Inspecting the register of councillors' interests
After a couple of weeks of asking, several emails, and quite a few phone calls, Mrs Angry was at last allowed today to exercise her right to inspect the register of councillors' interests which is held, under lock and key, at the offices of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.
Mrs Angry was warned before her visit that she would not be allowed to photocopy the details of these interests, even though most are supposedly already available on the council's website. The sight of the actual documents is guarded with jealous and attentive care, and no one must be allowed to vulgarise the contents by putting them into the public domain. Can you imagine the effect on the citizens of Broken Barnet, if they were privy to the intimate secrets of our Tory councillors? Before you knew it, there would be a bloody revolution, with an ugly mob armed with pitchforks marching relentlessly towards Hendon Town Hall, demanding the head of Brian Coleman, on a silver platter, garnished with an array of unpaid parking tickets. Dear me.
But at last, armed with a large notebook, and accompanied by the steely eye of fellow blogger and designated witness Mr Mustard, Mrs Angry was allowed to enter the doors of North London Business Park and granted a rare view of the Register of Interests.
Like a pair of very unwelcome weapons inspectors in the middle east, we were escorted through the corridors towards a secret destination, led in silence by an anonymous council officer, our appointed chaperone, who strangely wore no ID, and declined to say who he was, or what department he worked in. (Comms team, was Mrs Angry's original guess, although this individual matches the description of someone who works on the Chief Executive's staff, she now learns).
Our supervisor was making a few notes during the visit, Mrs Angry observed, so she dutifully made sure, by a system of well aimed kicks in the direction of Mr Mustard's shin, that no mention was made of the real points of interest in the register: sorry, Mr Chaperone, and by the way, she was rather insulted by your lack of interest in the offer to allow you to strip search her on the way out ... (if only you knew what she had concealed in her Broken Barnet blogger's special duty spy knickers - very uncomfortable, mind you ....)
At the end of our inspection, the chaperone went to a phone to report in discreet whispers to an unknown source that we were finished, but, for security reasons, we were not allowed to leave the room until another officer had arrived to take the register back into safe custody: simply ridiculous.
This room was enormous, with seating laid out rather like the Talk London event the other week, a dais with tables set for a panel of speakers, in front of an audience of empty chairs. A senior officer from Corporate Governance was waiting, in charge of the registers laid out on the table like a buffet, before handing over to the official chaperone. Mrs Angry sat down on the panel seating and laughed: are we going to be asked to address a conference on localism, she asked? The officer shook his head gravely. Oh, well, is Mr Walkley making us coffee? Mr Walkley, she was informed, in absolute seriousness, is not available this morning. Mrs Angry rather enjoyed the thought that, were he not otherwise engaged, he may well have breezed in with a cheery greeting and a tray of coffee and biscuits.
We took our place, rather absurdly, on the stage, and the chaperone sat in the audience immediately in front of us, where he remained for the next two hours, arms folded, eyes fixed intently on our every move, just waiting for one of us to slip a piece of paper into our files, or slide something into our pockets. The whole experience was rather like visiting someone on remand in prison, watched over by the screws, on the watch for illicit transfers of contraband.
For the hapless officer, it must have been like being made to sit through a particularly tedious fringe production of some Pinter play: two hours watching a pair of middle aged bloggers turning over the pages of endless lists, scribbling, and laughing at the entries, marvelling at stuff in the withheld interests like the matching set of neck tie, pocket handkerchief, cufflinks and a packet of loose tea given to Councillor Rajput, (oops, that was supposed to be a secret, and do you know he is about the only person Mrs Angry can think of who would be thrilled to receive a matching tie, pocket handkerchief and cufflinks. Not sure about the tea.) or noting the rather poignant offering of a 500 piece jigsaw of the Church Farmhouse Museum to the deputy Mayor, shortly before she and her colleagues decided to shut it and flog it off.
Oh, and looking for a few rather more important things that should have been there, but were not.
And what were all the obsessive security precautions for? What were we doing? Looking at declarations which are supposed to be freely available and in the public domain. Most of it is already in the public domain, on the internet. A handful of Tory councillors refuse to allow their declarations to be published online, ie: Brian Coleman, Sachin Rajput, Daniel Seal, Andreas Tambourides, Barry Evangeli, Joan Scannell.
Mrs Angry wished that the London Borough of Broken Barnet had shown such regard for personal data when they allowed MetPro to film her at the infamous Budget meeting last year, or when they allowed someone to steal the very personal details of her son's educational records from an officer's lap top. But they prefer to report other people for being criminally negligent data processors, even when they are not data processors, don't they, rather than keep their own house in order?
And what is there, anyway, to protect so diligently? Quite a lot, as it happens. The truth, which, in Broken Barnet, as we know, is a dangerous commodity, and must be protected from the cold light of scrutiny. And what is the truth, Mrs Angry, you may be asking?
The really dangerous stuff, oh, you empty headed senior officers of Broken Barnet, lies elsewhere, in the free world, where information is unbound and openly available and may be compared to the works of fiction lying in your register of interests.
Well, here is a funny thing. Since Mrs Angry first asked to come and see the register, a report has been submitted to tomorrow night's Standards Committee which addresses the matter of the register and the councillors' declarations. Item 7, point 4.1 says (my emphasis):
'The levels of in-year updates to the Register of Members' Interests would appear to indicate that members are generally reporting their interests appropriately. If these indications are being interpreted correctly, then this would result in a lower risk of there being breaches of the Code of Conduct for non-declaration of interests and the potential damage to the Council's reputation that could arise as a result.'
Mrs Angry is sufficiently well versed in the language of One Barnet Corporate Governance to know that this is the sound of a senior officer watching his back. Someone somewhere suspects that there are may be significant omissions or, oh dear, even downright lies amongst the register of interests, and he or she would be quite correct.
There are a number of Tory councillors in Barnet who have made apparently inaccurate declarations in regard to their interests.
As it states on the forms they have all signed, to make a false declaration would be a very serious matter: it clearly requires the member to state:
'I recognise that it is a breach of the Council's local Code of Conduct to
1. omit information that ought to be given in this notice
2. provide information that is materially false or misleading
3. fail to give further notices in order to
-bring up to date information given in this notice
-declare an interest that I acquire after the date of this notice and have to declare
I further recognise that any of the above acts or omissions may result in a referral to the Standards Committee for an investigation of my conduct.
Does all this matter, Mrs Angry? Yes, it does matter.
The lazy dolts sitting on the Tory side of the council chamber here in Broken Barnet, the ones who tried to vote themselves a whopping pay rise on top of their already overly generous allowances as soon as they got into power, who sit back and let the cabal of Cabinet members like Brian Coleman walk all over them and what passes for their consciences, and vote through the shameless sell off of our council services to the private sector via the One Barnet scam, and have smothered the lingering last breaths of our town centres through the idiotic new parking scheme, and who will allow our parks and greenspaces to be shut to residents in favour of Brian Coleman's corporate hospitality clients, and who allowed our museums to be shut, and our libraries, and our childrens centres ... yes, all of these guilty councillors are supposed to demonstrate to us, the electors, that they are responsible, and honest, and worthy of our trust and respect.
Would it matter if one of them lied about something on a declaration form?
Of course it would.
Which is why Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard are writing to the monitoring officer to ask him to investigate the apparent 'inaccuracies' in the declarations of several Tory councillors. We hope that this will be done fairly, thoroughly, and openly.
But this is Broken Barnet. We do things differently here, don't we?
Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard have now reported what appear to be inaccurate or partial declarations of interests, gifts or hospitality by seven Tory councillors to the Director of Corporate Governance, in his capacity of Monitoring Officer of the London Borough of Broken Barnet.
We have asked for these apparent breaches of the code of conduct to be investigated, and have expressed our concern that the voluntary system of declarations would appear to be in need of greater scrutiny.
There are many local authorities who, in contrast to Barnet Council, put a real commitment into putting the principles of transparency and accountability at the very core of local democracy. Take a look, for example, at the website of Oxford City Council here where you will find a page dedicated to making the processes of local government more accessible to residents.
On this site you can easily find find links to all local councillors and a full array of information relating to their involvement with the council: not only contact details but their individual declarations of interests, gifts and hospitality, declarations at meetings, and even a record of their attendance at meetings. How amusing it is that a Labour controlled authority has a better understanding of the government's intentions regarding the localism agenda and its much vauneted extension of transparency, than our renegade Tories here in Broken Barnet.
Other easily accessible information includes links to pages dealing with 'transparency and open data'. Freedom of Information, and archives of the recordings of council meetings. There are pages offering advice on how to complain about a councillor - just imagine that here - and even how to become a councillor.
Funnily enough, at a recent meeting, a senior Tory councillor (no: it wasn't Councillor Coleman) whispered a most improper and unwelcome suggestion into the innocent ear of Mrs Angry. Have you ever, he murmured, leaning close, would you ever, you know ... consider becoming a councillor? Mrs Angry was tempted to slap him for his impertinence, and complained bitterly to another blogger about this appalling insult.
The other blogger suggested that the naughty councillor was only trying to get into Mrs Angry's erm, good books. Mmm. Anyway, Mrs Angry pointed out to the Tory teaser that she would rather gouge out her own eyes with a rusty nail than do any such thing. Do not misunderstand me, she told him: I think that to be a councillor is very important and very hard work - if you do it properly.
In this borough, sadly, very few councillors take their responsibilities seriously, and far too many see their roles as some sort of honorary appointment, with allowances distributed as a form of patronage, not as a reward for dedication to public service on behalf of the community. This is the root cause of the sickness and moral corruption gnawing away at the rotten heart of the Tory party in Broken Barnet: the sooner we cut it out, and rid ourselves of these wastrels, the better for us all.