On Friday, we published our analysis of a very disturbing report by the Chief Financial Officer of Barnet Council. This should be of interest to anyone who lives in the Borough, pays business rates or Council tax or has any interaction with Barnet Council. One such resident emailed me in despair today. They had read my report and had a serious question for the committee about the report. Their question was
You may find the reference to the Constitution interesting. Barnet Council used to set a time limit of 30 minutes for public questions, with no limits on questions. One of the first Acts of Councillor Daniel Thomas, when he became Leader was to change the constitution to remove this scrutiny. This report, as I highlighted, is extremely important, but in a Borough of over 300,000 residents they only allow two questions. Back in 2019 when this change was made, I highlighted the risks. I take no pleasure in being right.
My objections at the time of the changes were as follows
Let me spell out the issues (My comments in Red Italics)
1. Questions and comments should be amalgamated; it is perfectly possible to raise a comment as part of a question. The number of words for each question/comment should be limited at 100.
If there is a complex technical issue to raise as a question, an arbitrary 100 word limit will prevent a properly constructed question, this is especially true for issues on budget. It will result in simple, inane, sloganistic questions, rather than sensible, well thought out, detailed questions.
2. Questions/comments should be raised under the current rules for questions. This means that the council and lead officer would have notice of the question/comment before the meeting and would therefore be in a position to amend the committee report (if necessary) to include a relevant matter raised in the question/comment, if not currently within the committee report.
This is a sensible amendment
3. Residents may raise one question/comment on an agenda item. The question/comment must relate to the substantive matter to be determined by the committee. No more than two questions from residents will be allowed per agenda item taken in the order of receipt by the Governance Service.
If a resident notices multiple problems within a report, it will now be impossible for more than one to be addressed. This will mean that there is no opportunity to correct obvious errors. This will also favour organised pressure groups, trades unions and political campaigns, who can muster a gang of questioners, over ordinary, concerned residents.
4. Residents may raise one question/comment per committee meeting in order to allow as many residents as possible to raise questions/comments and ask a supplementary question at Committee.
This is highly dishonest. Under the present system, residents questions are round robin'd so that you ask a question, then the next resident on the list does. When all residents have had a turn, the process starts again. No resident misses an opportunity under the existing system.
5. The deadline for submitting a question/comment be extended to 10am two clear working days before the meeting. Questions/comments will be responded to verbally at the meeting only. Residents will be able to ask one supplementary question for each question/comment made. If there is insufficient time to deal with all questions in the 30 minutes of allocated time, a written response will be provided within a reasonable period. The Chairman should also have the discretion to request that a question answered at the meeting also be responded to in writing.
Whilst I welcome the extension of the deadline, the lack of a written answer is a clear attempt to a) limit the time available for questions. By answering the question, rather than supplying an answer, the half hour will soon be eaten up. Furthermore, it gives little opportunity for residents to ask supplementary questions. In short this is a ruse to stifle debate.
It is clear that the leader of the Barnet Tories, Councillor Dan Thomas, is not keen on the public, transparency or engagement. This was his first action as leader and it is quite frankly despicable. Everyone in Barnet should be concerned. If for no other reason than the fact that the Borough would be £2 million worse off if these rules had been in place in 2012, when local residents and bloggers identified the Metpro Scandal. What sort of regime excludes the public and stifles public debate?
What has fascinated me is that I've seen a huge response to the recent articles, I've had eight times more blog views than usual and a huge amount of debate, comments, shares and retweets etc. A couple of Conservative councillors have privately contacted me to share their concerns about the corporate debt and other aspects of the report. There is a frustration that excuses get cut and pasted from one report to the next with no real effort to actually do anything. It strikes me that excluding the public from the scrutiny process has made the whole issue of scrutiny even more opaaque. I am not saying there is Corporate fraud in Barnet Council, but without proper scrutiny the environment where it can happen becomes a serious concern. What sickens me is that there is no real method for residents to raise this formally.