Wednesday, 14 July 2010

That Chocolate Teapot I mentioned? It Just Melted

An update of the post I wrote a few weeks back on one of my Freedom of Information forays.

I was asking about the system where NCC or one of its committees decides to delegate specific powers to an individual officer. Nothing wrong with the basic idea, after all arranging a council or committee meeting is time consuming and it's inefficient to have to do so for every itty bitty little thing.

However it's a process that needs to be applied carefully and appropriately and you need to keep track of it, otherwise you could get any idiot making decisions without anybody knowing about it (stop sniggering at the back...)

Anyway, last time we looked NCC had sent me a register of officers with delegated powers, it's just that it was from 1998. This seemed a bit inadequate to me so I asked for a review.

I have now had a response to that request and it is pretty much as I suspected. That really is the most up to date record that they have. That is really fucking shocking.

There are two things that strike me about this response. The first concerns the manner in which Information Governance has confused the provision of a specific document, an up to date register which they say doesn't exist, with the provision of information. The information that I asked for clearly does exist, no council officer is given 'A' delegated powers unless it is agreed by full council or one of its committees. So details of such officers are contained in the minutes of those committees' meetings. The fact that nobody could be arsed to keep track of them in a central register is neither here nor there.

I did wonder if they would claim that the information existed but that it could only be provided at disproportionate cost. This is the one they initially tried it on with my attempts at getting info about Discretionary Housing Payments. It's a useful way for councils to dodge providing information and usually involves claiming that a search of eleventy thousand documents will be required (in reality usually a few hundred) and that each document will take 45 minutes to examine (in reality about 5. They always say 45 minutes though in order to look like they've thought about it, 'about an hour' sounds just too throwaway). They then tell you that this work will cost you £25/hour to do (in reality it's done by an admin worker on about £8/hour) and present you with an estimate for the total cost which is slightly more than the budget for their entire libraries service.

It's a win/win situation. Either they get out of putting embarrassing information into the public domain or, if you're daft enough to cough up they get a piece of work done that they should have been doing anyway and make a tidy profit to boot.

The second, and most important, aspect is that the full implication of this decision is that NOTTINGHAM CITY COUNCIL HAS ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHO IS GOING ABOUT THE PLACE EXERCISING EXECUTIVE POWERS ON ITS BEHALF.

Make no mistake this is profound. Everything that any NCC council officer does in the course of her/his job is done in the name of Nottingham City Council which in corporate terms means the councillors. Delegation of powers cuts to the heart of local government, it couldn't function otherwise and there are very long and detailed documents in the council's constitution which set out how powers must be delegated. With no up-to-date record how do we know that powers have been delegated appropriately and legally?

On a personal level, this will have an impact on my 'Gardengate' case. A significant part of my defence is that the Development Control Committee alone has the power to decide on enforcement actions as determined by the constitution adopted by full council in May 2003. NCC claims that officers involved have delegated authority to do so and have cited a committee decision made prior to the adoption of the new constitution as evidence.

To my mind this development is another nail in their argument's coffin. If we assume, safely in my view, that delegated powers can be removed as well as awarded how can NCC prove that their officers have the relevant delegated powers if no record has been kept of the comings and goings of delegation decisions since 1998?

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