In reply, the truth

The article on One Barnet by Hannah Fearn in the Guardian shows that she needs a stronger light to see what is really behind the empty claims of necessity and the promises of big savings.

The ‘well-publicized local objection’ referred to was well-publicised only locally, despite our efforts to interest the national press.

While it is true that the Court of Appeal found in favour of the Council, it is essential for a well-balanced article to point out that this was only on the issue of whether the legal challenge was brought in time. It did not alter Lord Justice Underhill’s judgment that Barnet ‘Council never set out to consult about its outsourcing programme at all’ and it ‘had not complied with its obligations under section 3 (2) of the 1999 Act’. If it did not comply with its statutory obligations, it acted illegally. And because it was able to mislead the residents about the date of its decision – and confuse the courts to the extent that none of the judges could state which of two dates was the decisive one – so that the challenge was brought too late, it will get away with it.

A Guardian reporter might look at the reason for the ‘late’ challenge and find it was because most residents are not legal experts and actually believed the various councillors who assured them that no decision had been made, that the council could still walk away from the outsourcing. What a lesson for our society: politicians can overcome the law simply by misleading their constituents, something that many of them seem practiced at.

It would be great to put ‘ideological rifts aside’, but it is ideology that has driven the council to sign these contracts. Yes, they’ve lost a huge amount of the budget, but they’ve compounded that loss by spending nearly £9 million on consultants, when they had budgeted only £2 million. Of course, if you are to believe Deputy Leader Dan Thomas, there is no budget for consultants; it’s just an open-ended spend. Instead of just accepting the line that this leaves them with ‘no alternative’, why not investigate the council’s spendthrift ways? Why not look at all the reports that have been provided by unions and residents that offer those alternatives? Why not question the thinking of a council that can propose cutting the pay of coach escorts for children with special needs by 33% (from about £8,800 to about £5,800) at the same time as employing a new director for over £110,000.

A good investigative article would look at the effects on local people, who will either be forced to move away from the borough – customer service call centres will be moved in the first instance to Blackburn – or be made redundant. For people who are made redundant, what are the chances for finding another job in the current economic climate? Will they become long-term unemployed? Will they have to depend on benefits? How much will the council have to pay in redundancy compensation and in benefits, and how much will it lose because these unemployed people no longer will pay full council tax?

Such an article would analyse how a private company, which has to make profits out of delivering services, can deliver the same standard of those services for less money than a local authority, which has only to break even. By moving jobs out of the area to places where the workers are paid less and have poorer terms and conditions? By cutting the number of staff employed to deliver those services? By cutting the services themselves? That is what has been and will continue to happen.

The same article could investigate Barnet Council’s track record on privatization and see a string of failures that have cost the local taxpayers dearly. The investigator might realize how poorly equipped the councillors have been and are to understand the contracts and to make sure that their safeguards are watertight. Instead they rely on lawyers and officers to reassure them. And then, for example, they pay out £8 million penalties and £2 million costs to a contractor that failed top make its predicted profit. That was for a single-service contract, so what chance that they have protected the residents in a complex, multi-service contract lasting 10 years.

Democracy? That’s what we’re fighting for; that’s what is being eroded by the elected Tories who pulled off this massive destruction of our public services without mentioning it in their last election manifesto, without consulting, and by misleading residents who found out about One Barnet and began campaigning against it. They treated residents with contempt, replying but not answering their incisive questions – possibly because they had no answers – and dismissing a petition with 8000 signatures as ‘a novelty’; that’s about 7950 more signatures than the number of people who made the final decision to award the contracts to Capita. What kind of democracy allows ten part-time councillors to override the rights of the entire electorate? Sure, they can – and will ­– be denied re-election, but that will not stop the redundancies or bring the services back in house. Nor will it prevent the people of Barnet from having to pay for this high-risk gamble financially and in the effect on their quality of life.

The article’s strapline says ‘Barnet’s two-contract agreement will be the first of many such arrangements in the UK that will transform local government’. We hope not.

Maybe if the Guardian prints this information, it will help people in other boroughs to scrutinize what their councils are doing, to see the risks to their community and to take action ‘in time’.

©Barbara Jacobson

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