“£40k spent hiding how rarely northern powerhouse minister visited north”

“The government has spent two years and £40,000 of taxpayers’ money trying to hide how little the northern powerhouse minister visited the north of England in his role, in what one prominent northern figure called “a blatant disregard for the principles of democratic accountability”. …

The Information Commissioner’s Office then undertook an investigation, during the course of which it found that the department adopted “what appears to have been a strategy of wilful procrastination in order to obstruct a request for information”.

The DCLG appealed against the decision to the first-tier tribunal of information rights, where in early 2018 Judge Hazel Oliver ruled that the department must hand over Wharton’s diary.

From start to finish, the process took 26 months. …

Hidden in 111 pages of internal DCLG emails relating to the FoI request is a document headlined “Official – Sensitive” dating from March 2016 which includes official advice stating “there is a strong likelihood of a decision to withhold the requested information … being overturned”.

Legal experts are unimpressed. “It sounds like a classic: they knew they were likely to lose and still wasted time and money on it, and come out looking even worse,” said Paul Bernal, senior lecturer in law at the University of East Anglia.

Manchester-based data protection consultant Tim Turner said: “Departments have shown time and again that they’re very secretive about who ministers meet and what they do, and spending £40,000 to hide it doesn’t seem close to the spirit of open government.”

The information that the government tried to suppress for two years shows that Wharton rarely left London as part of his role as the north’s representative in government.

Of the 693 lines of entries in Wharton’s ministerial diary, just under half contain identifiable addresses or office rooms in the “Location” column. Ninety percent of them are based in London. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/sep/27/government-hid-details-of-northern-powerhouse-minister-james-wharton-visits-to-the-north

“Jobcentre Staff Told By DWP Not To Record Number Of People They Send To Foodbanks”

“Jobcentre staff are told not to keep a record of the number of people they direct to foodbanks, despite appearing to send thousands of people to charities providing food parcels to hard-pressed families.

A directive, issued by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), tells staff they must not use the term “referral” or “voucher”, and should not keep any record of the number of people they “signpost” to foodbanks.

Critics have urged the Government to halt the practice as ministers have used the lack of records to dodge questions about the impact of welfare reforms.

The revelation also indicates how charities are being relied upon to support the benefits system, but not to what extent. One major food bank charity says it hands out nearly 60,000 food parcels every year as a result of “signposting”.

The Whitehall department’s so-called ‘Operational Instructions’ were obtained following a Freedom of Information request in February which asked for details on what staff are told to do if people ask for food aid.

The instructions state that instead of offering referrals or vouchers to claimants, Jobcentre staff must only offer “signposting slips”.”

In bold letters, the instructions say: “The signposting slip must not be referred to as a Foodbank Voucher.”

The only time Jobcentre staff are allowed to keep track is if the foodbank makes a request, the instructions reveal. …”

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/foodbanks-records-jobcentre-dwp_uk_5b61c1bde4b0b15aba9ebcc9

“Consult on extending FOI to private sector providers of public services: watchdog”

Owl says: can’t come a moment too soon for EDDC, Ccou table/Integrated Care System companies and our Local Enterprise Partnership!

“The Committee for Standards in Public Life has called for a consultation on whether the Freedom of Information Act should apply to private sector providers where information relates to the performance of a public service contract.

In its latest report, The Continuing Importance of Ethical Standards for Public Service Providers, the CSPL said there had been little real progress on measures to enforce ethical standards in outsourced public services.
It urged the government, service providers and professionals to do more to encourage robust cultures of ethical behaviour in public service delivery.
Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: “From waste disposal to health care and probation services, all kinds of public services are routinely supplied to many of us by private or voluntary sector organisations, paid for with public funds – accounting for almost one third of government spending in 2017.

“The public is clear that they expect common ethical standards – whoever is delivering the service – and that when things go wrong there is transparency and accountability about what has happened.”

Lord Bew said that, “disappointingly”, very little progress had been made on implementing the recommendations in the CSPL’s 2014 report, Ethical standards for providers of public services. He added that evidence showed that most service providers needed to do more to demonstrate best practice in ethical standards.

“In particular, we remain concerned over the lack of internal governance and leadership on ethical standards in those departments with significant public service contracts. Departmental and management boards spend little, if any, time considering ethical considerations and tend to delegate such issues ‘down the line’. Those involved in commissioning and auditing contracts remain too focused on the quantitative rather than the qualitative aspects of their role. And departments lack clear lines of accountability when contracts fail,” the CSPL’s chair said.

He added: “While many service providers have developed a greater awareness of their ethical obligations in recent years, partly due to the high-profile failure of some organisations to adhere to these standards, some remain dismissive of the Nolan Principles or adopt a ‘pick and mix’ approach, which is not in the public interest. And many service providers continue to expect that setting and enforcing ethical standards remain a matter for government alone.”

Lord Bew said the committee remained of the view that more must be done to encourage strong and robust cultures of ethical behaviour in those delivering public services. “To that end, the Committee reaffirms the recommendations made in its 2014 report and has made a further set of more detailed, follow-up recommendations to address particular issues of concern.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=35218%3Aconsult-on-extending-foi-to-private-sector-providers-of-public-services-watchdog&catid=59&Itemid=27

When Northampton County Council went “bankrupt” – Inspectors’ comments on scrutiny an “how others see you”

…”The way that NCC went about its scrutiny function brought very strong words from the inspectors. They noted that a number of councillors told them that they had been refused information. They cite a specific example which I extract below:

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of this unnecessary secrecy during the inspection took place at the Cabinet meeting on 13th February 2018.

3.80 Agenda item 11 was titled Capital Asset Exploitation. This was in fact a proposal to sell and lease back the recently completed HQ building at One Angel Square. This disposal is a potential £50m in value so it would be reasonable to expect a full options appraisal and some clear professional valuation advice as to the likely quantum of proceeds and the ways in which a disposal might be handled to best achieve a best value result. It is likely that much of this information would be exempt information so that there would be a confidential paper appended to the agenda. If that information was not available then it could only be on the basis that it was not being relied on in taking a decision.

3.81 At the meeting a number of questions were raised on these very matters and Cabinet members stated that they were privy to confidential information which supported their recommendation but that it was not available to other members.

3.82 Even if there was a concern about the publishing of confidential information most authorities have protocols and practices which make it possible for key information to be shared and protect the authority. To refuse it outright is just wrong.

Again, during an inspection, it appears that a decision for members to take was incorrectly presented without the necessary evidence.

Lesson 6 – How others see you

A key measure of governance is how well does an authority deal with complaints. During the Inspection the Inspectors commented that most unusually the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman contacted them. He said that NCC was one of the most difficult authorities to engage with both in time to respond and also in terms of approach to complaints handling learning from mistakes and remedying injustice [32].

Here again the point emerges that services may well be worse than they superficially appear, but there could come a time when the council is on the ropes and at that point others come forward and say what they really think. It is always sensible to treat concerns by the Ombudsman as meriting a chief statutory officers’ agenda spot.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=34806%3Alocalism-best-value-inspections-and-northamptonshire-county-council&catid=59&Itemid=27

Note: this puts Owl in mind of this what judge said when the Information Commissioner v East Devon District Council Knowle confidential information case was decided in court:

“Correspondence on behalf of the council, rather than ensuring the tribunal was assisted in its function, was at times discourteous and unhelpful, including the statement that we had the most legible copies [of the disputed information] possible. A statement which was clearly inaccurate as, subsequently, we have been provided with perfectly legible documents.”

http://www.midweekherald.co.uk/news/election/heads-should-roll-as-judge-criticises-eddc-1-4075293

“Council fails in appeal over FOI request and commercial prejudice”

“Hartlepool Borough Council has lost an appeal against a ruling by the Information Commissioner because it failed to provide evidence of what harm to commercial interests would be done by disclosing material dating from 2005 and relating to the transfer of ownership of Durham Tees Valley Airport.
In the First-Tier Tribunal General Regulatory Chamber (Information Rights), Judge Anisa Dhanji said neither the council nor property firm Peel had shown any convincing reason for keeping private details of the deal they did over the airport.

John Latimer had made a Freedom of Information request for papers relating to how ownership of 75% of the airport came to be transferred by the six Tees Valley local authorities to Peel.

Some information was provided but the council withheld the rest – though it later made further releases – and Latimer took his case to the Commissioner, who ruled in his favour.
Giving judgment in Hartlepool Borough Council v IC & (Dismissed : Freedom of Information Act 2000) [2018] UKFTT 2017_0057 (GRC), Judge Dhanji noted Hartlepool had not put forward any submissions or witness statements for this appeal.

She said: “It is not clear to what extent the council is still relying on prejudice to its own interests, but we entirely agree with the commissioner’s assessment…we do not find that the council has established that disclosure of the information would or would be likely to prejudice its commercial interests,”

Peel’s case asserted that disclosure could weaken its position in negotiations with potential new investors in the airport and could be used by competitors against it.

“What Peel has completely failed to do, however, is to support its assertions with evidence,” the judge said.
“There are no witness statements, and no evidence or even arguments to link the disclosure of any specific aspect of the information with any specific business interests that would or would be likely to be prejudiced by its disclosure.”

Peel had “failed to show the causal link between the disputed information and the claimed prejudice”, the tribunal concluded, ordering Hartlepool to send Latimer the information within 35 days.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php

Full Judgment:
http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKFTT/GRC/2018/2017_0057.html

“Ain’t too proud to beg”

Hot on the heels of this article:

“A donation box installed on Sidmouth seafront that has been removed for maintenance will not be reinstated as the repairs are ‘too costly’.

A Freedom of Information Request submitted to the council had revealed that so far the council has received less money in donations than the cost of installing the box itself. …

… The cost of the sign and its legs were £276, and the cost of the box was £125, and the amount collected to date is £165.75, the Freedom of Information Request reveals. …”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/sidmouth-donation-box-cliff-fall-1416667

comes this cartoon from the current Private Eye:

“Struggling Tory council paid acting boss more than £1,000 a day”

“Tory-controlled Northamptonshire county council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt last month, paid its acting chief executive more than £1,000 a day, it has emerged.

Damon Lawrenson had been interim chief executive at the council since November, having previously acted as temporary finance director at the council since October 2016. Lawrenson left the council this week “by mutual consent”.

Northamptonshire was heavily criticised in a recent government inspector’s report, which identified deep-rooted management and governance failures over the past four years as the prime cause of its financial problems.

The report highlighted what it called the council’s “sloppy” approach to financial management and lack of realism in business planning. It called for a clear-out of the existing leadership in order to restore stability to the council.

A freedom of information (FOI) request by the GMB union revealed that the council paid out £371,000 to DDL Consultancy, owned by Lawrenson, during 2016-17 and 2017-18. His company had earlier been paid a further £540,000 between 2008 and 2011, when he had stints as assistant chief executive and commercial director.

The local government secretary, Sajid Javid, is considering the report’s recommendation that the county be run by a team of Whitehall-appointed commissioners until it can be scrapped, along with seven local district councils, and replaced by two new smaller unitary authorities.

The council, which recently warned that its overstretched adults social care services were “on the verge of being unsafe” issued a section 114 notice in February, signalling that its finances were unsustainable. It banned non-urgent spending, and pushed through £40m of cuts plans, including the closure of 21 out of 36 libraries.

A GMB official, Rachelle Wilkins, said: “For Northamptonshire county council to splurge almost £1m on consultancy while people are losing their jobs and services are being cut is a real kick in the teeth.”

A spokesman for Northamptonshire county council said: “Salaries reflect responsibilities associated with the posts, many of which require highly-qualified, professional staff, while being mindful of the necessity of providing value for money.

“It must be noted that about £560k was incurred in the three years between 2008/09 and 2010/11. Additionally, as a contractor Damon is not eligible for sick pay, holiday pay or pension contributions.” …

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/23/struggling-northamptonshire-county-council-paid-acting-boss-more-than-1000-a-day