Harrow Council’s Labour administration has just marked its first year in power; a year in which it has done more to undermine the transparency agenda than any other council in the country. Working against transparency isn’t a new concept to Labour in Harrow; as Conservative Home reported last July, they voted against Conservative proposals to introduce the DCLG’s transparency guidelines early. Unfortunately, far from being a one-off event, this was merely a sign of things to come during Labour’s first year.
Just a few weeks later, Cllr. Bill Stephenson, the Leader of the Council, said he was against the independently-chaired public question time sessions for residents, which our administration had introduced. These were subsequently scrapped and replaced with a £13,000 consultation exercise involving a gimmicky ‘pop-up living room’ and 1,300 residents filling in an incredibly limited questionnaire. So far, the lacklustre response has only been used to rubber-stamp Labour’s corporate priorities; they had no impact on the budget at all.
Compare this with over 4,000 people using Redbridge Council’s online system to set their preferred budget priorities, which were then reflected in actual budget savings, and it’s clear which exercise is actual consultation and which is window-dressing. In addition, Redbridge held 79 public consultation meetings and received 1,300 written suggestions on the budget. And despite Redbridge offering Harrow their consultation software for free, no response from Harrow’s Leader was forthcoming.
Financial controversy followed in September, when it emerged that six Labour councillors had been operating in secret as paid assistants to portfolio holders, with a seventh coming to light in October. Worse, while this seventh assistant was working in secret, he was simultaneously sitting on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee and actually scrutinised the very work he was responsible for – with no declaration of conflicts of interest!
Not only were these councillors operating without the knowledge of the public or the opposition, Labour backdated their £2,040 special allowances to 1st July – when they supposedly began their roles. When initially questioned about this, Cllr. Stephenson praised Labour’s decision saying it was “working very well” yet has since declined to take questions on this on nine separate occasions. A Council behaving in this fashion should not proclaim on its website that “being open and transparent with how we spend your money is a top priority for us.”
One of the most challenging times of year for an opposition councillor is budget-setting. While the administration has most of the officer support and up-to-date figures, opposition councillors are limited in the support they receive. Yet here, Labour-run Harrow has gone that extra mile; in January we were forced to use the Freedom of Information Act to request even the most basic of budget documents which had been withheld from us. Our request was denied, on the grounds that budget formulation should proceed in a “self-contained space” and “without the distraction of public scrutiny”. We were also informed that releasing this information would give rise to “public questions and requests for further related information”, as though these were in some way negative.
A further FoI request for any e-mails and other correspondence between councillors and officers relating to our original request was also refused, and both decisions are now awaiting a ruling from the Information Commissioner’s Office. We don’t believe residents are best-served by secrecy; yet the Labour administration is even using laws originally designed to make information more available to the public to block the release of the very same information.
As Labour approached the end of their first year, the attacks on transparency showed few signs of abating. At March’s Council meeting, Labour voted down yet another measure to improve openness and accountability; our suggestion that Harrow publishes all FoI-able information as a matter of course. This would have established Harrow as a beacon of transparency, but Labour watered it down and adopted a meaningless version of what we’d proposed.
What is perhaps most incredible about their rejection of this proposal is that it originally came from the Council’s own chief legal officer; we merely adapted it for discussion at the Council meeting. When the chief legal officer was contacted about his ideas by the local media, he rather embarrassingly backtracked over what he’d said.
One of the most frustrating things about Labour-run Harrow Council constantly working against transparency is that it’s sometimes difficult to get residents to notice it’s happening and how it affects them. As an issue it’s not broadly interesting for the majority of residents, yet it impacts on the way their money is spent. Sadly it is the residents who will ultimately suffer form an overly secretive council, but sometimes it can be a challenge to explain how and why.
This is why the DCLG is in a perfect position to help on this issue. The DCLG has done sterling work in bringing to light some of the waste and inefficiency in local government, and councils like Harrow present it with another opportunity. The public naming and shaming of councils that hide what they’re doing, shut down the opposition, and work against the interests of their residents would sit perfectly alongside the DCLG’s efforts to draw attention to inflated officer salaries, council non-jobs and other wasteful activities. Indeed, Labour-run Harrow’s attacks on transparency are fundamental to these issues, since it means that not only can they continue wasting money; they can do it while deliberately keeping residents in the dark.