Freedom of Information and the City of York Council

A year or so ago, the then new York Council Chief Executive promised a fresh approach to the amount of information on Public Services made available to York residents. Questions would be answered without the need to submit formal Freedom of Information requests to the Council. It would be unnecessary to refer many issues for determination by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO)

So how have things turned out.

The Council legally must respond to FOI requests within 20 working days

Many – but by no means all – requests for information are submitted via the “  What do they know” website https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/body/city_of_york_council

There is a mixed picture on response times

Responses to FOIs are (eventually) published on the Councils web site. https://www.york.gov.uk/info/20219/freedom_of_information/1535/freedom_of_information_responses But it can be a laborious business trailing through the list to find information.

Several recent responses do give reason for concern.

  • As long ago as last May 2017, a request for information about the number of public service reports registered by Councillors, was turned down. The Council claimed that this might influence voting intentions in last year’s General Election. The information was provided after the election had taken place (i.e. outside the so called “purdah” period). However, the grounds for rejecting the request were spurious and were referred to the Information Commissioners Office. The ICO said they were then powerless to intervene and declined to issue guidance to Local Authorities about how FOI requests could be reconciled with the Local Government Act 1986.  That failure is now being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner.
  • Vacant garage problem

    In January 2018 a request was submitted asking how many vacant Council owned garages there were in the City. It would take two months to get a partial response. Failure to advertise vacant garages for rent has lost the Council a significant amount of revenue in recent years.

  • On 11th February the Council were asked to provide a list of Business Rate debtors in the City. This information has previously been published routinely in committee reports. The Council promptly turned down the request quoting “purdah” grounds (because a council by election was taking place in the Holgate ward four days later). The grounds for refusing that request have been referred to the ICO as it is unclear why the publication of, what could only have been a factual list, could possibly have favoured the chances of an election candidate (even if the Council had managed to respond in three days to the request).
  • The Council do publish some information about Coppergate fine levels. Numbers are much higher than was expected

    More worrying is the failure to respond to a request made on 5th January 2018 regarding the profile of those fined for flouting the access restrictions on Coppergate. The Council does publish the actual number of offenders but has, in addition, been asked to indicate whether the drivers concerned are local or visitors (from the postcodes of the fine notifications). This type of information was provided – albeit reluctantly – by the Council in 2014 when the original ANPR traffic camera scandal first peaked. Responses from the FOI staff suggest that the complainant should refer the issue to the ICO!

  • On 9th March 2018 a request was made for information about the number of reports received by the Council about “damp” houses. No response has been received.

So, far from things getting better, the York Council has failed to even answer relatively simple enquiries on time.

Added to the highly selective nature of the stats quoted in many committee reports, it is difficult not to conclude that the Authority has something to hide and that it will do its utmost to frustrate those who seek transparency.

York “cold case” perpetrator finally named

Mr Redacted blamed for all Councils woes

Audit committee report April 2018

The long running saga, which started 4 years ago when the Council let consultancy contracts without going through a proper procurement process, is finally reaching its climax.

A report to a meeting next week gives an independent view of who did what and when at an audit committee meeting which discussed the issue a year ago.

Ironically that meeting descended into chaos when most members voted to discuss an internal audit report in public.  This caused a “walk out” by the Labour party committee chair.

The internal report was later leaked to the media causing more turmoil. The implicated “leakers” of the document (who denied the accusation) were later suspended from the Council’s Executive by the then Council Leader.  Hehimself was ejected from office a few weeks ago.

Apart from that, it has been a peaceful and harmonious 18 months at the York Council.

The report into the Audit meeting is heavily redacted. We can see no reason why the names of Councillors and officials should not be revealed WHERE THEY HAVE AGREED TO WAIVE ANY RIGHTS THAT THEY MAY HAVE TO ANONONIMITY.

After all, the meeting was web cast and is already in the public domain

It seems that the Council have not learned many lessons about transparency and accountability

So this is what they didn’t want you to know before you voted in the election

http://CouncillorA couple of months ago we asked – under Freedom of Information rules – for an update on the activities of City of York Councillors.

The previous year the Council had published a  list indicating the number of issues registered for action by each Councillor.

As we reported in May, we were amazed when the Council refused to provide the update “because the information might influence the result of the election”.

At the time we said that the work-rate of elected representatives was one thing that electors might reasonably expect to know before casting their ballots although in this case no of the Councillros involved were seeking election.

Our request was turned done so we referred the issue to the Information Commissioners Office (IOC).

Now the updated list has been provided (in response to a  separate FOI request lodged after 8th June).

As an aid to transparency, we publish the information here (left).

It is for individual Councillors to explain to their electors how they do their jobs, so we will not comment on individuals.

However, there remains an important issue of transparency so we will seek a ruling from the ICO on whether the York Council was right to refuse the information request in the way that it did.

Legislation on, so called, “purdah” periods has hitherto been regarded as restricting local authorities from publishing biased information which might influence voting patterns.

In the past it has not applied to individual items of correspondence where only factual information was sought.

We will let you know when we have a response.

NB. The Council also publishes a list indicating the attendance record of Councillors at meetings. Click here. Some representatives are only managing to a 60% attendance record

So do speed cameras reduce accident levels?

In April the North Yorkshire Crime  and Policing Commisioner (PCC), Julia Mulligan, announced that 6 additional mobile speed camera vans were being deployed in the area. This brought the total n number of vans to 12.

In doing so, she cited a University of Newcastle report which she claimed demonstrated that the mobile speed camera vans had reduced the number of “killed or seriously injured” accidents in the county by 8. 

but had they?

On 13th April The Press reported the PCC as saying, “Over the past three years Newcastle University has conducted studies into North Yorkshire’s killed or seriously injured statistics across 22 local sites and evaluated the effect of the mobile speed camera vans on the level of road safety. The study found that due to the deployment of the vans to those sites there has been a reduction of eight casualties”.

The clear implication of the comment was that a study had been carried out in York and North Yorkshire.

Following a Freedom of Information request the North Yorkshire Police said they didn’t have a copy of any such report.

When pressed, the PCC’s office provided a link to a report on accidents in Northumberland  (click)

The Commissioners office has conceded that the study was in fact carried out in Northumberland. It is unclear how the figures have been extrapolated to support additional expense on deploying more cameras in our North Yorkshire.

What is clear is that the Northumberland report covers a reference period of 18 years during most of which time, in North Yorkshire, there had been a reduction in the number of recorded road accidents anyway.

Mobile speed cameras were first deployed in North Yorkshire  – on a very small scale – in 2010.

NY police continue to resist calls for information on how effective the cameras have been.

They say that – for regularly monitored sites – they do not hold records of the mean, 85% percentile and maximum speeds recorded at each camera visit. Therefore no trends have been identified. They say it would be too expensive to trawl their records to gather the information. Nor do they promise to report the information in future…. meaning that we may never know whether the cameras actually influence traffic speeds.

We also currently don’t know whether the vans are achieving their primary purpose of reducing accident levels. Again the police do  not routinely correlate accident levels on those roads which are subject to routine camera surveillance.

We do know that accident levels generally on our roads have shown a small increase over the last couple of years.

We can understand the eagerness of the PCC to provide high profile “reassurance checks” on speeds in sub-urban areas and villages where local residents raise concerns.

However the large scale deployment of vans at sites which either do not have a poor accident record, or where there is no public concern, will prompt criticism that they are just a self sustaining “cash cow”.

Income from” the speed awareness courses” offered to law breakers, is used to fund the running costs of the vans.

In 2015/16, £1.7 million was received by the police from this source

In our view, the both the Police and the PCC need to be more open about the effects that the millions of pounds invested in this project are actually having.

Hopefully their next annual report will be more transparent.

 

 

 

Electric vehicle recharging wrangle in York

There is confusion today about whether private vehicles can access the rapid recharging points at Monks Cross and Poppleton Bar.

The points were funded from a government(OLEV)  scheme but are largely used by the  First electric Park and Ride buses.

It appears that electric car drivers have been turned away from the points although they are shown as available on a vehicle charging “app”. The Councils iTravel web site says that vehicle charging points can be found on this map (click)

Apparently the Monks Cross rapid charge points have been recorded on the National Charge Point Register has having restricted access for cars. The Council says that a third party app has been advertising these as ‘available’ which has caused confusion for local EV drivers.

In response to an FOI enquiry the Council has confirmed that the dedicated chargers were used on 1157 occasions, using 22025 kWh of energy, during the first quarter of 2017

The Council says,

“the Monks Cross Park&Ride supervisors are able to permit cars to charge where this does not impact the bus service and this does happen occasionally however the buses have charge point priority as they have no viable alternative location. For cars, the nearest rapid charger is one mile away at The Sports Village and EV drivers are recommended to use these facilities instead”

.Range  anxiety is one of the main reasons for the slow take up of electric cars. Being certain that a charging  point will be available is of major concern for drivers.

Electric vehicle public rapid charging points

There are other charging points in York many of which are located on car parks and at hotels

York Council explains reasons for secret staff payoff deals.

After some delay, the York Council has explained why it has entered into 41 “Compromise Agreements” with axed staff during the last 5 years.Top-secret-stamp-006

We reported in June that the York Council had spent £82 million on redundancy costs since 2011. 546 staff (not including teachers) had left the Councils employment with an average payment of £15,000.

The Council has also confirmed that 41 “Compromise Agreements” had been signed with staff. Usually these involve some sort of compensatory pay.

A compromise agreement is a legally binding agreement made either during or following the termination of employment. It is recognised by statute and is the only way an employee can validly “contract out” of their employment law rights. It usually provides for a severance payment, in return for which former employees agree not to pursue any claim or grievance to an Employment Tribunal.

A leading law firm says that the major reasons for using the compromise agreement (other than to settle an existing claim) are to “remove an employee on the grounds of poor performance or misconduct, to avoid legal challenge in redundancy situations and to make it easier to remove senior staff without embarrassment”.

The number of secrecy deals increased markedly when Labour took office in 2011

Three months ago, the Council were unwilling to specify why compromise agreements had been reached in so many cases.

Now, following an FOI appeal, they have lifted the veil a little.

Compromise agreements at City of York Council

Compromise agreements at City of York Council

Clearly the Council has come to several agreements to avoid the costs, and adverse publicity, often associated with claims that run through industrial tribunals.

The legal nature of the agreements means that they can’t be probed further.

Taxpayers may remain a little uneasy about the process and the robustness of the decisions that led to compromises being needed in the first place.

Strange case of the missing £18,000 report

Occasionally Freedom of Information (FOI) requests throw up some interesting answers.

That’s one of the reasons why we believe that the increasing numbers of QUANGOS in York should voluntarily accept and respond to FOI requests. After all, most depend heavily – some exclusively – on funding from taxpayers. The Council’s Executive had an opportunity, when discussing governance of these bodies yesterday, to increase transparency. Unfortunately it failed to take the necessary action.

The York Council should itself set an example in providing information in a candid and comprehensive way.TOR for Council central services report 2

One resident asked recently for a copy of a report commissioned by the Councils Chief Executive from PWC (Consultants). The objective of the exercise was  to improve the Council’s efficiency.

The consultancy cost taxpayers £18,000.

The Council claims that it has not kept a copy of the report (received just 12 months ago!)  and goes on to say that,

This work was commissioned by the then Chief Executive of the Council, who left the authority in July 2015. The interim Chief Executive who was in post from July 2015 determined that this particular work would not be taken forward and therefore no further discussion or action has taken place on this matter.

The Council says that it doesn’t know whether any Councillors saw the report.

This seems, on the face of it, to be a very cavalier approach to the use of taxpayers money.  

The Council’s Leadership, and incoming Chief Executive, should make sure that the report – even if unsuitable for implementation – is made publicly available.

 

 

 

York Council has paid out £8.2 million in redundancy costs since 2011

546 staff made redundant – 41 sign “compromise agreements”

A Freedom of Information response has revealed the costs of cutting staffing levels at the York Council.

FOI response Redundancies table 2

The figures don’t include teaching staff.

In total 546 have left the Council with average pay-outs of around £15,000 each. Over 80% of the redundancies were voluntary.

The figures reveal that the largest number of redundancies occurred in 2011/12 when 212 left the Council. This has fallen gradually each year to a figure of 66 during the last financial year.

A total of £8.2 million has been paid out of which £4,554,000 was the cost of statutory payments, £3,339,000 early retirement costs and £352,000 pay in lieu of notice.

Only three former staff were subsequently re-employed directly by the Council.

The authority says, though, that they don’t record whether any of their agency or contract staff have previously been employed by the Council.

Individual redundancy proposals are reported to a small group of Councillors who meet each week in a “behind closed doors” decision session.

The Council has specifically said in its response that it “has made no enhanced redundancy or pension payments”.

Compromise agreements

The Council has also confirmed that 41 “compromise” agreements have been signed with staff. Usually these involve some sort of compensatory pay.

A compromise agreement is a legally binding agreement made either during or following the termination of employment. It is recognised by statute and is the only way an employee can validly “contract out” of their employment law rights. It usually provides for a severance payment, in return for which former employees agree not to pursue any claim or grievance to an Employment Tribunal.

A leading law firm says that the major reasons for using the compromise agreement (other than to settle an existing claim) are to “remove an employee on the grounds of poor performance or misconduct, to avoid legal challenge in redundancy situations and to make it easier to remove senior staff without embarrassment”.

The Council has so far failed to explain what the reasons were for the compromise agreements that it has been party too.

While such agreements usually involve a confidentiality clause, there is no reason why the main reasons for the high level of use of the system in York cannot be made public.

We’ll press the Council to provide taxpayers with more information about this policy.

More Councils signing up to “Fix My Street” and What do they Know”

The Harrogate Council has become the latest to purchase the class leading software which gives local residents access to vital Freedom of Information files as well as an easy, and monitored way, of reporting issues.

Their approach contrasts with the attitude of the York Council which persists with an “on line” issue reporting system which is just not “fit for purpose”

York should cut its losses and follow Harrogate’s lead.

Details here

Fix My Street

What Do They Know

Meanwhile the York Council’s proposals reqarding the future of its “on line” reporting systems have been removed from its “Forward Programme“.

Instead, the controversial new system is due to be debated under a generic “Cleaner City” report in the New Year. The latter report has also been delayed by 2 months but is currently due to be considered on 25th January.

2.6 million visits to York Council web site

The Councils web site had over 2.6 million visits during the last year.

The bounce rate (the proportion of visitors who read only one page before leaving) was around 50%.

Perhaps surprisingly the majority of visitors were using desktop PCs.

By way of comparison, a website like this one receives around 40,000 visits each year with a bounce rate of around 70%.  Not surprisingly over 40% of our visitors are located in York. Most of our visitors are aged under 35 and are split almost equally between male and female.

Web site hits 2014 15