11 June 2012

Look out ALMOs - Uncle Eric is thinking about ALMO transparency

The good thing about writing to the fan of Barnet's bloggers who is warmly referred to as Uncle Eric (really the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP) is that you know that even if you don't ask for a reply, Uncle Eric will give your letter to one of his team to think about and you can be pretty sure of a no nonsense approach to the subject matter. Sometimes you just find that Eric acts to fix what you have written about as he already had the matter in hand.

Mr Mustard wrote to Uncle Eric in mid-May because although Barnet Council publishes spending information (quite badly but it's a start) as soon as spending is routed through a contractor, outsourcer or an ALMO (Arms length management organisation) such as Barnet Homes, then the spending information is simply not available. That is an unsatisfactory situation. Barnet Home manages about 15,000 properties and has an annual turnover of £27m. The public should be able to easily see the major items of expenditure.

Business Plan 2011-2013
Here is the email that Mr Mustard sent

Dear Mr Pickles

I am sure that you realise that an anomaly can be created by councils outsourcing and/or moving their assets into ALMOs (for good business reasons) who, as private companies, are not required to publish their over £500 spending data. Barnet Homes do respond to FOI requests but I don't know what to ask about if I don't see who they pay money to.

It was by accident that I came across the particular spend highlighted in my latest blog posting. broken-homes

Please could you have one of your team look at this area with a view to extending your guidance to all organisations to whom councils contract out service provision (Barnet Council have already contracted out the entire parking service and are planning on contracting out Customer Services and Development & Regulatory Services which will greatly reduce the amount of spending detail the council publishes; outline details attached).

The devil is always in the detail and there won't be much detail left in Barnet when one only sees a monthly payment to NSL, BT, Capita etc.

Best wishes

Yours sincerely

Mr Mustard

and here is the considered reply with some emboldening by Mr Mustard

Dear Mr Mustard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 15th May to the Right Hon Eric Pickles MP which has been passed to the Directorate for Local Government Policy in view of our local government transparency responsibilities and I have been asked to respond.

I would like to reassure you that this Government is committed to increasing transparency throughout central and local government. If we want local people to be able to hold politicians and local authorities to account, while fostering a new spirit of localism, we must provide them with the tools and information to do so. To support and drive this agenda forward, beyond the excellent start local authorities have already made on releasing expenditure over £500, this Department in September 2011 published the final Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency. The Code enshrines three principles of transparency, demand-led, open and timely. It also sets out the minimum datasets that should be published. Embedding a culture of transparency within authorities takes time. The department has committed to review the Code within 18 months of publication. Ministers do have the option to make the Code mandatory.

Thank you for drawing to our attention and sharing your concerns about the potential lack of transparency created when some councils outsource services or move assets to ALMOs who, in turn, might not be required to publish their spending data. We are aware of the issues and officials will be considering these in the round when reviewing the Code.

The Government's view is that it is important to make more data publicly and readily available to the citizen to enable them to challenge public authorities about how they are using taxpayers’ money, so citizens are better placed to raise issues and concerns.

We have noted your concerns and you will have the opportunity to feed in further views during the next phase of the Code review process.

Kind regards,

PJ (name redacted by Mr Mustard) 
| Department for Communities and Local Government | Local Government Policy & Productivity | Accountability & Transparency Division|3/J3 Eland House | Bressenden Place | London SW1E 5DU
Mr Mustard looks forward to the day when the spending of Barnet Homes is published although he doubts that they are.
Yours frugally
Mr Mustard

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