Freedom of Information: some excellent responses but others evasive

Let’s start with an example of good practice.

The York Council was asked, via the “What do they know” web site, for information on the numbers of Fixed Penalty Notices (FPN) issued for Fly tipping, Fly posting and graffiti.  Similar information for other offences was already posted by the Authority on its open data website.

A response was provided within a few days with the Council agreeing to add information for fly tipping and flyposting to the Open Data website. This means that information will be updated regularly. The question about flyposting was prompted by an epidemic of “Fair” posters which appeared on the west of the City.

We look forward to the open data website being updated shortly

The York Council says that it does not hold statistics on the number of prosecutions for graffiti which have been undertaken. It points to the police as a potential source of information claiming that the force could extract graffiti cases from the more general “criminal damage” heading.

We have had less luck with North Yorkshire Police.

We have been attempting for over a year now to get speed and casualty information from them in an attempt to understand how it drives the deployment of their speed camera vans.

We wanted to see trend information for sites regularly monitored by the vans. We expected that management information would demonstrate that the mean/average speeds recorded showed a downward trend, that the number of vehicles exceeding the prevailing limit would be falling and that accident levels on the monitored roads would also be showing a downward trend.

The most recent report from the police indicates that they don’t hold any of this information nor have they tried to correlate the stats provided by NYFR when they deploy their speed monitoring equipment on road around the county.

We find it astonishing that objective results figures of this sort are not being regularly monitored by those managing the, very expensive, camera van programme.

Nor can the York Council bask in any glory. In February, we asked which businesses had not paid their NNDR (Rates) bills in each of the last 3 years.

The request was turned down on the, entirely specious, grounds that it might influence the result of a by election which was taking place last February. Eventually the Information Commissioner ruled that the information had to be released and it duly was on 26th September.

It revealed that the Council were chasing £576,803.04 in arrears that had accumulated over the last 3 years.

The response did not reveal the names of the businesses involved.

We asked for that information on 1st October but, as yet, we have had no reply.

Spark- FOI reveals email exchanges on planning, cladding and loans

The York Council has shed some light on what they told the Spark developers in the spring of this year.

Copies of Email exchanges have now been published on the “What do they know” web site. Click for details

As early as last April, York council officials knew that the developer was intending not to provide cladding on the external face of the containers. This would have breached planning conditions.

Spark was advised that they had to apply for a variation to the planning permission.

This they subsequently did but the application was refused.

Spark have since said that they will appeal against the refusal.

It also appears that the Council was aware that Spark were borrowing significant sums of money to fund the £500,000 set up costs for the development. It is unclear from the exchange whether the Council’s position as the land owner and preferential creditor was, and remains, fully indemnified. 

At a meeting held in April, Spark were seeking an extension to the “June 2020 end date” for their lease. They were told that this was not possible, although one official hinted “if the venture is well supported and doing well then they (sic) maybe opportunities”.

Another Spark tenant (“Once across the Garden”) announced this week that they are moving from Spark.

NB. Spark started trading in May 2017 having, by then, been on site for over 6 months.

 

 

York Council wrong to turn down information request

Information Commissioner rules rates defaulter information must be made public

In a landmark ruling the Information Commissioner has said that the York Council acted improperly earlier in the year when it turned down a Freedom of Information request for a list of Business Rate debtors in the City.

The Council had said that it could not do so during the “purdah” period which precedes a Council election. It claimed that release of the information could “affect public support for a particular party”. In February 2018 – when the original request was lodged – a by election was taking place in the Holgate ward (although this would have been over before any information was likely to be published).

The withheld information in this case related to the value of individual unpaid business rate accounts and the associated recovery action planned or undertaken including any amounts of money that had been written off.

The Commissioner has now ordered the York Council to release the information within 35 days.

The information is unlikely to include any shocks. Debtor information was routinely reported publicly to a Council committee until recently. In some cases, it prompted inquiries which led to the recovery of the debt. A list of Business rate overpayments was also published prompting some businesses to claim a refund

Quite why this information was likely to influence a by election taking place in the Holgate Ward may remain a mystery. (Three of the four candidates there – at least – worked in the public sector and are highly unlikely to have had outstanding business rate debts).

This is, however, the second time that the Council has refused to divulge information quoting the Purdah restrictions. In 2017 they declined to say how many enquiries each individual Councillor on the authority had recorded during the previous year. The information was eventually supplied after the election campaigns of that year had concluded.

The Commissioners ruling therefore sets a precedent for how information requests must be treated by local Councils in the future.

FOI requests can only reveal facts. It will be for residents to judge whether those facts influence their actions.

If this includes their voting intentions, then so be it.

The full decision notice is being published on the ICO website https://ico.org.uk/

 

What to expect at Energise leisure centre – Freedom of Information response

A few weeks ago, several customers took to Facebook to vent their frustrations at the way that the Energise leisure centre on Cornlands Road had been run since GLL took over last December.

While, in the main, users speak highly of the staff – several of whom have been there for some years – failures in telephones and computers systems were highlighted.

There was a lack of variety in the programme with the centre seemingly reverting to be a sport only venue.

Energise performance report

It turned out that the Community Room had been blocked booked by one (Council funded) organisation for the whole of the working week (9:00am – 5:00pm), effectively excluding local older people who looked to the centre as an opportunity to socialise.

Some of the reasons for this strategy have become clear following a response to a recent Freedom of Information request.

It turns out that when the York Council decided to lease the centre to GLL they failed to include in the contract qualitative measures in respect of community activities .

In effect GLL must only meet admission number targets which are set at an annual increase of 1%. There are also some restrictions on the prices that can be charged to “walk up” customers and a minimum opening hours condition.

There is also a very comprehensive SLA in place which covers a range of safety and customer care measures. The Council promises that a performance report will be taken to the “Children’s, Education and Communities Scrutiny Committee” every 6 months (as with other external services:  Explore, York Museums Trust, Make it York, etc).

Small wonder then that they are seeking to maximise the numbers passing through the entrance door.

However, Energise (now styled “Better”) was conceived as a Leisure centre and was intended to address the needs of all types of people living within walking distance of the facility. Hence the inclusion of a community room.

There is an expectation in the contract that the centre will work with other “partners”. However, so far, there seems to have been little effort made to integrate activities with those at the Acomb and Dringhouses libraries, with local community centres or residents associations.

Energise has, however, recently announced that they will be repeating the Family Triathlon event on 1st September.  But that is also a sports orientated activity.

GLL have not had much time to develop a community engagement strategy although they  have been recruiting new staff as they go through a “bedding in” period.

We hope that they will come up with a community focused programme shortly which recognises that the local neighbourhood – which includes many single person households – should be able to regard the centre as their leisure opportunity of choice, irrespective of whether that involves participation sport.

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 Council – “We can’t tell you the facts because they might influence an election result”

Readers may recall an incident last year when the York Council refused Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in the run up to the General Election in June.They said the information might “influence how electors cast their ballots”.

They claimed, for example, that residents should not be told how many issues individual Councillors had raised with the Council on behalf of their constituents.

We pointed out that, as none of the Councillors were election candidates, this information couldn’t have influenced their chances.

It could be argued, in any event, that – as FOI requests can only be made for factual information – the more facts that are known, the more likely electors are to make an informed choice!

That issue is currently with the Parliamentary Ombudsman to investigate. That referral is on the basis that the Information Commissioner should have issued guidance to Local Authorities on what may, and what may not, be published.

Most Councils continue to respond to FOI requests during election (“purdah”) periods.

York is in a small minority that don’t.

Now a similar situation has arisen just 4 days before a Council by election takes place in the Holgate ward,.

The Council has refused to publish a list of businesses who have not paid their Rates bills during the last 3 years. This is information that used to be routinely reported to a public Council committee meeting. That committee might, on occasions, authorise some debts to be written off.

Quite why a list of businesses, with outstanding debts, could influence the way that the electors of Holgate will cast their ballot is open to conjecture.

It may make some people wonder if there something to hide? 

Time will tell.

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

Extraordinary response from City of York Council to FOI request

Readers will recall that a few weeks ago we published a list of inquiries that York Councillors had recorded with the City of York Council.

The list (left) indicated how many inquiries individual Councillors had recorded during the 2015/16 year.

We submitted an Freedom of Information request asking for the up to date figures for the 2016/17 year.

The Council has now responded saying,

“This information is exempt under section 44 of the FOIA because it is considered that due to the forthcoming general election, it could affect public support for a particular party.

Should you wish to submit a new request for this information following the election, the council would be happy to consider this”.

Given that none of the York Councillors are candidates in the General Election we do wonder how voting intentions might be influenced by the publication of a factual list?

Perhaps the electors in the Hull Road and Micklegate Council by elections deserve to know how hard they might expect their new Councillors to work for them?

 

 

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.