Thursday, 29 September 2011

Barnet Council misleads over £40,000 for FoI Enquiries and is exposed.

So there I was, enjoying a nice free lunch, courtesy of my good friend Brian (no, not that one!) at Gabriels Wharf in the beautiful sunshine. Just as I was about to take a mouthful of the delicious ceasar salad, my mobile goes. I don't recognise the number. I answer. A voice I don't recognise says "Hi, this is Josh from the Hendon Times, is that Roger Tichborne from the Barnet Eye?". I say "yes, how can I help?". Josh asks "Are you the blogger who has submitted 175 FoI requests since April and cost the Council £40,000? in costs". I was rather taken aback "Erm, no I think I've submitted about 10" (I just got home and counted, actually it's six + a couple of emails to Council officials which have been transformed into FoI requests).

I enquire. It transpires that Barnet Council planted this story on the public services website - - in retaliation for the bloggers of Barnet having the audacity to write to Eric Pickles about the total failure of Barnet Council to respond properly to FoI requests. I have learned that when the Council start behaving like this, it means we've won. 

So off I went and read the article. Here is a quoye :-
Daniel Thomas, the council's deputy leader, said: "Barnet was one of the first councils in the country to publish all spending over £500 and we are committed to open government as well as responding to freedom of information requests in a timely manner."
Any reader of the blogs of Barnet will know just how misleading Councillor Daniel Thomas is being. The only question about Councillor Thomas response is whether he's being stupid, lazy or dishonest. How can I say with such certainty that he's misleading us. Because I have the proof to hand.
Labour GLA candidate Andrew Dismore tried to find out just how bad Barnet are at answering FOI requests. Barnet refused to answer on the grounds that it would cost too much to tell him. Now personally I'd have thought the FoI department would have a spreadsheet containing all of this info. I would have thought this would enable them to monitor compliance with the act. When requests come in and when they are responded to seems a sensible thing to log, given that they are supposed to respond within 20 days. Seems not. Here is the response the Council sent to Dismore :-
(Parts 1b to 1e)
Number of requests received between 21 July 2009 and 21 July 2011 that were
answered within the statutory time.
Number that were not answered relying on a statutory defence.
Number that were answered outside the statutory time
The average period for a reply during this period. 
Background information
Under the FOIA public authorities must respond promptly and in any event within 20 working days from receipt of a request. If a public authority has asked the requestor to clarify the request, this period starts on the day when it receives the clarification. If a public authority is withholding the information by applying an exemption for which it needs to consider the ‘public interest test’, it may extend its time for considering release of the information beyond 20 working days. Similarly, under the EIRs a public authority may extend the deadline for responding if a request is ‘complex and voluminous’. 
Refusal notice
From my preliminary assessment I estimate that identifying, locating, retrieving and extracting the information to respond to these parts of your request would exceed the appropriate costs limit under section 12 of the FOIA. This is currently £450. The council’s current request-management system does contain much of the information required to respond to these parts of your request. However to retrieve this information we would need to undertake a manual trawl though the 2283 entries. For many requests we would also need to search records saved by officers held outside of the system. I estimate that it would take approximately 20 minutes of officer time to obtain all the relevant information in relation to each of the 2283 requests, or 761 hours in total. At a cost of £25 per hour the estimated cost would be £19,025. The council recognises the need to be able to quickly and accurately report on aspects of FOIA compliance such as those referred to in these parts of your request. We are in the process of procuring a replacement request-management system that will be able to automatically produce accurate data on FOIA compliance.
Got that. It would cost £19,025 for Barnet to tell Mr Dismore whether Barnet Council complies with the law. This when a simple system of logging requests on an excel spreadsheet would do the trick? Mr Dismore asked some other questions, which give some clue as to how out of hand the situation is. 
(Part 1k)
The longest delay before a reply was sent
During the two-year period of your request the longest such delay was 138 working days.
(Parts 2 and 3)
The number outstanding, beyond the statutory period for reply
The longest period an outstanding request has been awaiting reply
Over recent months the council has received an unprecedented volume of requests for information, and in 2010 the council received over twice the average for English local authorities. Whilst 79% of requests since April 2011 were responded to within the statutory period, there were 44 requests outstanding at the date of your request, the oldest one received on 18 February 2011. We are working on responding to all overdue requests and towards ensuring that, over the course of the current financial year, 90% or requests are responded to within the statutory periods.
The statutory period is 20 days. This clearly has regularly been missed.  Barnet seem to misunderstand the term "statuatory period". This doesn't mean some vague target date, it means a legally required deadline. 

Which brings us to Daniel Thomas claim that "one blogger has submitter 175 requests since April and cost £44,000". I suppose if it costs £19,025 to answer a question which should be available in a basic spreadsheet, then it is possible it cost Barnet Council this much. We have to ask whether it is just another reflection of the chaos in their systems and ways of working. Barnet Council has to legally work within the FoI framework. They should have systems tailored to this. Just suppose the ICO office (who are responsible for monitoring FoI requests asked Barnet the question Dismore) asked for details of compliance. Would it really cost Barnet nearly £20 K to tell them? Surely they have an electronic document repositry, where this information can quickly be accessed. It should be no more complex than a google search on this system, to identify the documents, using relevent key words.
What may be more worrying for Barnet CEO Nick Walkley, Leader Richard Cornelius and dunce of the year Dan Thomas is the fact that Tory minister Eric Pickles agrees with the bloggers of Barnet. Today he issued this communication for councils

To quote Mr Pickles :-
Releasing this information to the public could provide a wealth of local knowledge and spark more improvements in the way services are delivered. Faster publication and easier access for the public and companies could open new possibilities for real-time analysis and response and opportunities for small businesses to enter new markets.
The best local authorities have already adopted the code of practice into their normal publishing routines. Councils like Northamptonshire County Council, Hammersmith and Fulham and Windsor and Maidenhead for example have long ago thrown their books wide open for public scrutiny and publish much of the data specified in the code already.
Sooner or later, the Tories of Barnet are going to have to face up to the fact that they are out of step with the national mood. If they just followed Pickles advice and had an openness and transparancy policy, they would have saved the taxpayer £40,000 answering FoI requests that would be, in the main, completely unnecessary. 
One thing Councillor Dan Thomas didn't mention is the money which the Barnet bloggers have saved, by our diligent trawling through council papers & our non stop action on behalf of the people of Barnet. Last year this blog lead a successful campaign to get the self awarded payrise for the Barnet Council Cabinet reversed. The united bloggers of Barnet exposed the fiasco with Metpro as a result Barnet found a far cheaper supplier of security services. We also got an overhaul of procurement into the bargain, potentially saving tens of millions of pounds (not that Barnet will admit it). We have campaigned for value for money in the Toxic One Barnet program and I've been reliably informed that this has already lead to some of the more bonkers excesses being abandoned. Perhaps the greatest compliment is that I've been informed that my old sparring buddy Brian Coleman (yup, praise where it's due) has on several occasions got his more deluded colleagues to drop bonkers schemes by pointing out "The bloggers will have a field day with this". Whilst Brian Coleman couldn't give a damn what bloggers say about us, he knows most of his chums in the party are scared to death by this threat. Whilst I don't agree with much the old duffer says, I do acknowledge that he has finely tuned political instincts and has scuppered a few bonkers schemes, which he knows would come back to haunt the Tories, merely by mentioning "blogger bogeymen".

But back to the issue of FoI responses. Perhaps the most interesting and telling this is this FoI response,  which I received today.
Ref: 90210110

Dear Mr Tichborne,

I am writing in respect of your recent request for information received on 21st September 2011. Your request has been processed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Please see our response to your request below.

Please could you provide any information held by Barnet council relating to potential sites for permanent traveller sites. There is a legal requirement to provide these, so please provide all documentation which identifies where Barnet may have either a) planned to site them or b) reviewed and discarded as an option.

Please also provide any emails from councillors to council officials relating to these decisions.

Our approach to identifying new sites for Gypsies and Travellers is set out in the Core Strategy planning document, available on our website (link: and this is in line with existing Government guidance - Circular 01/2006 - Planning for Gypsy and Traveller Caravan Sites.

Circular 01/2006 requires the local planning authority to set out criteria in their Core Strategy for the location of gypsy and traveller sites in order to guide the allocation of sites and to meet unexpected demand. Barnet’s criteria are:

ÿ       Potential of the site for good management
ÿ       Impact on local environment, character and amenity
ÿ       Access to essential services including water and waste disposal

Within the Site Allocations document which identifies future sites for development we will seek to identify land to meet the long term needs of Gypsies and Travellers. Other than setting out our criteria based policy the Council has yet to identify or review sites for Gypsies and Travellers. The Site Allocations document is the correct planning document for such a process. The Site Allocations document will be subject to at least two rounds of public consultation and we would expect to commence engagement on it in 2012.

As the review for such sites has not started yet there has been no correspondence on the matter of Gypsy and Traveller sites.

Your rights of review and appeal

We believe we have correctly applied the provisions of the FOIA in this response. However if you are unhappy with the way your request for information has been handled, you can request a review by writing to the FOI Officer at: The London Borough of Barnet, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London, N11 1NP (email:

If you remain dissatisfied with the handling of your request or complaint, you have a right to appeal to the Information Commissioner at: The Information Commissioner's Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF (telephone: 08456 30 6060 or 01625 54 5745; website: There is no charge for making an appeal.

Kind regards,

K******** S***
FOI & EIR Link Officer
Environment, Planning and Regeneration
London Borough of Barnet, North London Business Park, Oakleigh Road South, London N11 1NP
Tel: 020 8359 24**
Barnet Online:

From: B*****, M****
Sent: 21 September 2011 14:33
To: S****, H****
Cc: S* C*******, T****; S****, K******
Subject: FW: FoI request - Traveller pitches

From: Roger Tichborne
Sent: 19 September 2011 21:01
To: Freedom of Information Act
Subject: FoI request - Traveller pitches

Dear Freedom of Information,

Please could you provide any information held by barnet council relating to potential sites for permanent traveller sites. There is a legal requirement to provide these, so please provide all documentation which identifies where Barnet may have either a) planned to site them or b) reviewed and discarded as an option.

Please also provide any emails from councillors to council officials relating to these decisions.

Roger Tichborne

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