Friday, 13 July 2012
Friday joke: transparency and the law in Broken Barnet
It's a week since Mrs Angry, Mr Reasonable, Mr Mustard and another party went to Barnet Council's offices to inspect the accounts, as is our right in law, only to be presented with an array of redacted and useless information, in contravention of the regulations. We complained, to Barnet, to the District Auditor, and to Eric Pickles.
This morning we all received an identical reply from Andrew 'Blackhole' Travers, the deputy Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer of the authority. Here is my copy:
Dear Mrs Angry
Inspection of Accounts under ACA 1998 for the year 2011/12
I refer to: (i) your visit to the Council on Friday 6th July for the purpose of inspection of the Council’s accounts; and (ii) your subsequent email communication(s).
As I have received a number of email communications raising the same, or similar, queries, I have taken the approach of addressing two common queries within this response.
1. Entitlement to see original documentation: Section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 – which, as you know, deals with the entitlement of electors to inspect the Council’s accounts – does not, expressly, provide that the original of the documentation must be available for inspection. Further, where documentation is to be redacted (please see below) it is reasonable for the Council to copy the original documentation and to then redact the copy as necessary.
2. Redaction: whilst the Council has no intention or wish to detract from or to obstruct the entitlement which the legislation gives to electors to inspect the Council’s accounts, which are to be audited, the Council is satisfied that, where documentation contains personal data and/or commercially confidential information, it must redact such documentation prior to inspection. Where possible, the Council does seek a view from the relevant Provider/Contractor/Supplier, but the Council is clear that the decision on whether or not there should be redaction of commercially confidential information is a decision for the Council, balancing the public interest in transparency against the public interest in maintenance of valuable commercially confidential information.
I hope that you find this helpful.
Deputy Chief Executive
Mrs Angry did not find this helpful, and has explained to Mr Travers why not:
Dear Mr Travers
Thank you for your reply, which I note has arrived, as I anticipated, on the last day of the period in which residents are able to inspect your accounts, and has therefore prevented any further inspection, redacted or otherwise.
I think perhaps you may be labouring under the misapprehension that I am some sort of idiot.
Or perhaps you are struggling to understand the legislation.
Let me assist you.
Section 14 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 gives residents the right to inspect the accounts of the local authority in order to raise any queries with the district auditor:
14 Inspection of statements of accounts and auditors’ reports.(1)A local government elector for the area of a body subject to audit, other than a health service body, may—
(a)inspect and make copies of any statement of accounts prepared by the body pursuant to regulations under section 27;
(b)inspect and make copies of any report, other than an immediate report, made to the body by an auditor; and
(c)require copies of any such statement or report to be delivered to him on payment of a reasonable sum for each copy.
(2)A document which a person is entitled to inspect under this section may be inspected by him at all reasonable times and without payment.
And, oh dear, look at this:
(3)A person who has the custody of any such document and—
(a)obstructs a person in the exercise of a right under this section to inspect or make copies of the document, or
(b)refuses to give copies of the document to a person entitled under this section to obtain them,
is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.
Section15 Inspection of documents and questions at audit.(1)At each audit under this Act, other than an audit of accounts of a health service body, any persons interested may—
(a)inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them, and
(b)make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents.
(2)At the request of a local government elector for any area to which the accounts relate, the auditor shall give the elector, or any representative of his, an opportunity to question the auditor about the accounts.
The law allows for redaction in the case of personal information. If commercially sensitive information was meant to be redacted, this would be specified, and qualified. It is not. I note also that the district auditor has stated that he was not involved in any discussions in regard to the redaction of information.
Clearly one cannot inspect the accounts and raise queries with the auditor if one is not able to see the accounts, and analyse the relevant information.
Redacting information in such a way as you have, in fact, makes a mockery of the purpose of a right to inspect and is quite evidently in defiance of the regulations.
I wonder what the Secretary of State will have to say about yet another example of Barnet's bizarre interpretation of the concept of localism, and the principle of greater accountability by local authorities to the residents of their communities?
Amongst the documents we were given last week was an agreement which contained one no doubt accidentally unredacted page asking the contractor if any information should be exempt on the basis of commercial sensitivity. The company had clearly indicated N/A, yet you still chose to redact the entire agreement from inspection. This is a political decision, and clearly nothing to do with commercial sensitivity, not least because so much of the material was not in any way definable as such.
This is not a matter of the publication of information, in any case, so the issue of sensitivity is irrelevant - this is a matter of scrutiny, giving residents and tax payers the right to see how his or her local authority is investing and spending our money. The purpose of inspection is in order that we may raise with the district auditor any concerns we may have after viewing this information. Last year Mr Dix did just that, inspecting invoices and alerting the auditor to serious failures in the authority's system of payment. This, as you know, is set against our exposure of Barnet Council's total incompetence in matters of procurement, and the revelation of an entire network of non compliant contracts. This year, the same request to see invoices was refused. Why is that, I wonder?
I think it would seem to any reasonable person that by obstructing me and the other residents from viewing the accounts we asked to see, a criminal offence may have been committed.
I will be seeing the district auditor next week, and you may be sure that I have a list of interesting subjects to discuss with him.
Have a nice weekend,