Council watchdog toothless

EDA followers will remember our report of the O&S Committe resolve made in January this year : http://sidmouthindependentnews.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/council-watchdog-shows-its-teeth-over-ballooning-costs-of-the-knowle-move/
Eight months on, there are signs that the Council watchdog has been undergoing obediency training…..
An apparently tamed Overview and Scrutiny Chair Tim Wood cast a deciding vote to  accept an unelected council officers’ report last night. He made almost no contribution to his committee’s debate on the uncertainties, omissions,  and setbacks in Richard Cohen’s latest update on EDDC office relocation, except to ask the approximate size of floorspace that a revamped EDDC would require.Richard Cohen’s answer: 3,300 sq metres.
How does this compare with the floorspace of the purpose built Knowle offices? We’ll remind readers on a following link to be posted shortly.

For full account of last night’s meeting, see http://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/eddc_scrutiny_cttee_votes_against_holding_cabinet_to_account_which_is_its_j

3 thoughts on “Council watchdog toothless

  1. If I remember correctly, Richard Cohen has used the excuse that some information is “commercially confidential”. The Department of Justice says, in relation to Freedom of Information, “Generally speaking there is a public interest in the disclosure of commercial information in order to ensure that: there is transparency in the accountability of public funds”.

    So, commercial confidentiality is a weak basis for an exception to disclosure.

    Would Richard Cohen like to offer any other reasons for keeping this secret so we can see if they hold water or not?

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  2. The BBC defines says that public interest “includes but is not confined to: exposing or detecting crime, exposing significantly anti-social behaviour, exposing corruption or injustice, disclosing significant incompetence or negligence, protecting people’s health and safety, preventing people from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation, disclosing information that assists people to better comprehend or make decisions on matters of public importance.”

    So several of these would seem to apply here.

    Perhaps Richard Cohen would give us his definition of “public interest” so we can see if it differs from the BBC or the ICO or DCLG, and explain how his definition applies when it comes to the Knowle move?

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  3. I note that in the SIN web page, Richard Cohen is quoted as saying ” There is a difference between what is of interest to the public, and what is in the public interest.”

    He is of course correct in his statement, but incorrect as to its application.

    His inference is that whilst the public is (understandably) interested in the financial details of the Knowle move, having that information made public is not, in his opinion at least, in the public interest.

    But that is not the view of, say, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who seems to think that any public expenditure over £500 is DEFINITELY in the public interest because he has legislated to make this the case. Indeed, in the majority of cases of council administration (shall we say, as an example, the leasing of photocopiers), there is very little (if any) interest from the public, but if the council spends more than £500 on photocopiers then having details of the expenditure available for scrutiny IS in the public interest.

    That is also not the view of the Information Commissioner who says: “The public interest can cover a wide range of values and principles relating to the public good, or what is in the best interests of society. Thus, for example, there is a public interest in transparency and accountability, to promote public understanding and to safeguard democratic processes. There is a public interest in good decision-making by public bodies, in upholding standards of integrity, in ensuring justice and fair treatment for all, in securing the best use of public resources and in ensuring fair commercial competition in a mixed economy. This is not a complete list”. So the ICO believes that disclosure of details of the Knowle move would (in general) be in the public interest if it meets ANY ONE of these several criteria – but in fact it probably meets all of them.

    The Information Commissioner then says that “there is a public interest in fully understanding the reasons for public authorities’ decisions, to remove any suspicion of manipulating the facts, or ‘spin’. For example, this may well be a public interest argument for disclosing advice given to decision makers. The fact that the advice and the reasons for the decision may be complex does not lessen the public interest in disclosing it and may strengthen it. Similarly, the information does not have to give a consistent or coherent picture for disclosure to help public understanding; there is always an argument for presenting the full picture and allowing people to reach their own view. There is also a public interest in the public knowing that an important decision has been based on limited information, if that is the case.” As possibly the biggest decision and project for EDDC for several years, the Knowle move must surely be in the public interest under this rule. And it will also the public interest on the above basis because of the uncertain business case, the secrecy, the re-writing of reports (‘spin’?), the re-writing of reports presented to councillors (possible breach of the process on Mr Cohen’s part since all councillors are allowed full access to information by law), the refusal to release information when directed to by the ICO, the potential impact on the local economy, loss of local Small Business Office units at a time when EDDC states they should be making more available, hypocrisy of promoting a “whole of life” cost model approach when the costs of this are unknown, etc. etc.

    The Information Commissioner also says “In carrying out the public interest test, the authority should consider the arguments in favour of disclosing the information and those in favour of maintaining the exemption. The authority should try to do this objectively, recognising that there are always arguments to be made on both sides. It may be helpful for the authority to draw up a list showing the arguments it is considering on both sides; this will help when it comes to assessing the relative weight of the arguments.”

    The project leader Richard Cohen is not exactly independent, so his judgement about what is or is not in the public interest may not be objective. Mr Cohen has not, as suggested by the ICO, listed his arguments for and against disclosure either. Perhaps Richard Cohen could now explain his reasoning, both in general and for specific types of information, that details of the Knowle move are not in the public interest?

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