Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The pantomime of Barnet Council - but nobody's laughing

In the pond of local government, the London Borough of Barnet and its ruling Conservative Group are a particularly rank scum.  Hardly a month goes by without the latest exposure of incompetence, maladministration, graft and an arrogance that ensures that those of us who are fortunate enough not to live there can drop our jaws at Rotten Boroughs in the Eye and wonder how much further the unholy cartel of superannuated post-Thatcher has-beens and the wide-boy right-wing louts, seeking snoutage through self-defined allowances, can drag the reputation of government into the mire.

The most recent effluvia to emerge has been the sudden departure of the Council's Monitoring Officer, following a monumental fiasco when the governance of business was found to be illegal.  As said Monitoring Officer was not legally qualified, this was a disaster waiting to happen, especially as the Council's legal services had already been outsourced.  However, they have now got a temporary shoe-in from that other beacon of Tory reputational rectitude, Westminster, on arrangements that are to say the least opaque.

As part of the Council's outsourcing policies, the vast majority of its activities have been transferred to a venture under the control of those paladins of probity, Capita.  This is badged as "Regional Enterprise" - presumably to lull the gullible - but is based on a 10-year contract with very few get-out clauses.  The main document is a mere 179 pages long - the attached schedules run into the thousands.  More on this later.

It is pleasing to note that the contract has been drafted with all the care that expensive lawyers can muster.  For example Clause 8.4 contains the reassuring provision that:

  • The Service Provider shall provide appropriately qualified and experienced solicitors dedicated to advising and supporting the Service...  The Service Provider shall refer any decision by the Authority to prosecute, defend or appear in legal proceedings to the Authority's Monitoring Officer...
Bless.  This goes on for several clauses which assume that the management of the contract is in the hands of people who are more capable than Capita.  As the former Monitoring Officer had no legal training and there were no in-house lawyers, the Council is clearly totally competent in contract management on the legal side.

There is somewhat less reassurance from the policies relating to staff transferred.  Remember that these people are the executive agency to implement authority process and policies.  The contract came into effect on 5 August 2013.  Clause 26 (it would have been ironic had it been been Clause 28 as the Council would not wish to intentionally promote public service) sets out a number of issues relating to staff issues.  At the time of transfer the management practices were enshrined through Clause 26.2.3:
  • The Service Provider agrees that it will not vary the terms and conditions of employment of any Transferring Employee (except insofar as the Authority is added as an employer to the contracts of employment of the Joint Employees and the additional clauses mutually agreed between the Service Provider and the Authority to effect such Joint Employment) for the first 12 months immediately following the Service Transfer Date...  If the Service Provider seeks to vary the terms and conditions of employment of any Transferring Employee after the expiry of 12 months following the Service Transfer Date, it shall comply with its consultation obligations as the employer of the Transferring Employees and conduct all reasonable negotiations with any recognised trade unions.  The parties agree that the Service Provider may make such changes to the Transferring Employees' terms and conditions of employment as are reasonably necessary to effectively manage the organisational structure of its workforce... 
In terms of employment law, this is about as much use as a chocolate teapot - the definition of "reasonably" is as elastic as employers want it to be these days.

For anyone concerned about how services are managed and delivered, this should set alarm bells ringing.  For Capita effective management is about minimising costs and activities to boost its margins.  Therefore, to take a hypothetical example, planning officers might be incentivised to approve applications to meet performance targets, and to increase the number that they handle in order to reduce headcount.  For a contract like this to work, there needs to be confidence in both the Council's remaining Officers and the elected Members themselves.  Even Pollyanna would by this stage have become a Goth.

If you have an IQ higher than your shoe-size, this is a recipe for maladministration and unaccountability.  Contractual ping-pong can be played for days between outsourcer and outsourcee, especially if the latter party complies with its contractual obligations to employ competent lawyers.  To audit a contract requires competencies and skills that Barnet has been only to willing to further outsource, and Conservative councillors are compliant in this murky dereliction of the principles of accountability and transparency that they pay ritual lip-service to - while simultaneously shredding what remains of public trust.

At the same time, the former Monitoring Officer presided over a dismantling of the standards process for elected Councillors.  This is now certainly in breach of the Nolan principles for standards in public life, and potentially open to legal challenge.  Admittedly the previous regime had serially censured the unlamented Brian Coleman (only kicked out of the Conservative Party from HQ because the leader of the Council, the risible Cornelius, did not consider repeated breaches of standards and criminal conviction to debar Tory membership), but its replacement is toothless - conniving in what is at best sophistry and at worst dishonesty with respect to members' interests, and unable to take effective action because of its partisan composition.

The current Mayor of Barnet was effectively let off the hook by the new Group Leader's Panel, after complaints about non-disclosure of pecuniary interests - despite the best efforts of opposition councillors.  In addition, the former Monitoring Officer ruled several of the complaints raised to be beyond the competence of the Panel, using immense legal knowledge and sagacity.  The complaint had been raised by the GLA member, Andrew Dismore, who is seeking to remove Matthew Offord from the Commons, so it was hardly not politically-charged.  However, a proper process would have heard the allegations and identified genuine misconduct if such had occurred.  Hardly the stuff that builds confidence in local authorities.

At the same time it was also permitted to Tory members the privilege of voting on issues where by rational and objective standards they would be excluded due to conflicts of interest - but then many of them are buy-to-let landlords and this would have absolutely no bearing on either general housing policy or the disposal of the Housing Benefit budget.

Unless Eric Pickles does something drastic, this ominshambles will rumble on indefinitely, or until the Tory ranks deplete themselves for whatever reason.  In the meantime, this is exactly the situation where challenge and insurrection may be necessary.  Councillors need to be challenged at all levels as to whether they are confident that decisions being taken are legal, and that they are receiving proper advice and policy.  If I lived in Barnet I would be using Freedom of Information and every opportunity to disrupt, legitimately, the hubristic bandwagon until it turned into a tumbril.

Any new administration in Barnet would be tied by the Capita contract - although tight and effective management could result in early termination through mutual unwillingness to continue.  Competence in Council Officers, no prejudicial interests and transparent governance (as opposed to a current tendency to debate policy outside official forums) would be a start, but in the meantime it must be admitted that there is a gory fascination in watching this disgraceful charade degenerate.

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