Tuesday 20 November 2018

Barnet Residents suffer as worst council administration in living memory falls apart

In May, the Barnet Conservatives were elected with a higely increased majority in the council chamber. Let me remind you of their manifesto and promises. As an unsuccessful Lib Dem candidate in Mill Hill who spent months knocking on doors, it became clear to me that local people were falling for the message that was being put out. The message was that the Tories were a safe bet, competent administrators, who would collect your bins, manage the council finances, stop overdevelopment and run the council in a professional and competent manner.

It is fair to say that in affluent areas such as Mill Hill, a fear of Jeremy Corbyn and what he meant for the labour party was a major factor in how people cast their votes, but the bottom line was that people said "The Conservatives are the no risk option". People felt that schools were well run, council tax was low and bins were collected. In short, the Tories had a record that the locals trusted.

One of the down sides of being a candidate and knocking on doors is that when you lose, people think you have some sort of power to sort things out. Yesterday, I was in Marks and Spencers and a rather feisty chap approached me rather aggresively. "You're that council bloke aren't you?" was the friendly greeting. I replied "Well I stood for the Lib Dems in the local elections in Mill Hill". He then said "What are you going to do about my bins?". As I lost, I asked the question I always do when smarting about the rejection by the populace of Mill Hill "I take it I can thank you for your support in the election, but sadly we didn't get in". His reply was quite amusing "I wouldn't vote for you lot if you were the only party on the ballot paper. I voted Conservative!". This is not the first time I've had similar conversations. I suggested "Well as the Conservatives won in Mill Hill, and their councillors get £10,000 a year each to represent you, why don't you get in touch with them?". To which he replied "Typical Lib Dem, your bloody useless" and stormed off. Just for the record, there are only two things I can do, as a failed candidate. One would be to email the local councillors. But the chap can do that himself, and as he voted for them, surely that would be the logical thing to do. The second thing, which I can do, is I can mention it on the Barnet Eye. Sadly, the chap didn't tell me what road he lived in before he stormed off, but he is only one of a whole stack of residents telling a similar story.  A couple of weeks ago, Barnet Council, in response to the financial crisis that the Conservative administration has presided over, reorganised bin rounds. Sadly the council has completely cocked up the reorganisation. A statement was published on the council website last week stating  "The majority of the 350,000 collections scheduled for last week were completed." As is the way with corporate statements in the year 2018, there is no word of apology to the huge number of households that have not had bins collected. Sadly the crisis in the bin collections is not the only issue facing Barnet Council. Fellow bogger Mr Reasonable has put together the following infographic.

As the chair of a charity responsible for funding one of our secondary schools, I am highly disturbed by the schools funding crisis. As Mr Reasonable explains

You can read about the consultation here. It offers three options all of which are bad as follows:
  1. A proposal to fund some services, previously funded from the Education Services Grant, from the budget shares of maintained primary and secondary schools. The impact would amount to a cut of £32.37 per pupil
  2. A proposal to increase De-delegation from maintained school budgets in order to continue the school improvement (LNI) service in its current form. The impact would amount to a cut of £11.28 per Primary pupil, £5.83 per Secondary pupil
  3. A proposal to transfer 0.5% of the Schools Block to the High Needs Block. The impact varies by school but for example my local primary school Danegrove would see their budget cut by £25,490, the cost of a teaching assistant.
In response 30 Chairs/Vice Chairs of Governors at Barnet schools have written to Barnet Council showing their  concern at the situation they have been placed in, the lack of true consultation and the impact it will have on future budget cuts.You can read the response here.

Schools are already under pressure. Last year the outgoing Headmaster of St Michaels Grammar School, Julian Ward went public about the crisis. He told The Guardian “There’s nothing left to cut,” said Ward. “We are not prepared to make any more cuts in our teaching staff. The only resource left is to ask parents to sustain the high quality of education they are used to in the school.”  St Michaels is one of the countries top schools. If they have been forced into such drastic action, what on earth is the situation at other schools. None can afford such a hit in their budget. There is absolutely no way that childrens education will not suffer if the Tories see through their threat to cut school budgets.

The cuts to Council Tax support payments will hit the very poorest people in the Borough extremely hard. For the Barnet Conservatives, this is a virtually risk free cut to make, in the political sense. Unlike the schools budget cut, there are not lots of aspirational Tory voters who will be hit by the changes. It will be the people at the coal face of austerity, those who are struggling at the margins. They don't vote Tory, so they are not on the radar. Expect more calls for tins of beans for foodbanks, more people homeless, more crime. If society sends the message to those at the the bottom that it simply doesn't care, then what can we realistically expect. When it comes down to it, if we cut police numbers and then impoverish those already struggling, we are pouring petrol on an already combustable situation. Do you remember the 2011 riots? At the time it looked like the country was going to descend into complete anarchy. Whole districts of Tottenham were trashed, a huge store was burned to the ground in Croyden and the High Streets in Barnet saw windows smashed. The Met has had huge budget cuts since then. You don't have to be a genius to see that the situation is even more dangerous today.

 Then we have the whole issue of the One Barnet Capita contracts. Whilst schools and the poorest residents are being hammered by budget cuts, Capita shareholders are guaranteed a fat dividend from Barnet. Despite an appalling audit report from Grant Thornton, the Barnet Tories have allowed council officers to overturn a democratically taken decision of the Policy and Resources Committee and shelve a review of the contracts. A couple of clearly failing minor contracts have been brought back in house, Capita had to hand back the keys as they clearly couldn't do the job. The sad truth is that the council cannot manage Capita. Don't believe me if you want, but this is what the CEO of Capita told his own shareholders at their AGM. On Thursday, the Barnet Council Audit Committee meet to review the progress of the council in implementing the Grant Thornton review.

This review has seen a very unusual development. The latest Grant Thornton review has invented an entirely new status in the internationally recognised RAG (Red, Amber, Green) status monitoring for audit reports. A new status has been introduced. A Blue status, which means "not tested by Audit". A little reading reveals the truth of what this means. Take for instance the "BACS process for new suppliers" issue. The issue is described as

  We recommend that the BACS processbe reviewed for the adequacy of controls over new suppliers
  where thereis no purchase order (such as E-form payments).

The Priority is as follows

 The action was as follows

  CSG to review process for onetime vendors, propose improvements and implement.

 And the status is as follows:-

  The process has been submitted and verified, however it has not been possible to test the operating effectiveness of this control, as the control design was not finalised in the testing period. Further testing is required.

This is laughable. An issue of high importance requiring immediate action was detected. It has not been fixed as the "Control design was not finalised". In any other organisation, that would be a Red on the Rag status. How can something be anything other than red if the remedy has not been designed in time and the solution not tested. In short if something has not been tested, there is no assurance that it works. If Grant Thornton, who are professional auditors, do not realise that an untested control is a risk, then they really should not be writing these reports.                 

The role of the Audit committee is to challenge and provide democratic oversight. Traditionally (pre 2014) the committee was headed by a member of the opposition parties, to ensure transparency and public confidence. In 2014, the Barnet Tories decided that as the post commanded a fat allowance, it they should keep the cash in their club. Since then, the whole process of Audit has become a farce. The outgoing chair, Hugh Rayner, urged the council to provide proper training for members of the committee, recognising that it wasn't up to the job. At a recent meeting, a new councillor asked if the council had an internal audit department. Not encouraging, as presumably the councillor should have had some degree of training. 

The best administrations are ones where there is a rigorous system of review and audit. Sadly Barnet has become extremely lax in the oversight department. Senior Barnet Council Officers know that the worst that can happen is that they will get a huge pay off and a non disclosure agreement to sign. They will not be held to account. That is why we are in the mess. Sadly no party's manifesto stated "We will introduce rigorous oversight and audit and ensure the council business is conducted in as professional a manner as possible". It is not taken seriously. As a result, Barnet residents suffer as the worst council administration in living memory falls apart.  If you don't believe me, wait for your council tax bill next April. It will rise by 2.99%. This is the maximum amount legally allowed. What was the no. 1 pledge of the Conservatives in May? Ever feel like you've been cheated?

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