Friday 6 July 2012

A blog for Eric Pickles: armchair audit in Broken Barnet

Eric Pickles is keen on this thing called localism - did you know?

He wants to empower communities, to help them hold their elected representatives to account.

He wants to promote the publication of open data, and scrutiny by armchair auditors.

In April last year he issued a press release stating :

"An open Government is vital for good democracy and that's why councils have to open their ledgers to the public - everyone has a right to know how their taxes are spent.

"But it's not enough to just publish them quietly, armchair auditors and local journalists need to know exactly where to find that information and these new changes will make sure they are not just out in the open but under the spotlight too.

"We have also cut the red tape for the smallest councils. For too long they have been hostage to the most complex demands from Whitehall, eating into time and resources they could have used to deliver for their community, whilst maintaining robust safeguards on the spending of public money."

Awfully keen, see, Eric, on citizens looking at the accounts of their local authorities, and - yes - maintaining robust safeguards on the spending of public money.

Oh, Eric: if only you knew. In fact: here - let Mrs Angry tell you what happened ...

Your favourite armchair auditors, the bloggers of Broken Barnet - in this case Mrs Angry, Mr Reasonable and Mr Mustard - as well as a blogger from another website - we all dutifully informed Mr Andrew 'Blackhole' Travers some while ago that that we would like to exercise our right to look at the accounts of Broken Barnet.

We arrived this morning at the council offices at North London Business Park, notebooks in hand, ready to assist Mr Travers in his work, with our own eagle eyed audit.

Oh dear.

Mr Travers was not available today. Perhaps our £1,000 a day Section 151 officer was at his other job, in East Sussex. Perhaps he was at home, hiding under the duvet, crying.

We were ushered into a room, where a council officer had been instructed to monitor our activities, and not let us out of his sight.

When we wanted to leave the room, we had to ask permission.

When we wanted to use the loo, yes, even Mrs Angry was escorted to the door, and the officer waited outside the door until she had finished (rather off putting, to be honest, Eric) and marched her back to the room. This rather reminded of her of the time she spent in the Royal Free hospital when her daughter was born, next to a room occupied by a pregnant prisoner from Holloway, escorted - in chains - by a male officer to and from the bathroom. There was a national outcry, at the time, and the Home Secretary was obliged to answer questions on the issue of civil liberties. The prisoner was a convicted drug smuggler. Mrs Angry freely admits, of course, that she is guilty of blogging, and armchair auditing.

On the second trip, with another officer (Mrs Angry didn't really need to go, you understand, but was just being naughty and wanted to see what would happen if she tried to bolt for the loo without asking - unsuccessfully) on the second trip, Eric, she asked if the officer had ever had to undertake such close supervision with a visitor. He admitted that no one had ever been treated in this ridiculous fashion before.

Mrs Angry pointed out that she had, since being a toddler, been capable of finding and using a loo without the assistance of a responsible adult. And she listed a number of high security places she has been to, including Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons, where her visits to the loo had not been subject to scrutiny of any sort. She noted too, that the building, especially the canteen, was full of other visitors wandering freely about by themselves.

Why do you suppose, Secretary of State, that we were subjected to this sort of high security exercise?

Are we a threat to the democratic process, or are we the representatives of the democratic process?

When we wanted to get some lunch, we were escorted to the canteen counter, allowed to buy a sandwich, under supervision, and then taken back to our designated place of scrutiny.

Hmm, and yes, anyway, apart from being treated like criminals, Eric, here is the thing: we came to look at certain accounts, which we had specified. When I say accounts, I mean invoices, contracts that kind of thing. Oh: but when we sat down to look at the documents - do you know what happened? Can you guess?

Yes: we were not actually allowed to see the accounts, despite the statutory right which you seem to think we have. We were given heavily redacted photocopies of the information requested. And only some of the information requested.

Mrs Angry will deal with the detail of these accounts in another post, but let's just explain why we were so furious to see that, yet again, Barnet Council has decided to work in direct opposition to the principles of transparency and accountability that you and your government, Eric, claims is at the heart of the concept of localism. Yet again, information which we have a statutory right to see was withheld from public scrutiny.

In some cases the information requested was missing because it did not exist: it should exist, but does not, due to the incompetence in procurement, tendering and contractual compliance that is the hallmark of this Tory council. Missing contracts, missing invoices.

To be fair, the officers we saw did their very best, conscientiously, to address the complaints we raised over this obstruction of our armchair audit: but the senior officers responsible for this obstruction, and the incompetence which lies at the heart of so much that is wrong with Barnet's commercial section, were 'not available' and either absent, or hiding upstairs.

As soon as we realised that we were being refused access to the material we wished to see, Mrs Angry tweeted what was happening to the outside world. She noted that Mr Tim Minogue, who edits Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs, had immediately retweeted her comment, and she announced this gleefully to the attending officers, who visibly cringed and made Mrs Angry feel a little sorry for them. But not the idiotic senior officers who had made the outrageous decision to withhold the information.

The reason we were given to such a preposterous level of redaction was hello, that useful excuse - 'commercial sensitivity'. Yep.

Mr Reasonable pointed out, in his reasonable way, that as Barnet's own policy clearly stated - on one of the documents in front of us - that the companies must themselves declare what, if anything, they consider to be commercially sensitive, and that even then, it is made clear that any exemption may only be temporary. In truth, it is Barnet which has decided to redact most of the information, and it was clear that this was because is is politically sensitive, rather than commercially.

This is an absolute scandal.

The visitor from a well known website, who has much experience of local authority accounts inspection, informed the officers that it was his opinion that the deliberate obstruction of the Barnet accounts was a criminal offence, and that he intended to make a complaint to the police.

Of course the police are rather busy, at the moment, giving local cafe owners a grilling over anti parking policy posters.

Some of the withheld information was then made available, to a limited degree. Mrs Angry was brought a number of invoices which had not originally been provided. One or two missing contracts, albeit including one with serious omissions in the documentation, were produced. But the main body of information is, with the redacted material, totally unusable for the purpose of audit.

It should be noted, incidentally, that last year Mr Reasonable had no problem at all in seeing any accounts or invoices that he requested. Why then, this year, did Barnet Council see fit to refuse access to almost every document we wanted to see, in defiance of the statutory right to do so?

In one case, the framework structure of the agreement between the council and the main suppliers of a certain major support service, the entire document was redacted, with absolutely no justification.

In many cases, details relating to small financial costings were redacted, needlessly, when the larger costs were already known, or the same information had been supplied through Freedom of Information requests. Why?

Complaints will be made to the appropriate authorities, you may be sure.

Of course Barnet thinks it is very clever, and imagines that by a process of redaction, it will cover its tracks.

Here is a lesson for you, empty headed senior officers of the London Borough of Broken Barnet: a clue, courtesy of Sherlock Holmes, and a dog that did not bark in the night. Redaction can only apply to a document that exists. If the document does not exist?

Anyway, Eric, Mrs Angry had more armchair auditing to do, while she was at NLBP.

Moving on to another office, and here we were, supervised once more, by a different officer, this time, because we were once again asking, humbly, to be allowed to take a peek at the register of councillors' interests, gifts, and hospitality. Oh dear: for some reason, we were not allowed to see the full register, despite our statutory right to do so. We were only allowed to see the half dozen declarations which some arrogant Tory members have decided must not be available online, for fear we see the intimate details of, for example, the smoked salmon & chocolates given to Councillor Brian Coleman by Nancy Reuben in February, and then, driven mad with jealousy, tell the whole world about it in a blog.

Obviously Mrs Angry would not waste her time with such trivia. In fact, she and Mr Mustard were deeply moved by the stark reality of what we found, very nearly brought to the verge of tears on viewing the withheld interests, because since we last saw them in February, almost none of the Tory councillors have been given any hospitality, or gifts. Nothing at all. No lunches. No dinners. No bottles of rioja. No cufflinks. No ties and matching handkerchiefs. Could it be, Mr Mustard, wondered Mrs Angry, sadly, that no one likes them enough to invite them anywhere, anymore?

Or have they just forgotten to submit the relevant declarations?

When we asked to see the full register, we were told it was unnecessary, and that since our previous visit, all additions and corrections had been updated, which is awfully interesting, isn't it, Mr Mustard?

Of course there are new rules which apply to the declaration of councillors interests now, one of the few positive changes from the new standard regulations introduced by the government.

Oh dear, naughty Tory councillors of Broken Barnet.


More tomorrow, maybe.


baarnett said...

Were you all searched for camera-phones, Mrs A?

If Master Angry wanted to know what a vacuum cleaner was, or how to use the toaster, were you allowed to take incoming calls? Enough time to snatch illicit photos of the scene?

There's always next time. Even an audio recording would be entertaining for your blog visitors.

Mrs Angry said...

Master Angry knows what a vaccuum is, but not how it works, Baarnett.

Mrs Angry was not searched, which was disappointing, as she might have enjoyed the experience, being short of entertainment these days.

An audio recording? Goodness me, that would be awfully amusing, if that existed, wouldn't it, Mr Mustard?

Mrs Angry said...

Mrs Angry forgot to add that not only were we given sheets of blackened redacted copies of the documents we requested, when we asked for copies, as it was impossible to decipher anything at all in the time we would spend there, we were charged for the privilege. Mrs Angry agreed, but told Mr Mustard she would not pay, on principle, not being minded to have to pay for something she did not want in the first place, and had already paid for anyway through her council tax. Mr M is of course much better behaved, and said he would - and threatened to pay hers, which made her quite cross,as she was aspiring to be a armchair audit martyr. In the end, no one dared charge us, which was a shame. When she got home, Mrs A found she had accidentally collected one of the folders too. Oh dear.

Mr Mustard said...

The copies were going to cost less than a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc and perhaps it was a way of Barnet Council keeping us healthy by taking away the money I would otherwise spend so badly.

A tape recorder Mrs A, what in full view on the table that the officers didn't notice, I don't believe it. They probably couldn't see properly anyway dazzled as they were by your beauty and the repartee of the four of us.

Mrs Angry said...

yes, that must be the reason, Mr Mustard: I don't think I can possibly argue with that ...