Sunday, 31 January 2016

Songs of Love and War - Part 1

A few musings on love, life and death. Songwriting is a strange thing (for me anyway). I often feel that I don't write songs, I pluck them out of the ether. Often songs will simply start with a feeling. The songs I've written which seem to connect best with our audience are the ones where we successfully encapsulate a simple feeling. One of my favourite songs on the album is feelings. This is a song about insecurity in a loving relationship. I am sure that at some point we've all been in this position. We want to tell someone how we feel about them, but we find ourselves tongue tied and seemingly unable to get this across. Even worse, we suspect that the object of our affections is in the same dilemma. Love is a strange thing. The first thing we find when we are attracted to someone is our brain is scrambled. How often do we hear of indoor types taking up hiking, vegetarians developing a love of steak and slobs having a complete makeover within days of meeting a new beau? This is what love does to us.

Another favourite song of mine in the set is Winter in your heart. My input on this song was purely musical (and berating Allen to write a chorus, when he thought it didn't need one!).

This is a song about the other end of a relationship. The part where our relationship is falling apart. Again, I suspect we've all been in this situation. The song is about the stark moment where you realise that what you want from the relationship is not the reality of the situation. But we still see some light on the horizon. The song finishes with Allen singing longingly "Restore the miracle". The highlight of the song is a dynamic drum break as Allen sings "Our universe is falling apart". It really emphasises how important it is for a band to all contribute to the process of arrangement of the song.

Then there are the songs about war. It sometimes seems that the fine musical traditions of protest songs has been lost in todays manufactured pre packaged pop age. I think that all of the band think it is important to have an edge and to say things that are relevant. Back in 1983, I wrote a pair of songs about the Falklands war and the experience of British squaddies (I had a couple of mates who fought there and had very scarring experiences). Action Shock is a song about survival on the front line. It is about thinking of loved ones back home and then having to face and kill or be killed. It is about taking the life of a complete stranger, to satisfy the political career of far off politicians, tucked safely up in bed. I put together a video to accompany the song.

The second of the two songs is called Blue Soldier. This was a far more experimental piece. When I presented it to Allen, he saw echoes of WWI poet Wilfred Owen. He extensively reworked the lyrics, adding a rather surreal middle section. The song explores the feelings of fear and dread we feel when we are in a hostile situation with seemingly no way out. It also touches on the moments of beauty we sometimes find in such stressful situations. Sometimes it is almost as if time stands still and we can step out of ourselves completely in times of great stress. I've alway felt that Blue Soldier totally captures the way that our minds can be free even in the most dire of situations.

I have always felt that it is a unique strength of the songwriting of The False Dots, that myself and Allen are very different personalities. Although we have co-written many songs, we don't sit down together and work through the lines. I will present an idea to Allen and he'll refine it. For the songs he writes, generally I have no lyrical input. This is more because I feel Allen has to sing the songs, so he has to be comfortable. Sometimes, I will suggest that there are more or less lines or that the chorus may need to be added etc. Being from a poetic background,  Allen is probably the lyricist who has been most committed to ensuring that the lyrics are consistent and make sense. Many of the singers who have worked with The False Dots would virtually sing anything. With Allen if he doesn't think the lyrics work, then he won't sing them.

I think this has given us an extraordinarliy strong body of work. Musically we are not a fussy band. We try and write songs that are easy to give a dynamic perfomance in a live setting. We try and also ensure that there are strong and memorable hooks. One of the newer songs is called Saturday and it is about the experience of attending football. We felt that there have been many songs about football, but none capture the experience. Perhaps the hardest aspect of writing any song is getting the music and lyrics to collide in such a way that even without the lyrics, you know what the song is about. The tribalism of football for many has replaced the tribalism of war, religion and secatarianism. Football is a game of passion and irrelevance. I feel that we've perfectly captured how it feels to be a fan on the terrace. For many of us living in 2015, perhaps the elation and dread on the terraces is the nearest thing that (God willing) we will ever come to a war.

For me, my band and our music has been a major passion in my life. It may seem strange to say but I am happier with the music we are making now than at any other time in our long and illustrious history. That is not to say that we haven't had brilliant line ups and talented musicians in the band. Every line up of the band has had some unique special element. Connie Abbe and Venessa Sagoe are two of the finest singers one could possibly hope to work with, and God willing, I will collaborate with both again at somepoint soon, however from the perspective of having a band where all of us are 100% involved and contributing, the current line up is unique. For a songwriter, this is a very special pleasure. When you feel that you are capturing emotions and conveying them to an audience it is very special.

The tweets of the week in the London Borough of Barnet

Here it is again, this weeks tweets of the week around our manor! Seems to be a bit of a theme going on here. Welcome to Paradise on Earth, Aka The London Borough of Barnet AKA Crapitaville!

1. Zade Hackreman is none to impressed with the pavements in Grove Road

Barnet Council please sort out the pavements in Grove Road N12. 

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2. And Councillor Arjun Mittra is also getting in on the act reporting dangerous kerbs

Ive reported in his terrible kerb in King Street for fixing 

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3. Leyla Razavi is another one who is none too impressed with the state of local roads.

can you sort out our roads instead of tweeting about Zac Goldsmith?! This is Colindale Ave! 
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4. Colindale has a new community website!

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5. Checkout the Hendon band of the Salvation Army on Radio 2

6. Perhaps the funniest tweet of the week!

Joe Craig Accidentally Interrupted Car Sex. He Thought It Was A Hostage Situation embarrassing encounter in Finchley

7. Seems like Barnets biggest troublemaking cafe owner was on the box again!

8. Richard Logue is a bit frustrated that Thameslink don't seem interested in getting passengers to work. How hard is it?

An Elephant and Castle fast train is stopped at Mill Hill Broadway why don't open the doors and let us on!

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9.  And just to emphasise Richards point!

Jan 29
Fast train after fast train whizzes past at Mill Hill Broadway while our trains are delayed more and more. 

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10 Be careful where you stand when you are having your piccie taken!

No, Nick isn't dressing as Mickey Mouse, those are AKG stickers on the tea cupboard!

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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Barnet Council - brewing a perfect storm

What is the most important committee at Barnet Council?  Here is the full list. Which do you think?

Committee structure


Commissioning/Theme Committees

Area Committee and Residents Forums

Other Committees

 Of course all of them perform important work. Some are symbolically important such as the Annual council committee, but in truth all the work is done elsewhere and that is purely rubber stamping. Some such as the Urgency Committee sound fascinating, but a review of their meetings shows that there isn't too much that is urgent in Barnet.
  In my opinion, the most important is the Audit Committee. Whilst all of the commitees presumbaly serve important functions, the whole process is underpinned by Audit. Ultimately this is the committee where everything is monitored and if things go wrong, this is the commitee that is supposed to safeguard the council and ensure that the processes and checks are in place to detect the problems and then to ensure that these work.

In the period that I've been writing this blog, there has been three chairs of the committee. By convention, this post was always held by an opposition councillor. The first was Wayne Casey. Wayne was an extremely effective chair and was held in high esteem by councillors of all parties. Wayne was a Lib Dem and stood down in 2010. He understood the audit process and worked extremely hard with the committee to make sure that the council was properly run and the committee did its job. He was replaced by Lord Monroe Palmer. Lord Palmer had a background in audit. He had several highly challenging events during his period running the committee. Perhaps the most difficult was the Metpro scandal. I attended the hearings and spoke at the meeting. Although the general view was that the internal inquiry was not what was required, Palmer ensured that a good job was done and the outcome was credible. Palmer ensured that the public were treated with respect and their concerns were listened to. He recognised that the people of Barnet were rightly upset withw hat had happened and appreciated the fact that many of them had turned out to ensure that the council dealt with the issue.

You will see from this clip that Lord Palmer gave respect and consideration to the questions from the Barnet Eye.

Lord Palmer recognised that the issues were serious and the questions needed proper answers.

After the 2016 election, Barnet Council changed tack with their policy towards the audit committee. Lord Palmer chose not to seek re-election. The Conservative administration abandoned the previous policy of appointing a well respected opposition councillor, who would clearly carry the respect of all and appointed Conservative Councillor Brian Salinger. The choice was odd not only for the abandonment of the previous policy of appointing an opposition figure. It was odd because the policy of appointing a well respected councillor was also abandoned. Salinger is not at all respected in the Conservative ranks. Until 2006, he was the Leader of the Council. Then the Tories deposed their own leader shortly after the 2006 election. Despite being a senior councillor and convention being that such figures are given the role of Mayor, this has been denied to Salinger on numerous occasions by his own colleagues. The attitude of the local Tory councillors to Salinger was summed up by this tweet posted by former Tory whip Brian Coleman in response to a tweet by a local Labour councillor.

    1. Why oh why have the Tories moved Cllr Salinger to sit next to me. What did I do to deserve this.
  1. MIke, Lynne Hillan and I used to threaten any errant Tory Cllrs with having to sit next to Salinger,

It is not only the local Tories and Labour who find Salingers acerbic wit a tad too acidic at times. Fellow Barnet blogger Mrs Angry asked Mr Salinger for a message to Barnet residents regarding library closures. She got the following response.

Meet Tory cllr Brian Salinger, Chair of Barnet's Audit Committee ...
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 When it comes down to it, an effective committee chair has the respect of his colleagues and those he represents. Respect in todays society is earned not simply bestowed. I was on the receiving end of Mr Salingers lack of manners on Thursday night. I had submitted a written question to the committee as follows.

In the attached response to an FoI response, Barnet Council have stated that the CAFT team have performed no electronic surveillance of individuals or staff in the year 2014-2015 and only performed physical surveillance of one person. In light of the recent announcements about fraud in the council, it appears that given the amount of outsourcing and the opportunities for fraud in the council, that this is a remarkably small amount of monitoring. What assurance can the audit committee give the people of Barnet that the correct level of checks and controls are in place to ensure that there is no fraud and no corruption occurring within the council. With the huge sums being paid to suppliers and contractors, what measures have been enacted to ensure that all tenders and awards are correctly monitored and managed? How serious or credible can the councils stated commitment to zero tolerance of corruption and fraud really be, if the CAFT team are performing zero electronic surveillance of suspected breaches?
I received a complete non answer as follows.

CAFT operate in accordance with the council’s counter fraud framework manual, of which one of the policies is the ‘Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA) Policy Statement and Procedure - Directed Surveillance’. This is approved by the Audit Committee.
The policy states that authorisation for surveillance will only be granted if necessary and proportionate. The consideration of proportionality includes determining whether the proposed conduct is proportionate to what it seeks to achieve and whether it is excessive in the overall circumstances of the case.  Consideration must be given as to whether the information sought could be obtained by less intrusive means. Authorisation for directed surveillance can only be granted where the Council is investigating particular categories of criminal offences. 

CAFT also operate under an anti-fraud strategy and annual work plan both agreed by the audit committee.  They are a responsive and proactive anti-fraud service and as such respond accordingly to referrals as well and proactively reviewing high risk areas and conducting joint reviews with the internal audit service.

The primary responsibility for the awareness, prevention, detection and deterrence of fraud, corruption, bribery lies with the Chief Officers. This responsibility includes ensuring that staff and partners are aware of both the implications of fraud across their service area. The primary responsibility for the investigation of any suspected fraud, corruption or bribery lies with the CAFT.  However whilst the primary responsibility rests with Chief Officers, all staff have a responsibility for reporting suspected fraud corruption or bribery. 
This anti-fraud strategy demonstrates and supports the Council’s commitment to a zero tolerance approach to fraud, corruption, bribery and other irregularity including any Money Laundering activity.  
This was simply one of a series of questions about the function of the council. All received very bland non answers. In the days of Casey and Palmer, such answers would not have been accepted by the chair. The chair did their homework and ensured that the public were engaged. Salinger has a different view. I first came across him when he was chair of the local health authority and was in the process of closing Edgware General hospital. It became clear to me then that Mr Salinger was a man who has a very high regard of his own abilities and a lesser view of the general public. Over the years, I've seen scant evidence to support his evaluation of his own talents. He isn't a man who sees a lot of value in engagement with what he regards as plebs. I attended the Audit committee to ask a follow up question. I wasn't 100% sure that the council had understood what I was asking, as their answer may have waffled at length. I assumed, based on my previous experience of chairs of the committe that I would get a fair hearing and be given the opportunity to explain that I felt the answer was unsatisfactory.

Salinger was having none of it. Whilst he was clearly happy with a lengthy, waffling answer from the council, he clearly felt that residents should not waste his time. Now I wasn't in the best of moods. Having had a hospital procedure for cancer the previous Friday, I really didn't want to be there at all. Having dragged myself along, the least I would expect is a couple of minutes to ask a question and get my point across.

The report that was being discussed was full of scathing information. Here is one such piece of information from the Internal Audit progress report.

Appendix C: Internal Audit Effectiveness

Indicators Performance Indicator                           Annual Target           End of Quarter 4
% of recommendations accepted                            98%                        98%
% of recommendations implemented due in quarter  90%                        69%

In short, the council has missed its own target for implementation of audit recommendations by over 20%. There was scant debate of the subject. I had the feeling that the chair simply wanted to get through the business for the evening and go home. Now you may think "well what sane person would want to sit through such a boring discussion". However as chair of the committee Salinger gets an extra £15,000  year allowance. For this he has to chair four meetings a year. So as far as I am concerned, the least he could do is give proper regard to the issues raised.

Here is a list of the key findings detailed.

There are three priority 1 and seven priority 2 recommendations.

- Contract Registers – Delivery Unit contract registers did not reflect all contractual relationships exceeding £5k in line with the requirements of the CPR. Responsibility for the maintenance of this level of contract register rests with Delivery Units. (Priority 1)

- Conflicts of Interest – Procurement declaration of pecuniary interest forms were not completed at the start of each procurement exercise in line with the Officer Code of Conduct. (Priority 1)

- Vendor creation and approval – We noted 6 out of 25 instances where vendors were created in Integra without the approval of CSG Procurement officers. Our expectation is that a vendor should not be created in Integra without prior scrutiny, challenge and endorsement by central CSG Procurement. (Priority 1)

The following other issues were noted:

- Procurement method - CPR compliance - We noted 4 out of 34 instances of vendor spend exceeding CPR £10k thresholds without evidence of the required quotation exercise. (Priority 2)

- Procurement method - waivers – The detailed e-mail audit trails of the Legal clearance and reasoning/assessment around the legality of waivers were not consistently retained by Delivery Units for referral and scrutiny where necessary. (Priority 2)

- Training – The Re procurement lead and her manager had not attended CSG Procurement training. It is expected that all officers with a procurement role, including external Delivery Units procuring on the Council’s behalf, should attend training on Council procurement processes. (Priority 2)

- Contract repository and procurement documentation – We were unable to identify key procurement documentation, for example contracts and DPRs, in the contract repository/folders for 4 of our sample of 30 vendors evident on the spend analysis provided by CSG Procurement. (Priority 2)

- Authorisation and acceptance of procurements – DPRs for the award/acceptance of 2 vendors out of 19 tested were not found. (Priority 2)

- Contract and contract value limits – Contract details such as the contract reference, contract value and contract term, were not consistently reflected in Integra for referral where necessary (Priority 2)

- Transparency Code – The quarter 1 data set “Barnet Contracts Register Q1 2015-16” published on the Council’s website did not include all contractual relationships above £5k as required by the Council’s Transparency Policy. (Priority 2)

There isn't time here to go through all of the questions raised in the reports, that I felt were not properly answered. What was clear was that the committee glossed over many of the areas that needed detailed discussion. We have been here before. Many of the weaknesses described were exactly the same issues as raised in the Metpro report. I was sat next to John Dix (AKA Mr Reasonable), and we had a strong feeling of deja vu.

What was noticably different was that wheras under Lord Palmer there seemed a desire to fix the issues and reassure the public, under Salinger it is more about getting home in time for the ten O'clock news. If the staff and Capita chiefs are not going to get a grilling from the committee then the level of work will be slapdash. There are a whole raft of issues bubbling up. We suspect that over the coming months, readers of the Barnet blogs will be hearing quite a lot about various things. We think "Project Chicago" may be the hot story of 2016.

But as I mentioned on Thursday, that is for another day. I am not really feeling like digging too deep today. But tomorrow is another day. What I can say is that without an effective audit committee and without an efefctive and respected chair, in our commisioning council, we are heading into a perfect storm.