Today has been a good day. I started the day planning to write a blog about the "Swinging Vicar" mentioned in the Express this morning. As the day went on this changed to the great news that the Post Office will not need to close 3,000 outlets as they've kept the benefits payments contract. Then I noticed a remarkable thing. Something that have made the last six months blogging all worth it! In the stand off between Our glorious leader, Councillor Mike Freer and us Barnet Bloggers, Mike Freer has blinked !!!!!!!
I did my usual daily check of his Leader Listens blog (click HERE to see it in it's full glory) to see if Mike has published my comments yet. He hasn't, but the good news is that he's acknowledged (in a very Mike Freer sort of way) that us bloggers have been right about Council extravagance and he's finally doing something about it.
One of my favourite local blogs is the Barnet Council Watch blog, run by "Don't Call Me Dave" Miller. David sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum to myself. He's what I call a "sensible Tory" (I'm usually called a Swivel eyed Trotskyite by the local Tories). He opposes waste and wants to see the Council do a good job. He's become rather disenchanted with the way Barnet Council are doing things and he gives a pretty well informed commentary on the subject in his blog.
David likes to get to the bottom of things and has found that the best way in Barnet is via the Freedom of Information act. In America, right wing libertarians view their equivalent act as sacred. Anyone opposing FOI requests in America would be viewed as a dangerous leftist subversive. It is seem as part of a process of open and honest Government. In short the price we have to pay for democracy. Some recent comments seem to imply that our top councillors have a different view.
It looks to me as if David has won a rather big victory for us bloggers and the hard pressed Council Tax Payers of Barnet today, with his blogs and FOI requests. Earlier in the year, David forced the Council to reveal that Mike Freer had travelled Business class to the USA (Full details on David Blog HERE), at the taxpayers expense, for a Conference. The explanation was that "he needed to be fresh to get the most out of the meetings". What he didn't say was that he had travelled so as to have the Sunday to himself in San Francisco. This cost us thousands of pounds. Freer has never apologised for this excess. It seems that David has started to get through to Mr Freer that excessive waste in these times is not acceptable.
The acting Borough Finance Supremo has travelled to Iceland, to attend a creditors meeting of two Icelandic Banks which went bust, freezing £27.4 million of Taxpayers money. Now I fully support all efforts to get the Council's cash back and contrary to Mikes opening comments, see no useful purpose to be made criticising this trip.
In fact the final paragraph is probably the most sensible thing I've seen Mr Freer write for a very long time. He says "Be assured, Barnet and Kent will not be picking up the bill to represent every other local authority and the modest travel and accommodation expenses of both Clive and Lynda will be shared between all of the authorities affected. For the record, and to avoid a raft of Freedom of Information Requests, Clive travelled to Iceland using a budget airline and has accommodation in a 3* hotel at a cost of approximately £50 per night."
This seems to me to be a sea change in council policy. What would be even better would be a commitment from Freer that in future, this travel policy will be applied across the board. It is clear from the tone of Freer's blog, that he has started taking the criticism to heart. He has started to realise that we have a point. He has realised that people like myself and David Miller will uncover excessive waste and publicise it. I am sure he doesn't like it. The response boxes at the end of my blogs tell me this, but if it makes him do his job a bit better, then it is worth it.
In his Barnet Press column last week, Councillor Brian Coleman said that bloggers have 20/20 hindsight and achieve nothing useful. Well Brian - looks like your leader might be starting to take a different view. I certainly think that the green shoots of common sense have most certainly been nourished by the blogs of Barnet. I'm sure I'll get the usual raft of sneering comments from the FoF's but they'll make me laugh even more than usual this time !!!! In the words of that other darling of the Right, George Bush - "Bring 'em on"
I'm off to play 5 a side now. When I finish I'll have a celebratory Shandy to celebrate the first major victory of us Barnet Bloggers. I hope David has a rather large glass of his favourite tipple as the victory is his today.
Rog, I am not worthy of such praise!! The credit for finding out how to obtain information from public bodies belongs to the left wing comedian Mark Thomas. On his TV show 6 years ago, he explained how a resident in Wales had used section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 to force his council to provide copies of councillors travelling expenses. He was then able to prove that the council leader had been fiddling his claims and the councillor went to prison. Those were the days!
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has made things a lot easier for the public, but we still have some way to go before we can match the Americans for openness and transparency. In the recent Presidential election, both candidates published their tax returns for all to see. Here, if you ask for an explanation as to why Chief Executive Leo Boland and his deputy spent more than £2,500 between them on air tickets in the last financial year, the council refuses to answer. At least, they have so far.
In fairness, Barnet is not alone in trying to keep secrets from us. Most councils and public bodies are similarly reticent when it comes to providing information which could then be used to highlight their inefficiencies or downright incompetence. They seem to forget that they are public servants (you would think the word ‘public’ would be a bit of a clue as to whom their loyalties should belong).
If people asked trivial questions, e.g. “what type of biscuits are served at council meetings?” then the council could rightly claim that it would be a waste of resources to answer. But the council is refusing to say how many people have been prosecuted under RIPA - an entirely legitimate question given that many councils are abusing their powers under this Act.
The starting point in a free and open democracy should be that every piece of information must automatically be placed in the public domain unless there are clear reasons, set out by statute, as to why something can be withheld. You should not be allowed to withhold information for reasons of political expediency or because it might prove embarrassing.
Why is the council refusing to publish the report regarding the Aerodrome Bridge overspend? We all know the sum is circa £4 million so why not be open about it? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the cabinet member responsible is our illustrious leader and such revelations would further undermine his claim to have his hands on the purse string?
P.S. I'm saving my drink for the weekend!
As you may have probably guessed, I'm a big fan of Mark Thomas. maybe we should hire the Arts Depot and put him on!
I don't really think it matters whether you are left, right or in the middle, the first priority of politicians should always to be open and honest. The more Mark Thomas's, Don't Call me Dave's, Statler and Waldorfs we have the better !!!!!!!
I actually think Mike Freer has been quite prudent in his response. I am told that the answering of each FOI is around £150 so by pre-empting them he has saved the council money!
Praise where it is due I think!
You may be surprised to know that I agree with you regarding Mike Freer's blog entry. If he answered every question and gave such comprehensive blog entries all of the time I'd be the first to congratulate him. I'd love to see a scenario where the £150 a time FOI requests were unnecessary. Maybe this is the first step on the way, and all credit to David Miller for his imput into the process.
I agree that it was a good idea for Mike Freer to provide the information which he obviously realised someone was going to ask. And it would have been a perfectly legitimate question too.
I am not entirely convinced that Mr Medlam’s trip will elicit any new details which could not have been similarly obtained using the phone and e-mail, but conversely if I had just lost £28 million of other people’s money, I would probably also be banging on their door trying to get it back!
When it comes to spending public money, I am near the top of the queue in demanding that public authorities be more responsible. Perhaps that message is finally getting through, but there is a delicious irony in that Cllr Freer thinks it is acceptable for him to fly business class to San Francisco and stay in a posh hotel on some pointless junket, yet when it comes to sorting out the worst financial crisis ever to hit the borough, poor Mr Medlam is made to slum it on a budget airline and stay in a B&B! If ever there was an argument for providing a few creature comforts to make sure that a public official is at the top of his game, isn’t this it? Leo Boland wouldn’t have put up with such treatment!
Does blogging still think Brian Coleman is a waste of time?
This one does:
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