Thursday, 19 July 2012

Update on the Accounts inspection scandal: panic at NLBP, and a retrospective defence

Mr Paul Hughes

As you will have have read in an earlier post this week, external auditor Mr Paul Hughes, of Grant Thornton, told Mr Reasonable and Mrs Angry that the obstruction of our inspection of the accounts was none of his business, nothing to do with him, even if a criminal offence had taken place - despite the fact that he admitted he rang the Deputy CEO, last week, in regard to Mrs Angry's complaint about the matter.

We had also been informed that no redactions - on the basis of personal information - had been requested by him as auditor.

Yet late this afternoon, a senior officer has emailed Mr Mustard in regard to his complaint about redacted information quoting an extract from an email from Mr Hughes - conveniently undated - saying (and of course we have not been given the whole email):

‘For individuals not employed by the council (e.g. individual named consultants working for suppliers) I have considered whether there is any reason why this information should not be disclosed. In line with guidance from the Audit Commission, this has involved consideration of weighing the rights of an individual to inspect information against the nature of the information and the potential consequences of disclosure on individuals who can be identified from it.

The factors I have considered and reached a view on are:

  • the relevance of the names of individuals within suppliers to the ability for electors to exercise their inspection rights, i.e. does the absence of a specific named person impair an elector's ability to understand the substance of the transaction in question? My view is that the absence of individuals details would not impair this ability.
  • potential consequences for individuals if information pertaining to them is disclosed, i.e. the likelihood of their personal information being published and commented on more widely. (My emphasis:) Based on relevant local experience, in my view it would be possible that individuals would be named and commented on in blogs and other media to an extent and in a manner that could result in personal consequences for them.
  • whether the individual identified has chosen to place themselves in the public domain (or could reasonably expect to have their information disclosed). In my view, whilst companies supplying councils can reasonably expect their names to be in the public domain, individuals working within those companies would not necessarily expect that their personal details would not be disclosed.
In my view this is an outrageous action for the auditor to undertake.

He has refused to listen to our complaints about a possible criminal offence committed in the course of the obstruction of our access to the accounts, yet he has given support to council officers, in what appears to be a retrospective decision on redaction, and what appears to be purely in order to justify their unjustifiable blanket censorship of information we were entitled to view.

You will note that the council's position on the redaction is now no longer a spurious consideration of 'commercial sensitivity', but a new and frankly totally bogus concern about 'personal information' - and only in relation to 'individuals within suppliers'.

The auditor refers to redacted personal details which we did not want anyway, of any individual, and has ignored the issue of other information redacted which was necessary in order to understand the material - project numbers, unit numbers etc. In some cases, remember, entire agreements were needlessly redacted - and entirely harmless information. Why? He refers to a consideration of whether something would 'impair the elector's ability to understand the transaction in question', yet has entirely neglected the other, non personal information which has been needlessly redacted and has exactly that effect.

He has made reference to publication of material - an action which we made clear - at the time of visit (which we can prove) and since then - that we had no intention of doing, nor would we, as, unlike the London Borough of Barnet, we understand the terms and limitations of the relevant legislation. The purpose of this annual right to inspect the accounts is in order to be able to raise issues of concerns from the accounts with the auditor, not in order to publish material.

His comment alluding to 'relevant local experience' is quite astonishing - and Mrs Angry will be asking Mr Hughes to supply the evidence for such a statement. If she or any other blogger had ever broken the Data Protection Act and published unauthorised personal information, this would have been the subject of complaint. It has not, and in fact, you may recall, when the council rather desperately attempted to make a completely unfounded allegation of this nature in regard to Mr Mustard last year, this was totally and resoundingly rejected by the Information Commissioner.

Actions taken in the course of their responsibilities as senior officers will be reported, in the public interest, as we have every right to do, within the constraints of the law. The senior officers of this administration - including the huge number of them working in extremely well paid 'interim' consultant posts - cannot evade accountability to the local taxpayer for the way in which they perform the services their posts oblige them to undertake.

Everything we investigate and write about in these blogs is done out of civic duty: to tell the truth about what is happening in this borough as a result of an administration of an obsessively secretive, spectacularly incompetent senior management, and a group of Tory councillors unsurpassed in apathy, laziness, and reckless irresponsibility, both of them, for their differing reasons, now intent on selling off, in the most unseemly and suspicious hurry, without our permission, almost all of our council services to the highest or most favoured bidder.

It is a measure of the Barnet bloggers' success in uncovering the trail of this Tory administration's never ending, slapdash, slapstick style of governance that they resort to such lengths to evade our scrutiny and their duty to be accountable to all of us, the residents, voters and tax payers of Barnet who pay their wages.

If it were not for our investigations, so many of the examples of incompetence and waste that has happened in this authority in relation to procurement and so many other issues would have gone undetected. And this is what scares them, of course.

The manic culture of obstruction of public scrutiny in this borough has reached such an extreme point of irrationality and paranoia, it really is impossible to predict what form it will take next.

This is a war between what is right, and what is wrong: between democracy and dictatorship - and if they think they are going to win, they are deluding themselves.

And of course now Barnet has got themselves into a spot of trouble, at the highest level of government, and the senior officers and one or two Tory councillors are running around in a fit of panic. Oh dear.

This localism thing, Eric ... not going down awfully well, is it, here in Broken Barnet?


Mr Reasonable said...

Mrs A, Barnet Council are now resorting to desperate measures to justify the unjustifable. I made it quite clear when I was inspecting the accounts that I had no interest in knowing consultants names. I made it clear to the officer present. However what I do expect to see is how many days a consultant is charging and at what rate. Ohterwise how can any resident know if we are receiving best value. Given that just one firm of consultants are billing Barnet on average £160,000 per month, every month, then I think we are entitled to know whether they are charging us £500 a day or £5,000 a day. Barnet are embrassed because the bloggers actually bother to check if rate payers are being ripped off.

Mr Mustard said...

As you know Mrs A we have both complained about the way in which FOI answers are now compiled with a covering email and then the substance of the reply in an attached word document.

I was told that this was necessary in order to publish the replies on the disclosure log.

A case of the tail wagging the dog thought Mr Mustard with the easily readability of his reply sacrified on the altar of administrative convenience.

What did Mr Mustard do next but check the disclosure log and found his full postal address on the council website. Cue blind panic in governance and talk of software glitches (that hoary old chestnut, no mention ever of management incompetence) and Mr Mustard's details redacted in their entirety from the system to prevent a repeat offence of a breach, yet again, of the Data Protection Act.

I expect that the Information Commissioner reads your blog every day so there is no need for a formal complaint.

Mrs Angry said...

evening boys ... clearly the council is worried about the position it has adopted, and is seeking to find any defence, rather than a real justification for its actions. And it seems the External auditor is more keen to support the council than to support the need for openness, transparency and accountability. The response about individuals in private companies is a red herring in this case but if One Barnet goes ahead, this will be an issue on a massive scale as any excuse of this nature will be used to obstruct scrutiny, and the democratic oversight that this sort of legislation is supposed to give will be lost.

Rog T said...

This whole response is a load of bollocks. You can download the names of company directors from the companies house website. Why are these chancers any different. I think bloggers should now as a matter of principle publish the names of all company directors involved in sham companies as we find them.

As for Mr Hughes. I think he is many things. A man who cares about the Barnet Taxpayer is not one

Mrs Angry said...

well, here is a chance for Mr Hughes to prove you wrong. If the best interests of local taxpayers count for anything with anyone anymore, the points raised with him by me and Mr Reasonable will be investigated and acted upon. What happened in the case of Wirral Council pales into insignificance compared to the procurement cock ups here, let alone all the terrifying risks being ignored by the council in its manic determination to pursue the reckless programme of One Barnet.