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.

York Council spends £204,811 answering Freedom of Information requests in one year

Numbers up by 34% to a peak of 1864 cases last year

The rise in FOI requests to the York Council continued to increase last year.  A report  to a Council meeting suggests that 94% were responded to within target times.

However significant numbers were referred for “review” because respondents were dissatisfied with the response that they received.

FOI appeals click to access

FOI appeals click to access

 38 of the 85 review appeals were upheld.

Most of these concerned “no responses” although some responses were considered to be incomplete while in other cases the Council had incorrectly claimed that the information was exempt from the legislation.

The position was worse on cases referred to the Information Commissioners Office. There, 30 of the 39 cases referred resulted in a finding against the Council.

Although the Council claims that their new web site is now easier to trawl for FOI responses, most serious researchers would question that statement. The information is not updated quickly and is more difficult to search now that it is not assembled in date order.

The report makes no attempt to consider how the – frankly alarming – costs of this process can be reduced.

The most obvious reform would simply be for the Council to publish, on its web site and on a regular basis, the kind of information which generates repeat FOI requests. These would include items like “deaths with no next of kin”, new Business Rate accounts and monthly quality of service stats (at the moment the Council publishes its performance data – such as it is – 6 monthly, in arrears).

While there are no doubt some vexatious requests for  information made by disillusioned service users, most  simply reflect the fact that the last Council tried to throw a veil of secrecy over their activities.

 It seemed that they almost enjoyed playing a game of “catch me if you can” when repudiating requests for information.

The new Council needs to encourage a major culture change on “openness” and transparency.

The Council has asked the Information Commissioners Office to conduct a review of how personal data is used by the authority

Freedom of information angry mob score

Dozens of streets in York have collapsed drains

Extent of repair backlog in York revealedKWW junction Windsor Garth 1

At least 55 streets in York have gulleys which are permanently blocked. The blockages mean that heavy rain is likely to result in extensive ponding and in some cases flooding.

The Council has responded to a Freedom of information request and revealed the list of streets which will be “dug out” this year. (see below)

The Council claims only to have 6 outstanding complaints about long term blocked drains.

However it has received 459 complaints about blocked drains during the last 18 months taking an average of 5.5 days to have the gulleys emptied.

The Council has been criticised for stopping the routine cleaning of most gulleys in the City. Instead they now respond only to complaints.

Heavy rain last month resulted in considerable flooding on highways and footpaths cross the City. It seems that many of the problem areas may not have yet  been added to the Councils list of outstanding work.

The list of locations receiving significant engineering attention this year include:

  1. Ten Thorn Lane
  2. Back Lane
  3. Shipton Road (inside outer Ring Road)
  4. A1237
  5. School Lane
  6. Wetherby Road
  7. Field Lane
  8. Windsor Drive
  9. Hull Road
  10. York Road
  11. Bishopthorpe Road
  12. Wigginton Road
  13. Top Lane
  14. A1237 (Millfield roundabout)
  15. Wetherby Road
  16. Main Street
  17. Weldrake Lane
  18. Karelia and Ashdale Crossing
  19. Long Lane, Heslington
  20. Vicarage Lane
  21. Cow Moor Bridge
  22. The Village, Stockton on Forest
  23. The Village, Strensall
  24. Cleveland Way
  25. Bad Bargain Lane
  26. Moor Lane
  27. Lords Moor Lane
  28. Naburn Lane
  29. Elvington Lane
  30. Grantham Drive
  31. Welland Rise
  32. Beckfield Lane
  33. A1237, Rawcliffe
  34. Hurricane Way
  35. Sitwell Grove
  36. Huntington Road
  37. Front Street
  38. Bishopthorpe Road
  39. Haxby Road
  40. Gray Street
  41. Dauby Lane
  42. School Lane
  43. Malton Road
  44. Shipton Road
  45. Sheriff Hutton Road
  46. Strensall Road
  47. Mill Lane
  48. Corner Close

Freedom of Information shock on York buses

Apparently the York Council has not asked bus companies to reveal service reliability stats.

bus-stop1

Despite claims to the contrary, a Freedom of Information request has revealed that the York Council has not apparently asked local bus operators to publish service reliability statistics.

The claims were made by politicians in 2012 as they tried to justify only publishing an annual reliability figure (which later turned out to be a one day sample).

The annual figure published on the DpT web site suggests that 1 in 5 buses in York are more than 5 minutes late.

In 2013, the Council claimed that a data sharing agreement (which has now been published) prevented them from revealing figures which would tell passengers what reliability levels were being achieved.

Rail users have had access to such information for over a decade.

More recently the Council has admitted that it does get these figures on a regular basis but aggregation would have to be done “manually” and to do so would be prohibitively expensive.

The Council claims that its data is supplied through a system supplied by Vix Acis.

This company publicly claims that their Horizon web based system does provide “management with the ability to mine historical data for service improvement and reporting against key performance indicators”.

So the suspicion remains that, for some reason, both the bus companies and the Council are desperate to hide just how reliable bus services in the City actually are.

Our view is that (at least) each month the number of buses running on time (within 5 minutes of the published timetable) on each route should be published on the web.