Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Dr Julia Hines

1. Introduction

1.1 I am a resident of the London Borough of Barnet. I have made four Freedom of Information requests, two to Barnet Council and two to Transport for London. I also read a number of blogs written by other people, some of which rely on information obtained through FOI requests. I do not belong to any political party or union. I am not a journalist. I have never stood for public office. I doubt you will receive many submissions from people who use FOI requests so occasionally, which is why I thought you might be interested in how and why I have used the legislation.

2. Road Safety

2.1 I became concerned about the number of road traffic accidents in Barnet. My concerns were reinforced when I saw the latest statistics published by Transport for London, which showed that Barnet had the highest number of fatalities of any London borough (nine), and the second highest number of personal injuries (1,520). These figures were for 2010. Barnet had abjectly failed to meet targets for road safety year on year:

http://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/projectsandschemes/roadsandpublicspaces/2840.aspx

2.2 The Cabinet member with responsibility for road safety is Councillor Brian Coleman, who is also an Assembly member of the GLA. He had made statements to the press to the effect that Barnet was a large borough with the longest network of roads, in particular trunk roads, which are maintained by Transport for London. He said that most of the deaths were on TfL roads.

2.3 I contacted TfL for further detail and discovered that:

1.Barnet does not have the longest road network of any London borough.

2.It does have the longest network of trunk roads (30km out of the 750km of road).

3.5 out of 9 fatalities occurred on trunk roads.

4.The vast majority of personal injuries took place on roads maintained by Barnet.

2.4 I obtained this information following a telephone call, with a call back 30 minutes later and was very pleased with the service I received.

2.5 It should be noted that, in the Council meeting on 1 November 2011, it was resolved that:

RESOLVED—Council notes that Barnet has the second highest number of casualties from road traffic accidents in London and one of the largest road networks , with 1,520 casualties last year—an increase of 8% compared with 2009. Council notes that many of these casualties occurred on TfL controlled roads.

Council calls on Cabinet to continue to bring fresh innovative thinking on the subject of road safety, and to ask the Cabinet Member to bring a report on our road network to an early meeting of Cabinet which will include measures to reduce the number of casualties from road traffic accidents.

2.6 As I ascertained from Transport for London that the vast majority of accidents did not occur on TfL controlled roads, this concerns me. Councillors are entitled to their own opinions and policies; they are not entitled to their own facts. Freedom of Information allows proper scrutiny of resolutions like this.

2.7 The information I obtained informed my submission to the consultation on the borough’s draft Transport Local Implementation Plan, in my capacity as chair of Age UK Barnet. Essentially, my concern was that Barnet Council’s continued prioritisation of traffic flow over road safety, including removing all traffic calming measures such as speed humps and mini-roundabouts whenever a road comes to be resurfaced, was a significant contributing factor to the appalling road safety record. Councillor Coleman had accused me of “woolly thinking” and out of date ideas when I suggested this to him in earlier correspondence. He is also on record as saying that he is “very glad we don’t have any of those silly cycle lanes in Barnet”. I have 19 year old twin sons, both of whom cycle. I am not glad.

2.8 When the review of the consultation was delayed by many months I made an FOI request to see the consultation submissions. This showed me that Transport for London had comprehensively failed the draft Transport LIP, specifically highlighting road safety and provision for cyclists as inadequate. It also allowed me to see other people’s views and to make contact with other road safety campaigners in the area, although their names had (wrongly in my view) been redacted.

2.9 I made the request on 23 September 2011 and received a response on 19 October 2011.

2.10 In a similar vein, when Barnet Council announced their intention to remove all lollipop crossing attendants from local schools, in order to save £157,000, a local blogger made a FOI request for a breakdown of this figure, as it seemed extremely high given that lollipop crossing attendants are not highly paid, work part-time and there were only 12 of them. He discovered that the savings in salaries would be £41,500. The remaining £115,500 comprised management, HR and IT costs. This astonished me, and the 2,300 people who signed a petition for the retention of lollipop crossing attendants. It was also obvious that the full cost saving proposed by the Council was never going to materialise:

http://reasonablenewbarnet.blogspot.com/2011/02/lollipop-staff-and-management-waste.html

2.11 This FOI request provides a useful snapshot, in my personal opinion, of the excessive overheads and top heavy structure in Barnet Council and a helpful pointer as to where cuts might, more safely, be made.

3. Outsourcing and Conflicts of Interest

3.1 The third request I made concerned Barnet Council’s proposal to outsource its regulatory services, a tender valued at £250 million. I was personally concerned about this because Barnet intends to outsource its planning department. The company currently in the lead to obtain this contract, Capita Symonds, has been retained as a planning consultant by developers who own greenfield land to the rear of my home and have, over the past five years, represented these developers in two planning applications, two planning appeals, a village green inquiry and the independent examination in public of the draft LDF. I inquired about how the Council intended to manage such conflicts of interest in the contract.

3.2 I have written about my concerns here:

http://barneteye.blogspot.com/2011/09/guest-blog-greensquare-field-planning.html

3.3 I made my request on 22 August 2011. On 18 October 2011 I was informed that my request would be processed under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 and that my request had been refused.

3.4 I requested an internal review and on 15 November 2011 was told that my review had been upheld, however that I should defer my request until January 2012, as this would fit more neatly with the timetable of the competitive dialogue.

3.5 When I resubmitted my request at the appropriate time it was again refused. The matter is now with the Information Commissioner.

3.6 This matter is naturally of great personal concern to me, but I also believe that there is an important public interest. The conflict of interest in my case is relatively easy to uncover, and to understand, but it seems to me that there are equally strong concerns if, for example, a supermarket applies for planning permission and the company which holds the DRS contract also provides outsourced services for something like HR or IT to a rival, as is perfectly possible in the case of a company like Capita Symonds.

3.7 I am willing to be persuaded that this is a sensible contract to let, but I cannot be persuaded without the information I seek. Equally, I would like to be able to make detailed representations to my elected representatives before any contract is signed. I need information for that.

4. My Most Recent Request

4.1 I inquired of TfL how much the enormous, self-congratulatory signs at Henlys Corner had cost. These essentially say TfL finished the road layout alterations on time. I was interested because they are ugly and one of the stated aims of the design brief was to reduce unnecessary signage. I discovered they cost £5,000 each and will be removed after two months. I also asked who authorised them. This was unanswered. This may seem like a frivolous request; I don’t think so. I can think of better ways to spend £10,000. I tweeted the result and it was immediately retweeted by five other people, with a combined following of 7,737, so apparently I was not the only person interested in this.

5. Freedom of Information Requests by Others

5.1 I would like to highlight the extraordinary and valuable work of the “Barnet bloggers”: Mrs Angry, Mr Mustard, Mr Reasonable, Barnet Eye, and Citizen Barnet in their work in uncovering the MetPro scandal. This concerned the use of a security firm which was unlicensed by the SIA, and was unlawfully and covertly filming residents.

5.2 Through the use of FOI requests they uncovered breaches of:

1.Criminal law;

2.EU directives;

3.Safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults;

4.The Council’s own contract procedure rules; and

5.A wholesale mismanagement of procurement within the Council, leading to overspending and waste.

5.3 The Council’s own Audit investigation is detailed here:

http://committeepapers.barnet.gov.uk/democracy/meetings/meetingdetail.asp?meetingid=6790

5.4 They have saved the Council considerable sums of money. However, it remains a great disappointment to me that Barnet Council has not investigated the safeguarding issues highlighted, despite the fact that after MetPro were replaced by a licensed firm at Barbara Langstone House (a hostel for the most vulnerable homeless people in the borough, including families with children and people with serious mental health issues) reports of crime including drug abuse fell markedly.

6. Does the Freedom of Information Act Work Effectively?

6.1 In my limited experience straightforward requests are handled well. However, politically sensitive material is delayed as long as possible, omitted or refused.

6.2 The information I have received from Freedom of Information requests, or that others have received and disseminated has been extremely useful to me:

1.To allow me to engage in debate with my elected representatives;

2.To highlight issues of local concern in an informed way, for example at residents forums or in conversation with my neighbours; and

3.To contribute knowledgeably to local consultations.

7. What are the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?

7.1 I believe it could be strengthened by compelling public bodies to put more information online. This would be easier for me and for the public body (as well as saving them money).

7.2 There seems to me to be some confusion where there may be overlap between the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act. For example, it is not clear to me that responses to public consultations should be redacted for names, or indeed payments to individuals or sole traders who provide services to public bodies under contract. On one occasion Barnet Council redacted the name of May Gurney plc in the mistaken belief that the large payments to Mr & Mrs Gurney’s daughter May, for handling Barnet’s waste recycling, should be private. This was clearly an error, but if large sums of tax-payers’ money were to be paid to a Miss May Gurney, why should that be a secret?

7.3 Settlements for personal injury claims are invariably not paid direct to the claimant, but via a solicitor’s account. Litigants-in-person will be more common if the LASPO Bill is passed, and payments for social care to people in receipt of personal budgets are increasing; these are the only situations I can think of where names should be redacted from expenditure lists. I do not think any should be redacted from contract payment lists.

7.4 The Henlys Corner sign example is another case in point. I was given the information as to cost and time (which I had not asked for, but happy to have) but not the name or job title of the person who authorised the expenditure. Guidance on this issue would be helpful.

7.5 I am concerned however that information which should rightly be in the public domain will not be accessible if increasing amounts of services are outsourced. As an example, if Barnet does proceed with the outsourcing of all its regulatory services, how will a member of the public obtain information about conflicts of interest? Would I be entitled to know about the existence and value of any contract a company like Capita Symonds has with any other company in the UK or indeed internationally? This seems to me to be a grey area and one which will in practice be difficult to enforce for most people, even if a right exists.

8. Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the Way in which it was Intended to?

8.1 I believe it has improved the oversight of public bodies, from local issues such as the problems highlighted in Barnet by MetPro, or the lollipop crossing attendants, to issues of national significance such as the MPs expenses scandal.

8.2 It is well used, which is a sign of its importance and efficacy. If it is in any way a victim of its own success, the answer seems to me to publish more information in an accessible way.

8.3 I would rather have facts than spin.

January 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012