Sunday, 30 July 2017

Shooting the messenger: or - the art of audit, in the age of Capita

The night the auditors came, left: BDO's Leigh Lloyd-Thomas tells it like it is ...

Mrs Angry had more or less given up going to Audit meetings, since the Tories scrapped the principle of having an opposition member as Chair, and installed one of their own councillors to keep an eye on things. Why did they do this? Why do you think? This is Broken Barnet. If a thing ain't broke, break it, and then rewire it so it does your bidding, and doesn't provide a mechanism for the purposes of transparency, and accountability. 

When Libdem member Lord Palmer was Chair, you could at least expect a modicum of objective oversight, and criticism of council policies and performance which might result in some action - at least, until the beginning of the shotgun wedding with our contractors, Capita, when criticism of their performance was likely to be rebuffed by the administration, if not by the Audit committee.

But this week's Audit meeting, it was clear, was going to be perhaps the most important meeting since those contracts began. 

Mrs Angry turned up for this meeting because she had been alerted by Mr Reasonable, who had spotted that something was very, wrong - and so it was. Very, very wrong. (Read his typically acute report here, which has a more detailed explanation of the financial implications, and significance for all of us).

It was clear that there was a serious problem, because a major part of the agenda was missing from the website, even up to the day before the meeting. This was Item 11 - the report from our external auditors, BDO. When the report was published, at the very last minute, it was evident why there had been a delay. 

The report is a catalogue of disaster. Disastrous, in terms of the presentation and handling of the accounts - yes, the responsibility of Capita. That would be, for anyone who does not understand the extent of institutionalised conflict of interest, in  this administration, accounts produced by Capita, that reflect the financial performance of the council's services, most of which are now run by ... Capita. 

BDO had been unable to complete their annual audit because of the numerous errors in those accounts - and because of issues of concern that had arisen in the course of their inspection. 

A range of issues that were shameful enough, but of which the most significant was the identification of overspending, and that the authority is not on target to make those savings promised to us by our Tory councillors before, against all voices raised in opposition, blindly signing the contracts - without full and proper scrutiny of all the content of the agreements. 

The external auditors also point out in their report that the council had failed to create a satisfactory process for the  scrutiny of performance by their contractors- again, a point which has been made time and time again by those of us who warned them, before and after signing, of the risks to which they were exposing our public services.

On approaching Committee Room 3, Mrs Angry thought for a moment that she had gone to the wrong venue. Something was wrong: the room looked ... different. 

On entering, it was plain to see that yes, it was different: it had been cut in two, and the committee area part of the room reduced to a corner of its former footprint.

Cut in two ... reduced in size ... Do you mean ... 'refurbished', Mrs Angry? 

As in the library 'refurbishments' - applied with the help of sledgehammers, and pneumatic drills - now being implemented by the grace of Tory Cllr Reuben Thompstone, who narrowly lost a vote of no confidence a few days ago, after his latest career best, as seen in the damning OFSTED report into care services for vulnerable children? A report which in itself was enough to prevent the auditors from signing off the accounts?

Of course. Our Town Hall, like our library buildings, is virtually one in name only, now, with nothing more than a nod towards its intended purpose of public service and democracy, and the rest of the building carved up, and pimped out for hire to Middlesex University and now ... and now, readers, wait for this ... as a wedding venue. 

Yes: every woman's dream, married life beginning under the beady eyed scrutiny* of deceased Mayors in moth eaten furs, and their scowling, bespectacled - moustachioed - wives, whose fading portraits adorn the walls of the upper floor.

(*from the days when civic duty meant proper scrutiny, and not an easy life half asleep in meetings, rubber stamping officers' reports and waiting to pick up your allowance).

Sticking together in the cramped public seating area of the newly shrunken room was a small colony of Capita drones, looking, Mrs Angry noted, with some satisfaction, rather glum, and as if they had drawn the short straw in being sent to attend, when it seemed none of the most senior Capita people had dared show up. When they think things are going well, they like to engage in a spot of corporate manspreading, preening themselves in the public seats, or what used to be the public seats, when the public bit in public service had not been removed. No, not removed, Mrs Angry - 'Refurbished'.

Mrs Angry sat down next to veteran council meeting attendee, and one man chorus of disapproval, Mr Shepherd, who said he had been thinking about her ... Mrs Angry's hopes of hiring the Town Hall for her next wedding suddenly seemed more likely, for one shining moment. But then: oh. Thinking of her at the Bishopsgate Institute, when visiting an exhibition of the Morning  Star's photographs of the Brixton riots. 

Oh well. 

Oh, but: he had something to give her. A present, from the exhibition. Hello: what's this - an award, no less: a badge - We Are Angry

We are.

In came the councillors. As the new Chair of Audit, Hendon Tory Hugh Rayner (yes: I know: just fancy that!) took Mr Reasonable aside for a quiet word of explanation (Mr Reasonable had, despite the last minute report that broke the deadline, submitted various pertinent questions ... Mrs Angry waved impertinently across the table at Tory member Peter Zinkin. 

Comrade Councillor Zinkin - greetings! He came over to Mrs Angry and Mr Shepherd. Would you and your fellow traveller like to have a few moments to yourselves, asked Mrs Angry, with her usual tact? He declined the offer.

Mr Shepherd, rather untactfully, then brought up the subject of Cllr Zinkin's cousin and namesake, the hero of British communism, and former editor of the the Morning Star, when it was the Daily Worker. And now look, he complained - you've gone and banned it from our libraries

What libraries, Mr Shepherd? 

Ah. Those former library buildings that are being  'refurbished'? No room for the Morning Star, now, I fear.

The meeting began. The Chair began the proceedings, and introduced himself, claiming the former Chair had gone on to 'greater things'. 

This was a puzzling reference, as Cllr Salinger, the former Chair, has only - at last - become Mayor, after thirty years of waiting, rather than kicked the bucket. A fate worse than death, being Mayor of Barnet, you might think: but of course this is all the Tory members care about, prancing about in the Mayoral bling, and stuffing themselves with cucumber sandwiches at Rotary Club luncheons.

Rayner apologised for the lateness of the report on Item 11, and the resulting inability of members of the public to submit questions, or indeed for all members of the committee to read and properly consider the contents. There would be another meeting, now in view of what had happened, in September. In the meanwhile discussion on the interim findings began.

Rayner cast a sympathetic look at the uncharacteristically subdued Capita drones at the back. 

Don't look so worried, he said. We will be gentle with you.

Will we? 

Why? asked Mrs Angry, and Mr Reasonable.

Well why? 

Mr Reasonable began his supplementary questions to the written answers on the issues sheet. The councillors looked on: they know now that he has a better grasp of what is going on than they do, and they pay attention to what he says, as they should have done, years ago, before they threw us into the grasping embrace of Capita. 

It emerged soon enough that as well as all the damning errors and failings identified in the course of the inspection, the auditors - external auditors - had found that seven councillors had not, as required, returned annual declarations. You might wonder why internal audit, and the Monitoring Officer, had not spotted that before it reached the point of an external audit, of course - and you should wonder. The truth is enormous laxity is given to this matter. And we heard that five members had continued to fail to make the declarations even at this stage.

So: name and shame these members, demanded Mr R.

The Chair refused. It was only - only - five, and he 'preferred' not to name them. Later that night he defended this decision on twitter, stating:

As you might imagine, Cllr Rayner's reference to the stocks led to a range of suggestions from residents keen to provide rotten tomatoes (preferably tinned) or attend a public caning. Others were not amused in the slightest, and expressed their sense of fury at the arrogance of members refusing to comply with the requirement for transparency over their interests. 

None of this appeared to worry Cllr Rayner, the new Chair of Audit, who thought it should all be handed over to the Monitoring Officer to deal with. Well no: surely he should have done so already?

The Monitoring Officer is the same one who refused to find fault when Mrs Angry complained about the Chief Executive falsely claiming no libraries had been found to have traces of legionella. And saw no problem with the 'refurbishment' banners which went up outside libraries (including a polling station) during purdah. Now it seems he has left it to the external auditors to hold councillors to account for the declarations which are presumably within his remit to manage. Or rather, to Monitor. 

And since the meeting, it has emerged that the council's MO - not named so unclear if the present or previous one - failed to inform members, as required, of a finding of maladministration by the Local Government Ombudsman.

But then so many of the issues of concern to BDO were matters which should have been picked up by the council's own procedures - were they functioning with any efficiency. The reason why the report is still only an interim one is that the annual audit inspection has met with numerous failings in process: so many that the usual length of time for inspection was simply not long enough. This is an appalling indictment of the state of incompetence for which the council, as the commissioning body, and its contractors Capita, are equally responsible.

Apart from seeking to minimise the failure by members to make declarations, it must be said, Rayner and his colleagues were evidently horrified by the tone, content and implications of the external auditors' interim report. 

As one of the men from Capita leant back against the newly partitioned wall, and yawned, the Chair apologised to members and the public for the lateness of the report and the consequent lack of time for informed discussion, or questioning of the finding. He stated himself to be shocked by the errors identified by the auditors. No bluster, or excuses: just a quiet and highly uncharacteristic reaction of - well, what? For once, when presented with a crisis, the Tories seemed utterly unsure of what to say, or do, or how to manage the political consequences.

Except for one Tory councillor. Yes: step forward Comrade Councillor Zinkin, now displaying a flair for shameless politicking worthy of the name of his illustrious revolutionary namesake. He worked himself into a fury over not the content of this most damning report, but in regard to those who had produced it, that is to say the external auditors. Everyone in the room now looked on in open mouthed astonishment as he attacked BDO for submitting their findings so late, and failing to spot any of the issues identified at any earlier stage, even the recent OFSTED report.

Why are you shooting the messenger? yelled Mrs Angry. He carried on.

He wanted letters of complaints written. To the Chief Executive. And to whatever body was responsible for appointing auditors. (Curious that he didn't know who that is.)

What about Capita? shouted Mr Reasonable, and Mrs Angry, in chorus.

The auditors looked on across the table, forced to listen to this totally unwarranted barrage of nonsensical accusations - without the chance to defend themselves. Tory members such as Cllr Finn looked embarrassed, and clearly wanted to distance themselves from such remarks - Finn openly disagreed with his colleague, and reminded the meeting that the blame rests with Capita. To be fair, he said, wryly, nothing was going 'exactly smoothly' ... 

It is true to say, of course, that Cllr Finn, as Chair of the committee that is meant to oversee the performance of the council's contractors, must share a heavy portion of the burden, as the report points out that the process of scrutiny is inadequate. 

Hoping that everything will be 'hunky dory', and maintaining as he did at one meeting that the purpose of scrutiny, 'was not to criticise. It was to make a positive contribution'. is simply not good enough.

But Finn cannot be held entirely to blame: every Tory member has played a part in the sanctioning of contractual failure, overlooking the clear warning signs of looming disaster, as in the catastrophic library IT crash, which lost a huge amount of data, and caused chaos - and the dire standard of areas such as the website and switchboard systems. 

And how curious that not only were senior Capita representatives absent, but that no senior Tory councillors were in attendance. No doubt the Tory leader Richard Cornelius is happily ensconced in his French rural retreat, but the deputy leader Dan Thomas is here. Mrs Angry caught him legging it from the Town Hall on her way in, that very evening. Can't think why he didn't stick around, can you?

Deputy leader Dan Thomas, who didn't stay for the meeting

When given the chance to speak, the men from BDO, led by Leigh Lloyd-Thomas, who has always struck Mrs Angry as an absolutely fair, honest and conscientious auditor, pointed out that they had been on site for five weeks and had had to conclude that it was not possible to sign off the accounts or to submit anything other than an interim report as there were simply too many issues to 'close down'. 

As for the terrible OFSTED children's care report, (which Tory councillors appear to want to blame on anyone but themselves, including Reuben Thompstone, the Chair of the CELS committee which should oversee the service), Mr Lloyd-Thomas had to bring to the attention of the Audit committee the fact that no one had informed him about it. 

Since last week's meetings, moreover, it would appear there are other serious errors which for some reason officers may not have informed the auditor about, including the LGO report mentioned earlier - and the recent fine from the Pensions Regulator for failing to submit information required by law. What else is there?

The auditors continued, reporting that there had been 'problems with the presentation of income' in the Capita managed accounts. And that there was not 'a robust IT platform'.

There followed a catalogue of 'errors', involving a million or so here, then another one missing there, and on and on, all which were hard for Mrs Angry to follow, but next to her, Mr Reasonable, as is his wont in committee meetings, shook his head, sighed, muttered, and fought back the angry tears of a management consultant and citizen auditor driven beyond the bounds of Reason itself.

The credit balance, for example, was wrong: by £1.6 million. Exit package payments (generous consolation prizes for senior officers who 'leave by mutual consent') - these are not being discharged when agreed, as they should be. Mrs Angry wondered whose exit package may be next up for agreement, and sincerely hoped the figure would of a size sufficient to soothe their wounded pride, and sense of pique, at being the sacrificial victim for the Tory councillors whose own responsibility is never called into question.

Labour's audit lead member, Geof Cooke, recalled the promises made at the time, or rather before the time, of signing the Capita contracts, and the boasting of their success with previous partnerships elsewhere. Four years into the contract, one year after the (frankly nominal) Year 3 review, and look where we are now. 

A senior officer at the table, unidentified and unaccountable to the public, tried to shift the blame regarding IT inadequacies, by claiming the council was not using Capita's system, and had inherited the old one. Other officers looked askance at this, as well they might. Mr Reasonable pointed out from the public seating that they are indeed now using 'Integra', introduced by Capita, and despite the expense of previously buying in a new SAP system. Senior officer Anisa Darr confirmed this. 

It seems particularly ironic that the failings identified by this audit are linked to a less than satisfactory IT system. 

Readers may recall that, before launching the One Barnet mass outsourcing fiasco, our Tory councillors - and senior officers of the council - stated categorically that no in house option, as an alternative to outsourcing services, could be considered because we needed the capital investment that was promised by a private contractor. 

2013, Barnet Tory leader Richard Cornelius signs away control of council services to Capita

When Capita was awarded the contract, we were promised that one of the benefits of the deal would be an 'upfront' £16 million in investment for IT systems.

It then transpired, after the signing, that not only were we not going to get this generous hand out - we were now expected to GIVE this £16 million TO Capita to spend on the necessary improvements. 

BDO were not our external auditors in this period, unfortunately - the contract then was with Grant Thornton, whose tolerance of Barnet's financial activities - and disasters such as the MetPro affair - was quite remarkable. 

One might speculate now what a different set of auditors might have made of that deal. An arrangement which has not improved the delivery of accounts, but delivered a full blown cock up of the type so often seen, in Broken Barnet. So often seen, but so seldom resulting in any censure. 

Until now.

How many times was this local authority warned of the consequences of such a radical hollowing out of council services, and the delegation of control of those services to the private sector? The theoretical model was bad enough, but the structure and complexity of the two Capita contracts, nodded through by lazy, gullible, irresponsible Tory members, without any real attempt to understand the implications, or listen to those who already understood them: this has resulted in the consequence we all predicted: a disaster, and one that affects every man, woman and child in this borough, at a time of desperate need, and unparalleled hardship.

One of the boxes containing the Capita contracts

And how many times have our dopey Tory councillors defended the Capita contracts, claiming, in the face of all argument to the contrary, that they were returning savings, and represented excellent value for money for tax payers? Despite the clear evidence that Capita is milking the contracts for 'hidden' fees and profits that go far beyond the balance of any of the strictly limited, nominal savings?

The audit report could not have been clearer. Last year the council overspent by £8.3 million. There is a massive budget gap in the years to 2020. The council's reserves are shrinking. The likeliness of any real savings throughout the life of this ten year contract is rapidly diminishing. 

Thursday's meeting was a car crash: but it was a collision that was always going to happen, as soon as the speeding Capita juggernaut could be seen hurtling towards the brick wall of an independent audit. 

The mass delusion of Tory councillors, apparently held, as one resident put it last week, in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome, mutely accepting only the version of truth supplied to them by their own contractors, cannot be sustained. They have f*cked up, good and proper, and at a time when, in terms of electoral risk, they are at their most vulnerable.

The impact of their policies, or their contractors' hijacking of services: the library cuts, the development favouring planning service, the lack of enforcement of planning breaches, parking, all of these things are losing Barnet Tories, in the council chamber, and at Westminster, the support of their own voters, in the run up to next year's local elections and when there could be another general election, at any moment, in three newly marginal constituencies.

For years Barnet's Tories have cut council taxes by token amounts, to try to sweet talk voters into returning them to office. This gesture has cost us untold amounts of desperately needed revenue, and seen the imposition of the most swingeing cuts to vital services. This year, pre-election, such a gesture would be utterly indefensible. 

But what can they do, now, to limit the damage of the inevitable consequence of their folly in promoting the easycouncil road to ruin? 

After the immediate shock has worn off, over the summer holidays, they will try to manage the political impact of this latest, largest cock up. No doubt the PR and communications team will be expanded yet again as they try to spin their way out of trouble, and convince the residents and tax payers that there is nothing wrong. 

But it won't work this time: things have simply gone beyond the point of return, and there is little they can do.

At the end of the discussion of the audit report, Mr Reasonable, Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard wandered down the steps of the Town Hall, and stood talking at the front door, where rain sodden confetti from one of the day's weddings was sticking obstinately to the flagstoned entrance. Mrs Angry suggested that her report of the evening's disclosures would be the shortest ever. Four words:

We told you so

More than four words, in the end: but we did. Tell you so. Over and over again, and you wouldn't listen.

Now all you can do, Tory councillors, is to apologise to the residents and taxpayers of Broken Barnet, come to your senses, and pull the plug on the Capita contracts. 

If you don't, you will be acting wilfully to put your own party interests before those of the people you claim to represent.

The choice is yours.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

It makes us want to shout: Barnet's children, locked out of their own libraries, lobby the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport

Arriving at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, with letters from Barnet children

One of Mrs Angry's many difficulties, as a result of being dyspraxic, and hopeless at negotiating journeys, and lacking any sense of orientation, is a tendency to get lost very easily, a particularly annoying habit at any time, but one which yesterday meant that she managed, with spectacular stupidity, to walk the length and breadth of Parliament Street (or was it Whitehall?) - both sides - looking in vain for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. 

This led to an unexpected, and in fact rather interesting detour, a tourist trail along the road, all the way to Trafalgar Square and back, past all the dour looking Ministry buildings, the grandeur of the Foreign Office, the solemnity of the Cenotaph, the nervous looking boys serving as Horseguards on sentry duty (seemed much older last time I was there, aged six) ... and even the tattiness of Downing Street, where armed police, brandishing tattoos and hipster beards, protect the be-scaffolded, hanging-basketed seat of government. 

Was Mrs May at home? Who could tell? Does it make any difference, where she is, at any given time?

Was Karen Bradley, Minister for Culture, Media and Sport at home? Or at least, in her office, eventually located right at the beginning of the unnecessary cruise along Whitehall? 

Apparently not. 

Or so we were told, standing with the children of Broken Barnet and their parents, outside the Ministry, which, in fact, was quite hard to spot, with a small sign on a building shared with Customs and Revenue: culture, of course, must go hand in hand with financial matters, in a Conservative government, and clearly is not of the highest priority - an attitude reflected and magnified by the Tory council in Barnet, in the extent of their indifference to any of the impact of the devastation being wrought - by their hands - to our once outstandingly good library service.

We were there to witness the delivery of hundreds of letters to the Minister from the children of Barnet, who bear the worst burden of these cuts in service, barred from their own libraries during the new unstaffed system, facing a huge cull in book stock, and the loss of vital study space, all a matter which had been the subject of a letter sent last December, but which had been totally ignored, until some sort of grudging acknowledgement arrived in reaction to the news of this visit. 

Children stood outside the Ministry building with these letters in a box, holding placards and chanting: 

Don't lock us out! It makes us want to shout!

The streams of passing tourists marvelled at this gathering of militant children. 

British democracy in action, explained Mrs Angry, self appointed tour guide, waving cheerily to the fascinated passengers of an open topped bus. And more interesting than Madame Tussauds, one would imagine.

Security guards peered round the entrance to the Ministry with ill disguised tetchiness. One came down the steps and insisted the children move six inches to the left, for reasons of Health and Safety. And Security. Well, that last pretext didn't really work, being as they didn't fit the profile of the usual sort of threat, but still ...

If there's an evac situation, he warned grimly, ten thousand people will be coming out of this building ... and I wouldn't like to think what would happen to the children. Goodness. Mrs Angry thought that it must be an awfully big building, although, as an estate agent would put it, deceptively so. 

Don't lock us out! It makes us want to shout!

Passers by were all very curious, and asked questions. The older children, including some from local secondary schools like Compton, the Archer school, and Fortismere, patiently explained the issues  - Mrs Angry heard one of the boys tell a woman ... and you know when the unstaffed hours are in place, we aren't allowed in, and anyone who is allowed in isn't allowed to use the toilet ...  The woman shook her head in disbelief.

Where will I study now? Year Eight boys at Barnet schools want an answer

To watch these children take such an active and informed role in lobbying politicians over an issue that affects their lives and their well being was inspiring, in fact. No need for adults to speak for them: their fury - and their articulacy - drove the event and made people stop, look, and listen.

After a while a burly security man came to speak to one of the parents. In private, he insisted. Why in private? He didn't really know why. What did they want? They wanted to speak to the Minister, or someone else, about the library situation in Barnet. Or at least hand in the letters. There is no one available, he claimed. Have you asked? inquired Mrs Angry. Ah. It appeared not. He said he would go and see: but he couldn't promise anything Oh. Ok. 

The children carried on chanting.

We waited. 

The security man emerged and said 'someone' would come down.

'Someone' did come down: a man in sports gear, claiming to be working on 'libraries policy'. Clearly there is relaxed dress code, at DCMS, these days. Or perhaps he was working on the idea being promoted in some libraries where books are no longer in fashion and the buildings must be converted into gyms? 

Clearly very nervous, this man said he could not explain why after six months the Minister had not responded to the very detailed letter sent to her, nor when a reply would come, but they were 'working on it'. Hmm. He listened for a bit, accepted the letters and disappeared inside.

Parent Emily Burnham talks to the man from DCMS

Clearly the people at DCMS are not used to demonstrations outside the building, or being lobbied by anyone, let alone children. 

And equally clear is that it is time for every community dealing with the loss of library services to stand up, speak up, and make the politicians responsible account for what they are doing. 

Do what the children of Barnet did yesterday: take it to the heart of government. 

Don't let them hide behind their desks in Whitehall, letting local authorities take the flak for the policies they are covertly engineering, by allowing the massive assault on library provision go unsanctioned. And don't let your MPs get away with it either: all three Barnet MPs have backed their council colleagues' library cuts. Write and tell them how appalled you are - and don't vote them back at the next election, if you don't like what is happening.

The reason the Minister does not want to respond to the letter sent in December, to accusations that the newly assaulted libraries in Barnet fail the statutory requirements of a comprehensive service, and the requirement to address the needs of children and other protected groups is because that accusation is demonstrably true. 

We are beginning to see the evidence now, as the newly 'refurbished' libraries re-open, even though the managers are still too scared to let them function as intended, unstaffed and unsupervised, with self service and automatic doors. It's too risky. Once the system does run with only a few CCTV cameras in place of staffing or security - it will be only a matter of time before a major incident involving a member of the public.

The impact on our children, and on elderly and disabled residents, on disadvantaged residents, of the newly cut service will be - is already - profound, and deeply damaging. This is both indefensible, and unsustainable.

It's time for the Minister to read those letters, acknowledge the problem, and compel those responsible in Barnet for such a catastrophic policy to think again.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Save Our Libraries: Barnet's children take their protest to Whitehall

Children from Martin's School explained what the library next door meant to them, and put up this display to mark the last day of opening - last day as a real library

They call it 'refurbishment'. 

We call it destruction. 

Yes: libraries again, and if you are sick of it, Tory councillors of Broken Barnet, you ain't seen nothing yet. 

This is going to go on and on, up until the local elections next year and beyond: and as for our quivering Tory MPs, balancing on a knife edge in their newly marginal constituencies, waiting for the next General Election, well: don't say we didn't warn you.

In December, library campaigners wrote to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, to complain about the terrible fate designed for our library service by the Tory council, backed, it must be said, by our local MPs. 

Tory councillors have shut the children's library at Golders Green: here in a corner of what remains of the adult section is the selection of books for younger children

The full letter may be seen here - it was a long, detailed analysis of the impact of a truly devastating programme of cuts, especially on the children of this borough, and other vulnerable groups, supposedly protected in law from the grievous inequality inherent in such a violent assault on what had been a magnificent, beacon award standard of service.

After six months, the Minister, Karen Bradley, had still not replied, and campaigners agreed it was time to take rather more direct action. It was decided that children from Barnet would visit DCMS and hand in some of the four hundred and more postcards that were so lovingly displayed outside the East Finchley branch, on its last day of opening as a real library: beautiful letters of love for their library, from the children of Martin School, next door. 

Here is the press release which announces the action children will take tomorrow.


At Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS)

“Don’t lock us out of our library!”

Children from Barnet are descending on the offices of the Culture Secretary in Central London armed with 440 postcards, demanding a reinstatement of their independent access to libraries.

Primary school children turned a World Book Day project into a call for government action against the loss of their access to Barnet libraries.

Year 6 pupil Zara Lobley, from Martin Primary in N2, wrote to DCMS and local MP Mike Freer in April 2017 asking for a meeting to present these postcards, to no avail. Pupils are now visiting the offices of the Culture Secretary themselves, determined to have their say.

Zara says “My friends and I are very worried about the ongoing changes to our libraries in Barnet which mean that we are going to miss out on so much. Over 440 children have designed postcards addressed to the Culture Secretary so that she can understand what the library means to us”.

Libraries in Barnet, recently shut despite it being exam time, are now reopening with electronic gates requiring pin-code access outside staffed hours. Staffing has been reduced to between 15.5-23.5 hours per week; children under 15 cannot access libraries independently outside of these hours. Even older children will need permission from their school as well as a parent or guardian before they can be issued with a pin code. Toilets will be locked, affecting families with children and making the service far less accessible to vulnerable members of the community. Space, including book stock, computer rooms and study space have been drastically reduced. Once famous children’s libraries at Golders Green and Hendon have been destroyed .

Over the past few years, thousands of Barnet residents have been consulted then ignored about the fate of Barnet libraries. A recent FOI request revealed that local MPs have been complicit in this process. In December 2016 resident-led campaign, ‘Save Barnet Libraries’ submitted a formal complaint to DCMS, pointing to government guidance about children’s independent access to libraries. The Minister has failed to respond. 

Children are calling on the Minister to step in and force Barnet Council to reinstate a proper library service with safe access for all. 

Parents and library campaigners from 'Save Barnet Libraries'

Once we began to publicise this action: well, a miraculous result - a letter arrived, ignoring the reasons for the children's intended visit to Whitehall, and mouthing nonsense about the opening hours. 

Just to remind readers, children under the age of fifteen may not enter Barnet libraries in the new unstaffed hours - even secondary school children needing to study - unless they are accompanied by an adult:

Quite why it took the Minister six months to come up with this feeble letter is unclear, but there is of course virtually no acknowledgement of the extent of concerns raised in the formal complaint.

Again, the completely and deliberately misleading excuse of libraries being closed only for 'refurbishment' is used, when, in the case of East Finchley, and all others, the buildings are in fact being gutted, ransacked, staffing cut, book stock culled, study space removed - and the library function reduced to a fraction of the footprint of the building. 

The reduction in library size within their own buildings was allegedly made in order to free up room to let as rented commercial office space. This is absolute nonsense: a Freedom of Information response not so long ago demonstrated this by revealing there were no rental agreements in place, and even the much vaunted tenancy contract with Middlesex Uni that was supposed to justify the massive loss of size in Hendon Library had proved to be worth no more than the paper it wasn't written on.

In East Finchley, we have the only library in which there was any sign of even a possibility of rented space being used - library managers claimed to be in talks with someone who wanted to use the library for a 'business hub' - which turns out to mean charging people to rent a desk, while local children and young people in what is one of the borough's highest areas of social deprivation lose much needed space to study.

Before it closed for 'refurbishment': local residents make use of access to computers. Now there are plans to charge for the rental of desks in this library

This library had already built a healthy income from letting space in a purpose built meeting room to local groups: not any more. 

Business speaks louder than the word community, even when that community pays its way. Ideology before economic sense or social value every time: this is the Barnet Tory way, facilitated by its private contractors, who of course now manage the library buildings and continue to milk the income opportunities afforded by all those variations the Tory members didn't bother to read, when they signed the contracts.

In case you haven't noticed, the state of our library service is in complete meltdown now: buildings still closed, their re-opening delayed as the terrible damage wrought on the service is installed, blow by blow.

North Finchley Library, safely contained behind bars during the 'refurbishment', which saw the loss of another children's library

Those which have re-opened are libraries in name only, serving time until as is clearly going to be the case, visitor numbers rapidly diminish and they will be shut, and the buildings sold for development as luxury housing, like every other publicly owned asset in this borough.

In the meanwhile, the operation of the so called 'unstaffed' hours is a farce, with senior officers masquerading in 'Here to Help' Barnet library t shirts hovering outside and inside with security guards in attendance, at who knows what cost - all in the pretence of making 'savings'. 

If you recall, achieving those savings, of a couple of million or so, in staffing and so on, is to be accomplished by spending ... £14 million on the evisceration of our libraries. 

Cheaper, you might think, to keep the staff, and well, you know, maybe do a bit of genuine 'refurbishment'. Or even investment, as more some rather more astute authorities are now doing.

What a library means to Wissam: or meant - lots of books about rabbits

Why don't they dare to leave the unstaffed hours to operate as they intend - with residents left to access the buildings on their own, and remaining on their own? 

Because they dare not. 

The anger and confusion of residents confronted by the changes in their newly cut libraries is massive: the difficulties of those with disabilities absolutely apparent - and the fear of 'incidents' as a result of the ludicrous new automatically opening and shutting doors well founded. Automatically opening and shutting - but not always when they are supposed to.

Many problems have already occurred with this new technology, and it would only be a matter of time, once left unsupervised as was always the intention, before someone comes to harm, is trapped in the building, or the victim of assault, or the building itself is at risk due to failures in security. 

The other consequences of the new library service will take more time to become evident: this sort of impact is more widespread, more insidious, more long term, and more shameful: the effect will be on those most dependent on a free and accessible provision of  books, information, study space, computers. 

Those who for whom a library is not just a resource for all of those things, but a much needed community centre, whose value is indefinable, and immeasurable - and irreplaceable. The elderly, those with disabilities, and other members of society dealing with social isolation, or exclusion, for example. 

But not least, and perhaps first of all these are the children of this borough. 

For more than eighty years, this was the children's library at Golders Green. Now closed by Tory councillors.

Even if they are lucky enough to have parents with time to accompany them to one of the newly cut libraries, and even if they can find enough books left over from the massive downsizing in stock, and even if they still feel welcome in a building that has had its children's library ripped out, standing empty, waiting for tenants that will never appear, standing as a metaphor for the gutless, mindless Tory council that has done this terrible thing - the cost in terms of education, literacy, and social mobility for those children from less advantaged families will only become apparent in years to come, when standards in educational achievement fall, and the division in opportunities between those with means and those without becomes even more extreme than it is now.

Tomorrow some of our children will be going to Whitehall, to deliver those postcards that no one wants to read. 

Perhaps those postcards will go into an archive, somewhere, and be rediscovered by future historians, who will try and understand what led to the death of the public library system, in the twenty first century.

Well: like the NHS, our public library system won't die, and will survive - until the fight ends, and the protest dies down. 

In Barnet, at least, that is not going to be for a very long time.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Children at risk: Time to take responsibility - a joint statement

Children at Risk: Time to take responsibility

A joint statement from the Barnet Bloggers

“There are widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children and their families in Barnet. Inspectors identified a legacy of widespread poor practice and ongoing systemic failures and services that neither adequately ensure the safety, nor promote the welfare of children and young people”. 

Ofsted Inspection Report on Barnet Children’s Service July 2017

Over nearly a decade of scrutiny by Barnet bloggers, we have investigated and reported the seemingly endless sequence of scandals, blunders, and political folly created by Barnet’s Conservative councillors. The incomprehensible tale of the MetPro fiasco, the disgraceful confiscation of travel passes for disabled residents, the cutting of vital respite care for children at Mapledown School, which cares for children with profound disabilities, the illegal CPZ parking charges, are only some of the many examples of administrative incompetence – and worse – that we have pursued.

In all this time, in response to all of these disastrous situations, not one Conservative member has taken responsibility for the failure in services to what are very often the most vulnerable members of our community.

No one could be more vulnerable than a child: especially a child in care, whose well being has become the responsibility of the local authority, standing as a corporate parent.

Yet now we see the emergence of a most damning report from OFSTED, one that slates the provision of care services in Barnet for such children: a report that should shame any local authority, and would – anywhere else but in Barnet.

“The vast majority of care planning is ineffective. There is a lack of focus on measuring progress for children or their outcomes. When there is no progress, this is not re-evaluated or escalated effectively. This leads to drift and delay. This is particularly stark for a significant number of children who are victims of chronic long-term neglect and emotional abuse, who do not have the impact of this risk recognised, responded to or reduced, despite spending long periods subject to child protection planning … ”.

“Young people who go missing from care receive a poor service, because social workers do not find out enough about the risks to them. This means that young people who go missing are not always kept safe enough from dangers, such as gangs or adults sexually exploiting them”.

In any circumstances where there has been proven wrongdoing, or a failure in standards, it is usually the case, in Barnet, that officers are held responsible, and those elected members tasked with the responsibility – and paid generous allowances for those duties –of overseeing the enforcement of their own policies remain distanced from the consequences of their actions. We believe that this is wrong, and that councillors should be held accountable.

In this case, we believe, the fault lies in a serious failure in leadership, oversight and scrutiny by the Children, Education, Libraries and Safeguarding Committee, chaired by Conservative councillor Reuben Thompstone.

The same committee was responsible for the Mapledown cuts – later reversed, after protests from parents, and a public outcry; and was also the instrument of approval for the devastating programme of cuts to our library service, presented to residents as mere ‘refurbishment’, but which has seen the closure of children’s libraries, and the removal of access for under sixteen year olds from any library operating the newly unstaffed hours.

It seems to us that under this Conservative administration, children are seen not as our most precious asset, but an easy target for cuts, and the lowering of standards meant to ensure their protection, and wellbeing.

In 2014 Tory members approved a cost cutting restructuring of Family Services which has resulted in the use of agency social workers soaring from none in 2013, to £3.05 million per annum in 2016/17.

With the average agency social worker staying just 202 days, there has been a constant turnover of staff, and throughout this period, Children’s Services have been under constant pressure to meet the budget savings forecast.

We believe that pressure on budgets for local social workers responsible for ensuring the safety of young people has lead to the near destruction of the service, and a situation where there are simply not the resources to ensure vulnerable young people are given the life chances they deserve.

This cannot possibly be in the best interests of the children of this borough.

We therefore make the following suggestions:

1.     That there must be a full open, transparent, and independent public inquiry into what went wrong.

2.    This inquiry must include a forensic audit of all correspondence between the Conservative administration and officers, regarding Children’s Services, to ensure that political interference has not, and cannot in future, prejudice the standard of care.

3.    This inquiry should be concluded prior to May 2018, to allow the people of Barnet to pass their own judgement on the administration.

4.    We call for the resignation of the Councillor in charge of Children’s Services, Cllr Reuben Thompstone.

Derek Dishman
John Dix
Theresa Musgrove
Roger Tichborne