Tuesday, 20 March 2012

NCC Forced to Sign Freedom of Information Undertaking

Last year the Information Commissioner announced that he was going to monitor NCC's Freedom of Information performance due to concerns that things were a bit shit.

Now it has been announced that, following confirmation that it was indeed very shit, the council has had to sign an 'undertaking' in order to avoid formal enforcement action. The undertaking includes acknowledgement that only 40% of requests were responded to on time within the monitoring period.

An undertaking is the lowest level of action the ICO can take, below issuing a practice direction or court action. It's hardly onerous either, broadly all NCC is promising to do is to do what the law requires it to do anyway. Imagine if the only sanction for shoplifting is promising not to do it again eh?

There are some further promises on training of staff etc and NCC is required to provide monthly performance updates for 6 months ending in June. It remains to be seen whether this demonstrates any improvement but, considering JoCo's obsession with secrecy and resultant constant denigrating of FoI I suspect it won't.

In further FoI news, two further decision notices have been issued against NCC by the Information Commissioner. You can find them here and here. These concern requests for information regarding similarities between NCC publicity and Labour's election campaign for 2007 which was reported on by the District Auditor. Two council officers used gmail accounts for official business and the Commissioner was not satisfied that these had been checked properly.

What makes these decisions pretty extraordinary is the following -
  • the officers are named. They of course include Stephen Barker but also Jamie O'Malley. Harold Tinworth is also mentioned
  • it's pretty rare for the ICO to refuse to accept claims of not holding information
  • the Commissioner requires NCC to check the above accounts if possible, requiring them to ask Barker to let them search his gmail account even though he has now left. That said, he was still employed at the time of the original request
Barker isn't very happy and has interrupted his busy schedule campaigning for an elected mayor from his secret island in Albania to say it's all very 'boring'. He also appears to imply that former councillor Tony Sutton may have been involved with the removal of certain documents from his office. Goodness!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Some Mayor Issues

The debate about having an elected mayor in Nottingham is really starting to stir, both in real life and on the internets. As I wrote the other day the council's poster pushing a 'no' vote was a bit naughty and I thought I'd try and draw together some of the stuff that's appearing about the place.

It turns out that Ministers also noticed NCC's poster, as reported here in the Post. As you can see this article has grown quite a tail of comments of, how can we put this, varying quality. NCC's defence is that the government is openly supporting mayors and they are just putting an opposite view. They sort of have a point, although the issue here is that the code of practice says that council publicity needs to be neutral. If there's an equivalent code for central publicity then NCC needs to argue the toss with the government.

Anyway, back to first principles. This is NCC's main info page on the mayoral referendum where they put their objections in more detail along with, to be fair, the government's case. Let's have a look at some of the points raised.

1) The mayor will allegedly cost £1m over 5 years. According to someone who was at the full council meeting yesterday this is something of a mantra for JoCo now, something his Twitter feed appears to confirm

The thing is, even presuming that the figures are correct, it includes the costs of two elections and I think you're onto a difficult road if your best argument is that democracy is just too expensive.

2) Mayor set budgets could only be overturned by a 75% majority of full council whereas currently a simple majority can reject a budget. I'm sorry but in what way is this relevant to Nottingham? Labour councillors NEVER rebel and there's no sign that large Labour majorities are going away any time soon. Yes, it's a theoretical consideration for the future but some may argue that such an important measure as the budget set by a democratically elected mayor should require more than a majority to reject it. Whatever, this won't be an issue unless Nottingham's political situation is turned properly upside down and I really can't see that happening in the remotely near future.

3) The government has not announced exactly what powers mayors will have. I actually think this is a very good point and I think that if the government really does want a yes vote it is a big mistake not to have clarified exactly what we are voting for/against. This is one of the main issues that is making me feeling very uneasy about voting yes in the referendum and it makes me feel that the issue is being pushed forward without enough time for local debate.

4) Change of governance imposed from above is against the principles of localism. This is a bit cheap. After all, it is a referendum that we all get to vote in rather than it being decided behind closed doors. You don't get more 'localism' than that.

So that's what NCC wants us to know. Now for some very interesting views from a surprising source. Stephen Barker, former right hand spin-doctor and fixer for JoCo, has come out in favour of an elected mayor for Nottingham. He says he always has been pro but I'd never have guessed considering JoCo's outright hostility. I might be reading too much into this but maybe there is some bitterness following his departure?

His next post on the matter hardly dispels such a suspicion as he somewhat tartly, but entirely accurately, points out exactly how few people you have to win over in order to wield enormous local power as the leader of the council. Surely that's not a dig at his old boss? But of course this is the chief argument in favour of an elected mayor; we already have an individual who has a huge amount of power so surely it would be better if we actually got to vote for them.

Barker goes on to say that 'anyone' could run but I think it's pretty certain that, if we get an elected mayor, s/he will be Labour. I really don't think there's any chance that the other major parties stand a chance and, much that I'd love to see the Church of the Militant Elvis Party swept to power I wouldn't want to put any money on that happening. So why doesn't Collins get foursquare behind the proposal and go for the Labour nomination?

Because, of course, he can't be certain that he'd get it. The problem is known as 'Chris Leslie Syndrome' following the Nottingham East nomination going to him rather than Collins for the 2010 general Election. Apparently, JoCo isn't super popular with the unions and that swung it against him. I'd bet actual money that he is terrified of such a thing happening again so his only way of clinging to power is to ensure that we don't have a mayor at all. Hence NCC's 'official position' that mayors are bad 'mkay?

Lastly, let's have a look at the experience of elected mayors elsewhere. London you know about and has been mostly functional I suppose. Hartlepool famously elected its football team's monkey mascot running as a joke but who has ended up being quite well respected. Indeed he was elected for a second term. Stoke initially elected a respected Independent who was then defeated by the Labour candidate at the next election. Stoke has since voted against continuing with a mayor in the most recent referendum. Doncaster elected the 'English Democrat' candidate who was promptly humiliated as an ignorant buffoon in an interview with radio presenter Toby Foster. In Leicester the decision to have an elected mayor was taken by the council rather than via a referendum and the eventual winner, former Leicester MP Sir Peter Soulsby quickly went on to abolish the Chief Executive post and sort himself a socking great pay rise, neither of which anyone appeared to foresee.

Right, I'm thinking the only conclusion we can really draw from that lot is that looking at others' experience probably won't help us predict what might happen if we end up with a mayor in Nottingham, other than that there'd be everything to play for.

Personally I am still undecided as to how I intend to vote in the referendum. Of course that doesn't stop me from taking the piss out of JoCo's clearly self-interest driven position although I have to say that I would be prepared to bet a small sum of money on a 'No' vote prevailing in the end. As I said above, there has been little discussion or concrete information on the issue and I suspect that in such conditions the public is likely to go into 'better the devil you know' mode. Sadly, I'd also be prepared to bet money on there being a less than 30% turnout.