All of this changed at Easter 2007. The contract was taken from the volunteer service, and awarded to Sodexho, a big multinational conglomorate. My mother was very upset that the people with whom she'd built a relationship would no longer be coming. Fortunately for her, we are a very supportive family and there are lots of us. Unlike many old folk she'd see at least two of us every day. Chatting with the delivery people, we soon realised how lucky she was. When the service finished, my mum gave the lady a small present and she gave my mum a chocolate and wished her well. My mum used to always get lunch by noon. On the first day of Sodexho, no dinner came. Fortunately for my mum, my sister was visiting from the USA and staying with her. Phonecalls were made, apologies were received. We were assured it would be delivered tomorrow. It was, at 5pm, stone cold. By the third day my mother had taken to her bed. She knew she needed the service to maintain her independence and she knew it couldn't be relied on. At this point I emailed, my local Councillors. I kicked up the mother of all stinks. Councillor John Hart turned up and personally assured her that she would, in future, be the very first delivery on the run. True to his word, a week after the nightmare began, she started to get her meals on time.
The quality was nothing like the old service, it would sustain her, but we started to cook her an evening meal as well and send it up the road on a tray. The kids loved it as Grandma would give them a £1. Seeing the effect it had on my mother, who had family on the scene, it is obvious to me that the stress of this probably killed a good few lonely old dears in Barnet. I remember a friend who worked in a nursing home telling me that three of the patients had died when the council stopped giving them biscuits with there afternoon tea in 1984. Not getting your main meal would clearly be far more devastating and thousands relied on this service. I've never asked or submitted an FOI to find out, as I felt guilty that my mum got her dinner before all the old dears with no one to kick up a fuss. I don't feel good about that, but I'm sorry to say, family came first for me.
I got a couple of grovelling emails of apology, they are still on my laptop, from Lynne Hillan. Here is just one of them
Thank you for your email. , Unfortunately the Leader is away this week so your complaint has been passed to me as the Cabinet Member for Adult Social Services and therefore responsible for the meals service. I share your disappointment and concerns but would like to have a little time to investigate the situation before I respond to you fully. In the meantime, I can tell you that, whilst I expected some teething problems with the new contract, I have already had cause to question Sodexho regarding late delivery.The truly amazing thing is that having cocked the delivery up, they then forgot to charge my mum on the direct debit. Now in her prime, my mother would have spotted this immediately, she was a pretty succesful businesswoman. Trouble was her eyesight failed and she didn't notice that the direct debit wasn't going out. Not until just before Christmas when she got a demand for hundreds of pounds worth of arrears. Merry Christmas from Barnet Council Mum. Do you think all of this has given me a good or bad feeling about "outsourcing and privatisation"?
You are quite right, this should not have happened and we have arranged for Council Officers to be in attendance this morning to ensure that this does not happen again today. I will come back to you as soon as I have received a full explanation. In the meantime, please do convey my sincere apologies to your Mother.
So why have I decided to kick this "sleeping dog" back into life. Guilt, on my part mainly. You see, I knew what happened was appalling, but I expended so much energy just getting my mum through her problems, that I didn't think of all the other poor lonely old ladies in Barnet. Well now is the time for me to pay my dues. What am I referring to?
Well you may think that with such an awful experience of outsourcing services, Lynne Hillan may have realised that this is a rather dangerous policy. You'd think that any decent person with an ounce of compassion would have started an investigation, published the results, and concluded that protecting our most vulnerable members of society should be the no 1 concern of Adult Social Services. You'd think she would be looking to defend services and improve them.
Well it seems that someone in the Tory finance team has decided that they could save the average Council Tax payer £50 a year and this would win them the next council election. Winning the election means that all our councillors keep their juicy fat allowances, so it is clearly worth their while. How will this saving be achieved? There is an initiative called "FUTURE SHAPE OF THE COUNCIL". This is what the Tories like to call blue sky thinking. The policy they want to develop is to privatise everything they possibly can. All that Barnet Council would do in their ideal world is sign contracts with private companies. These companies then deliver the service. Now I am not against private enterprise. I run my own company, I've made a pot of cash from the various businesses I run. I built them from scratch and my customers are mostly the general public. I passionately believe in genuine private enterprise. The trouble is I don't believe that these big public companies with government contracts are private enterprise in the true sense of the word. Look at the rail franchises. They are a license to print money and channel taxpayers money into the pockets of directors and shareholders. How can a truly capitalist contract have a "guaranteed profit"?
If I listed all of my objections to these fat contracts paid for at the taxpayers expense, this blog would be a million pages long. Let me just briefly list my main issues here. 1. My experience of outsourcing with my mother was a nightmare. No one should be subjected to such disruption. 2. The hidden costs of Outsourcing are always discounted from business cases (extra legal fees, costs of clearing up the mess when it goes pear shaped). 3. Contractors pay poor wages and treat staff badly. This results in poor delivery, shoddy work and extra long term costs. 4. Companies pay huge director salaries and bonuses. Shareholders reap handsome dividends derived from the Taxpayer. 5. When it goes wrong, the most vulnerable people suffer. 6. The delivery companies have no vested interest in doing a good job, only in making a profit.
The future shape of the Council is not agreed policy yet. We can stop it in it's tracks. The way to do this is to express your concerns as loudly as you can to you local councillors. Remind them that they are there to protect the vulnerable. Remind them that there are lots of elderly people in Barnet who deserve to be treated with dignity. There are plenty of Council employees who deserve a decent wage. There are plenty of people who have nice cars who don't want them dented by badly driven Dustcarts. There are plenty of people in Barnet who don't like piles of muck being left outside their house by shoddy council contractors. There are plenty of people who don't want to break their legs on badly laid paving stones. The list is endless. Chances are it'll be the old, the weak and the vulnerable who pay for the £50 tax cut. I don't know about you, but I personally wouldn't kill an old lady for £50 a year.
I'm lucky, I don't have to rely on the council for much, apart from emptying my bins and mowing the grass at my parents graveside. Thing is though, if we wait until we need the services to say something, it'll be far too late.