Thursday, 27 September 2012

Where the Filed Things Are: or how to ignore the Freedom of Information Act, Broken Barnet style

A performance of Marat/Sade/One Barnet

So: you are a senior officer or councillor in Broken Barnet. You have an embarrassing secret, and you don't want anyone to know about it. 

Uh oh: Mrs Angry knows about it, and asks to see all the minutes of the meetings where your embarrassing secret was discussed. 

What to do?

Hmm. Difficult. You must of course read the relevant regulations in the Freedom of Information Act, and the guidelines from the Department of Communities and Local Government on open data, memorise them, then work in completely the opposite direction to that specified by both sets of requirements. 

Or, even more cleverly, you must take the regulations and guidelines and make them serve your malevolent purpose by trickery, and subterfuge.

Cast your mind back to the Joint Venture debacle.

The 'interim' Director of Environment, Planning & Regeneration, Ms Pam Wharfe, sent an email a few weeks ago to Barnet Council staff informing them that a decision had been made to change the proposed model for one half of the One Barnet One Billion outsourcing sell off of our council services to the private sector. 

No longer would we have a strategic partnership: now we were going to create a Joint Venture with the successful bidder. Oh: this is unexpected news: Joint Venture as an option was discredited early on in the process as being even higher risk than the staggeringly irresponsible gamble of the strategic partnership. Such a fundamental change, in the context of One Barnet, is like putting all your money on a race on a horse with three legs, then swopping the bet at the last minute to a horse with two legs.

When Mrs Angry made inquiries about this rather alarming statement to staff, it became apparent that the decision was news to the leader, Richard Cornelius, and his Tory colleagues, the elected members who are, in name only, it seems, supposed to be setting policy and deciding the course of the One Barnet programme. Cornelius stated emphatically that no such decision had been made. Even more damning - at the last Budget scrutiny meeting, he denied three times that he had ever seen any papers related to the One Barnet programme. And then the cock crowed, and the room fell silent. It was an astonishing admission.

In short, the lunatics who thought they had taken over the asylum are in fact, well simply some theatrically minded inmates putting on their own version of Marat/Sade, watched by the indulgent hospital director and his staff.

After a lot of questions, we had managed to ascertain that the decision which is not a decision became temporarily less decisive as pressure grew on senior management to stop undermining the leadership. Ms Wharfe was obliged to write to staff again, smoothing over the unfortunate gaffe, saying:

"... the JV has developed as a progressively more attractive option following detailed discussions with bidders. As a result the project Board recommended to Corporate Directors Group that this be formally advanced in discussions with bidders and indeed is currently our preferred option."

Aha. The DRS project board, a mysterious entity which comprises a handful of senior officers, including Ms Wharfe, and a couple of unaccountable, unnamed private consultants from the One Barnet 'implementation partners', Agilisys/iMPOWER, who receive around an incredible quarter of a million pounds of tax payers' money EVERY MONTH, for services unknown.

Mrs Angry wondered when the JV option was recommended to Corporate Directors' Group, and what sort of discussions took place. So she submitted a Freedom of Information request for the minutes of all of their meetings which took place since December 2011. A response turned up a couple of days ago ...


I can confirm that London Borough of Barnet holds the information you requested.

Please find attached a set of minutes from January 2012.

However, we are withholding copies of Minutes after that date since we consider that the following exemption applies to it.  We consider that the qualified exemption set out in Section 22 (Information intended for future publication) subsection 1 applies to the information requested. Therefore, we have decided to withhold the information.

It is the Council’s intention to publish the Directors’ Group Minutes on the Council’s website in a planned programmed way, by quarter, six monthly in arrears.  The first set of quarter’s minutes are due for publication imminently, with a further quarter to follow in accordance with this timetable.  This information will be available at

It is reasonable to refuse disclosure until  publication as there is a planned programme for publication, and the first set of minutes will be published imminently.

In applying this exemption, we have had to balance the public interest in withholding the information against the interest in favour of disclosure.

Factors in favour of disclosure
Documents will be made public in any event
Public interest in scrutinising mechanics of the council

Factors in favour of withholding
Documents will be made public in any event, and disclosing in an ad hoc way will pre-empt planned publication.

Disclosure in advance of publication will cause a duplication of effort.

Disclosure in advance will render otiose the council's planned programme of publication, and circumvent its rationale.

In all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.

Oh. Really. Come close, London Borough of Broken Barnet, Mrs Angry wants to whisper something in your ear.


There. Sorry. Because what you are saying is: as this information must be put in the public domain, we must keep it secret, and that, London Borough of Broken Barnet, is ridiculous, desperate, and, a frankly embarrassingly bad excuse for obstructing the requirements of the FOIA, yes, even by your admittedly gobsmackingly low standards.

The one set of minutes sent to Mrs Angry, as some sort of token gesture, were from the 3rd of January, and funnily enough, included no mention of the Joint Venture.

Mrs Angry responded to the hapless FOI officer obliged to send this shameless response:

Ms *

Whilst I am fully appreciative of the fact that you will be acting in response to a decision made elsewhere, this response is, quite frankly, an absolute disgrace, and in my view represents the intention of the council deliberately to avoid forwarding politically embarrassing material, specifically anything relating to the Joint Venture.

Please respond immediately to the following, not as an appeal, or a FOI, but to clarify this response:

  • I note you claim the information is to be published 'imminently' without giving any date: when is the date for publication, exactly?

  • Why have you forwarded one set of minutes in January, which coincidentally contains no reference to the JV, and no others, despite the elapse of eight months
Two further questions:
  • When was the stated decision made to publish the minutes with a six month delay, and why is there a six month delay? Please send me a copy of this decision.

  • If there is a six month delay, why have no minutes been published yet?

The public interest is quite clearly in the release of this information now, while the issue of the Joint Venture is being debated, and not at some unspecified time safely after the competitive dialogue is finished.

Refusing to release this information is blatantly in defiance of the FOIA, and the guidelines from DCLG, and will be reported to the Secretary of State as well as the ICO if you do not immediately forward the minutes as requested.

Yours sincerely,

Mrs Angry

Later in the day Mrs Angry was able to add:


I have since discovered that these meetings take place at least fortnightly.

The minutes you sent were for only one meeting at the very beginning of January, the 3rd, to be specific.

Where are the minutes for the rest of the month at least?

It is perfectly clear that the information I requested is being held for political reasons, and I ask you once more to forward all the relevant material without further delay.

Thank you.

Will any response emerge? Nothing as yet.


Oh, and: Mrs Angry nearly forgot - in response to an FOI request for the minutes of the meetings of the mysterious DRS board, she received this:

Thank you for your request received on 28 August 2012 for the following information: I would like to make the following request under the terms of the FOI Act:

Please send me the minutes of all DRS project board meetings since the beginning of December 2011.
We are now considering the request but we need to extend the deadline for response. The Freedom of Information Act allows public authorities an addtional 20 working days where a qualified exemption under the Act is engaged and the Public Interest Test needs to be considered. We are currently considering the Public Interest Test with regard to section 43 of the Act, which exempts information the disclosure of which could prejudice the commercial interests of the council or a third party.
We will aim to respond to you by 23 October 2012.
So: 'Public Interest' - what do you think that means, by the definition of the senior management team of Broken Barnet? Do you think it will be interpreted as:

'According to the principles of localism, the residents and tax payers of this borough have a right to know how we, the senior management team and our private consultants of the unaccountable DRS board cooked up a decision to adopt the Joint Venture option before the democratically elected members of the community had even considered a change', 

or do you think it means: 

'oh f*ck: here is another embarrassing secret which we must keep secret'?

Is what is meant by open data for armchair auditors? Open, but not in our lifetime? 

What do you reckon, Eric?


baarnett said...

"...disclosing in an ad hoc way will pre-empt planned publication."

Oh, want a shame! So they intend wrapping all these minutes in a cosy few paragraphs of comforting explanations, do they?

They are planning an expensive "launch" of One Barnet, are they not?

Just proves that we are now governed by the giant public relations operation, not a local authority that in any significant way relates to, and interacts with, its residents and businesses.

Some people think One Barnet will go off the cliff before signing, but even if it doesn't, do these clowns think they can keep up this bizarre relationship with the people of Barnet for the next ten years?

Mrs Angry said...

Give them credit, baarnett, for the grandstanding use of the word 'otiose', which, in my view, is not used half as much as it should be,and in fact has not been recorded in any work of literature or official document since circa 1871 ...

You having a laugh, Mr Lustig?

And Mr Mustard: I am not publishing your comment for legal reasons ...

Mrs Angry said...

Otiose: o·ti·ose
   [oh-shee-ohs, oh-tee-]
being at leisure; idle; indolent.
ineffective or futile.
superfluous or useless.

Rather like a typical Tory councillor, here in Broken Barnet, in fact.

Mr Reasonable said...

Mrs A, Time for a chat with the Local Government Ombudsman.

Mrs Angry said...

hmm, Mr R, certainly time to up our game, I think ...