Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Someone Does the Right Thing

Following my earlier post on Nottgirl's revelation that One Nottingham had passed a wedge of money to Nottingham Equal you can imagine that I was pretty keen to get hold of a copy of the decision.

But there was a problem in that One Nottingham is a Local Strategic Partnership, consisting of more than one public authority and the private and third sectors so technically isn't covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

So I had to have a bit of a think and I came up with a radical idea. Why not just ask? So I did and got this encouraging response -

"thanks for your email we are able to provide you with the information you requested and we will treat it as a freedom of information request. I will send you a copy of the decision by the 26th October 2010"

Good answer. There are a number of anomalies in the FoIA where certain organisations spending public money and shaping policy are exempt from FoIA and the more of them that voluntarily choose to act by FoI principles the better. Let's hope they follow this approach consistently.

Not sure why they need until October 26 though. (Oh come on, it wouldn't be me if I didn't have a bit of a moan).

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

One Nottingham - They're on YOUR Side (and They Want You to Know It)

One Nottingham has given its Board a briefing on changes to benefit rules introduced by the Tory government (yes, I know it's got Lib Dems in as well but if I was a Lib Dem I'd be keeping very quiet about that).

They really want you to know about this, there was an article fed to the Post even though it was an internal document. They care you see and they want to make sure you know it.

What I can't work out* is why the sudden concern? Of course, most of the changes are horrific, especially those around Housing Benefit and those Lib Dems currently on secondment to the Conservative Party really ought to be throwing themselves under buses with shame.

But, just like in 1997 when New Labour hit the ground running with many of the Tory initiatives that had been started, especially those around benefits administration, the ConDem cuts are pretty much an extension of what Labour was doing anyway, but with knobs on. Let's look at a few of the issues that has them shaking in their boots now and contrast them with the things they didn't give a shit about when their lot was in charge.

The briefing starts off with a general preamble on the numbers claiming working age benefits, they rightly point out that most are claiming incapacity benefits rather than Jobseekers Allowance. Exactly the people who stand to lose out thanks to the previous government's change to Employment Support Allowance then, which is discussed later in the briefing. The new medical test has resulted in huge numbers of  people being refused ESA and being forced onto JSA instead. Furthermore, if you don't take part in 'work related activities' you only get a rate equivalent to JSA anyway. Current IB claimants are to be moved onto ESA in the next year or so (again, previous government). Yet it's taken until now for ON to notice all this in a paper that purports to describe the NEW government's cuts. Strange.

Next, Tax Credits and they are on fairly strong ground here, the cuts proposed are completely new. Working families with children were one of the few groups (along with pensioners) who emerged relatively unscathed from New Labour. On the other hand Tax Credits was always an administrative disaster and the alleged advantages were somewhat overblown so not too much credit for the previous government here.

It goes downhill from there. Of course I agree it's shocking that the Health in Pregnancy Grant is to be abolished and the Maternity Grant limited and I applaud anybody shouting about it from the rooftops. But, as the report does accept, the moves to force lone parents to sign on is a continuation of the previous government's policies. Was there a briefing when that was originally announced? I think we should be told.

There's a brief mention about benefits for mortgage interest which will now be paid at the 'average' mortgage rate. This is another inevitability, the current flat rate of 6% was only ever meant to be an interim measure unfortunately.  If I sound too comfortable about this I'm not; this one catches me. I'd very much like the 'interim measure' to remain.

More devastating for some was the previous government's measure to cap mortgage help for those on JSA to two years which was introduced at the same time as the increased standard interest rate. It was all packaged up as, I kid you not, measures to prevent repossession during the recession. Obviously its success depended on who you are. That one should be hitting the first claimants next year.

As for housing benefit, well as I say, words fail me at the injustices here. But let's have a look at the cuts brought in by the previous government shall we?

Initially there was a change from benefit being based on your actual rent to being based on some mythical average figure that always seemed to be lower. This was followed more recently by the introduction of Local Housing Allowance which, while being a bit of a swings and roundabouts affair certainly left plenty of scope for taking out the good bits. In fact the previous government proposed the removal of the right to keep excess benefit if you negotiated a lower rent (this was a key selling point when LHA was initially proposed), they abandoned this when the election loomed. Having won the election the Tories picked this one up and ran with it. We also had the reduction of maximum backdating from 12 months to 3 and the reductions in benefits if you're found guilty of anti-social behaviour (it took Labour two goes to get that one in. The first attempt caused an exodus of local Lib Dems when the party rightly argued against it. Yes Cllr Rob Lee, everyone's staring at you). And, not strictly benefit related but it was Labour who introduced introductory council house tenancies, thus ensuring that new tenants on benefits had no legal defence against eviction when their Housing Benefit claim was inevitably delayed. What's that you say? Surely NCC wouldn't evict tenants in that situation...?

Next we move onto *suffers series of nervous ticks* Discretionary Housing Payments, which I've written about comprehensively in the past. In a nutshell the government appears to be offsetting some of the Housing Benefit cuts with a big increase in the DHP budget.

Essentially this will be a disaster for Nottingham as the Housing Benefits service has consistently demonstrated a total inability to administer DHPs for the nine years they have been in operation, consistently underspending their allocation causing following years' allocations to be reduced. Obviously this doesn't warrant any mention in the ON briefing. I estimated that this fact alone had cost Nottingham tenants around half a million pounds between 2001-09 and that was being conservative. Meanwhile, the Post was reporting that evictions due to rent arrears had shot up by 42% in 2007.

I could go on.

But thanks One Nottingham for finally making it to the party. Where were you when the previous government were vandalising the benefits system with gay abandon? You were cheering them on, that's what you were doing because it was your sons of bitches wielding the wrecking ball**.

You don't give a shit about poverty, you only care about the tribe.

* I can really.

** Not that that excuses the current hate on poor people, a plague on all your houses I say.

Monday, 27 September 2010

You Put Yer Director of Adult Services In, Yer Director of Adult Services Out...

So then, Michael Williams. Soon to be former Director of Communities according to this report going to the Appointments and Conditions of Services Committee in October. He's 'retiring' you see and NCC are seeking to appoint a temporary replacement until a permanent postholder can be found. This makes things complicated, more on that in a bit.

Mr Williams' 'retirement' surely hasn't got anything to do with an interview for his post back in June has it? Strangely, despite the fact that the interview was held by the self same ACOS committee as per the way with recruitment of chief officers, you won't find it in the list of ACOS meetings on the NCC website, nor are there any minutes. It used to be there, after all that's how I got hold of it and obviously the agenda itself is still in the database as the link still works (for now anyway). How very strange.

It's possible that MW was always due to retire and that this was an attempt to recruit to his replacement which didn't succeed, resulting in the need to look for a temporary solution. It certainly wasn't an attempt to find a temp as the report informs ACOS that -

"Curriculum Vitae’s have been sourced through the procurement framework and suitable candidates interviewed by the Chief Executive, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of HR and Organisational Transformation."

The report also mentions that NCC have had a temporary Corporate Director for Development (following the ejection of Barry Horne) since August 2009, over 13 months. That really is a bit shit. The intention is that temporary postholders for both jobs will be in place until 'the early part of 2011'.

This of course means that 50% of NCC's Corporate Directors will be temporary, at a time when they are all due to be going through a 'Leadership Programme' training course. Potentially therefore, they could spend all that money on around 10 days training each and then they might leave. It's lucky therefore that temporary senior managers at NCC seem to have a good track of eventually getting the permanent appointment then isn't it? *cough* Jane Todd *cough*

Anyway, back to the complicated bit around Michael Williams leaving.

As the report points out (and I'm not trying to be clever here, this is the first time I knew about it too), there is a statutory duty under sch 2 of the Children Act 2004 for councils who have responsibilities for social services functions to appoint a chief officer to carry out the role of Director of Adult Social Services. According to the statutory guidance it's OK to combine the role with another but it is a somewhat involved role (more than just a figurehead as the report acknowledges) and must be accountable to the Chief Executive, similar to the chief officer for children's services.

Those of you with long memories will know that NCC have quite recently abolished the chief officer role for adult social services which at first glance doesn't seem super compatible with the above requirements. The post had already been combined with the duties of the Director of Housing yet the chief officership for adult services duties were simply grafted onto Michael Williams' Corporate Director of Communities job. I understand that much of the housing stuff went over to the Development brief.

Now, on paper at least this complied with the letter of the legislation and Williams at least had a (non chief officer) Director for Adult Services who could do all the actual work because, as far as I know, Williams has no experience of social services at all.

So does this arrangement comply with the spirit of the legislation and guidance? I would say not really due to the professional requirements of the role and Williams' lack of experience in them. Also, while the report argues that everything was fine and dandy with Williams carrying out the DASS role it apparently won't be for his temporary replacement to do so. So, and you're probably ahead of me on this one, their solution is to re-introduce a chief officer for adult social services, like we had before, at least on a temporary basis. Didn't anybody in the know see this coming?

The report isn't clear as to whether this post will be formally titled Corporate Director as NCC chief officers are labelled. However, it seems unlikely that the director currently reporting to Williams (for it is he who they are proposing to give a leg up) would be willing to take on the responsibility of a Corporate Director without trousering a substantial proportion of Corporate Director's pay. And I'm getting the impression that whoever they have in mind for the Communities post is probably a consultant of some kind (the word 'procurement' is used rather than recruitment) so there will no doubt be added costs to cover a self employment status.

The restructure of the senior management team at the end of last year was about saving money. How's that going then?

Win a Warmer Planet

We all know that NCC is going to have to make lots of cuts so it's nice that they have given us all the opportunity to tell them where to make them. Expect lots of capslock "SACK ALL SOCIAL WORKERS REMEMBER ANGEL BABY P" and complaints about asylum seekers 'getting everything' type malarkey.

I've written before about how NCC is very proficient at getting the answers it wants and, if that doesn't work, ignoring them anyway. We can probably expect more of the same.

However the thing that initially got my goat is that they've offered a prize for completing the online survey consisting of two flights out of East Midlands Airport (they are silent as to whether you get tickets to come back).

Don't get me wrong, I like prizes as much as the next bod but offering free plane trips isn't very green is it? Whatever happened to 'Travel Smarter, Live Better'?

Money for Old Lags

Nottgirl is reporting that Nottingham Equal has been given a grant of at least £20k by One Nottingham, although it could be up to £90k.

My money is on the latter, as this (expired) job advert for a Project Manager there offers a wage of £30kpa and this advert for 'Community Facillitators' involves 2 posts at £25k each.

I feel another Freedom of Information request coming on...

Update; unfortunately Local Strategic Partnerships are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act so that puts the kibosh on that idea. Need to have a little think...

Further note; it just so happens that Cllr Hassan Ahmed is the Chair of One Nottingham's 'Fairness Commission'.  Those coincidences just keep on piling up don't they?

Loxley House Dog Eats the Invoice

The BBC reports that a cleaning firm, Broadbent and Co Ltd are owed about £10,000 by NCC. Tut tut.

"A spokesman for Nottingham City Council said: "We have put a new system in place to reduce the costs of administering payments by £300,000 a year, which largely is proving successful. But we have had some teething problems that have meant some delayed payments. We're fully aware how this can impact on businesses and will always do everything we can to ensure prompt payments."

I wonder how much of those savings can be explained by the new system forgetting to pay people?

So, next time your business falls behind with its business rates tell them you've got a new system in place and you're having 'teething problems'. Then everything will be ok.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Recruitment Agencies

Just seen an interesting little FoIA snippet on the 'What Do They Know' site.

According to this response, NCC actually increased the amount it spent on a temp agency called Taskforce last year.

Bear in mind that at the beginning of the 2009/10 financial year NCC was implementing its 'Workforce Reductions' phase 1, losing 438 posts between Feb and Nov 2009 (source p16 here). Yet the amount paid to Taskforce increased from £2,675,928.20 in 08/09 to £2,923,697.75in 09/10.

Among the compulsory redundancies were the lift maintenance team, which eventually had to be replaced by consultants Dunbar and Boardman following a serious accident. I'm waiting to hear how much this contract is costing.

I wonder how many other hidden costs there are that result from the slashing of jobs?

PS The FoIA request that this relates to was submitted on 15 Sep and answered on 17 Sep. My request about payments to Dunbar and Boardman was submitted before it yet has not been answered yet.

Tinworth News Pt 94 etc

The Post has written about the Call-in Sub-committee examining the decision to examine the decision to hand more cash to Harold Tinworth.

There's not a lot new in there. The unsurprising conclusion of the committee was that everything was done by the book which, from a purely procedural point of view is true. The committee did make recommendations to improve the process to be followed but time will tell as to whether anything changes. My guess is no because the changes that have been suggested, which are to have a panel of approved consultants to choose from and to ensure at least three bids are to be received, as opposed to simply invited, would simply make the procurement procedure for small contracts of <£50k the same as that for contracts >£50k. I suspect that such a move will eventually be abandoned for being too 'bureaucratic'.

According to the call-in request one of the aspects to be examined was the reason for picking Tinworth over the other bidder. Now on the surface the reasons were obvious, the bid from Tribal was nearly twice the cost and had little information about what they would do.

And yet, there is more than a little circumstantial evidence for there being a stitch up -

1) Tinworth had already been doing the work since 2006, it was probably inconvenient to be told by the District Auditor that this cosy arrangement had to be placed on a formal footing,

2) Other, larger sections of the so-called 'Leading Nottingham Transformation Programme' were put out to open tender and received a lot of interest (see p4 here). Why was the bit for working with the executive hived off separately and only three bids invited, when if it had been included with the section aimed at senior managers it would have been seen by the 189 companies that bid for that contract. They didn't need to insist that all bidders bid for both parts but a wider circulation would have attracted more interest and been more transparent.

3) The choice of the alternative bidders, Tribal Group (who have, at least in the past, done recruitment work for NCC) and Solace Enterprises (who, coincidentally, both JoCo and Harold Tinworth have worked for in the past, in fact it appears that it was Solace who were the initial intermediaries for Tinworth working at NCC) leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. It does seem odd that a company of Tribal's size would put in such a spectacularly inferior bid and that Solace Enterprises, a subsidiary of the Society for Local Authority Chief Executives, would not have the skills to fulfill the contract as was claimed.

It's not difficult to see a route by which it could have been ensured that Tinworth would be the successful bidder. Bearing in mind that does look a bit conspiracy theory it's fair to ask why anyone would want to do that and my answer would be to refer you back to 1) above. Yet none of the opposition councillors asked anything about this part of the story at the meeting I attended, in fact Lib Dem Gary Long said he didn't know anything about the District Auditor's investigation when I asked him. There's no mention of it in the Post article so I can only assume it didn't come up when the meeting was reconvened next day.

As I said in my previous post, without the back-story there would be nothing remarkable about Tinworth getting the contract. So I'm suspicious as to why the District Auditor's role seemed to be kept out of the discussion and I can't help feeling that opposition councillors could have asked more difficult questions.

Friday, 10 September 2010

"We Haven't Employed Any Consultants on This"..."Oh, You Mean THOSE Consultants..."

Further to previous posts about NCC's lifts and such, I'm managing to slowly wring little bits of information out about what's been going on, although there's a way to go yet.

The backstory is here. I decided to do a FoIA to find about costs and savings both before and after the decision to axe the lift maintenance team as part of the 2009 cuts and we've got as far as we can with NCC here. I will almost certainly be going to the Information Commissioner on parts of this one and I will have to look at the figures they provided to see if there's a story in there but I want to write up one aspect of the affair now.

One of the things I'd asked about was whether any consultants had been engaged to do any of the work previously done by the lift team. As part of an interim response on 27 July I got a fairly unequivocal reply as follows -

"6) Request a copy of any decision to employ any consultants to undertake any work previously carried out by the lift maintenance team, or advice as to where to find it if it is already publicly available?

No such decision had been made as of the date of this request, therefore in accordance with section 1 of this act copy documentation cannot be provided as it is not held by this authority."

So, that's clear then, no consultants being used.

Trouble is I'd received a tip off that a firm called Dunbar and Boardman had been hired to cover for the lifts so I thought this was odd. After a bit of prompting I got this today and here's what it says about consultants -

"In response to your additional supplementary comments with regards to Dunbar and Boardman, I can confirm that following the incident at Victoria Centre flats, Nottingham City Home (NCH) no longer wished to manage Nottingham City Councils lifts. As a result, Dunbar and Boardman were appointed. NCH will however maintain responsibility for their own lifts."

Oh, and did I mention that they'd also denied any accidents happening in lifts in the interim response? -

"5) Please will you provide the numbers of accidents involving lifts for each year to date and going back as far as the records referred to in #s 1-4?

Our Safety Advisors Unit have confirmed that no accidents have occurred involving lifts for which Nottingham City Council are responsible."

The bit I will definitely be taking further is the claim that no copy of the decision to employ Dunbar and Boardman is held because that's self-evident bollocks. This would be a fairly pricy contract and somebody somewhere must have made a decision about it, either an officer under delegated powers or a portfolio holder decision being most likely.

So the upshot of this is that somebody somewhere in the line of information provision initially told a direct lie and I reckon is still holding out on another one. I've said before that when dodginess of this type occurs I don't blame the Information Governance staff, they rely on what they're told by the originating department and that's where the fault lies.

Perhaps more importantly, in 2009 somebody decided to axe the Lift Maintenance team which didn't really appear to be costing very much and little more than a year later a serious accident occurs in an NCC lift. Suddenly NCC are employing outside consultants and handily (and allegedly) nobody has kept a copy of the decision on that so I haven't (so far) been able to establish how much lift maintenance is costing us now.

The 'workforce reductions' in 2009 were about saving money. How's that going then?

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Chocolate Teapots, Pastry Crash Helmets, Meringue Lifejackets...

More on the issue of whether NCC has any idea at all as to who is in possession of the many powers delegated to officers by the council and its committees.

It has now been finally confirmed that they don't. They have not kept any records of any powers delegated to officers since 1998.

We pretty much knew this from NCC's response to my FoIA request for a list of officers with delegated powers but I took the matter to the Information Commissioner to make sure.

The ICO has emailed me to propose an informal resolution in the following terms -

"I have spoken to the council and explained the nature of your complaint. I am satisfied that it now understands what it may have got wrong – it appears to have misinterpreted your request as a request for a copy of the list it already holds, instead of as a request for a list of the current posts and committees/meetings where the delegation was granted. As those details will be recorded in the council’s records (but not necessarily compiled into a current list) it seems unlikely that the information will not be held by it, nor is there any apparent reason why the public authority would seek to withhold the information.

Where possible the Information Commissioner prefers complaints to be resolved by informal means. If this does not prove to be possible, he will usually issue a Decision Notice to you and the public authority once an investigation has been completed. This will inform you of his decision and the reasons for it.

Where the Commissioner decides that a request has not been handled properly he may specify what steps he believes are necessary to remedy the situation. This can include requiring a public authority to release information which has previously been withheld. A copy of the Decision Notice will be placed on our website (with your details omitted). If you disagree with the decision that has been reached you have a legal right of appeal to the Information Tribunal.

In this case, the council has indicated to me that it would prefer to resolve your complaint informally, by compiling and disclosing an up-to-date list of ‘A’ delegated powers, etc, from the information in its records. 

As the Commissioner prefers to resolve such matters informally where possible, this would also be his preferred course of action. Kindly indicate whether you would consider this a satisfactory outcome to your complaint.

It is clear that, by failing to disclose the information held within the statutory timescale, the council will have breached section 10 of the Act even if it discloses the information in full shortly. The preferred approach to such matters would be to refer any such procedural breaches to the Commissioner’s Enforcement team" 

So, as you can see, they now plan to catch up with 12 years of decisions to delegate powers to officers which really should have been centrally updated on an ongoing basis. Madness.

I've written back to the ICO saying that I want a formal decision notice which won't make me popular but I think there is a strong public interest in NCC being held to account, not so much for not providing me with the info but not keeping track of such important matters at all. I also don't like the fact that Information Governance have been guilty of misleading the Overview and Scrutiny Committee by saying that they haven't had a formal decision notice made against them when formal decisions are far from the full story as the ICO now has a policy to informally resolve cases as much as possible.

Nottingham Sex Shop Capital of East Midlands Shock etc

Obviously it isn't PR peeps.

But it might bring a few search engines in and it's sort of relevant because I previously wrote about that silliness where JoCo bizarrely objected to the Upper Parliament St sex shop license renewal.

Well, apparently they got their new license, as the Post reports. And, in a further justification for the ridiculous headline, the committee also awarded a sex shop license which had been objected to by another councillor Ian MacLennan.

I should make clear that I didn't necessarily get into the popular field of blogging about councils in order to advocate the spread of sex shops but you've got to wonder about local politicians who get involved with poorly argued objections to stuff that's entirely lawful.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Call-In Sub-Committee LOLs

I did my proper concerned citizen thing today and attended my first ever NCC meeting. I've sort of planned to go to a few but this was the first time a meeting that I was at all interested in coincided with a sensible night's sleep and no feeling that facing the outside world was less preferable than chewing my own feet off. I'd like to say it was an interesting experience. Well, I'd like to, in fact it was crashingly dull, but there you go. I won't be making a habit of this.

My interest in going was due to the fact that it was examining the decision to give Harold Tinworth the £30k contract for 'Executive Development' which is the new name for the work he's been doing for the last four years or so without so much as a decision to approve the expenditure or a proper tendering exercise.

Now it's arguable that it wasn't necessarily that vital in the grand scheme of things but what struck me was that nobody in the meeting seemed to know that the District Auditor had become involved and told them that they couldn't just keep handing money over to a consultant with no official basis and that they had to put it on an official footing. Well, either that or they did know and were under strict instructions not to say so out loud. In answer to questions as to why Executive members suddenly needed the training, Hassan Ahmed went on about the 'dynamic political environment' and mentioned the new government as a reason. The Director of HR said that the Chief Exec's office had suggested that suddenly it was a good idea to put the work that Tinworth was doing on a formal footing, like they'd somehow woken up one morning and thought "I know what would be a good idea..."

Personally I was having trouble hearing what was going on over the huge trumpeting sound coming from the elephant in the room that was something like 'Harold Tinworth has been working for NCC for years, nobody really knows what he was doing or who authorised it but we're not allowed to look at that because call-in can only be used to look at a portfolio decision.' To be honest, if it wasn't for the Tinworth back-story it wouldn't have been a strong candidate for call-in at all. So there was an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing asking why Tinworth got the contract and how it was known that he was good at his job when there had clearly been no formal evaluation of the work he did because nobody outside the inner circle knew he was doing it. Hassan Ahmed was forced to admit that their knowledge of his expertise had previously been kept 'within the political environment'.

Some trivia points that came out of the day was that Tinworth was supposedly initially hired by Michael Frater (nice and safe, implied blame for lack of paperwork, no chance of anybody checking thanks to the watertight confidentiality agreement he would have signed) and secondly that JoCo had previously done some work for one of the companies, Solace Enterprises, that had been invited to tender but who didn't bother. This latter point was eventually agreed not to be too sinister though.

One thing I've yet to work out is why the tender assessment document (see document (c) page 8 here) quoted a cost of about £22k for Tinworth's services but by the time of Ahmed's portfolio decision it had risen to £30k. No doubt that will be clear to someone somewhere. Please do write in.

The meeting ended up having to be adjourned as it couldn't go on into the afternoon. I'd pretty much lost the will to live by then. They're back tomorrow but I'm currently considering whether to rejoin them.

Updates - have had a look through the paperwork and it seems that Solace were also initially involved  with Tinworth's early work for NCC. Also, despite JoCo's previous protestations that Tinworth wasn't just working with him but with other Executive Members and senior managers from the off, all the early documents talk exclusively of Tinworth's work and meetings with the Leader.

I didn't go to the reconvened meeting in the end, will have to wait for the 'Post' report to find out what eventually happened although I can largely guess.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

NCC Suspended from Using DVLA Website?

Various reports about the place claiming that several local authorities, including NCC, have been suspended from accessing the DVLA database for 'irregularities' of one kind or another, depending on who you believe.

The original article was in the Sunday Express and claimed that the suspensions were for 'illegally spying' on people. Unsurprisingly this upset a few councils' press officers, including NCC's who described the report as 'inaccurate'. A slightly less agenda driven and probably better researched article on 'The Register' website makes things a bit clearer.

As 'The Register' points out much of the so-called spying that authorities are accused of is actually entirely legal and therefore would not result in council's being suspended from using the database. However, the DVLA has certain security and administrative requirements that authorities must comply with and it seems that it's their failure to do that which has resulted in a temporary suspension.

Interestingly the requirements mentioned in the 'Register' article mostly concern security issues and NCC's IT security has been a bit of a live issue for some time, see my earlier post and this recent report to the Audit Committee. Not quite the same issues I know but it does make you wonder if they haven't quite got a 'security culture' in place.

I've written to the DVLA press office but whether they'll be prepared to lower themselves to reply to a mere blogger remains to be seen, if they do I'll update.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Freedom of Information Botheration

One of my freedom of information requests to NCC has taken a slightly sinister turn. The original request was refused, ok, nothing unusual there and quite dealable with by asking for a review. If that request isn't successful and NCC still refuses to give you the info then you go to the Information. In this case however, NCC has not simply reviewed the case and stuck by its decision to refuse to provide the info, it has refused to carry out a review at all.

Some background. There are quite a lot of circumstances where information is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act and these are set out in Part II of the Act. Many of them you wouldn't argue with and many require a weigh up of the public interest before information is witheld.

One that's caused me a few problems though is s.44 which says -

"44 Prohibitions on disclosure

(1) Information is exempt information if its disclosure (otherwise than under this Act) by the public authority holding it—

(a) is prohibited by or under any enactment,

(b) is incompatible with any Community obligation, or

(c) would constitute or be punishable as a contempt of court.

(2) The duty to confirm or deny does not arise if the confirmation or denial that would have to be given to comply with section 1(1)(a) would (apart from this Act) fall within any of paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (1)."

and it pops up in this case. In particular para 1 (a) is what we're dealing with and it is what's known as an 'absolute' exemption in that such information is always exempt, there is no requirement to weigh up the public interest in releasing or withholding the info. The idea is that it prevents two bits of law being in conflict.

As far as councils are concerned there are various bits of legislation about the place requiring that the public are entitled to attend meetings and that agendas, minutes and decisions must be made available for inspection at council offices and stuff. For a decision made by an individual member of the executive the relevant law is in regulation 21 of The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2000. It refers to exceptions to these requirements known as 'exempt information' which is defined by Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972. These requirements to make documents available are in addition to the FoIA and in some cases pre-date it.

Now NCC has been assuming that anything covered by the definitions in Sch 12A is effectively secret. Rather handily, the person who decides whether an executive portfolio holder's decision is covered by the 'exempt information' definition is the portfolio holder her/himself. I'm sure you don't need me to suggest ways in which that could be abused.

So, NCC believes that sch 12A prevents them from publishing the information and that this in turn invokes the absolute exemption of disclosure under s.41 of the Freedom of Information Act. I'm not sure where they got the idea that it meant that they didn't even have to carry out a review, as far as I know they do have to in all circumstances, even if they believe the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Which they clearly do cos they think an absolute exemption to the Freedom of Information disclosure requirements applies.

This where the wonderfulness of the 'What Do They Know?' website makes an appearance. The site allows you to leave annotations on other peoples requests and there is a growing community of people who use this facility to give you tips and that's what happened here. A helpful chap called Matt left me a note providing a link to an Information Commissioner's decision which said that sch 12A does not necessarily invoke the s.41 absolute exemption for disclosure so I quickly passed the reference on to NCC which should give them something to think about for tomorrow.

What's more it set me off researching the legislation behind all this. Essentially, sch 12A does not prevent disclosure at all, it just defines what is classed as 'exempt information'. Other legislation, such as regulation 21 mentioned above sets out what must or must not happen to information so defined. In the case of regulation 21 an executive decision classed as 'exempt information' is not actually prevented from disclosure, it just means that there is no requirement for the council to make it available for inspection and the like, which there would be normally. It's not saying you CAN'T publish, just that you don't have to and therefore there is no prohibition on publication at all. The upshot of that is that s.41 of the Freedom of Information Act doesn't apply after all so there is no absolute exemption.

I'll be interested to see where NCC goes with this. My guess is that they'll apply another FoIA exemption but that will likely involve a public interest test which can be challenged. It will certainly rattle a few cages because I strongly suspect they've been using this assumed FoIA exemption to hide all sorts of embarrassing info. The decision to end CEHRNN's funding was one such decision. If they stop using it it will be small increase in accountability which can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Differing Fortunes

I've previously written quite a bit on the decision by NCC to cease funding the Council for Equality and Human Rights Nottingham and Notts but there was an interesting aspect that I'd missed.

Councillor Brian Grocock used to be on CEHRNN's board. His annual report from 2008/9 confirms he was an NCC appointed member of Notts REC (CEHRNN's previous name prior to its widened remit) and I have been told that he was there right up to the decision to stop the funding before resigning.

Now NCC have made all sorts of claims and criticisms about CEHRNN's service (a few of which they accept) so, assuming the principle of collective responsibility, surely Grocock is as much to blame as anybody?

And yet, while CEHRNN has had to resort to m'learned friends and making redundancies, Grocock has been rewarded with a posh new frock and an extra £25k in his new role of Lord Mayor.

Considering that Grocrook was fingered in the housing allocations scandal and is being (very slowly) investigated by the Standards Committee over that, you have to wonder exactly what it is he's doing right in order to warrant such resilience.

Calling (In) Mr Tinworth

Three Tory Councillors have invoked the 'call-in' procedure on Hassan Ahmed's portfolio decision to award Harold Tinworth the £30k contract for 'Executive Development'. The Overview and Scrutiny' Call-In Sub-Committee will consider the request on 8 September.

The 'call-in' procedure is the little used means by which a portfolio holder's decision can be examined by councillors. Following a good old chinwag, absolutely bugger all happens due to Labour members resolutely refusing to ever challenge the leadership. It's only the second time it's ever been used, the first being the decision to sell Radford Unity Complex. At that one, Councillor Jon Collins, he of 'Leader of the Council' fame, sold the committee a porkie regarding the sale price. Hopefully the Standards Committee should be looking into his conduct there but they're probably desperately trying to think of a way to avoid doing so. Certainly you shouldn't hold your breath.

You may remember that the 'Executive Development' gig was formally put to tender following the District Auditor's failure to do anything significant about the seriously dodgy way that money was finding its way to Tinworth without any formal sanction.