Monday 28 February 2011

Record and be damned!

Rog T has posted a video clip of a segment from Barnet Council’s Business Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting which took place on 28th February 2011. Cllr Hugh Rayner demonstrates his contempt for democratic accountability by trying to prevent the recoding from taking place.

Not wishing to be outdone, Don’t Call Me Dave has now posted an audio recording of the Cabinet Resources Committee meeting of 19th January 2009. Mike Freer was the leader at the time and he is discussing Agenda Item 11 which related to the proposed increase in burial charges.

It is self evident from this clip that there was no disruption to the council’s business whatsoever. Indeed, until now, the council was completely unaware that DCMD had even recorded the meeting. Lynne Hillan’s reason for opposing public recording is her belief that we cannot be trusted to do so responsibly. This is demonstrably not the case.

The issue of public recording is not new. In March 2008, DCMD asked Mike Freer for his opinion on this matter and he replied: “I do not support members of the public recording off their own bat - we would have no control over cutting and splicing. Recording by the council under correct supervision is fine.”

It is typical of the council’s bunker mentality that Freer should have replied in this way. There is no evidence to indicate that the public would want to use recordings improperly.

Freer’s suggestion that only the council could be trusted to make recordings is more in keeping with a Stalinist dictatorship than a forward looking and enlightened English democratic council. But if he was happy for the council to record meetings, why did he not allow it under his watch? Given that you can record about 8 hours worth of video on a DVD costing 10p, the council could easily record all public meetings. If a member of the public did try to improperly “splice” their own recording, they would quickly be found out - assuming that the council itself could be trusted not to selectively edit the disks.

Camden Council not only records its meetings, but makes them available for public download from their web site. So does the Government and the European Parliament, which begs the question as to why Barnet Council considers itself so important that it can operate a blanket ban precisely when other institutions are opening themselves up to greater scrutiny?

The public has an absolute right to observe meetings of the Council and there is nothing in law which says that public meetings cannot be recorded. Given that not everyone has access to the Town Hall, public recordings are entirely justifiable and beneficial for democracy.

At a time when the standing of politicians is at an all time low, especially in Barnet, restricting public scrutiny of proceedings will only add to suspicions that they have something to hide. It seems a poor state of affairs that local councils now have the power to bug our phones as a measure to prevent fly-tipping, but the public cannot make a recording of a public meeting.

A fundamental aspect of democracy is that politicians are our servants and not our masters. The moment they come to think of themselves as our masters, we are on the road to tyranny.

Friday 18 February 2011

AV will get rid of Coleman

On 5th May, a referendum is being held to decide whether to change the voting system for electing MPs to Westminster. The proposal is to decide between the ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) and the alternative vote (AV) systems. Nick Clegg supports AV and that in itself is a good reason to vote against it.

However, if the GLA elections were conducted using the AV system, it is highly likely that Brian Coleman would be defeated.

In 2008, Coleman was elected with a thumping majority of nearly 20,000. But he did so with only 41% of the vote. In other words, almost six out of ten voters did not want him as their representative.

Under the AV system, the votes of the smaller parties would have been redistributed amongst the other candidates until someone passed the 50% barrier. We cannot say for certain which candidate would have picked up the bulk of the second preference votes, but it is highly improbable that they would have gone to Coleman. Voters tend to fall into two camps - Conservative or Anyone but Conservative.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the GLA elections next year will be held on a combination of the traditional FPTP system for some seats and PR for the balance. Coleman is standing for a constituency which elects its representative on the FPTP system.

Therefore, if the opposition wish to defeat him, they need to have a coherent strategy to avoid splitting their vote. There is no point in the LibDems even putting up a candidate - they are finished as an electoral force whilst Nick Clegg remains in charge. Andrew Dismore is hoping to stand for Labour. He rather blotted his copy book with his petulant outburst when he lost to Manuel Offord in Hendon at the General Election. Don’t Call Me Dave thinks that Mr Reasonable would make an excellent independent candidate but he is probably not well known enough in Camden, which makes up half of the constituency (sorry Mr R).

This is a unique opportunity. The coalition Government is trailing in the polls, Barnet Council is a laughing stock and Brian Coleman is widely despised, even within his own party. Nonetheless, overturning a 20,000 majority will not be easy - but it is not impossible if the opposition gets its act together. Unfortunately for democracy, the Labour opposition in Barnet are an utter shambles, incapable of organising the proverbial in a brewery. That will remain the case for as long as the very pleasant, but completely ineffectual, Alison Moore remains their leader.

Barnet’s non-jobs

Local Government Minister Bob Neill has rightly complained about the proliferation of non-jobs created whilst Labour were in Government. For example, Angus Council hired a Bouncy Council Attendant at £13,000 a year and Falkirk Council employed a Cheerleading Development Officer.

Whilst some of these jobs are quite clearly unnecessary, Mr Neill has seemingly overlooked Conservative controlled Barnet Council which is also guilty of creating superfluous positions.

When Mike Freer was leader of the council, he created the new position of Cabinet Advisor, even though this ‘job’ was already within the remit of the Chief Executive’s duties.

The first person appointed to this supposedly non-political position was his friend, the former Tory Councillor Vanessa Gearson (she’s the delightful lady who stabbed Iain Duncan-Smith in the back when he was party leader). Her salary was a mere £59,860 a year.

Was the Chief Executive’s pay reduced by a corresponding amount as a result of Dr Gearson taking on some of his responsibilities? Hardly! In 2002, when the Tories took control, the Chief Executive was paid £113,000 a year. Today, his salary is over £200,000.

When Dr Gearson was promoted to the Communications Department to become the council’s chief spin doctor, her Cabinet Advisor position was filled by another of Freer’s friends, Richard Robeson, who was also a prominent Conservative Party supporter.

Robeson had previously been a political advisor to the Conservative Group on the council. Labour have a political advisor as well. Total cost to the taxpayer in 2009 was £85,360 (plus benefits).

Why should taxpayers have to pay for blatantly political appointments? These are precisely the type of positions that the council should scrap before making the sheltered housing wardens redundant, or putting up CPZ charges.

Unfortunately in Barnet we have a political leadership that would rather insult its residents and surround itself with taxpayer funded cronies than cut out waste and bureaucracy.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Blogging improves literacy

As regular readers know, former Barnet Council Leader and now MP for Finchley, Mike Freer, could barely disguise his contempt for bloggers whom he suggested masturbated whilst writing about him.

Reports in The Independent and the Sunday Times have shown that blogging has significantly improved literacy rates amongst children at one primary school in Bolton. Something which the barely literate Mike Freer might wish to reflect upon before coming out with any more garbage.

The full story can be found on the Verbum Sapienti blog.

Original picture borrowed from the Daily Mash

One law for councillors, one for us

Don’t Call Me Dave makes no apology for repeating a video clip he posted in December 2009, but an article in today’s Evening Standard highlights a problem in Woodfield Avenue where Barnet Council has started issuing fines to residents parking their cars on the kerb - as has been the practice for years due to the very narrow road.

A council spokeswoman told the Standard: “Parking on footways is against the Traffic Management Act unless there are clearly marked bays and signs. Parking on the kerb presents its own dangers by restricting access for pedestrians, wheelchair users and those pushing children's buggies.”

Fair enough you might think. Except when Cllr Andreas Tambourides was caught parking on the pavement, the council refused to take any action whatsoever, even though they acknowledged he was breaking the law.

Monday 14 February 2011

Big Society Explained

There has been considerable debate in the media over the weekend about David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and what it actually means.

It is really a very simple concept.

In the past, the Government and Local Authorities provided citizens with a wide range of public services. These services were paid for through the imposition of income tax and council tax.

Under the Big Society initiative, public authorities will no longer deliver these services. Instead they will be provided by volunteers, free of charge, out of the goodness of their hearts.

The public will continue to pay the same amount of tax as before.

That’s it!

Friday 11 February 2011

Stand and Deliver!

Print this picture and put it in your car window today!

Why care about libraries?

Professor David Crystal is President of the UK National Literacy Association and an internationally renowned expert on linguistics.

Last month he gave a paper to the Friends of Rhosneigr Library in Anglesey, North Wales which he described as one of the tiny jewels in the UK library system, desperately fighting for survival.

Prof. Crystal has made his paper available in support of the national library movement as his references to Rhosneigr and to Welsh could be replaced by similar local references elsewhere. DCMD reproduces it below unedited.

Why care about Libraries?

I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with ... L.

It's a library.

L proves to be an interesting letter in English, because it introduces so many words strongly associated with the venture we are launching today: Literature. Language. Living. Loving. Lending. Learning. Leisure. Legacy. And also: Loss. Liquidation. Lament. Lunacy. We can tell the story of our enterprise by exploring the letter L. (We can do it in Welsh too, if you want: Llyfrau (books), Llenyddiaeth (literature), Llythrennedd (literacy), Lloerigrwydd (lunacy).)

Long before I was asked to give this talk, in Chapter 3 of my autobiographical memoir, Just a Phrase I'm Going Through, I had written about one of the magical worlds I experienced as a child: '...the world of reading. I learned to read very quickly and, according to my mother, I was always reading. We couldn’t afford much by way of books, but the local library was only two minutes away. I got to know every inch of its children’s shelves, and steadily worked my way through them, using my allowance of two books per person per week. ... And then there was the joy of ownership. A book was my book, even if it was due back at the end of the week. The words were mine. I was their master. Years later, when I came across Jean-Paul Sartre’s Words (Les Mots), I was delighted and amazed. This was my story, too: "I never scratched the soil or searched for nests; I never looked for plants or threw stones at birds. But books were my birds and my nests, my pets, my stable and my countryside; the library was the world trapped in a mirror. ... Nothing seemed more important to me than a book. I saw the library as a temple." A temple indeed, but so much more. A library is a refuge, a second home, a leisure centre, a discovery channel, an advice bureau. It is a place where you can sit and draw the shelves around you like a warm cloak. Those who threaten any library service with cutbacks and closures are the most mindless of demons.'

There is, indeed, something that literally takes away our minds when we lose a library. Or put it the other way round: when we gain a library we gain a source of wellbeing. The inscription over the door of the library at the ancient city of Thebes read (in classical Greek): 'The medicine chest of the soul'.

How best to capture the spirit, the ethos, the value of libraries? Over the centuries, people have marvelled at them. It doesn't have to be a huge establishment, such as the National Library. Even the smallest village library captures the magic described so well by the Scots poet Alexander Smith (1830-67): 'I go into my library, and all history unrolls before me. I breathe the morning air of the world while the scent of Eden's roses yet lingered in it, while it vibrated only to the world's first brood of nightingales, and to the laugh of Eve. I see the pyramids building; I hear the shoutings of the armies of Alexander.' And the American political writer Norman Cousins (1915-90) agrees: 'A library ... should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas - a place where history comes to life.'

The lauding of libraries crosses centuries and cultures. First and foremost they are seen as repositories of knowledge, windows into history. 'A great library', said Canadian scientist George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901), 'contains the diary of the human race.' And American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) echoes the theme: 'Consider what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries, in a 1000 years, have set in best order the results of their learning and wisdom. The men themselves were hid and inaccessible, solitary, impatient of interruption, fenced by etiquette; but the thought which they did not uncover to their bosom friend is here written out in transparent words to us, the strangers of another age.' Women too, of course. Emerson's phrasing is of his age, but his sentiment is universal.

The metaphor of a library as a treasure trove is a recurrent figure. Here is British poet and journalist John Alfred Langford (1823-1903): 'The only true equalisers in the world are books; the only treasure-house open to all comers is a library.' And Malcolm Forbes (1919-90), the publisher of Forbes magazine, is in no doubt about the appropriateness of the wealth metaphor: 'The richest person in the world - in fact all the riches in the world - couldn't provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.' But writers seem almost to be competing to find a metaphor that best captures the function of libraries in society. This is English clergyman William Dyer (1636-1696): 'Libraries are the wardrobes of literature, whence men, properly informed may bring forth something for ornament, much for curiosity, and more for use.' And, 400 years on, this is writer Germaine Greer (1939- ): 'libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy'. For Norman Mailer (1923-2007), a library was 'a sanctuary', for Francis Bacon (1561-1626), 'a shrine', for Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) it transcends life itself: 'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library'.

I like the reservoir metaphor - a library as a source of knowledge, waiting for us to simply turn on a tap. Like water, libraries are essential to our wellbeing. As the American social reformer Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) said, 'A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.' It is a means of self-improvement, of advancement. As American historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger (1888-1965) put it: 'Our history has been greatly shaped by people who read their way to opportunity and achievements in public libraries.' Or, as poet and humorist Richard Armour (1906-89) put it in 1954: A library...

Here is where people,
One frequently finds,
Lower their voices
And raise their minds.

And it brings together people from all walks of life. As 'Lady Bird' Johnson (1912-2007), former American first lady, commented: 'Perhaps no place in any community is so totally democratic as the town library. The only entrance requirement is interest.'

Along with these brief observations, we must not forget the longer and more thoughtful recollections. Esther Hautzig (1930-2009), deported to Siberia as a child during World War 2, wrote an account of her time there, called The Endless Steppe (1968). This is what she says:

'There was one place where I forgot the cold, indeed forgot Siberia. That was in the library. There, in that muddy village, was a great institution. Not physically, to be sure, but in every other way imaginable. It was a small log cabin, immaculately attended to with loving care; it was well lighted with oil lamps and it was warm. But best of all, it contained a small but amazing collection from the world's best literature, truly amazing considering the time, the place, and its size. From floor to ceiling it was lined with books - books, books, books. It was there that I was to become acquainted with the works of Dumas, Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare, the novels of Mark Twain, Jack London, and of course the Russians. It was in that log cabin that I escaped from Siberia - either reading there or taking the books home. It was between that library and two extraordinary teachers that I developed a lifelong passion for the great Russian novelists and poets. It was there that I learned to line up patiently for my turn to sit at a table and read, to wait - sometimes months - for a book. It was there that I learned that reading was not only a great delight, but a privilege.'

Let no one forget that. If you want to truly appreciate the value of reading, imagine it being taken away from you. Imagine a Siberia with no library. Or a Rhosneigr.

Of course, we are not the first to ponder the implications of losing a library. Listen to the claim made by American cardinal Terence Cooke (1921-83): 'America's greatness is not only recorded in books, but it is also dependent upon each and every citizen being able to utilize public libraries.' Listen to American astronomer Carl Sagan: 'The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.' Listen to science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-92): 'I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.' And in Britain, listen to Victorian critic John Ruskin (1819-1900): 'What do we, as a nation, care about books? How much do you think we spend altogether on our libraries, public or private, as compared with what we spend on our horses?'

Have you noticed? I've just quoted from a Roman Catholic cardinal, an art critic, a scientist, and a science fiction novelist. All sending out the same message. There can be few subjects like libraries to unite such disparate and distinguished minds. And the reason is clear. Libraries are truly special. As American writer Lawrence Clark Powell (1906-2001) put it: 'To be in a library is one of the purest of all experiences.' The point has long been appreciated here in Wales. In 1916 the Welsh Department of the Board of Education published a booklet, A Nation and its Books. On page 11 we read: 'The future of our people depends largely on our books and on our libraries. No teacher is more helpful or more candid than a book, no friend is a better friend than a good book, no school is so inexpensive as a library. ... Every town should have ... its library... Every village ought to have a library.' And if it already has one, it ought not to lose it.

Once a library is gone, it is gone. It cannot suddenly be resuscitated. As the British politician Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) once said: 'Libraries are not made; they grow.' That takes time. Behind each library, no matter how small, is a history of growth, watered by the professionalism of the library's caretakers and the enthusiasm of its readers. It is not an enterprise that can be measured by numbers. It is quality that counts, not quantity. No political body should fall into the trap of judging the success of a library solely in terms of the number of its visitors. That lone reader in the corner: who knows what personal potential will be realized in the future because of today's library experience? As American poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) said: 'What is more important in a library than anything else - than everything else - is the fact that it exists.' If it exists, it will be used. And French writer Victor Hugo (1802-85) sums it up: 'A library implies an act of faith'.

A century ago, in 1911, a king and queen symbolized that faith. They visited Aberystwyth to lay the foundation stone of the National Library of Wales. In 2011, a future king and queen will come to live nearby. In my poetic imagination, I hear Prince William looking towards Rhosneigr - down on it, even, from his helicopter - and repeating my I Spy rhyme. 'I spy, with my royal eye...' - but will he have to end it with 'nothing beginning with L'? It is a scenario that I trust our political leaders will ensure we will never see. It is time for them too to make an act of faith.

Monday 7 February 2011

Freer uses Parliamentary privilege to ‘out’ retired teacher

Finchley & Golders Green MP, Mike Freer, has abused Parliamentary privilege to ‘out’ retired schoolteacher Christopher Jefferies. Speaking in the debate on the Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill, Freer said:
“…often, the points that are reported are facts. The gentleman in Bristol was gay, he was eccentric and he was a teacher, but it is the insinuation that is wrapped around such facts that causes the damage.”
Don’t Call Me Dave has known Christopher Jefferies since 1975 from his student days at Clifton College. Many Cliftonians suspected CJEJ (as he was known) of being gay. Perhaps he is. But he also happens to be a very private person who does not ever discuss his sexuality publicly on the reasonable grounds that it is nobody else’s business but his.

Freer complains about the damage caused by insinuation, yet is guilty of committing the very same offence.

CJEJ has already suffered the ignominy of being arrested and publicly humiliated in front of the whole country. To compound his misery, a self aggrandising upstart like Freer has decided to stick the boot in again.

Last month, Hendon MP Matthew Offord used Parliamentary privilege to accuse a political opponent of being anti-Semitic, despite there being not one shred of evidence to support his claim.

Both Freer and Offord have only been MPs for 5 minutes, yet they are already abusing the privileges which go with their position. They are both utterly shameless.

Never Knowingly Underfed

London Blogger Adam Bienkov reports that the cabbie’s friend, Cllr Brian Coleman, spent £2,338 of taxpayers’ money hosting a luncheon for 30 people.

At a time of swingeing public sector cuts, it’s good to see Brian sharing our pain. Esprit de Corps and all that.

Friday 4 February 2011

New laws to ban farting

Don’t Call Me Dave thought it was April 1st when he read an article on the BBC website regarding new laws to outlaw farting in public in Malawi.
The Local Courts Bill, to be introduced next week reads: “Any person who vitiates the atmosphere in any place so as to make it noxious to the public to the health of persons in general dwelling or carrying on business in the neighbourhood or passing along a public way shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.
DCMD thinks this is an excellent law which should be introduced in Barnet without delay. After all, if vitiating the atmosphere becomes a criminal offence, then we will hear a lot less from certain Councillors.