Friday, 26 December 2008
The Wrath of Freer?
On 8th December, the General Functions Committee considered a report which would have given all staff two extra days holiday next year in recognition of the council achieving four star status.
Now as a capitalist, I support the concept of rewarding staff who excel at their jobs, but as our glorious leader Mike Freer said in his New Year address to his loyal subjects: “Over the last few weeks, thousands of people in the country have been told they will be unemployed come 2009, and that insecurity is being felt everywhere, including Barnet.”
To spend nearly £1 million of our money on bonuses for public officials at a time of recession, when so many people in the private sector are having to make cutbacks just to keep their heads above water, would have been utterly crass and insensitive.
A reader of this blog kindly pointed out to me that the General Functions Committee actually rejected the recommendations of the report. My initial reaction to this news was one of immense relief. At long last common sense had prevailed!
But then I started wondering. How did this proposal get as far as the committee stage? Under council rules, all items on an agenda must first be cleared with the relevant committee chairman. As this was a report prepared by the Director of Resources involving such a large amount of money, the Cabinet Member for Resources (Mike Freer) would have unquestionably been involved. That’s the way the system works.
The report states that it “arises from a decision taken at the Corporate Joint Negotiation and Consultation Committee on 7 October 2008 to provide a consideration report with costings on the proposal to award two additional days annual leave in 2008/9 in recognition of the Council achieving 4 star status.”
This committee is chaired by Cllr Lynne Hillan - one of Mike Freer’s closest and most trusted lieutenants. I mention this for one simple reason. It is absolutely clear that the proposal to award two extra days leave was known in advance by at least two of the three people pulling the strings in the Cabinet. If they did not approve of the recommendations, there would have been no report before the General Functions Committee. It simply would not have got that far.
Section 6 of the report states that the cost of this proposal was £975,104.94. To produce a report where the cost has been calculated to the penny is rather unusual. It must have taken an officer some considerable time to prepare and it would not have been done without the leader’s knowledge.
So the big question is this. Why, after going to the trouble of producing such a detailed report, did the committee throw it out? Why was a proposal which the leader had previously supported suddenly given the red card? The Conservatives on the General Functions Committee would not have rejected the proposals if Mike Freer had approved them.
So what changed his mind? Did he realise that the council simply could not afford the gesture given the problems with Aerodrome Road bridge and the missing Icelandic millions? Unlikely, given that the scale of these financial problems was well known before the committee met.
Perhaps the decision was connected to the Future Shape of the Council - Mike Freer’s pet project to privatise the council? Five days before the General Functions Committee convened, there was a Cabinet meeting to discuss Future Shape which was met by a large protest delegation outside the council’s offices. It even attracted the attention of the BBC.
The unions are bitterly opposed to the plans and have promised Freer that he will have a fight on his hands to implement them.
Mike Freer sees Future Shape as his legacy - an opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory in the vain (desperate?) hope that David Cameron will reward him with a position in the next Conservative government. But for this to succeed, Freer has to win over his opponents. The next General Election must take place by June 2010 at the latest, and if the unions want to make life hard, there is absolutely no way these plans can be implemented before then. So Mike’s legacy is now at risk.
Freer has shown himself to be ruthless in controlling dissent within his own ranks of councillors, but he has no power to control the unions. What better revenge on them for scuppering his personal ambition than to take away the reward of extra holiday?
Of course, there might be a different explanation for this volte-face, but I have yet to hear it.