Friday, 30 September 2011

An open letter to Cllr Richard Cornelius, Barnet Council Leader from David Miller, former chairman of Chipping Barnet Conservative Association

Dear Richard

I was extremely concerned to read in the local media that Cllr Daniel Thomas claimed that it cost the council £40,000 to respond to FOI requests from just one individual - reportedly the blogger known as Mr Mustard. Unless the council is forced to pay staff overtime in processing such requests, it is patently obvious that there is no marginal cost to taxpayers whatsoever and it is completely dishonest to suggest otherwise. Staff responding to FOI requests are merely using the time for which they are already being paid.

You should be aware that with regard to trying to embarrass members of the public exercising their legal rights, Cllr Thomas has form. In November 2008, he asked Mike Freer a clearly planted question which alleged that I had made the most FOI requests in the preceding 6 months. The stated figure of 29 requests was demonstrably incorrect and, as the Information Commissioner subsequently confirmed following my complaint, Barnet Council had no legal right to publish my name in this report.

The council nonetheless refused to redact my details arguing that the publication of my name did not identify me personally, as prohibited by law. Rather, they claimed that the report referred to all David Millers in the Borough. Somebody in the council was actually paid to write this errant nonsense and this should be of greater concern to you than the cost of complying with an Act of Parliament.

You will recall that when the Conservatives won control of the Council in 2002, the then leader made a speech in which he promised “an open and honest” Administration. Sadly, the opposite has proven true. There is a culture of obsessive secrecy which permeates through every fibre of the council’s being. Barnet is seemingly more concerned with spending money on lawyers in an attempt to keep secret that which should be public, than in allowing greater access to information in accordance with official Conservative policy.

The Information Commissioner’s guidelines state that the council’s default position should be to publish all information without the requirement of being asked. If the council adhered to these guidelines, it would obviate the need for most of the FOI requests submitted. Obviously certain categories of information must, by law, remain confidential but far too much is kept secret on spurious grounds. One such reason often cited is commercial sensitivity. It may have escaped your notice, but the council is not a commercial organisation. It is a public body whose sole raison d’ĂȘtre is to serve the public. Everything the council does is in our name and on our behalf. We have an absolute right to know what you are doing at all times.

It clearly grates on senior councillors and officers that members of the public are rather adept at exposing failures in the council’s processes, but an enlightened authority should thank residents for identifying their shortcomings, rather than indulge in petty obfuscation and vilification.

If any councillors are unhappy with the concept of public scrutiny of the decision making process, they are, of course, free to stand down from public office. It is called public for a reason.

Kind regards


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