Among communities secretary Eric Pickles’ more fanciful boasts (alongside the one about being able to kill off council newspapers without legislating for such) was one that making all council spending over £500 available every month would lead to a new era of transparency thanks to armchair auditors delving into spreadsheets of data.
The truth, so far as I can tell, couldn’t be further from the, well, truth. Put bluntly, going through hundreds of pages of spending from a council which will only reveal the name of the supplier, the amount paid and – only in some cases – which department paid for it isn’t going to lead to many probing questions because there are so many unknowns. The killer question: What did the money buy? remains unanswered.
So, for the armchair auditor, seeing a taxi firm being paid £2,000 in one month doesn’t tell them that the council leader is getting a personal taxi service any more than it tells them that it could be a bill for ferrying children in care to school. Or indeed, any other of the many reasons why a council might employ the services of a taxi firm.
Which makes the right of the public to inspect a council’s full accounts, once a year, under powers set out in the Audit Commission Act, just as important as they were prior to the much-heralded age of open data in town halls.
As any self-respecting council reporter knows, anyone who lives within a council area can inspect the accounts over a set period of time, and expect to be able to see pretty much anything they want, including invoices, receipts and bills.
But it’s also highly unlikely many people take councils up on this access. Which why it is particularly impressive to hear of a group of bloggers in Barnet, previously hailed by Pickles as examples of armchair auditors, using the Audit Commission Act to keep an eye on the council.
Now, given the bloggers had already discovered a £1.3million audit failure at the council previously, they could perhaps have expected not to receive the warmest of welcomes. But the Broken Barnet blog describes their visit … and it is remarkable:
We were ushered into a room, where a council officer had been instructed to monitor our activities, and not let us out of his sight.
When we wanted to leave the room, we had to ask permission.
When we wanted to use the loo, yes, even Mrs Angry was escorted to the door, and the officer waited outside the door until she had finished (rather off putting, to be honest, Eric) and marched her back to the room. This rather reminded of her of the time she spent in the Royal Free hospital when her daughter was born, next to a room occupied by a pregnant prisoner from Holloway, escorted – in chains – by a male officer to and from the bathroom. There was a national outcry, at the time, and the Home Secretary was obliged to answer questions on the issue of civil liberties. The prisoner was a convicted drug smuggler. Mrs Angry freely admits, of course, that she is guilty of blogging, and armchair auditing.
On the second trip, with another officer (Mrs Angry didn’t really need to go, you understand, but was just being naughty and wanted to see what would happen if she tried to bolt for the loo without asking – unsuccessfully) on the second trip, Eric, she asked if the officer had ever had to undertake such close supervision with a visitor. He admitted that no one had ever been treated in this ridiculous fashion before.
When we wanted to get some lunch, we were escorted to the canteen counter, allowed to buy a sandwich, under supervision, and then taken back to our designated place of scrutiny.
Hmm, and yes, anyway, apart from being treated like criminals, Eric, here is the thing: we came to look at certain accounts, which we had specified. When I say accounts, I mean invoices, contracts that kind of thing. Oh: but when we sat down to look at the documents – do you know what happened? Can you guess?
Yes: we were not actually allowed to see the accounts, despite the statutory right which you seem to think we have. We were given heavily redacted photocopies of the information requested. And only some of the information requested.
Pickles has been slow to come good on his promise to make councils stop producing newspapers. He’s been slow to force all councils to publish spending data (Hello Nottingham!). He should, however, make sure action is taken to send a very clear message that obstructing access to information when access is enshrined in law will not be tolerated.
Denying access to information covered by the Audit Commission Act is, after all, already a criminal offence.
Pickles shouldn’t just praised the Barnet bloggers when they do a great job, he should be making sure councils know that with power comes responsibility – and that actions in denial of that have consequences. That begins with an investigation into what went on in Barnet.