Tuesday 31 March 2009

Degrees in Twitology

Brian Coleman recently observed that "Twitter is for twits" and
to prove the point, Birmingham City University has just announced that it is launching a Masters degree in 'Social Media' covering social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and will cost over £4,000.

Jon Hickman, who put the course together, said: “During the course we will consider what people can do on Facebook and Twitter, and how they can be used for communication and marketing purposes.”

However, Birmingham based student Jamie Waterman told the Daily Telegraph: “Virtually all of the content of this course is so basic it can be self taught. In fact most people know all this stuff already. I think it's a complete waste of university resources.”

Trivial degrees just serve to prove how far the university system has been devalued by Labour.

I am sure Barnet Council wouldn’t be so stupid as to waste taxpayers money sending any officers on this course.

Today is the last day to save the warden service

As readers will know from previous posts, Barnet Council is considering a £950,000 cost cutting exercise which will leave many vulnerable residents in sheltered accommodation without the warden service they have come to rely on.

The council’s on-line consultation for residents to give their views can be found at: http://snaponline.snapsurveys.com/surveylogin.asp?k=123494868473

Please note that the closing date for the on-line consultation is 5pm today, 31st March 2009.

You will be invited to propose alternative savings which the council could make. Frankly, that is what officers are paid to do, but here are a few suggestions anyway.

Scrapping the wardens is Cllr Lynne Hillan’s big idea. In the clip below, she attempts to justify her actions.

Don’t leave it to others! Let the council know what you think of these proposals.

Monday 30 March 2009

100 - Not Out!

This is my 100th blog and I hope, dear readers, you will allow me this brief self indulgent retrospective. I started blogging in July 2008 in response to the Barnet Times cancelling Rog T’s blog. I won’t bore you with the details again - the full story can be found here in the archives.

Originally, the blog was called “Not The Barnet Times” which was intended as a tongue in cheek response to Rog’s predicament, but it soon became clear that there was a pressing need to report important local political stories which were not being carried by the two main newspaper groups serving the Borough. Not The Barnet Times, was duly transformed into Barnet Council Watch.

Over the last 8 months, I have published several scoops. It was this blog which broke the story about the Leader of the Council using taxpayers money to fly business class to America. This blog was the first to reveal that the council spent £14,000 of your money buying wide screen TVs for five chief officers.

You read it here first about the offensive video posted by the council on YouTube.

I reported on the £2,000 lunch expenses claimed by two chief officers in just one year and that one of those officers also spent another £2,000 travelling to the South of France on a junket.

Then there was the shameful story about Brian Coleman increasing the burial charges for children under 3. Most recently, Barnet Council Watch was first to report the news that there are shortly to be two by-elections in the Borough.

In addition to these scoops I have, along with fellow bloggers Rog T and Statler & Waldorf, reported in depth about councillors’ allowances, the Icelandic banking scandal and the proposal to scrap the warden service. All of these topics are important to local residents, much as the council would prefer them swept under the carpet.

My critics responded to the blog by using false names to post derogatory comments about my mother. A few impressionable Conservative councillors were instructed not to speak to me and, shamefully, those who were more interested in keeping their allowances or climbing the greasy pole, complied. But it has had no affect on my blog. If anything, it has only served to confirm that my articles have been hitting home and that there is a continuing need to scrutinise and report the actions of the council.

I am extremely grateful for all the messages of support I have received since starting this blog, not just from my growing army of readers, but from the many loyal party members who understand my motivation for writing and share my frustration with those characters who seek to undermine the concept of democratic accountability which is under threat in Barnet.

Here’s to the next 100!

Thursday 26 March 2009

Barnet’s Psychological Assessment

Regular readers will recall that last July, this blog was the first to report that former Chief Executive Leo Boland was looking for another job.

In another exclusive scoop, Barnet Council Watch can now reveal that the cost of recruiting Nick Walkley as his replacement was a trifling £49,395 - inclusive of £3,500 for a psychological assessment.

It is obviously very important for an employer to carry out an assessment of someone who already works for them, and lest anyone thinks this is yet another example of the council wasting taxpayers’ money, I have managed to obtain a copy of the secret assessment that Mr Walkley was required to complete so readers can judge for themselves.

"Accountability breeds responsibility"

These are the wise words of Dr Stephen Covey, the international best selling author of management books. I was reminded of this quotation after reading Cllr Duncan Macdonald’s latest blog on the Icelandic banking scandal, which has put £27.4million of Barnet taxpayers’ money at risk.

Cllr Macdonald is a member of the Working Group scrutiny committee which recently discovered that the council had been ignoring its own investment criteria, resulting in huge sums of public money being recklessly deposited in failing Icelandic banks.

Last night, the committee presented its draft findings to the Resources, Performance and Partnerships Overview & Scrutiny Committee, but despite the fact that its remit was to review the council’s Treasury Management strategy, treasury officers present at the meeting were actually proposing amendments to the report! This blatant conflict of interest should have been obvious to the experienced committee Chairman.

Cllr Macdonald believes the committee acted unconstitutionally, and there is certainly a prohibition in the constitution which prevents officers investigating matters in which they were involved. But if you can ignore your own investment criteria, I suppose you can ignore the constitution as well.

Cllr Macdonald also believes that the Conservatives were under instructions to water the report down. It is really quite incredible that the same Conservative councillors who agreed the draft report, then amended it at the committee stage and vote the original down.

The council now appears to be engaged in an orchestrated buck passing exercise. Nobody is to be held accountable. No senior figure is to be held responsible. Just like the Underhill scandal, the council has found one middle ranking officer to pin the whole shebang on, and everyone else is absolved. New Chief Executive Nick Walkley cleared Mike Freer of blame before the promised investigation has even started!

It is not credible to suggest that the former Treasury Manager, who resigned two weeks ago, was solely responsible for £27.4 million worth of investments. Rules were broken, but of all of the mistakes the council has made, the biggest is to think that the public are stupid. We are told there will be an independent investigation. What are the odds that we will just end up with this?

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Where is Oliver Cromwell when you need him?

As our democratic institutions are ever more debased by those elected to serve us, it is worth reminding ourselves of the speech given to the House of Commons by England’s most famous Republican, Oliver Cromwell, on the dissolution of the Long Parliament on 20th April, 1653.

“It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.

Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?

Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter'd your conscience for bribes?

Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?

Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil'd this sacred place, and turn'd the Lord's temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices?

Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, are yourselves gone!

So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go!”

For the avoidance of doubt, Barnet Council Watch does not support the concept of beheading or removing our trusty and well beloved Monarch!

Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!

LibDem Leader, Cllr Jack Cohen has a blog on the Barnet Times. In his latest article, he reports that the Government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that from 2010, Councils will have to choose whether to have a directly elected Mayor or stick with the existing system.

Unsurprisingly, the Constitutional Review Committee opted to retain the status quo. The last thing councillors want is for the people to directly elect a leader because that person would have legitimate democratic authority to run the council. Councillors much prefer the existing system because it allows them to hold the leader to ransom, in return for juicy fat allowances to line their troughs with.

Brian Coleman warned of the problems with the current cabinet system in his excellent article in the New Statesman. He said that council leaders win or lose their positions “…on the strength of who they had promised well paid jobs to. And I fear getting to form an administration in local government has more to do with how all the allowances are distributed than which councillor is best for which job.”

Quite so. An elected Mayor, however, would go some way to undoing the damage caused by the Local Government Act 2000 because he/she would not be beholden to councillors to remain in office. The Mayor could select a cabinet based purely on a councillor’s ability to do the job. Imagine that! In theory the Mayor could form a coalition cabinet of all the talents. Outrageous!

An elected Mayor would put an end to the system where blind loyalty to the leader, rather than talent, determined how far up the greasy pole a councillor progressed. Councillors would actually have to prove their worth in order to advance.

The Government’s proposal represents a monumental change in the way we are governed but, like the Local Government Act before it, is being introduced without any democratic consultation or mandate.

The decision whether to have an elected Mayor should be taken by the electorate in a referendum, and not by councillors with their vested interests. Turkeys do not generally vote for Christmas!

Post Script: At the last full council elections, 216,717 Barnet residents were registered to vote. The turnout was 41.65% which means that 90,262 people voted, the majority of whom voted Conservative thinking that Brian Salinger was going to be Leader of the Council.

Mr Salinger, however, was ruthlessly dumped immediately after securing the Conservatives their biggest win for 12 years and was replaced by Mike Freer at the behest of just 21 councillors. So much for democracy!

Monday 23 March 2009

Is there a lawyer in the house?

Two little birdies have told me that this blog is very popular with the legal profession, so perhaps a learned reader could help answer a question.

Earlier this year, representatives from Barnet Council and Kent County Council met with the Administrator of the Icelandic banks to discuss our frozen investments. However, neither council will publicly discuss that meeting. According to a council spokeswoman quoted in the Barnet Press:

“Discussions are still ongoing with creditors in Iceland. We are pleased with the progress made so far and are optimistic that our deposits will be returned. The council has signed a confidentiality agreement that prevents it sharing information about its financial standing. We have access to privileged commercial information that, if we were to divulge it, could be detrimental to the position of every creditor, not just local authorities, and could potentially lay the council open to legal action.”

It appears that one creditor, or rather a group of creditors, has been allowed access to information that other creditors have not. In the UK, when a company goes into Administration, all creditors are entitled to receive the same information irrespective of the amount owed.

There are many charitable and non profit organisations who have funds deposited in Iceland and they would all like to know what is going on. Council Tax payers and other creditors are surely entitled to be given a realistic estimate of the amount of money they can expect to be returned and when this is likely to happen?

So my question for the legal profession is simply this. Is it lawful for Barnet and Kent Councils to be given information that has been denied to other creditors?

The question for taxpayers is, do we even want Barnet council representing local authorities in this matter, now that it has admitted that it deliberately broke its own investment rules?


In response to the question posed on this blog, I received a very helpful e-mail explaining that when the Icelandic banks collapsed, emergency legislation was passed allowing the Icelandic Financial Services Authority to appoint ‘Resolution Committees’ to replace the Boards of Directors. These committees are not ‘Administrators’, even though the media and the councils seem to refer to them as such, which is why they have been able to enter into confidentiality agreements.

Notwithstanding this, the failed banks held open creditor meetings in Reykjavik last month and, following a ruling by the District Court, updated information is placed on their respective web sites every 4-6 weeks.

My second question posted above remains unanswered!

Saturday 21 March 2009

You have just 10 days to save the wardens service

Regular readers of Barnet Council Watch will know that Cllr Lynne Hillan is proposing to save £950,000 a year by slashing the resident warden service. This will have a devastating affect on some of the most vulnerable members of society living in sheltered accommodation.

The council has commissioned an on-line survey for residents to give their views. This survey can be found at: http://snaponline.snapsurveys.com/surveylogin.asp?k=123494868473

One of the questions invites residents to give alternative suggestions as to how the council can make the required savings. These are my suggestions based on financial information provided in various council reports.

I support this council’s desire to cut waste and bureaucracy - but not at the expense of our elderly residents.

Please note that the closing date for the on-line consultation is 5pm on 31st March 2009.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Who's The Daddy?

Are we witnessing a power struggle at Barnet Council? Just over a week ago, Council Leader Mike Freer issued a public statement acknowledging that the public had not been told the truth about the £27.4 million invested in Iceland. Mr Freer said he had been misled by officers and promised an external investigation.

Today, new Chief Executive Nick Walkley told the Barnet Press that he was launching an internal investigation.

Well, which is it to be?

Are we to have a fully independent external investigation that will examine in detail every document and interview every person who was involved in devising and implementing the council’s treasury management strategy, that will leave no stone unturned so that we can get to the truth? Or are we going to have an internal review under the auspices of the officer who was Executive Director for Resources at the time the money was deposited?

For the sake of Barnet’s taxpayers, let us hope that that Mr Walkley does not get his way.

Prepare For A Cover Up!

Barnet bloggers Rog T and Statler & Waldorf have written excellent articles about the deeply worrying comments made by new Chief Executive Nick Walkley in a piece in the Barnet Times about the council’s Icelandic investments.

In an astonishing statement, Mr Walkley has effectively cleared council leader Mike Freer of any wrongdoing. But hold on a minute! We haven’t had the external investigation yet. I thought it was only in the former Soviet Bloc where the results of an official investigation were known before the inquiry had even started!

Mr Walkley was previously the council’s Executive Director for Resources. Wouldn’t he have been involved in decisions affecting how £2 billion of our money was invested? According to the council’s web site:

Nick was the Executive Director of Resources at the Council until last year, where his responsibilities included the Council’s Finance, Human Resources, Property, Customer Care, Organisational Development, Project Management, Revenues and Performance Management arrangements.

It seems to me that Mr Walkley has a rather obvious conflict of interest and should have no further involvement in this matter.

If we are to learn the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then a completely independent external investigation must be carried out and the Board of Inquiry must be allowed complete unfettered access to every document and every person who was involved in devising and implementing the council’s treasury management strategy.

Anything less will be a cover up.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Red Ken Talks Sense!

Either I have turned into a swivel eyed Trot, or Ken Livingstone is a closet Tory! Iain Dale has interviewed Cuddly Ken for the latest issue of Total Politics magazine and it is well worth reading. Here is an extract, taken from Iain Dale’s Diary.

Ken Livingstone on the "Malign Conspiracy" of the Civil Service

Iain Dale: What would your advice to David Cameron be?

Ken Livingstone: I think he has already made the fatal mistake which will sink his government. He’s not really going to devolve power away from Whitehall. He’s already told local government there will be no great change or shift in power. He’ll try to run all the schools from the centre. When they talk about localism it’s a sham. Neither this government, nor a Cameron one will empower people. Labour’s real mistake was to micro-manage everything and try to run everything from the centre. Nowhere else in the world does this work. If Cameron had any sense he would devolve about half of what Whitehall does to regional and local government, but he doesn’t believe in regional government. But you can understand it – all those years in opposition waiting for power. When you get it, it’s very difficult to give it up.

What I discovered when I became leader of the GLC was that previously everything crossed the leader’s desk. The senior civil servants, like Treasury civil servants worked to the leader, blocking off their committee chairs. At my first meeting with the director general, I said ‘I do not want any officer coming to see me other than the director of finance or yourself’. They should work to the committee chairs we have appointed. Immediately, all these things were happening. If it had all had to come across my desk, half of it would never have happened. Although there will be mistakes, a real, massive devolution would start bringing good people back into local government, but there’s got to be financial change as well. 97 per cent of all tax collected in Britain is collected by Gordon Brown. When I told the Mayor of Moscow that he said: “That’s worse than Russia under Stalin”. From the moment Thatcher got power everything was sucked up to the centre and it got worse under Blair and Brown. Civil servants try to keep ministers busy with endless meetings and trivia.

Iain Dale: Perhaps you should go and talk to Cameron’s implementation team.

Ken Livingstone: Whatever he thinks of my policies, the main lesson Cameron should draw from my time is that if I made a decision it was carried out, and carried out quickly. The civil service is a malignant conspiracy against the national interest. A cabinet minister is the executive head of the department, able to remove the entire top tier. They probably couldn’t bring in a Bob Kiley figure from outside, like I did. When I took over we removed 27 of the top 30 people in London Transport. A government minister can’t do that. It’s tragic. The civil service is filled with crap. I met a government minister every week for eight years. There were a handful who were in charge. Ed Balls obviously was, because he was backed up by Mr Big. The one who impressed me was John Spellar. He and I had fought viciously from opposite wings of the party, but I had loads of meetings with Transport civil servants and they always expected him to endorse their position. When he said: “I agree with the Mayor on this” they were shocked. I saw government ministers read the brief which had been prepared for them and on one occasion I told the minister: “Your civil servants are lying to you” and I demonstrated why. They didn’t have an answer.

The tragedy is that everyone below Cabinet level knows that the Permanent Secretary in their department does an annual assessment of their performance and sends it to the Chief Whip. It should be the other way around. They know if they go out on a limb, the civil servants will undermine them. Even if you’re John Prescott and all else fails, they’ll bring the Treasury in, or the lawyers to tell you you can’t do something. We’ve just got to break this. The civil service has its own agenda. In the end most ministers and most prime ministers go native and get sucked in by it.

This is powerful stuff by Ken. He must have read The Plan by Conservative MP Douglas Carswell.

Calling a spade a manual geomorphological modification implement

The Local Government Association (LGA) has compiled a list of the 200 worst uses of jargon, which they say must be avoided for staff to “communicate effectively.”

Chairman of the LGA, Cllr Margaret Eaton, said: “The public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases. Why do we have to have ‘coterminous, stakeholder engagement’ when we could just ‘talk to people’ instead?"

Quite so, but included on the list of prohibited words are “empowering” and “engagement”.

On 24th February, the LGA produced a report entitled “Empowering engagement: a stronger voice for older people”.

This seems to be a case of the spherical cauldron exclaiming the water heating apparatus melanoid!

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Money down the drain

Regular readers will recall the debate last year about the council’s purchase of 1,400 lap top computers at a cost of £1,462,972 (including all the accessories).

Many of the computers were destined for storage because they were surplus to requirements. The justification for placing such a large order was to get a better discount. That’s like standing in the rain hoping to catch a cold because tissues are on sale!

Documents now seen by Barnet Council Watch reveal that 750 of these computers are still in storage along with 3,750 accessories. Furthermore, the council has run up a staggering bill of £11,314 just for storing this equipment.

Everyone knows that rapidly changing technology means that most computers are obsolete before you have even left the shop. To have 750 of them gathering dust goes far beyond the simple waste of public money. It is gross mismanagement.

Who was responsible for this debacle? According the council report authorising the purchase, it was the Cabinet Member for Resources, Mike Freer.

Monday 16 March 2009

Save Our Wardens!

Last month, the Barnet Press ran a story about Cllr Lynne Hillan’s proposal to make savage cuts to the warden service for those living in sheltered accommodation. The predictable public outrage was heightened when the newspaper revealed that Cllr Hillan’s mother was recently moved into a home which will be unaffected by the cuts. We are happy to point out that Cllr Hillan has denied any impropriety whatsoever.

On Sunday, BBC London featured this story on their early evening news programme which included an interview with Cllr Hillan, who said: “We will be targeting all the support to the people who actually need it, whereas there’s an awful lot of people in sheltered accommodation that don’t actually need that support.”

Barnet Council is now undertaking a public consultation about its proposals, details of which can be found on its web site.

You can also let the council know your views by completing the online questionnaire which can be found at: http://snaponline.snapsurveys.com/surveylogin.asp?k=123494868473

All comments must be received by 5pm on 31st March 2009.

The Council hopes to save £950,000 by eliminating the warden service. Cllr Hillan recently voted herself a 14% rise in her allowances from £34,559 to £39,397 a year.

Sunday 15 March 2009

What did he know, and when did he know it?

As the Icelandic scandal begins to unravel, the spotlight now falls on council leader Mike Freer and his colleagues on the Cabinet Resources Committee.

After months of lies, the council finally admitted last week to knowingly breaking its own investment rules. With £27.4 million (plus interest) at risk this is not a mere technicality.

Mike Freer says that officers repeatedly told him verbally and in writing that the investments were in line with official policy. But when did he ask them for confirmation? Was it only after the Iceland banking collapse?

Did he ever ask any such questions previously? It seems not.

Cllr Freer told the Cabinet Overview & Scrutiny Committee last November that he had no recollection of discussing the council’s investments with officers until news about Iceland broke. But the Council’s Constitution (Financial Regulations, Part 1 Section 7) states:
  • Cabinet Resources Committee will create and maintain a Treasury Management Policy Statement…
  • Cabinet Resources Committee will receive reports on its treasury management policies, practices and activities…
In other words, the Cabinet Resources Committee is supposed to create the policy and then monitor the investments.

If Cllr Freer genuinely didn’t know about the council’s investments, this suggests that the Cabinet Resources Committee failed to do the job for which its Members were handsomely paid. Did they not bother reading the reports given to them? Or were they content chasing higher interest rates whilst turning a blind eye?

Mike Freer now claims that he was misled. This is a very serious accusation and, if true, then arguably the officers involved should face criminal investigation. Presumably, Cllr Freer can produce the written statements he refers to above as proof.

But Cllr Duncan Macdonald states on his blog:
"On the 28th October last year a report was produced called ‘Council deposits in Icelandic banks – Supplementary report’. The report was a report of the Leader and Cabinet member for resources who is of course Mike Freer. The report is exempt which means that I cannot tell you what is in it. However I can tell you that it was the information contained in this report that alerted the working party on Icelandic banks that the treasury team had not followed their own strategy."
So, according to Cllr Macdonald, who sits on the scrutiny committee investigating the Icelandic investments, Mike Freer had sufficient information before him last October to know that the council was not following its own rules. But for months he has been telling us something quite different.

The public are entitled to know whether they have been misled by Cllr Freer as to what he knew and when he knew it, or whether he and the Cabinet Resources Committee simply failed to bother doing their job properly.

Friday 13 March 2009

£292 million of Barnet taxpayers’ money put at risk

As Barnet residents are now aware, the council’s potential loss of £27.4 million deposited in Icelandic banks was not due to unforeseen global events as previously claimed, but was actually caused by a reckless failure to follow its own investment policy.

When news of the missing millions first broke, Mike Freer tried to reassure residents that it was no big deal as the money deposited in Iceland represented “only” 8% of the council’s deposits.

But LibDem Councillor Duncan Macdonald, who sits on the scrutiny committee investigating the council’s investment policy, has revealed on his blog that 89% of Barnet’s deposits breached the council’s own investment guidelines.

According to Mike Freer’s blog, the council has £328.8 million on deposit which means that a staggering £292.6 million has been invested in unapproved schemes. This works out at £2,231 per household* in Barnet - twice the annual Band D Council Tax charge.

A treasury management officer has resigned, but the idea that just one middle ranking officer could be responsible for the council’s investment decisions is laughable. There has been a systemic failure of management and processes and Barnet Council Watch again calls for Chief Finance Officer Clive Medlam to be suspended forthwith.

We have been promised an external investigation into what went wrong. A more urgent review is required to ensure that our money is immediately withdrawn from any bank which fails to meet the minimum agreed investment criteria. Otherwise Iceland could prove to be just the tip of the iceberg.

* 131,143 households in Barnet according to 2001 Census.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Icelandic Investment Scandal Update

Yesterday Barnet Council finally confessed to having lied to residents about its Icelandic investments and, consequently, a treasury management officer has resigned.

Council Leader Mike Freer claims that he was misled and has commissioned an external investigation. Until the findings of that investigation are complete, Barnet Council Watch calls for Chief Finance Officer Clive Medlam to be suspended.

For the time being, some Cabinet Members remain implicated in this scandal. The Council’s Constitution (Financial Regulations, Part 1 Section 7) states:
  • Cabinet Resources Committee will create and maintain a Treasury Management Policy Statement (TMPS), stating the policies and objectives of its treasury management activities.
  • The Chief Finance Officer will create and maintain suitable Treasury Management Practices (TMPs), setting out the manner in which the Authority will seek to achieve those policies and objectives, and prescribing how it will manage and control those activities.
  • Cabinet Resources Committee will receive reports on its treasury management policies, practices and activities, including an annual strategy and plan in advance of the year, and an annual report after its close in the form prescribed in the TMPs. These reports will incorporate the prudential borrowing limits and performance indicators.
Or, as Margaret Thatcher would have put it, Advisers advise. Ministers decide.

The external investigation must take a very close look at the reports given to the Cabinet Resources Committee to establish whether Mike Freer and his colleagues were lied to by officers, or whether they should have realised that the rules had been broken. As a banker, Mike Freer would have understood the reports better than most so his testimony will be crucial.

But the most shocking aspect about yesterday’s revelations is not that the council broke its own investment rules, but that for five months it consistently denied any wrongdoing when all along officers knew differently.

Clive Medlam is the officer who signed off several reports in 2006 authorising the council to borrow a massive £70 million. Some of this money was intended for the schools rebuilding programme but the money was not immediately needed and we now know that £27.4million was invested in Iceland.

However, following the Western Isles Council / BCCI scandal in 1991, the law was changed. Whilst council are allowed to borrow money and then put it on deposit until it is needed, they can only do so on a temporary basis. Some of the Icelandic money was deposited for terms of up to 5 years. That is not temporary.

The council spotted an opportunity to borrow cheaply from the Public Works Loan Board and then deposit the money at a higher rate in Iceland. In the real world that is called speculation. Barnet council gambled with our money and lost.

Clive Medlam clearly has many questions to answer about his knowledge of events. But who else knew what was going on? The council was borrowing huge amounts of money that was not immediately needed. Can it really be that the Cabinet Resources Committee didn’t ask any questions? If they didn’t, isn’t that a dereliction of duty? New Chief Executive Nick Walkley was Executive Director for Resources at the time the loans were taken out. What did he know?

On the face of it, it appears that there has been a significant cover up by officers. Clive Medlam was the man in charge of the money and he should be suspended forthwith until it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt that he did not know that officers under his control had broken the rules. It is no longer appropriate for him to continue negotiating with Administrators in Iceland on behalf of the council.

If Mr Medlam is implicated then the council will have only itself to blame. He should have been sacked after he was caught failing to declare a personal pecuniary interest when the Underhill indemnities were granted.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

By-Election Alert

Another Barnet Council Watch Exclusive!

Barnet Council Watch has learnt that two ultra safe Conservative seats are to be contested in by-elections.

Recently married Edgware ward councillor Richard Weider will soon be leaving these shores for a new life abroad with his wife Sonia. We wish them both good luck and a long and happy life together.

News also reaches us that Totteridge ward councillor Caroline Margo will be standing for election to Hertfordshire County Council in June and will sadly have to relinquish her seat on Barnet Council. Caroline is a loyal hard working councillor and Barnet’s loss is clearly Hertfordshire’s gain.

We understand that Alison Cornelius, wife of councillor Richard Cornelius, is being lined up to run for Totteridge. If so, she and Richard will join Monroe & Sussette Palmer, Brian & Kate Salinger and Andreas & Joanna Tambourides as husband and wife teams on the council. We think that must be a record!

We are sure there is no truth to the rumour that Richard Cornelius only wants his wife on the council to ensure he has another vote when he challenges Cllr Lynne Hillan for the leadership later this year.

Statement from Mike Freer, Leader of the Council

Mike Freer, Leader of Barnet Council has just issued the following statement:

Despite previous assurances from Barnet Council Officers that correct treasury management controls were applied to Icelandic deposits, it has now come to light that in fact this was not the case. On Monday 9th March I was presented with a scrutiny working group report which makes clear that officers did not in fact follow the correct procedures despite having repeatedly told me both verbally and in writing that they had done so.

The lead officer responsible for this failure resigned his post prior to the scrutiny meeting on Monday 9th March and I have now written formally to the Chief Executive asking for a full investigation into how I as Leader of the Council was misled by officers in this matter.

An external investigation will be carried out to identify why our external auditors did not pick up these issues in their previous audit work. I would like however to reassure residents that at this point the Icelandic deposits remain frozen by the administrators of the two banks involved and discussions around the return of this money remain positive and ongoing.

Last month, I asked the council if they would conduct an independent review of their treasury management policies. They responded that they had no plans to do so. Now we know why!

I welcome the Leader’s decision to commission an external investigation, provided that it is completely thorough, however embarrassing it may prove to be, and that it reports its findings publicly.

The Leader claims that he was misled. But the treasury team sent confidential reports about the investments to the Cabinet so we need to know, as a matter of urgency, precisely what was said in those reports.

In short, the investigation must discover who knew what, and when did they first know it? The officer who has resigned is Mr Patrick Towey, Treasury Manager. It is inconceivable that he was acting alone or that Chief Financial Officer, Clive Medlam, did not know what was going on. Medlam is the officer who signed the reports authorising the council to borrow all the money that was subsequently invested in Iceland.

Monday 9 March 2009

Freer Refuses Pay Rise

Barnet Council Watch salutes Mike Freer, Leader of Barnet Council, who has finally acknowledged the public’s disquiet over the proposed hike in allowances for some councillors.

Last year, Cllr Freer received £51,109 from taxpayers*. Under a package of increases approved by the council last week, Cllr Freer’s allowances would have risen by an inflation busting 7.3% to £54,857.

Today, the Barnet Times reports that Cllr Freer has decided to waive his increase. This blog warmly welcomes the decision he has taken but, frankly, it is about time that all of our elected representatives woke up to the reality of the worsening recession which affects most residents in the Borough.

Cllr Freer told the Times: “It will be interesting to see if the opposition councillors who put their hand up for a freeze still have their hand out for the rise, or will they all waive the rise?”

I agree entirely, but let us not forget who stands to gain the most from the pay award. As our good friends Statler & Waldorf first pointed out, Cllr Andreas Tambourides is set to receive a stonking rise of almost 22%, Lynne Hillan almost 14% and many others are due double digit rises. Will they follow their leader’s example?

In rejecting the decision of the so called Independent Panel which set the allowances, Cllr Freer said that it was up to individual councillors to decide whether to accept the increases. At last week’s council meeting, he gave no indication that he was personally refusing the increase offered to him. Cllr Freer’s correct, but belated, decision to reject the increase represents yet another stunning victory for Barnet’s bloggers.

Barnet Council Watch now calls on the other 62 councillors in Barnet, together with all Chief Officers, to refuse a penny increase in their allowances / salaries for 2009/10.

* excludes £14,000 from the London Development Agency quango and £10,248 from London Councils.

Sunday 8 March 2009

Another free lunch for Brian Coleman

Brian Coleman’s dining arrangements are the subject of legend. Personally, I don’t care how many free lunches any politician receives provided that the person/company paying for the meal does not seek an improper advantage from it. How private organisations choose to spend their money is their business.

But when hospitality is paid for from the public purse, then it becomes our business. Taxpayers are entitled to ask the nature of the function, what benefit we receive from it and, of course, the cost.

Whatever your feelings towards Brian Coleman, he properly declares all hospitality received on the GLA register.

The entry dated 9th January 2009 is of particular interest - lunch at the Haven Restaurant, Whetstone paid for by Ms Emer Coleman. Ms Coleman (pictured right) is not related to our Brian. She is the Director of Strategy for Barnet Council (Chief Spin Doctor to you and me) responsible for "overseeing the implementation of the council's communication and consultation strategies to ensure meaningful two-way communication between residents and the council. Areas covered include the Mayor's office, civic events, media relations, design, publications and corporate website."

Was Ms Coleman really paying for lunch in an expensive restaurant out of her own pocket? If so, we are entitled to ask whether it is appropriate for chief officers to fraternise with councillors in this way. If Barnet Council picked up the tab, then Cllr Coleman’s entry on the GLA register is misleading and I feel sure that he will want to correct it as soon as possible.

Assuming that we, the people, have paid for this lunch, perhaps a council spokesman would care to enlighten us as to its purpose. Was it in connection with the Mayoralty which Brian Coleman will assume in May?

Who else attended, how much did it cost and, assuming the purpose was to discuss council business, why could those present not have met in the perfectly adequate canteen in North London Business Park - or at least gone to a cheaper venue? Has anyone running the council not looked out of the window recently and noticed there is a recession on?

Update: Council Officer Emer Coleman has told Barnet Council Watch that she personally paid for lunch at The Haven with Cllr Coleman.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Jade Goody - Saint or Sinner?

Last week my Rabbi gave a very interesting sermon entitled “Reality TV vs. The Dignity of Privacy” in which he discussed the fate of Jade Goody.

I am probably one of only a small number of people who has never watched an episode of Big Brother, and the whole concept of “Reality TV” is an anathema to me, but of course it is impossible not to know of the exploits of Jade Goody as they have been widely reported in every national newspaper.

Many people accuse her of being stupid. I think she is poorly educated, which is not the same thing. Her drug addict and habitual criminal father was an appalling role model and she has had little, if any, moral guidance throughout her very short life.

Some people accuse her of prostituting herself in her final days, but how many of us would have the courage to do what she is doing, to ensure that her children get a better deal in life than she did? In an interview she said her greatest fear was that her children would grow up and not remember her. Isn’t that a fear which every parent has?

In the sermon, my Rabbi asked: “Why must the most private and intimate parts of her life be exposed in such a crass way? Is nothing sacred? Is nothing private? Is nothing off limits?”

I believe the reason we are evolving into a voyeuristic society is due to the growing power of the state and its unremitting intrusion into every aspect of our everyday lives.

You cannot walk down the road without your image being captured on CCTV. Our passports are to become biometric containing numerous personal identifiers. We will soon have to carry ID cards. The NHS is to be given powers to sell patient information to drug companies. Councils are to be given powers to inspect your property without your consent and to increase your council tax if you have carried out improvements.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was designed as an anti terrorism measure but is used by some public authorities to snoop on residents to see what is in their wheelie bins.

Even supermarkets keep track of our buying habits through their loyalty card schemes, yet we have accepted all of these intrusions with barely a murmur of discontent.

We have allowed the state and big business not only to control every aspect of our lives, from cradle to grave, but to film it as well. It is no wonder that for a younger generation, Reality TV is perfectly normal. For them, the concept of privacy no longer exists. Indeed, many have never known it.

Until we dismantle this growing Nanny State and reassert our rights as individuals to control our own lives, there will be many other Jade Goodys splashed across our TV screens in the future.

The one positive aspect of this tragedy is that doctors report a marked increase in the number of women having smear tests. Jade Goody’s lifestyle may seem vulgar to many, but her actions as she faces her premature death will save countless other lives. For that alone, she should receive a blessing from God.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Andreas Tambourides - Barnet’s answer to Sir Fred Goodwin?

At Tuesday’s Council meeting, Brunswick Park Councillor Andreas Tambourides voted with his colleagues to cut warden services for the elderly
and increase your council tax by 2.8%. He also voted to increase his allowances by an inflation busting 22%. Ker-ching!

Surely, I hear you cry, no politician would be so contemptuous of hard pressed taxpayers as to award himself such a massive increase during this worsening recession? Well, here are the figures.

The basic allowance has gone up by
£239 a year - 2.5%. But many councillors also receive a Special Responsibility Allowance (SRA) and they voted to increase some of these rates by a stonking 50%! Ker-ching!

Cllr Tambourides receives two SRAs for being a member and Chairman of the Licensing Committee. Last week the Barnet Times reported that a third of all pubs in Barnet have closed down in the last three years and there was a drop of 25% in licensing applications in the six months to December 2008.

So applications drop by 25%, but Cllr Tambourides is in line for an extra £2,150 for licensing work. Ker-ching!

However, there is nothing in law that says Councillors have to take their allowances. Former Mayor Leslie Sussman, MBE, served with distinction for 45 years without receiving a penny.

So come on Cllr Tambourides, even Lynne Hillan has only been awarded a 12% rise. Show solidarity with your residents (many of whom have lost their jobs and are struggling to cope with the economic crisis) and refuse to accept a penny more.