Friday, 6 July 2012

Accident Black Spot at Barnet Council - Democracy in Intensive Care

The culture of secrecy and paranoia was alive and kicking at the North London Business Park this morning. I was attending to inspect some invoices and contracts as is every resident’s statutory right under Sections 15 and 16 of the Audit Commission Act 1998. I was accompanied by Mrs Angry and Mr Mustard and a gentleman who had a specific interest in the parking contract.

I had given the council 10 working days notice of my requirements yet sadly two contracts were still not available to inspect as they were still busy redacting their contents.

Last year, names were redacted but I was at least able to see how much Barnet was paying for services.  This year the black pen was in overdrive.  On many of the invoices the only visible figure was the total amount, something which is already available in the supplier payments list. For example, the invoices from Agilisys, the Council’s One Barnet Implementation Partner, did not show daily rates or even the number of days work provided just the total figure. Given that Barnet Council paid Agilisys £2,168,555.05 in the financial year 2011/12, I think it is perfectly reasonable to know how many days work we got for that fee.
One less redacted invoice shows that Barnet are still buying those delightfully expensive HP tablet computers .
When I looked at the contracts this is where the obsessive redaction really had taken over. In one contract all of the fee rates had been redacted because the information was “commercially sensitive”. However in the contract there is a section where a supplier can state what elements they wish to be considered commercially sensitive and they had written “N/A” against each line. My interpretation of that is the contractor had not declared the information to be commercially sensitive but that Barnet had declared it "politically sensitive".

Another contract associated with the One Barnet programme had the bidder's entire submission redacted; page after page of black pen. Fee rates had obviously bitten the dust but in their proposal all that remained was the contents page and section headings. Why, for example,  are we not allowed to reviewed the contractors approach to dealing with conflicts of interest and confidentiality of data. Surely there is nothing commercially sensitive about that? 

In one contract there is a detailed clause stating that even though a contractor may deem information commercially sensitive it may not be, for example, once a contract has been awarded. The contract goes on to state that “Tenderers should note that no information is likely to be regarded as exempt forever”. It should have added “except to residents” as every single cost schedule was redacted.

This is our money the Council is spending and every resident should be able to inspect the accounts as set out under the 1998 Act. However, in Barnet they are obviously so afraid of what the bloggers might find that they are happy to ignore their own contract rules to prevent us from seeing the truth.

Escorted to the toilet, I did at times feel a bit like a prisoner. I paid my £2.28 to get copies of the invoices I asked for (the black toner cartridge must have been working overtime). 

North London Business Park is adopting a siege mentality to residents. This will not end well.


  1. Are you able under the Freedom of Information Act to get more information?

  2. Sadly not in Barnet. The Audit Commission act was my last hope of seeing some of the information.

  3. I am sure you have been through all the possibilities, but if they are not complying with the Act, there surely must be something more you can do?

  4. Power of a council's legal department with access to top lawyers on tap versus a single ratepayer means that in most cases they will always win.