The MetPro scandal, exposed by Barnet Bloggers, was a shocking case of incompetence and poor practice that continued over a period of several years. It placed vulnerable people at risk but it took local residents only a few weeks to uncover the problems. On Friday 4 November an equally serious issue was uncovered, again by a Barnet Blogger; an issue that runs to the very heart of democracy in Barnet and in Britain.
On 16 May this year Barnet Council applied to the Information Commissioner’s Office to complain about one particular blogger, to question whether they should be registered under the Data Protection Act and to ask if they had breached the act. The Information Commissioner’s website suggests that if such a situation exists you should “First, tell the organisation concerned and give it an opportunity to put things right. Many data protection problems can be solved quickly without us getting involved”. Did Barnet Council inform the blogger concerned? No, it simply submitted the complaint.
On 7 June the Information Commissioner’s Office responded that it did not consider that a blogger should be registered as a data controller and had therefore not breached the Data Protection Act. For most organisations that would have been sufficient and they would have left the matter there. Not Barnet Council. They responded on 23 June citing a European Court of Justice judgement, not something which just comes immediately to hand. Appealing a decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office is not a step taken lightly. Taking this action must have required approval from someone very senior at Barnet Council and possibly involved taking legal advice.
The Information Commissioner’s Office responded to Barnet Council on 11 July again rejecting the Council’s complaint. It went on to say in its reply:
“The balance of privacy versus freedom of expression relies on taking a proportionate approach. Requiring all bloggers to register with this office (ICO) and comply with the parts of the DPA exempted under Section 36 would, in our view, have a hugely disproportionate impact on freedom of expression”.
This incident comes on top of changes to the borough’s constitution limiting debate in Council meetings, imposing draconian new rules for residents forums and disbanding the only committee able to scrutinise the One Barnet programme.
For all that Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities, talks about the need for armchair auditors, the reality is that local councils, and in this case a solidly Conservative Council, see them as a nuisance and something to be disarmed at all costs. The fact that a local authority should have worked so hard to stop citizens exercising their legal right to ask questions should be something of great concern to every single voter in Barnet.
Over the last few years the Council has looked increasingly out of touch with the community in which we all live. In recent months this tendency has escalated. A much more strident approach has been adopted by the most senior managers and cabinet members, an approach which is becoming unsustainable. The Bloggers of Barnet recognise that there are thousands of hard working council staff struggling to deliver good quality service whilst under immense pressure to cut costs and worrying whether their jobs are about to be privatised or deleted altogether. These people deserve our praise and recognition. It is the very top layer, the officers and consultants on six figure salaries and the Cabinet elite that work with them, that are the problem.
We call upon the Council leader to pause for reflection, for councillors to re-engage with their residents, and senior officers and councillors to start listening to citizens. This should include:
• The Council setting out in a public document fully and clearly what the One Barnet programme means for residents;
• Publishing all currently secret One Barnet reports;
• Allowing in-house team bids for all services;
• Stop putting out false information about bloggers; and
• Relax the rules and allow residents to ask any questions they like at the Residents Forums.
Failure to do so will lead to a Council that is completely isolated from the majority of residents in Barnet and one that ultimately will fail.