23 October 2013

Vexatious to vexing - the end (hopefully)

not Colonel Mustard with the revolver in the library
Mr Mustard has been somewhat busy in the parking ticket department (another win at PATAS yesterday for a visitor who was pounced on whilst collecting a visitor voucher) and so not had time to write up the third and final instalment of his journey to Freedom of Information.

Regular readers, and those who have read the Information Commissioners decision, will have generally got the impression that employees in the parking department and HR at Barnet Council would break down in tears at the sight of an FOI request from Mr Mustard or be signed off on sick leave due to stress. How they manage to be such complete and utter heartless b'stards when dealing with some poor soul who stayed 2 minutes too long in a parking space and due to events ended up with the bailiffs clamping their car will just have to be one of those unanswerable questions. Most staff ("officers" - bloody stupid name for them) are fine with Mr Mustard and three of them have asked him to help appeal their Barnet Council PCN - how ironic is that?

Now once Mr Mustard had the adverse decision that his questions (not him, thankfully) were vexatious he had to do something about it as no sane person would want the matter to rest like that. Now as it happens there was some lucky timing. Mr Mustard had attended the council's offices several times in June to look at their annual Accounts and see supporting information. With Black Hole Travers having climbed up to the top rung of the ladder, becoming the Chief Executive and we don't hear anything like as much about him as we used to about Nick Walkley (remember him? saddled yourself with some very difficult problems in Haringey, Nick - the bloggers of Barnet must look like light relief compared to every Fleet Street paper looking for blood) we needed a new S151 Officer (legally responsible for finance) and we got one with the rather fancy title of Chief Operating Officer and the name of Chris Naylor in January 13. Chris joined us from Tower Hamlets who have their own problems with transparency. Is there a boringly well run council anywhere in London? that is all Mr Mustard seeks from Barnet.

Now last year 3 bloggers attended together along with a well known parking expert who is the scourge of councils all over London. This year Mr Mustard attended alone as he knew the score and to help the council he gave them a list months in advance of what he wanted to see. Was it ready on his arrival? No, of course it wasn't. The council should not be surprised that they take a bashing when they are so unhelpful and stupid. One thing he asked for was the bailiff contracts for parking for the year. Mr Mustard had the suspicion that there weren't any and rather than tell him that they gave him an out of date contract 300 pages long. What a waste of paper. It didn't detain Mr Mustard for a minute. 

Now the council have to deal with his objection to the Accounts, one of 5 he has made, on which he anticipates that a verbal report will be made by Grant Thornton to the Audit Committee tomorrow evening. There is no scheduled agenda item to sign off the Accounts, which would be normal in October so it looks like at least one of the objections has been found to have merit. Chris, to his credit, says that the Audit Commission Act is there to be used.

Now one topic of enquiry was the invoices raised by Agilisys/iMpower for the year, all £3.7million of them. They were so heavily redacted that they told him nothing more than was on the over £500 spending list.

Anyway the one thing they did lead to was Chris Naylor offering Mr Mustard a meeting to have a chat about them. This was a novel idea. No-one else had dared put their head over the parapet previously and this initiative should be applauded. It doesn't mean that Mr Mustard is going to turn into a blogging version of the Tooting Twister as we don't want to do him out of a job, now do we? (oh what's that Mrs Angry, "yes of course we do", correct again of course) but he will, and already has, add in some balance to his posts when it adds to the story. So Mr Mustard agreed to a meeting but asked to change the agenda to his FOI question status. The meeting was going to be in Cafe Buzz but had to be moved to the North London Business Park as it was going to be followed by another meeting for Chris (one thing Mr Mustard mentioned was that there are probably staff who do nothing but sit in meetings and they are surplus to requirements if so).

So this meeting took place in the first week of September (Chris bought the teas) in the staff restaurant (see how open and transparent we are) and Mr Mustard offered the following compromise:

Ask up to 60 FOI questions p.a. and not write about junior staff. Most people would think that staff earning up to £56,000 a year weren't junior but that is the accepted definition. Mr Mustard hadn't asked a question since 12 July 2013 and had realised that he had so much information coming from other sources, and other pan-London questions to deal with, that 60 would be more than adequate for a year. He can still ask questions at committee meetings that won't be refused although answers can be obfuscatory and he has the annual audit visit and technically his tweets are FOI if they ask for facts like "who owns the blue bins"; answer "the council".

The counter-offer was a bit longer and here is a summary.

Chris wants 

- a "stronger working relationship" (very sensible)
- he wants the council to publish information regularly that is of use to interested members of the public and the default setting will be to publish (he has Mr Mustard's list to think about)
- he wants the council to be as receptive as possible to the insight and experiences of residents and service users (great but you should have been at this week's Constitution Committee, Chris, to see what councillors think of this. The very sensible idea to allow comments from residents to precede the business item rather than all be heard at the start of the meeting, was voted down on party lines. You may want to hear from residents but clearly some councillors don't. Cllr Thomas, for example, has never allowed any member of the public to have their 5 minutes to speak at Cabinet Resources Committee - unfixable problem? )
- a reasonable number of FOIs may be in the order of 60 p.a. (Mr Mustard having received this level will now show he doesn't need them and save his FOI for the really big issues or questions which he is asking of every London borough)
- he would welcome a monthly digest of service issues or complaints that Mr Mustard has learned about that month, both his and those of other residents (Mr Mustard isn't keen on having a monthly to do list for the council, who can read his blog and see the issues for themselves as many staff and councillors already do, and he has never been reticent about writing to senior officers, all councillors or relevant Cabinet members and the Leader but given that this proposal includes a response back he will inform the COO of the big issues. He has already asked him to find a way to take the £7m generated by parking tickets out of the budget but that is of course a political decision. Officer time may be helpful in finding savings elsewhere. The council will never be well regarded whilst it is issuing 165,000 PCN p.a. so it may be a sensible political decision to move gently away from parking income and make Barnet a nicer place to live).

So having agreed to the above arrangement the blog has gone on as per usual, more or less, and Mr Mustard has avoided having to spend days of his time reviewing 800 blog postings and removing anything that would have counted against him when reviewed by lawyers sitting in the Upper Tribunal and producing a huge bundle of documents and his arguments to the Tribunal. The council didn't think they were greatly at risk of having the ICO's decision overturned but then I didn't mention the smoking gun (not a real gun of course, but something that would have blown a huge hole in the main plank of the council's argument) that I had and which has now been put back in the drawer.

What can others who ask many FOI questions learn from this episode? The FOI legislation does not set out any limits on the number of questions one person can ask of an organisation which is where Mr Mustard went wrong by overdoing it. You would think that an organisation of 3,000 people could cope with a fairly high level of questions. 200 questions per annum, not all on parking but on varied topics, and it doesn't look very vexatious when compared to 165,000 parking tickets issued in a year. How can they cope with those? surely not because that leads to a huge income rather than a compliance cost? 

So what is an acceptable number of questions for others is not going to be either 200 p.a. or 60 p.a. because it will depend on who is asking, what they do with the information, the size of the organisation and so on, all the factors set out in the recent guidance. It would have been interesting to challenge the decision but really Mr Mustard couldn't be fagged to do so, he would have been unable to do other things that he currently wants to do.

Not asking many FOI won't stop the blog.

Our Mr Naylor got himself and the council some column inches yesterday in the Guardian, here. You'll see from the comments that three interested residents don't agree with him but at least we can talk about it like sensible adults. It may be Chris's default setting but it isn't Barnet Council's and he is going to have a heck of a battle on his hands getting everyone to see his point of view.

Now Mr Mustard being Mr Mustard and judging on actions not deeds he has set Chris a test. Last year the council developed Parking Recovery Plans when income from parking was below expectations. There was more chance of seeing a fish riding a bicycle than getting a copy of the documentation which was treated with the highest security clearance. Mr Mustard has asked Chris for a copy of those plans. 

Let us see, will he pass or fail? Watch this space.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

Update  19 November 13

I met with Chris Naylor and two of his colleagues this morning. CN handed over the Parking Recovery plans for the last two years. Mr Mustard can't see why the council went to such lengths to hide them as they are deadly dull and didn't show him the sort of information he expected to see. There is some unfortunate thinking within them, like introducing more CPZ simply to generate more revenue (ah, so they are profitable)  but everyone knew that anyway. Anyway, I am pleased he passed the test. the next one will just have to be a little harder.

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