Friday, 28 October 2011

Friday joke: Freedom of Information in Broken Barnet

Whenever Mrs Angry feels fed up, and wants to stuff blogging, and run away, far far away from Broken Barnet, which is very often, something drops into her lap which simply has to be written about, and here we go again, then, for your edification: several things, in fact, which simply have to be written about.

If you recall, in recent weeks the Barnet bloggers have issued an open letter to our number one fan, Uncle Eric Pickles, in regard to the continual abuse of the Freedom of Information Act by Barnet Council. This protest was made after months of increasingly obstructive responses to FOIs made by bloggers - and other residents - in regard to issues of political sensitivity.

Ridiculously, in a statement to website, Tory councillor and deputy leader, Daniel 'John' Thomas, responded to this letter by claiming:

"Barnet was one of the first councils in the country to publish all spending over £500 and we are committed to open government as well as responding to freedom of information requests in a timely manner."

The article continues:

"Thomas said one of the bloggers had submitted a total of 175 FoI requests between April and September of 2011. This meant a total nearing £40,000 was spent by the council responding to this one individual, based on a typical cost of £225 in dealing with each request."

Aha. Now Mrs Angry can exclusively reveal, yes ... the identity of the blogger so accused was .... wait for it, no, not her, far too lazy, it was .... Mr Mustard ...

.... oh, you knew. Ok. He'll probably sue Mrs Angry now, though, for outing him. (Wait until I tell them about the fishnet tights, & the silk stockings, Mr Mustard).

Anyway: the idea that such a ludicrous sum of money has been spent on his requests has been well and truly trounced in his own blog, and everywhere else. But let us remember that this accusation coincided with another lunge at poor Mr Mustard by the authority: one of his requests was refused around this time on the totally spurious grounds of being 'vexatious' and therefore not an enquiry that need be answered.

What was his vexatious question?

1) What are the names of the project manager for the SAP Optimisation project and the One Barnet programme manager. Are they employees or contractors ? If they are employees please provide the salary range of their posts and if they are contractors please tell me which contractor supplied them and the daily rate of charge ?

2) Do Logica provide any in-house consultants and if so how many, provide the names of the consultants and their daily charge rates ?

3) What is your main job title please [directed towards a council employee]?

(SAP is the highly controversial IT system bought by Barnet which has been fraught with problems and grossly over budget: this was a perfectly valid enquiry for someone to make, therefore, and clearly in the public interest.) The response to this request was as follows:

(i) Compliance would create a significant burden in terms of expense and distraction

- this was, he was told, on the basis of the number of previous requests he had made, then

(ii) The request has the effect of harassing council staff

Whilst the council recognises that elected members and senior officers will be subject to legitimate public scrutiny, this is not necessarily the case with non-senior officers. In our view the effect of your requests, when viewed in its wider context, is that non-senior officers are likely to feel deliberately targeted and victimised.

Refusal under s40(2)

Although the council is not obliged to process this request because it is vexatious, if it were to process it then much of the information would be exempt under the exemption in section 40(2) FOIA.

This exemption applies where disclosure of third-party personal data would be likely to breach one or more of the data protection principles contained in the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). You have requested the names of individuals working for the council in non-senior positions and the job-title of a named individual. This information is their personal data protected by the DPA. In our view disclosing this information would be likely to breach the first data protection principle.

This appears to address the innocent question made in relation to the job title of an officer answering a FOI request - again a perfectly valid question, as there has been a lot of confusion as to the process by which such responses are made, and whose responsibility it should be.

Thomas' statement is clearly nonsense, and merely illustrates the extent of panic amongst the Tory cabinet in regard to the level of scrutiny posed by the citizen journalists, particularly at this most sensitive time of tendering for the £1 billion outsourcing packages.

Mrs Angry then decided to respond to this clear indication from the council that FOI requests were unwelcome by immediately submitting some FOI requests about FOI requests. She sent a cheery greeting to Mr Jeff Lustig, the Director of Corporate Governance, and asked him for the following:

A copy of any correspondence between Councillor Daniel Thomas and any council officer within the last four weeks regarding the number and cost of any FOI requests.

Oh look: here this morning arrived a reply, and without having to threaten to report anyone to the ICO: well done, Mr Lustig, and Cllr Thomas, on a sterling example of the One Barnet drive for relentless efficiency.

Mrs Angry has been sent copies of a very brief exchange between an unknown officer in the Chief Executive's service, and Councillor Thomas, and an enquiry from the online editor of the website in question. The document is a masterpiece of redaction, crazed black marker pen scribbles over any name, except for some reason one blogger.

It is clear from the emails that it was a senior officer in the Chief Executive's service who took the initiative to respond to an enquiry on September 26th by the editor of This unknown officer had already drafted a response to run by Thomas before he had even been informed of the query, and all he did was ok the draft the next day saying 'Fine with me thanks' ... no input by him at all, in other words.

Oh: and unknown senior officer in the Chief Executive's service, Mrs Angry notes the statement begins: 'I don't agree with the picture Miss Morris chooses to portray at all ...' Actually, in this instance, Mrs Angry was to blame for the letter, and you owe Miss Morris, aka Citizen Barnet, an apology, I think, for naming her anyway, and so soon after Mr Walkley had to apologise to Mrs Angry for another breach of the DPA in not redacting her name in the MetPro email FOIs ... tut tut...

But here we have an interesting example, do we not, of unknown officers doing the political work of councillors? Is this allowed? Or are our Tory councillors just so lazy and dopey that they cannot write their own statements to the press? I think I may have just answered my own question.

Moving on then, to Mrs Angry's second FOI: on the thorny subject (Mrs Angry's speciality) of the declarations of gifts, hospitality and interests by senior officers. As we have reported, here in the through the looking glass world of Broken Barnet, transparency is a one way process, and a special tinted One Barnet glaze prevents the eyes of prurient enquirers from peering into the secret world of our overpaid senior officers. Our councillors may be required to declare if they have shares in Capita, or have been given lunch by Serco, and these details must in theory at least be recorded and open to public scrutiny. In the case of senior officers, the public does not have the right of open access to such information.

Earlier in the summer, Mrs Angry submitted an FOI request in regard to any senior officers who have accepted hospitality from or attended events or training provided by BT. This is particularly relevant in Barnet as BT are one of the four companies shortlisted for a huge, multi million pound package of services due to be flogged off by our council. There have already been known cases of senior officers in the past with connections to BT, either attending the controversial 'Vital Vision' programme, like former leader and now Tory MP Mike Freer and fromer CEO Leo Boland, or being sent to Barnet on long term secondment from BT, like the ubiquitous Mr Max Wide.

This FOI was never answered. First of all it was delayed, on the pretext of helpfully suggesting Mrs Angry might like to know about former senior officers and then, after complaining about the lack of response to Labour leader Alison Moore, a reply was eventually sent claiming a reply would not be given as Mrs Angry had asked about former senior officers and this would take the request beyond the cost limit! Brilliant!

Undeterred, after seeing BT had joined three other lucky companies on the short list for tendering, Mrs Angry asked for information regarding any declarations in relation to these companies.

Please give all details of any senior officers currently employed by or acting as consultants to the London Borough of Barnet who have accepted hospitality from, or attended any event or training course organised by, the following companies:

HCL Axon

The response stated: "In your email of 3 October 2011, you confirmed that you wanted the information for all persons listed in the corporate management chart that is- the Chief Executive, Directors and Deputy Directors."


I can confirm that the council holds the following information which falls within the scope of your request:

  1. The Chief Executive - Mr Walkley visited the British Telecoms Research Labs in Suffolk in January 2010. During the visit, he had a buffet lunch and coffee. Mr Walkley was accompanied by Mr Travers, Mr. Grice and Mr. Palmer who also had lunch and coffee.

  1. Mr. Evans, Assistant Director for Strategy and Policy attended a networking event for London councils in September 2011. This event was organised by Capita Consulting.

Hmm. Coffee, eh? Sure about that? No dessert? Mr Mustard: can we afford to FOI that? No? Wonder if Andrea Hill was there, handing round petit fours from Fortnum & Mason?

Mr Richard Grice, in fact, we hear, is leaving Barnet today, just off to work for BT, which is nice. Of course Mrs Angry is happy to correct this if it is a misapprehension.

Note that no dates are given in the above. One might expect dates, surely? And Mr Evans attended what event exactly? I think we are entitled to know, in the interests of transparency, as this coincides with the period in which Capita is involved in the One Barnet tender process, don't you?

Oh, and one last thing ... what do you make of these events, as follows:

Barnet's CEO Mr Nick Walkley is listed as a participant in an event hosted by the Localis thinktank, in conjunction with Capita Symonds: 'Is efficiency enough?' which took place in Birmingham on the 13th September.

Mr Walkley is also listed as a speaker at Capita's 4th national conference 'Improvement and Efficiency in the Public Sector' in London on 21st January 2010.

Has this been omitted because someone thinks Capita Symonds is absolutely nothing to do with Capita? Well, according to Capita Symonds' website:

Capita Symonds is a wholly owned division of The Capita Group Plc.

Or did Mr Walkley decide to have a duvet day on both occasions and bunk off what admittedly sounds like two deeply tedious events? Mrs Angry is happy to pass on the explanation for this apparent omission from the FOI response to the citizens of Broken Barnet, should there be one. Mrs Angry did ask the officer to confirm that the entries were complete, but this issue was not addressed in the email sent in response to this and other enquiries.

Anyway, £1,000 a day consultant, deputy Chief Executive and Chief Finance Officer (no, really) Andrew 'Black Hole' Travers must be looking forward to his own participation as a speaker at a Capita conference on the 29th of November ...

As we know from corporate life here in Broken Barnet, Mr Walkley is an expert on improvement and efficiency, expecially in the management of response to FOI requests, and Mr Travers is an expert on service delivery, as seen in the MetPro audit, counting paperclips, and staring out of the window. He is also well practised in giving bloggers interesting looks at council meetings.

Have a nice weekend.


Mr Mustard said...

Oh you are a treasure Mrs A, we might have to call off the calling off of the wedding. You will of course wear the tights, stockings and trousers.

It would seem that Cllr Thomas has been left to fall into an elephant trap and didn't think through the implications of what he said - he annoys me nearly as much as Rams - now they do make a lovely couple ( sorry about the imagery ) The price of laziness. I notice that he opens his emails on his work computer and not the council one; does that meet the data protection policy?

I must write a blog this week about the inaccuracy of what he said about council tax collection - debt being my specialist subject.

So much material, so little time.

Mrs Angry said...

do you know, Mr Mustard, one of my most reread posts is 'Mrs Angry, never knowingly underplayed' on the interesting subject of a pair of tights? Really, I am not sure why I bother writing about politics, rather than hosiery and underwear. You boys.

I like the thought of Cllr Thomas falling into an elephant trap. This is shameful, I realise.

Mr Mustard said...

Double or treble pleasure. There would be room for both Thomas & Rams and any other councillors of your choosing in an elephant trap.

baarnett said...

I see that Black Hole's Conference (it he must be beyond his 'Event' Horizon -laugh, laugh) is supported by two councils: 'Barnet' and 'Blackburn & Darwin'.

Blackburn & Darwin Council web site has a Whistle-Blower document, for "staff and Capita", and an address

It is not clear if you are complaining to a public authority officer, or a company.

The distinction between a public authority and a private company, Barnet and Metpro - er, I mean Barnet and XXXXXX - would become difficult to define on a day-to-day basis in future.

Mrs Angry said...

hmm baarnett: this is an important point - once private companies are providing a service for a local authority, to what extent does 'commercial sensitivity' prevent any FOI requests from being addressed? I don't know the answer. Must find out.

Mrs Angry said...

baarnett: re the other comment - I already have!