Monday, 13 February 2012

The Kafkaesque World of Barnet Council FOI's

With the introduction of the draconian new rules on what questions could be asked at Residents Forums and the rejection of one of my questions, I submitted a Freedom of Information request on 19 September 2011 as follows:

For the six residents forums held in June and September 2011 please could you provide me with the following information:

1. How many questions were submitted by the public?
2. Of the questions submitted, how many were ruled invalid for failing to meet the new criteria for question submission.

As so often happens to Barnet bloggers, the council failed to answer my question within the required 20 days so I sent a reminder. Six days after my reminder I did receive a reply which set out the how many questions were asked at the residents forum (not as I had requested the number of questions submitted) but declined to supply the information for question 2 on the basis that the council does not hold this information. That came as somewhat of a surprise to me given that a Council Governance officer had emailed me to tell me that one specific question I had asked did not cover “the type of issues to be discussed at Residents Forum meetings” and therefore would not be included on the issues list.

I know that other residents also had questions rejected so I immediately submitted a request for an internal review on 25th October. This should also be completed within 20 days – Not in Barnet. Following several follow up reminders I eventually received a response on 10 February, more than 2 months late.

Surprise, surprise the reply had a distinct whiff of the Kafkaesque about it.

The number of questions submitted by the public which were refused is not recorded. By way of further explanation, I would like to clarify our initial response to your first question. The figures which were provided to you were the number of questions and petitions submitted and considered by the Residents Forums. These statistics came from the published minutes of each of the Forums concerned. The purpose of these minutes is to record the matters dealt with at each of the respective meetings. As the minutes only cover the Forum Meeting’s actual proceedings, neither the number nor nature of questions which were not considered at the meetings, are not recorded in the meeting minutes.

So there you have it. Because something is not in the official minutes of a meeting it doesn’t exist. I have been offered the opportunity to ask about a specific question I submitted and why it was rejected but this does not tell me how many other residents had their questions rejected. What is really sad about this situation is that a 2 minute telephone conversation to the Council’s governance officers who deal with residents forums would have elicited this answer as recorded in the relevant emails. But not in Barnet. There is something increasingly sinister about the way Barnet Council deals with any resident who seeks to in any way challenge the authority of the Council.

I want to add at this stage that I do not think all of Barnet Council is bad. Indeed, my direct experience is that many of the front line staff are exceptionally helpful, constructive and polite, something which I feel will be difficult to maintain once many of council's services are outourced later this year.

Today I shall be making a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner, my first, but definitely not the first concerning Barnet.


  1. Well said, Mr Reasonable. At my last Forum, I asked the Chair, Reuben Thompstone, to explain why he thought the new rules censoring the discussions at the Forums were compatible with the policy of localism, and Mr Pickles stated desire to extend greater transparency in local government. He refused to answer, but said he would be happy to discuss this at another time. I wrote to him as Chair and asked him, at some length, the same questions: he refused to answer, and replied only that he had 'noted my comments'. I asked him again to reply to the perfectly valid points I had made, but I have had no response.

    At the last meeting several of my questions were barred on the pretext that although they were, as required now, on the subject of 'public works', as they were about public works on a boroughwide basis, I could not raise them. I have asked where in the consitution such restriction is made - and have received no reply.

    I do not make huge numbers of FOI requests, but when I do, they are usually not acknowledged, and are never responded to within the statutory period. I always have to ask repeatedly where the replies are, and on one occasion, was given a clearly inaccurate response on a very serious issue.

    It is time that the ICO stopped dealing with Barnet's FOI obstructions and delays on a basis of a series of individual complaints, and investigated what is a deliberate policy of defiance of the laws regulating access to information which is meant to be in the public domain.

  2. It is a shame that Barnet Council chopped the governance department staff a year ago as now they have trouble getting agends up in time, minutes produced on time and answering all except the most simple one line FOI question on time. I am keeping my powder dry on the question of the ICO as I have submitted my views to the Justices Select Committee on the lack of application by Barnet Council to FOI but if I were to stop asking questions and spend a day chasing up overdue ones I would, I think, be able to ask for a score of reviews and send a dozen complaints to the ICO. I have also written a blog about 2 contradictory FOI answers I received.

    You have to be really sharp to lie well so Barnet trip over their shoelaces.