Section 106 and CILs. In the absence of strong data management and analysis, governance is weakened because the ability of senior staff and Members to scrutinise performance is reduced.

    Statutory and internal deadlines for activity were met, increasing the Council’s potential liability for additional fees and charges, and legal sanctions and reducing the extent to which its own enforcement activity can be carried out;
    We noted issues with the performance of key employment checks including DBS and right to work checks, which could lead to fines, legal action and reputational damage;
    Key health and safety checks relating to water safety were not carried out in line with required statutory timescales;

There are many more.
In November 2008, I asked three questions of my readership

If you are a Council Tax payer in Barnet, ask yourself these questions.

a) Do you believe that Privatisation delivers better services?

b) Do you believe Privatisation is guaranteed to cut tax bills?

c) Do you trust Barnet Council's legal service to not make a single error in any contract it drafts?

After five years of Capita, we don't need to "believe". We don't need to guess. The evidence is there. Has Capita and outsourcing delivered better services? As Mr Reasonable documented, the Audit lays bare the bones. The One Barnet scheme has resulted in an audit with limited assurance.

Does privatisation cut council tax bills? After the election a huge black hole was revealed in the Barnet Council finances. As a result, Barnet Tories have announced that for the foreseeable future, Council taxes will rise for the maximum permissable amount (2.99% per annum).

As to whether or not the legal department Council got a good contract? I could write a whole months worth of blogs on just what a rotten contract they delivered. Fortunately I don't really need to. Mr Reasonable has done it for me. Here are four which explain just how badly we are being ripped off by the "Gainshare" clauses in the contract

Why Capita's Gainshare is Such a Rip Off
Why Capita's Gainshare is Such a Rip Off - Day Two...
Why Capita's Gainshare is Such a Rip Off - Day Three...
Why Capita's Contract is a rip off for Barnet - Day Four...

In May, when I was out on the doorstep trying to persuade the people of Mill Hill to vote for me, I had a bizarre experience. I knocked on the door of a house and a very pleasant lady of indeterminate age, who I'd never met before answered the door. She said a very strange thing "The Barnet Eye blogger?" (well that isn't that strange, but the next thing was). I replied "Yes". She then said "I'm Mrs Counters! would you like to come in and meet Mrs Beans?". This took me back completely. What are the chances of meeting a Mrs Beans and a Mrs Counters in the same house? I was ushered in and there was a very feisty 95 year old lady sitting in a chair. Mrs Counters introduced me. Mrs Beans roared with laughter. Mrs Counters adjourned to the kitchen and Mrs Beans started to chat. She told me "You know what, we often laugh about your blog. We think you've been spying on us!". I was a little bit perplexed. I have many vices but spying on elderly Ladies is not one of them. She then started chatting about all of the problems she'd had over the years with her care, provided by Your Choice Barnet. When Mrs Counters arrived in with the tea he explained "Mrs Beans had a bad fall when she was 85. She had a long period in rehab but was determined to come home. She's fit and as sharp as a needle, but it has been a struggle. I live down the road and we've been friends for decades, she's like a second Nan to my kids, who have all grown up. I've been reading your blog since it started and when I read you blog about Mrs Beans and Mrs Counters, it just reminded me of what we were going through. I had to make a confession. I couldn't remember it. When I went home and did my homework, I soon tracked it down.

Lets take the example of Mrs Beans aged 85(not a real person), who lives in Outsourcing Avenue. She was fit and sprightly for her age but was run over by a car hurtling down Partingdale Lane whilst walking her dog. She is now totally reliant on council services as she is severely disabled. Now at the moment Barnet council employ a care team to look after her. She's used to all of the people who she has to deal with and is happy and secure in her Council provided flat. Mr Beans is a relatively fit 87 year old who can make her a cup of tea and open the door for the care team.

Now a bloke from a quango and a bloke from BT have sat in a council office on a fat salary and decided that Mrs Beans needs a "different outcome". They've decided that what Mrs Beans really needs is a "transformed experience". Instead of the regular Council care team, they'll get carers from "". They'll give Mr Beans the number of a nice call centre in Bangalore to ring if anything goes wrong - You know "Select option 1 for a heart attack, Option 2 for a stroke and Option 3 for a broken hip)". Nor "" are a lean mean organisation. They have a fine team of very badly paid carers, who do there best, but are constantly leaving, not turning up. The Beans family suddenly find that they haven't a clue who is supposed to be coming. All of the staff who knew Mrs Beans and understood her situation have left. Now because the situation is getting too much for poor old Mr Beans, nice Mrs Counter down the road, has started popping in. When it all goes wrong she steps in, hangs on the phone to Bangalore, tells the constantly changing new carers what they should be doing and what they should know. She doesn't get paid (voluntary sector), she's put upon, but she knows without her the Beans family would not be able to cope.

There are plenty of other Mrs Beans and Mrs Counter's all over Barnet. 
It turned out that Mrs Beans is a real person after all. It isn't her real name and some details have been changed to protect her privacy.  What is absolutely not changed is what is happening in the section highlighted in yellow (except that the call centre isn't in Bangalore). What Mrs Beans and Mrs Counters liked most about the blog was the little rewrite of the theme tune of Neighbours at the end

"Neighbours, every body NEEDS good neighbours, Thats when good neighbours become good unpaid dogsbodies filling the gaps in care provision left by the outsourcing of care services in Barnet".

Mrs Beans and Mrs Counters often watch the show sitting together over a cup of tea. They told me that they always chuckle when they hear the theme tune. That is the British way. Stoic in the face of the most horrible adversity. Mrs Beans is doing alright at the moment. She is lucky to have a loving family, a great neighbour and is one of the mentally toughest people I've ever met. People like her deserve better. She worked, paid taxes and raised a family. Now she has to rely on others, she needs to cash in the chips that she's built up over the years. Sadly, that investment has been mismanaged by the Conservative administration of Barnet. They lost the crown jewels and destroyed the amazing team that was the envy of London councils. It's all documented, here on the Barnet Eye and by Mr Reasonable, Mr Mustard and Mrs Angry. Mike Freer has become an MP and washed his hands of the sorry mess he set in motion. Within a year of Mike Freer writing about what a marvellous four star council he  was running, we documented how it had lost one of its stars.  The local paper sagely noted
"The only other council in London to lose stars was Haringey Council, which was slated last year for its handling of the Baby P case."
The long race to the bottom of the Barrel had begun.

Please join us for our Birthday Party this Saturday. It's all free and there will be great live music and fun from 8.00pm at The Midland Hotel in Hendon .

The Barnet Eye is ten years old in October
10th Birthday Party


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