Monday, 9 July 2012

Mrs Angry is Angry: how Barnet treats its armchair auditors

*Updated: see below

Mrs Angry has written to Mr Andrew 'Blackhole' Travers, the Chief Finance Officer of Barnet Council, Mr Nicholas Walkley, the CEO of Barnet Council, and Cllr Richard Cornelius, the 'Leader' of Barnet Council. Mrs Angry is angry.

Dear Mr Travers

As you will know, on Friday I came to NLBP in order to exercise my right to inspect some of the authority's accounts, a wish I had clearly expressed to you in advance of my visit, and agreed, with no reservation or qualification. Also attending were two other residents, also local bloggers, and another interested party.

To the astonishment of all of us, when we took delivery of the documents we had requested, we were presented not as we had expected with the original documents, but heavily redacted photocopies of the relevant material, redacted with such severity, and to such a degree, that made the material unreadable and completely useless for the purpose for which we were present, ie to audit the accounts of our local authority.

When we protested about this appalling act of censorship, we were told - by junior officers acting on orders from their line managers who refused to come and talk to us -that we were not allowed to see any original documents because of 'commercial sensitivity'.

I realise that in the past you and your colleagues have needed to take advice and direction from the Barnet bloggers on matters of procurement, contracting, etcetera, and of course it may well be that although you are the Chief Finance Officer of this authority you are somehow not fully acquainted with the complexities of the law on audit and the rights of residents to to have access to the accounts of a local authority. Let me refer you then, to the Audit Commission Act 1998, Section 15 ( available here on a website you may find useful ...)

which states:

15 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.

As you will note, the law specifies that a member of the public is entitled to view the original accounts, and not redacted photocopies. The law allows only for the redaction of information for personal information regarding a member of staff, not any material that may be considered to be commercially sensitive -( and in situations where commercially sensitive material may be exempt from public view, such as at council meetings, the council's own policy in fact requires that the company itself has specified what may be exempt.) One of the few parts of the material we were given gave an example where the company was asked what it required to be exempt, for a limited time only - it had marked N/A in the relevant sections, yet the authority would still not permit us to see it.

In regard to the documents we were given the information which was redacted was clearly removed from public scrutiny for politically sensitive reasons.

This action is clearly in our view a breach of the law, and as demonstrated by so many other actions of Barnet Council, in direct conflict with the government's view of localism and the move to greater transparency and accountability in local authority administrations.

I intend to write to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in regard to the obstruction of access to the authority's accounts, and to complain to the District Auditor, but I look forward to hearing your explanation as to why you think the London Borough of Barnet is above the law and entitled to act in what is clearly an undemocratic and possibly criminal manner in this regard.

Yours sincerely,

Theresa Musgrove

PS: Thank you for the warm hospitality shown to me on visiting NLBP on Friday - I realise that the visit from three local bloggers represents a high security risk, but I think not allowing me to attend the loo without a male officer escort taking me there, waiting outside, and then marching me back to our designated room might be considered to be slightly over the top, even by the standards of Broken Barnet, don't you?

*Update 5 pm:

Mr Travers replied:

Thank you for your email. I will consider carefully the points you raise and get back to you shortly

Mrs Angry imagines this means he is sitting at his desk, swinging his little legs, and thinking very hard. In order to help Blackhole think a bit faster, she has emailed the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and also the District Auditor, our friend Mr Paul Hughes, from Grant Thornton, who replied later to say he had spoken to Mr Travers. Mrs Angry hopes he got a big telling off, but imagines it was more of a slapped wrist. Mr Hughes says Mr Travers will contact her in a couple of days. Mrs Angry pointed out that she does not feel she should wait a couple of days, or indeed at all, to exercise her statutory rights in law to view the accounts. Mr Paul Hughes is sitting at his desk, holding his chin, and crying.

PS: readers might enjoy this blog by David Higgerson, with a heading which more or less sums up the experience we encountered at NLBP:

There is a war, in fact, between the residents of this borough, and our council administration.

There is a siege mentality at Fortress NLBP, and breaching the walls might seem to be impossible.

But then again: we have friends in the garrison.

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