Wednesday 6 July 2022

Sorry Barry, us loudmouths don't want a megaphone, we just want reasonable answers to reasonable questions

 I have to say that I was more than disappointed to hear the answer of the new Leader of Barnet Council,  Barry Rawlings to a question I sent into BBC Radio London's Eddie Nestor show, who was being interviewed. Eddie asked for questions.  Eddie posted this tweet

I sent this in.

Hi Eddie, I'd like to book a question with Barry Rawlings for the show on Wednesday. In 2018, the then Conservative administration changed the rules regarding questions from the public at council meetings, imposing strict limits on what could be asked and how many questions could be asked, making proper public scrutiny almost impossible. Barry was highly critical of this and lead everyone to believe that a Labour administration would change the rules. They have not done this. Can Barry explain why he's gone back on his word and whether this is due to a desire to restrict scrutiny whilst the Capita one Barnet contract is being reviewed. Regards Rog

I'll post a link back to the interview, which was quite interesting. However, I was deeply disappointed with Barry's answer. He said that he doesn't want to "Give a megaphone to those with already loud voices".  Yes, I have a loud voice, I don't need a megaphone. The reason I sent my question to Eddie was because I had a chat with Mr Reasonable, AKA John Dix about raising the issue of Barnet Labour not changing the rules back. We were discussing whether to go public about the fact that Barry in opposition promised to remove the restrictions on public questions at meetings and has changed his mind. This is what John said.

Part of me was also tempted to leave it till September but they will have to discuss the Capita contracts by September and I am worried the delay on the gagging rules is to keep us out of the scrutiny/debate that will take place.  

I felt I had to ask the question. John is 100% spot on. The meetings where the Capita contract is being discussed are massively important to Barnet's residents and residents should be given the opportunity to have their say.  Barry has heard me ask hundreds of questions over the last fourteen years, I'd like to think he recognised the fact that every single one was the result of hours of reading council papers and doing homework. Yes I'm not a shrinking violet, a loudmouth, but I had liked to think that people recognised that I was serious and that my questions were the result of proper research. 

At the election count Barry suggested that I should not give up on scrutiny, when it was clear that Labour had won. I assumed that the first move would be to remove the Tory restrictions, so I could carry on as Barry suggested. Barry said on the show that he was putting together a People's Assembly, so people in Barnet could have a voice. As someone who is interested in the council and knows how it works, I know it would be far less effective for actual scrutiny purposes. It is committees where decisions are made. When there are technical issues or gaping holes in policies, it is the commitee where this can be rectified. I can recall dozens of instances of the Tories listening to questions and making small tweaks that lead to bad policies being changed and stupid ideas dropped. It resulted in the Metpro scandal being exposed. It resulted in the Mapledown respite changes being dropped. This was all prior to the 2018 rule changes. Former Tory Audit Committee chair Hugh Rayner, personally thanked myself and John Dix on many occasions for raising issues and he fixed them. This may have been a drop in the ocean, but it did make a material difference to how the Borough operated.

After the rule changes, I rarely bothered asking, unless there was a slam dunk issue. I developed a reasonable relationship with a couple of Tory Councillors. I realised that I couldn't ask questions, so I'd email them and they'd do the dirty work if they accepted my arguments. It was only when they didn't I'd bother showing up.  The problem with this was that there was no public accountability or recognition that the council wasn't putting its papers together properly. It gave Dan Thomas, the former Tory leader, the figleaf that his councillors were doing their job, when they weren't.

As to Barry's assertion that a Peoples Assembly will fix the problem, People's assemblies are good at setting direction and strategy, they are not good at allowing residents to forensically challenge specific defects in council papers. I suspect that they will provide a far better forum for a loudmouth like me to spout ideological nonsense and waffle for hours than when specific questions are required on specific issues in relation to specific policies.

I'm happy to make a deal with Barry. If he wants me to refrain from asking questions, I'll retire from going to meetings completely, so long as he changes the rules and allows people like John to ask questions, if thats what he really wants. Many people in Barnet fought for years for a change of regime and to oppose the policies of the Conservative regime. We genuinely believed that things would be better. I'm used to being called names by Leaders of Barnet Council, I don't take it personally, but I really expected a little better. 

The reality is that I'm in it for the long haul. I don't ask questions for the benefit of the two other bloggers sat in the public gallery at Council meetings. I do it because I want the London Borough of Barnet to be the best place possible for people like me and you who live here. I had rather hoped that this was recognised.

There is one good thing that came out of this. It gives me a chance to play one of my favourite tracks by the Ramones. Enjoy!

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