Friday 27 May 2016

Carry On Barnet: election day omnishambles, and now an 'Inquiry' to match ...

Andrew Dismore, AM, on election day

Mrs Angry, being somewhat indisposed at the moment, and immobile, lying down in a dark room, moaning, neglected by her children, and drawing up her will in favour of the nearest cats' home, had no intention to write anything for this blog, for the foreseeable future, and had vowed not even to think of anything to do with the London Borough of Broken Barnet, and all its works. But now look: this press release has arrived in her in box, and must be shared with the world: 

Dismore: Bungling Barnet’s election ‘inquiry’ riddled with conflicts of interest, fails to address systemic issues, and gives little confidence for the Referendum 

Labour London Assembly Member for Barnet and Camden Andrew Dismore AM has received a response (copy attached) from Barnet Council’s Acting Chief Executive, John Hooton, to 29 questions Mr Dismore posed, concerning the mechanics of the ‘investigation ’ into 5th May London elections. 

Mr Dismore said: 

Mr Hooton’s reply confirms my worst suspicions about the so–called ‘investigation’ into what went wrong on 5th May. Residents can have little confidence in the way the Referendum will be conducted based on this process.

Firstly, the investigator, Mark Heath, was appointed on the basis of a phone call, with no due process such as a proper interview or competition. His remuneration is not disclosed. He has spent only 1 day in Barnet. Nor will he attend the committee to present his report in person and answer questions.

He also appears to be personally acquainted with a deputy returning officer , the Council’s Monitoring Officer, whose role should presumably be examined under the investigation. 

There should have been an independent lawyer with an assessor who has run elections before, to give confidence in the investigation. 

There are clear conflicts of interest. Not only is there the issue of this apparent personal acquaintance, the Monitoring Officer and elections team who prima facie were probably responsible at least in part for what went wrong (and presumably should therefore themselves be subjects of the inquiry) have themselves actually been given the job of collecting the evidence and information as to what happened!

The report will go to the General Functions Committee, whose lack of exercise of their oversight role ought to be one of the subjects of the investigation: another conflict of interest.

It also seems to me that the public have not really been given much of a chance to contribute their experiences of what went wrong, either.

The investigation is not looking at everything that went wrong on 5th May and in the run up to the election, either. It is only looking at the question of the wrong electoral registers being provided. That should be a relatively simple problem to address for the Referendum. 

But the systemic problems- late or non arrival of poll cards, postal and proxy votes, inaccurate voter registers, inconvenient polling stations, inadequately trained polling staff, unobtainable helplines, for example- that have bedevilled every Barnet election for years won’t even be looked at by the investigator.

At the Council AGM, even the Leader of the Council accepted these were problems and said they would be looked at; but this is clearly not going to be done in time to effect substantive changes for the Referendum. ‘Dozy Barnet Conservatives’ slothful attitude is jeopardising the most important vote in the UK for a generation.

I am already receiving complaints from the public about the problems they are experiencing trying to register for the Referendum and getting postal and proxy votes, for example, but the causes of these complaints are not going to be considered in time.

Whilst, therefore, the ‘wrong register’ issue may be addressed, all the other systemic issues won’t.

There is good news and bad news, too. The good news, is that another chief executive is coming into Barnet for a day a week to give support. The bad news is that it is the chief executive of the rotten borough of the Corporation of London, with less than 10,000 voters, fewer than the population of just one Barnet ward! While no doubt he is an admirable and competent officer, overseeing elections a 20th of the size of Barnet’s is hardly the right experience we need.

No-one can have much confidence in Bungling Barnet’s ability to run the Referendum efficiently and fairly. There will be the same complaints from disenfranchised voters and if the result is close, Bungling Barnet will be in the headlines yet again.

We have lost the Chief Executive as the scapegoat and we now have an Acting Chief Executive. I would not put money on us not having an ‘Acting, Acting’ Chief Executive after the Referendum, the way things are going. 

No-one has had the courage and decency to accept the political responsibility for what went wrong. Cllr Cornelius, Leader of the Council should go, as should Cllr Scannell, chair of the relevant General Functions Committee, responsible for elections.’ 

Goodness me: and now here is that letter, with the questions put by Andrew Dismore, and answered by John Hooton, acting CEO: 

Acting Chief Executive John Hooton

Dear Mr Dismore, 

Please see below Barnet Council’s response to the questions in your letter dated 19th May 2016 relating to the election investigation: 

1. What was the process under which Mr Heath came to be appointed? 

I personally spoke with the Chief Executive of London Councils and Mr Heath was recommended as he has carried out investigations into electoral problems at other Councils.

2. Was he previously known to any senior officer(s) in Barnet? 

As far as I am aware he was previously known to one senior officer. 

3. If so, who? 

Davina Fiore, Barnet’s Monitoring Officer and Director of Assurance. 

Prior to joining Barnet Davina was the Monitoring Officer and Returning Officer for the Isle of Wight Council, and Mark Heath was in both positions at Southampton City Council. As Davina and Mark worked at adjacent unitary councils it is to be expected that they would know each other professionally. 

4. If so, did that/those officer(s) have any say in Mr Heath’s appointment? 

The decision to appoint Mark was mine, based on an independent recommendation from London Councils, and was made in consultation with Group Leaders and the Electoral Commission. 

5. As Mr Heath will no doubt have major responsibilities as Returning Officer for the EU Referendum in Southampton, why was it considered he will be able to devote sufficient time and attention to do the job? 

The decision to appoint Mark was taken on the basis that he had been independently recommended as a returning officer with significant experience in investigations of this nature. Mark has requested and reviewed significant amounts of documentation, has reviewed the IT system, spoken to a number of people on the phone and interviewed people on site in Barnet. As an experienced professional in his field, he has ensured that he had allocated sufficient time to enable the review to be robust. Mark would not have committed himself to the investigation had he not been sure that he could devote sufficient time to and attention to it. I sought assurances from Mark on this point. 

6. Why was an independent barrister ruled out (there is a precedent when Ms Claer Lloyd Jones was appointed for a similar type of inquiry)? 

Ms Claer Lloyd Jones was appointed to carry out a previous investigation into a problem with the legal clearance of reports at an annual council meeting. The problem in that case related to the legal clearance of reports, and therefore an independent barrister was appointed to carry out the investigation. In the case of the current investigation, I considered it to be essential that it was carried out by an experienced, credible and independent Returning Officer. Had I not appointed an experienced Returning Officer to the role, I would have rightly attracted criticism about suitability. 

7. Was Mr Heath the only person considered for the job? 

As stated above, Mr Heath was recommended by London Councils to carry out the investigation and was the only person considered. It is of paramount importance that the review is undertaken swiftly to enable the results to be published on the 1st June, reported to General Functions Committee on the 9th June, and for the recommendations to be implemented in time for the EU referendum on the 23rd June. As such it was not considered appropriate to undertake a lengthy recruitment and selection process. 

8. If not, how many other people were on the shortlist? 

 See above. 

9. Was Mr Heath formally interviewed for the job? 

I conducted a telephone discussion with Mr Heath. 

10. If not, why not? 

See above. 

11. What is his remuneration for the job? 

This is in part dependent on the length of time spent on the investigation, and the figure is not currently finalised. 

12. How many days will he be spending in Barnet on the investigation? 

Mr Heath is spending the time he thinks is necessary on the investigation. He has been reviewing documents, contacting external bodies and conducting telephone interviews and spent a full day on 20th May interviewing face to face at Barnet Council's offices. 

13. How many of those days will he be spending in Barnet? 

See above. 

14. Will he be presenting his report to the General Functions Committee in person? 

Mr Heath will provide a written report to General Functions Committee. The report will be presented by me in my role as Interim Chief Executive. 

15. If not, why not? 

The need to consider the report quickly prior to the EU referendum means the timetable is very tight. It was not possible to identify a suitable date prior to the referendum when Mr Heath was available. The public and committee members will be able to submit questions in advance in line with the normal Committee rules and Mr Heath will be involved in providing written answers as appropriate. 

16. If not, who will? 

I will present his report, alongside a wider report in my name which sets out the council’s response to each recommendation and the status of the actions that have already been and will be implemented. 

17. As the General Functions Committee’s own terms of reference include ‘elections in general’ there is a clear conflict of interest in that committee receiving the report into the investigation, as the exercise of their oversight role ( or lack of it) should be part of any findings. Please confirm therefore that this decision will be changed and that the report will be made either to full council or Policy and Resources Committee? 

It is the responsibility of the Returning Officer, not of the Council, to run elections effectively. If General Functions Committee wishes the report to be considered by Policy and Resources Committee or full Council it may refer it. 

18. I understand that directly reporting to the Assurance Director is the Head of Electoral Services; and reporting to the Head of Electoral Services is the Electoral Registration Manager: is this correct?

That is correct. 

19. Assuming this is correct, there is a clear conflict of interest if these three people are involved in any way in the investigation, other than as witnesses. Will you confirm therefore, that they are not involved in the management of the investigation, or collection or collation of the evidence in any other way, other than in giving their own evidence as to what occurred, as it would be very surprising if they were not subject to the investigation themselves, as having a case to answer as to their roles as to what occurred? (There is a clear precedent for such exclusion, when the previous inquiry was held by Ms Claer Lloyd Jones). 

Mark Heath supplied a list of information he needed to carry out the investigation. The majority of the information was, understandably, held by Davina Fiore and the elections team. As such, they supplied that information to Mr Heath, along with other background information which they thought he would find useful or which others requested be supplied to him. Davina was one of the Deputy Returning Officers who helped to manage the problem on the day. She asked for information from Presiding Officers and Polling Station Inspectors on the day, and this has been supplied to Mark Heath. She has also subsequently asked them for any other feedback which they wished to put forward and this has been forwarded to Mr Heath. Mr Heath is an independent investigator and an expert on elections. He will reach an independent view on what happened and give his recommendations. 

20. Assuming they are not involved, due to this conflict of interest, who is assisting Mr Heath in the investigation? 

 Support in terms of the investigation, scheduling interviews and so on has been provided by me, the Director of Strategy and Communications and our support team. 

21. Due to the risk of conflict of interest with the Electoral Services department and its officers, will you confirm that Polling Station Presiding Officers will be able to submit their evidence direct to Mr Heath? 

A significant amount of evidence was already collated from Polling Station Presiding Officers by the Assurance Director and her team, and therefore this information, alongside additional information subsequently requested, was passed to Mr Heath. Mr Heath is an independent investigator and has sought the necessary evidence to be able to undertake his review. For example, he took additional evidence from specific presiding officers. 

22. If not why not? 

See above. 

23. If not, how and to whom are they to submit their evidence and it what form?

See above. 

24. The public were invited to submit their experiences by a posting on the Council’s website and a twitter message (for those following the Council on twitter) on Friday 13th May, with a deadline of today, 19th May, 9am. Were any other attempts made to notify the public, for example emailing everyone for whom the Council has emails? 

Given the timescales involved, there was naturally not the opportunity to publicise this in the way we would with, say, a council consultation. As well as putting out the details of how to provide feedback through the website and social media, I also sent an email to all Barnet Councillors to set this out. The public could also submit their feedback by telephone, and on election day itself Polling Station Presiding Officers were taking a note of feedback. All of this has been passed to Mr Heath as part of the investigation. 

25. If not, why not? 

As above, the timescale for the investigation has necessarily been very tight due to the need to complete it with time to publish the findings and implement any recommendations prior to the EU referendum. This meant that the timescale for feedback was relatively short, but on balance it was decided it was important to get the feedback and also important to publish and consider the investigation report and have time to implement any recommendations prior to the EU referendum. 

26. Do you consider this adequate notice to the public? 

See above. 

27. As this gives very little time, will you accept late evidence from the public? 

Due to the timescales involved, late evidence was not consider by Mr Heath as part of his investigation. Mr Heath has confirmed to me that he received the information that you provided to him, and took this into account. 

28. As many other shortcomings in the Council’s management of elections have been identified yet again ( as many of these are recurrent issues ) but which are presently excluded from the investigation’s very narrow terms of reference, what is being done to address those concerns, including maladministration of polling cards, postal votes, the inadequate helpline and the poor compilation of the register? 

Mr Heath’s investigation was necessarily focused to ensure the issues which led to the wrong lists being sent to polling stations are not repeated during the EU Referendum on 23 June. Following this, I fully intend to commission a wider review into elections processes in Barnet, to ensure that other issues that have been raised are investigated and, where necessary, changes are put in place. This will involve independent scrutiny and will pick up the issues that were raised at Annual Council on 24 May. I will make this clear at GFC on 9 June. 

29. What guarantee will you give, as presumably you will be the returning officer for it, that there will be no mistakes and maladministration in the conduct of the EU Referendum? 

It is of paramount importance for me and for everyone involved in the running of the EU referendum that this process runs smoothly. Improvements to processes are already being implemented and we will have the benefit of Mr Heath’s recommendations to further strengthen the process and give confidence to the electorate in Barnet for the referendum and in future. The detail of this will be set out publicly at GFC on 9 June. 

Yours sincerely 

John Hooton 

Chief Operating Officer and Interim Chief Executive London Borough of Barnet


To recap then, readers: according to Mr Hooton, Mr Heath, who happens to be COO for another large authority with another large Capita contract, was appointed solely on the recommendation of some unknown person at London Councils, (who are now to blame for lots of things, in Barnet, it seems, including - wrongly- the changed criteria for disabled residents' travel passes) - and on the basis not of an interview, but of a phone call. 

No other candidates were considered, even though clearly Mr Heath is very busy with his day job, and indeed cannot find the time to attend the meeting at which his report will be presented.

Mr Heath knows Ms Fiore, the Assurance Director ultimately responsible for electoral services and who was a Deputy Returning Officer on the election day under investigation. 

Ms Fiore has supplied Mr Heath with the majority of information required by him to conduct his inquiry. Unfortunately, the only publicised appeal to residents to submit their own information was ...  a tweet, and something somewhere on the council's own website, which almost no one would have seen.

We do not know how much Mr Heath will be paid, but as it appears he can only spare a day - a full day, mind you - to visit Barnet, we might not have to shell out too much of residents' hard earned tax for this hugely anticipated and wide reaching investigation. Might see change out of a fifty pound note. Plus his bus fare back to Southampton. And a free copy of 'Barnet First'.

There was no need to appoint an independent body to investigate, or indeed an independent lawyer, for this inquiry, as the Claer Lloyd Jones report was about governance, and compliance with the law, which gets you into trouble, if you cock it up,  and this was only about, well you know ...  democracy, the right to vote, transparency, accountability, that sort of nonsense. Meh. Who cares? 

Not the Tory councillors in Barnet, as long as no fingers are pointed at them, for failing properly to run the council, hollowing out the council through mass privatisation, stripping out all corporate knowledge, not giving the council proper resources to run the remaining services, being too lazy to pursue any effective scrutiny, etc etc.

Here is the question, then: how can this 'inquiry' possibly be adequate to the task of reviewing such a serious failure in administration, when the majority of residents affected are probably unaware of what little scope of investigation there is - or was, and have had no opportunity to contribute?

Hmm. And then finally  - to put the old tin lid on it, we are now being assisted, for some reason, with a one day a week visit, apparently - although no public announcement appears to have been made about this - from the Chief Executive of the City of London Corporation, that is to say the least accountable public body in the country. 

Comrade Cllr Mr Shepherd, People's Mayor, veteran council heckler, and unstinting critic of the Corporation  - your worst nightmares have come true, at last ... 

This at least explains why Mrs Angry has observed, over the last couple of weeks or so, so many visits to this blog from that authority - yes, I can see you peeking ... 

Of course she was hoping this meant she was about to be made a Freewoman of the City, in homage to her services to investigative bloggery, and revolutionary politics, but sadly not. Too many jokes about all the freemasons on Barnet Council, probably.

Of course it may be that our mysterious visitor from the City has come here not to help, but to pick up a few tips himself. 

A thousand years of defying the principles of transparency are as nothing, after all, compared to the proud history of this most rotten of rotten boroughs, here in Broken Barnet. 

Mr Shepherd, The People's Mayor, London Borough of Broken Barnet


Anonymous said...

Did anyone really expect less from our Tory overseas, gone are the days when this council observe or even care about public opinion or any form of scrutiny into there affairs. We are just there to serve as the cash cows for corporate aspersions ( crapater ) wouldn't it be nice if the Labour Party as part of there manifesto to agree that on taking power that they would have a full enquiry into governance under the Tory group that has driven this Borough to the ground .

Anonymous said...

It appears there is no intention of wanting to remedy problems as I telephoned to report a problem with the 0nline responses to the Household Enquiry Forms 2016 recently sent out and the person I spoke to on 0208359 5577 assured me that after 3 weeks everything was in order and she had no intention of investigating what I advised the problem was and reporting back to me and that I should return the form showing the error. Typical of previous contact with Barnet !
23 August 2016