Friday 8 October 2010

In A Dark Place

This blog was going to be about street lighting (see what I did there?) and PFI, and all that stuff, but the eagle eye - and easily distracted attention - of Mrs Angry has been taken by an interesting story on the local Times website today, and actually my original title fits nicely here too, so, let us continue with the theme of Big Brother, censorship, the restriction of access to information etc etc ....

On Monday there is a meeting of Barnet Council's Standards Committee. You may or may not know that this committe has responsibility for monitoring standards of behaviour of our beloved councillors, and also deals with certain other ethical issues. (Yes, ethics, in Broken Barnet, who would believe it?) You may recall that the Standards' Committee is the local body which considers any complaints made about councillors, like, oh, who was it now, some nonentity, I can't quite remember; shy, retiring little fellow .... Mr Tichborne, who was it you successfully complained about? What did he say? Something rude about bloggers, was it? Tut tut.

All councillors are obliged to declare all financial and personal interests, and also any gifts or hospitality that they may have received, in order that we, the electorate, may be confident that every decision they make is entirely honest and above suspicion. In the interest of oh, what's that interesting word, so badly misused - ah yes, 'transparency', these registers, in the case of Parliament, the GLA, and other local authorities, are increasingly being made available online. And fascinating reading they make, too.

What happens in the swinging, transparent, open, and freely accountable world of Barnet Council? Well, actually, the arrangements here are far from being transparent. Any desire to peer through the diaphanous fabric of council procedure to the naked truth of our alluring councillors' intimate details is firmly discouraged, their secrets modestly concealed by the corporate equivalent of a buttoned to the neck, winceyette nightdress.

If you want to know what business interests, hospitality or gifts that your local representative has listed, you must trek all the way up to North London Business Park, having asked to see the register, and if lucky, been given an appointment. Obviously you cannot do this in anonymity, or privacy.

It's well worth the trek, though: you will find the reading of these registers most illuminating. I've done it, in the past, and found it a rewarding experience ... but that's another story.

It seems the standards' committee has at last managed to persuade our councillors that their details must be made available online.

Oh, except for those that don't want to.


Yes: we must understand, citizens, that transparency is only for those who wish to be transparent. We do not have a right to this information, we may only be granted it by those who either have nothing to hide, or who don't care anyway. It is not for us to decide who tells us what, and how.

Some councillors have apparently already indicated that they wish to opt out of having their details online. You will still be able to inspect their details in person, but will have to apply in writing in order to do so, and wait for a mutually convenient time to be agreed for this - probably on the twelfth of never, and in circumstances as offputting as possible. Do it anyway, just to prove you have the right.

Something else of interest was included in the agenda for Monday's meeting: a table of the types of allegations made to the committee. These include complaints on the basis of: respect, bullying/intimidation, impartiality,disrepute, use of position to confer an advantage/disadvantage, use of the resources of your authority for decisions/regard to relevant advice when reaching decisions, personal interest and prejudical interest. Most of these had one allegation, and seem not to have reached a further stage.

Very intriguing, however is a reference, tucked away, to an assessment sub-committee of a complaint by an unknown councillor against another councillor. This complaint has now been forwarded to the Monitoring Officer for further consideration. Ooh er, handbags at the Town Hall: wonder what that's all about?

But there are two worrying developments mentioned in the reports attached to this agenda: worrying for all of us who care about standards in public office, and the behaviour of councillors in office, and in their relations with their electors.

Item 9.11 informs us that, courtesy of our Coalition government, local authorities will no longer be required by law to have standards' committees. Of course the Standards Board for England has already had its death sentence: so where does this leave the future of democracy and accountability in local government? Further in the shit, in my humble opinion.

The Tory/Libdem Coalition government wants 'serious misconduct for personal gain' to be more stringently punished - in fact it will become a criminal act, which is a good move, but there is a move to ignore the 'lesser' issues of behavioural standards, and valid complaints which might constiute less serious but still unacceptable misconduct, it seems, because they 'waste tax payers' money'.

So many of the issues listed above in the list of allegations will not stand a chance of being acted upon, and it might reasonably be expected that certain councillors will take full advantage of this permission to behave in an even more unacceptably and unnecessarily rude, confrontational and generally obnoxious manner.

The new government shrugs and says that any allegations of 'incompetence' will be dealt with by the Local Government Ombudsman (Ha! Anyone who has any knowledge of that body can well understand why they have chosen to retain their services whilst kicking out anything with real teeth ... )oh and for all other examples of bad behaviour, that will be up to the electorate to deal with, in other words, wait until the next election!

I don't think I can honestly recall any previous government that is so recklessly, shamelessly determined on stripping out every last defence that an ordinary citizen might have against the forces that are now threatening to undermine our liberty, our civil rights and our prosperity. You might expect it from a Conservative government: the fact that the Libdems are prepared to prostitute themselves and allow this sort of change to happen in their name too is despicable.

The Big Lie of the Big Society idea is that it will give power back to local communities: here is a perfect example of the hard truth, that we are seeing an unpredented loss of power from the electorate, left at the mercy of local authorities who will be even less accountable to the people, and who are given a four year licence to do exactly what they want, with no fear of sanction.

Somehow, I don't think that that licence is likely to be extended, do you, readers?

1 comment:

Moaneybat said...

Not just Local Government, the same is also true of the NHS Hospitals and other public institutions. They have all, taken advantage of existing rules to deny transparency while asking the public for huge sums for access to any information. Somehow I don't see the Tory/Libdem Coalition nor any other coalition government, criminalising 'serious misconduct for personal gain'. Note how many elected legal beagles sit in the legislature.

I do hope that citizens of this nation, have not forgotten whenever liberty and freedom both, at home and abroad is threatened, have stood up against it. The last time this nation stood up in their own backyard was the "Poll Tax." This Tory/Whig Coalition Government has something of a darkness about them with a rhetoric not dissimilar to Barnet's Tory councillors. I agree, that license should not be extended. Thanks for a great shout.