Ok, first a confession. I know nasty Barnet bloggers are not meant to say things like this, but I'm starting to like Peter Zinkin, chair of the Barnet Finance, Performance and Contracts committee. I've dealt with quite a few Barnet Tories over the years. Some, such as Mike Freer, Dan Thomas, Brian Coleman, Robert Rams and Reuben Thompstone are aloof, condescending and lack respect for the public. Some are ok, pleasant, treat the public with respect and you can have a chat with them after as normal human beings. I'd include Brian and Kate Salinger, Richard Cornelius, John Hart, Hugh Rayner and Sachin Rajput in this list. It's nothing to do with their personal politics, its just an observation as to how they treat the public in their role as a councillor. I have to add Peter Zinkin to the second list. Unlike John Hart, I've not had a cheeky pint in the Bridge, swapping jokes, but he takes his job seriously and is respectful to the public as committee chair. Myself and John Dix asked questions of the committee and I have to confess, both John and I got straight and candid answers to several questions.
I asked two questions, on agenda items 7 (Capita Contract) and 8 (Chief Financial Officers report). The way the committee works, is that they provide a written answer and then you get the chance to ask a question on the agenda item. A maximum of two question are permitted and the questions can be no more than 100 words long. At the meeting, you are allowed to ask a follow up question if you are not satisfied. There used to be no limit, with just a 30 minute time limit on the questions.
I was first up and I thought I'd push my luck a bit. As I detailed in this blog, I was very upset at the late publication of the reports. This meant that it was impossible to properly review them, One report missed the deadline for questions altogether. It is unacceptable. I started by stating that I thought it was unacceptable and that the council should have a mechanism for dealing with questions when reports are late. Strictly speaking, this question was out of order, but Councillor Zinkin not only accepted the observation, but agreed with the Labour group leader Barry Rawlings that this should be raised with the Constitution committee so that a proper mechanism for dealing with this scenario could be introduced.
I have to admit, I was surprised. It is rare for anything a blogger says in Council to be accepted, but it was most welcome. I realised that I might not have quite as frustrating evening as I expected. Next up, I asked a question about the Capita contract extension. I read the final sentance of the answer out. "As stated in the report, the financial and commercial elements are complex and further work is required to ensure that any recommendations are based on a sound understanding of the cost and budget position."
I aked whether the Barnet client side organisation was "too thin". For those unfamiliar with council speak, this means that there are not enough qualified people montoring Capita. Councillor Zinkin shocked me with his answer. He admitted that big mistakes were made in 2014 when the contract was set up and yes, the Council team was too thin to do its job, meaning that Capita had got away with murder (not his words). Of course, now everything was fine and dandy and the fact that the deadline for renewing the contract had been missed was nothing to do with lack of resources and the fact that it wouldn't be done until after the election (something I'd suggested was a time bomb for the incoming adinistration) was purely because they were doing such a good job. Councillor Zinkin suggested that he was surprised I could make the "Time Bomb" accusation and that this was most unfair. I replied that they've known the timescales since the contract was signed and had plenty of time. I am not sure whether the fact that renewal has been pushed until after the election is a happy coincidence or a clever political ploy by The Tories. All I know is that it is very handy for them. It would be nice if Labour state that the delay will give a chance to do a proper review and being services in house if this will save money. I don't expect this to happen.
We moved on to Item 8, the CFO's report. It gave me a chance to raise the fact that a single question of less than 100 words makes scrutiny impossible. I admitted I'd misunderstood the wording of the report, but pointed out that the late submission meant there was little time to read the report and cross reference with other reports, as Councillor Zinkin suggested. I stated that the report should give details of costs of slippages. Councillor Zinkin suggested that this info was detailed elsewhere. He also made the offer of the opportunity to go through the reports with a Council Officer. I will be contacting Mr Reasonable to see if he would participate. To be honest, his input would be invaluable and would massively improve scrutiny. In all my time attending meetings, this was the first time such an offer has been made and it is hopefully a sign that after a decade of hostility to the public, we are entering a new era. It will be very interesting to see how this progresses, whoever wins.
Next up, we had Mr Reasonable with three questions. He started by informing Councillor Zinkin that he agreed with me. Project slippage had inherent costs. These needed to be accounted for. John works on large infrastructure projects and understands that interest and finance costs need to be monitored if things are slipping, which they clearly are.
He'd done one of his usual insightful blogs on Monday, detailing how Capita were not providing value for money to Barnet residents. His first question, on the Capita report was a simple one. Would the Barnet Tories please stop making claims about savings, when they are unprepared to provide any evidence to back these claims up. I'm not sure whether Councillor Zinkin agreed or just sympathised. I've listened a couple of times and I'm not entirely sure.
The next two questions concerned the Brent Cross West station development. I had a chat with John before the meeting about this. We share a view that it is right and proper that a station is built. We also have no problem that the council is helping to finance it. His problem (and I agree 100%) is that the council is funding it, taking 100% of the risk, but will share the profits (if any ever arrive) with the developers of Brent Cross. This is absolutely bonkers. When the project was conceived, the world was different, people actually used trains to go to their office every day. I suspect that whatever happens, it will be a long time before such things happen and there is a healthy income stream. However, if the UK is to deal with the challenges of climate change, we need to maximise public transport usage. This means projects like this. John was keen to see the risk properly assessed and included in the council's accounts. There was a degree of acknowledgement that this was a good point. We will see if it is actually actions these.
I stayed for the Capita report. Labour asked for disclosure of various figures, so the public could be informed going into the elections. A vote was held and the Tories rejected the proposal on the chair's casting vote. There was also a dispute when a Labour Councillor read an FoI response that named and shamed a council officer. Councillor Zinkin was enraged. He stated that he did not want councillors demonising officers in his committee. Labour Leader Barry Rawlings (who since I last saw him has grown a huge beard and looks like Santa Clause, without a red suite though) stated that as it was an FOI repsonse, it was in the public domain. I often think the Council would be a better place without political parties. Most of the councillors are reasonable human beings. They are forced to put their hands up all of the time to pass motions they disagree with. You can always tell when they are doing this as they refuse to make eye contact. I'm not sure what they really think they are achieving (beyond preservation of jobs and allowances for themselves). I find it frustration. The council would work so much better if it was open and transparent. This happens in the USA where all public contracts are fully published. I don't buy the concept of confidentiality in commercial contracts. I'd like to see it all published. That way competetors would know where they went wrong and try and be more competetive. I understand that many aspects of what the council do (social work, etc) should be private, but there is no excuse for hiding how money is spent.
I recorded the question time for posterity. If you are interested in these discussions, there are some rather interesting points in there. The Barnet Eye was the first blog to video a Council meeting. Sadly, since the demise of Dan Hope, people don't bother so much. It is a shame, as we really should care. The decisions made in Council affect how much tax you pay, how well your roads are fixed, how your children's schools are run, whether stations are built, how you will be treated in social care if you need it. I could go on. Councillors get paid a minimum of over £10,000 a year to attend these meetings. You pay that, surely you should care what they do?
One interesting thing. As I was leaving, I was approached by the Council officer who was the author of one of the late reports. They explained that the report was ready on time, they take great pride in getting reports produced promptly, but was withheld as it was also relevant to another meeting and was released after this meeting had been held. They were at pains to insist that nothing was untoward. I take that very much at face value, but as the council agreed, in such circumstances, there should be a formal process for delaying the deadline for questions.