Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year

I have no predictions to make. No big ideas. No suggestions that I can immediately summon up.

Right now I'm enjoying a few bottle conditioned beers and they're very nice thank you.

But I do hope things are at least slightly better in 2012. Overall. I'd like to hope things will be a LOT better but I don't like to push me luck.

Happy New Year everyone.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Shameless Cover-Up

Well, we finally have the Audit Committee meeting agenda up on the Council's website and they are indeed discussing the Annual Audit Letter which gives brief details of the crooked goings on behind the Future Jobs Fund and which I wrote about before when they mistakenly added it to their website a bit early.

They are also discussing the full report on the matter by the District Auditor but what's this? -


Report of District Auditor, Audit Commission"

Oh look, they're covering it up. I should be surprised. I SHOULD be...

There can be no possible public interest in not releasing to the public a report by the District Auditor, especially when there is clear reference to that report's main conclusions in the Annual Audit Letter which confirm serious criticisms of the Council's conduct.

The fact that JoCo has already selectively quoted from that report for his own political purposes simply adds further insult to the outrage.

I have written to the District Auditor asking that she insist on the matter being discussed in public and for the report to be made public. If she refuses to do this it can only raise questions about her political impartiality and complicity in a cover-up.



Friday, 23 December 2011

JoCo Returns to Fantasy Island

Fun and games at the last full Council Meeting when one of the Tories challenged JoCo over the recent Annual Audit letter which contains significant criticisms of the Future Jobs Fund. JoCo reponds with his usual mix of fantasy and lying by omission. Let's have a look at what he said.

"The  District  Auditor’s  comments  refer  to  a  report  drafted  in  response  to allegations ... suggesting both illegality and impropriety in the  way  contracts  were  allocated  for  work  placements  within  the programme.  A  report  that,  in  officer  time  and  audit  fees,  will  have probably  have  cost  local  tax  payers  around  £100,000."

Hmm, just like Freedom of Information costs us £500,000 no doubt. And a fraction of the cost of the botched police raid on the Iona School in an attempt to criminalise environmental activists which JoCo has repeatedly justified.

"The  report  also  acknowledges  that  the  Portfolio  Holder,  and  again  I quote:

“Complied with the requirements of the Code of Conduct on registration of interests and declaration of interests at formal Council committees and Executive meetings.” "

Firstly that's not in the Annual Audit Letter so JoCo is presumably quoting from the actual report which is yet to be made public. I presumably hasn't been released to the opposition either which means JoCo is deriving political advantage from privileged information. More on the issue of releasing information later.

However, what JoCo fails to mention is that the DA said -

"My investigation has led me to conclude that the relevant Portfolio Holder’s conduct may have been in breach of paragraph 3(2)(d) of the Code of Conduct (conduct which has compromised or is likely to compromise the impartiality of officers). My concerns arise from the need for transparency and good corporate governance rather than that there was any actual inappropriate allocation of contracts (in relation to which I did not find any evidence)."

Interestingly, the Annual Audit Letter was published on the council's website but, was removed when I wrote about it. It is due to be discussed at the Audit Committee meeting on 6 January 2012 but NCC is being unusually tardy in publishing the agenda for that meeting. That couldn't be to prevent the public from seeing it for as long as possible could it?

And it's still not clear whether the actual report will be published or placed before the same committee. Without that we can't see exactly what the DA found or what the reasons for her findings were. This is important because JoCo made the following remark -

"It appears that the DA originally believed that the  allegation,  suggesting,  that  as  a  result  she  may  have  to  issue  a public  report  on  the  matter.  However,  as  she  proceeded  with  her investigation,  it  became  clear  that  they  had  little  substance..."

The DA, Sue Sunderland has previous form of being a bit supine when criticising NCC. It would be unfortunate if political pressure had been brought to bear, resulting in her watering her conclusions.

Monday, 19 December 2011

How Much Does Freedom of Information Cost 2

One thing that has been popping up in NCC's FoI responses is little passive aggressive notes at the end such as this one I got with the request featured in the previous post-

"You may be interested to know that responding to the questions you have raised in the enquiry has cost the Authority approximately £102.35.

I may indeed be interested to know that. Alternatively, I may not give a shiny shit. I can only assume that this is designed to make you feel bad about rattling their cage. I wonder if social workers give child abusers notes telling them their visit cost £128.50, or maybe bin men will soon be leaving a little sticker on your bin with a breakdown of the cost of carting your crap away.

I don't know if the same method is used to calculate the numbers as that used by JoCo in his occasional outbursts but, if I can help, I'd recommend that costs could be significantly reduced by reducing the number of people signing off each response, leaving aside the obsessive secrecy requiring legal services to turn ever more complex legal somersaults and stop that silly trick of ignoring requests until the Information Commissioner finally orders them to respond.

This advice is a service I provide you know. For free.

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

Reasonably interesting response back from Information Governance today (and can I say a big hats off to them for getting it in just on the last day, even with it being the run-up to Xmas).

A few months back I wrote about the trials and tribulations of Welsh blogger Caebrwyn who was arrested for trying to film a council meeting. I thought this was a bit unreasonable so I thought I'd try and find out what NCC's attitude would be if someone tried the same trick. I have to say there's not much chance of me actually trying this but, in this time of austerity and cuts, somebody may do when face cuts to their school/leisure centre/care home etc looming.

In the meantime, the issue got a bit more local when there was a hullabaloo when somebody allegedly tried to film a meeting and the police were called. The miscreant legged it and has not been identified but interestingly the police said that as no offence had been committed they would not be taking any further action.

So, back to what Nottingham said.

I first asked whether meetings were recorded at all already, to which the answer was no but -

"...with the exception of full Council meetings where a tape recording of the meeting is taken in order to facilitate the verbatim recording within the minutes of the answers provided to Council and Public questions at the meeting."

So, presumably such recordings are available to members of the public then?


Erm, really? You haven't heard of the Freedom of Information Act then? Their justification is that the verbatim answers are provided within the minutes of the meetings which, of course, are published.

That's sort of fine except they imply that the whole meeting is recorded in which case the rest of the recording would be quite interesting to hear. However, former Cllr Alex Foster (refugee of the Lib Dem wipeout) had earlier annotated my request saying that the recording stopped after the first part of the meeting. Oh the uncertainty...

I next asked whether NCC was considering recording and/or webcasting meetings and the reply was that they are

"...currently exploring the costs and implications of webcasting council meetings."

I suspect that holding our breath on this one is not a safe option.

Lastly, I asked whether NCC would allow a member of the public to film a public meeting and whether there was any policy and/or legal justification for a refusal. The answer to this was that there was no policy and the decision to allow or not it would be down to the Chair of any meeting to make. So they are clearly of the view that the Chair has carte blanche to stop someone filming and, presumably, to eject them for doing so if they refuse to stop. Whether they would or not remains to be seen of course.

The problem with that is that the legal position is not exactly crystal on the subject. S.100A of the Local Government Act 1972 (as amended) deals with the right of the public to attend council meetings and stipulates when attendees can be excluded. Apart from the provisions for excluding the public by resolution for reasons of confidentiality there is the following -

(8)This section is without prejudice to any power of exclusion to suppress or prevent disorderly conduct or other misbehaviour at a meeting.

So to my reading, if somebody decides to film a meeting of the council and politely refuses to stop when asked, in order for the Chair to eject them it would have to be classified as 'disorderly conduct or other misbehaviour'. I reckon that's a bit of a stretch so if you fancy having a go remember to be scrupulously polite and otherwise co-operative at all times.

NCC would, I think, be on slightly stronger ground if they agreed a policy on the issue to be included in its standing orders. This would be a good idea in this era of camera phones and tiny camcorders, although a decision to ban would no doubt attract significant negative publicity. Until then (and I still wouldn't be certain), I honestly don't think it can legally stop you filming and it certainly can't require you to delete any footage you do take, like they tried to do in Ashfield.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Future Jobs Fund - NCC and a Certain Person Criticised Again

NCC has posted its latest 'Annual Audit Letter'* (AAL) from the Audit Commission to its website. A dull and rather fusty document normally but this one contains a chunk of info the NCC will NOT be keen to draw your attention to. So I suppose I'd better.

You'll remember that former councillor Hassan Ahmed decided not to run for office at the last local election and the Post speculated it might have been due to skullduggery with the Future Jobs Fund. Well the the AAL confirms that he was in the firing line. The letter only contains brief details but does say that a full report on the matter was sent to NCC in November but they have so far chosen not to make it public. Funny that.

So, what do we know so far? Let's simply quote in full what the District Auditor says -
  • "The Council (acting as accountable body) has failed to comply with the requirements of its own constitution, standing orders and financial regulations in awarding Future Jobs Fund and Community Programme contracts. In particular, specific individuals failed to demonstrate appropriate accountability for the decisions taken. These failures were compounded by poor record keeping within the Council
  • My investigation has led me to conclude that the relevant Portfolio Holder’s conduct may have been in breach of paragraph 3(2)(d) of the Code of Conduct (conduct which has compromised or is likely to compromise the impartiality of officers). My concerns arise from the need for transparency and good corporate governance rather than that there was any actual inappropriate allocation of contracts (in relation to which I did not find any evidence).
  • The role of partners as set out in the original bids did not fully materialise in practice: As a consequence, some partners felt let down and had concerns around consistency and transparency. In my view the Council could have done more to allay these concerns by being more open and transparent about the need for changes and to ensure everyone was given an equal opportunity to respond to these changes."
The 'relevant Portfolio Holder' was of course our old mucker Hassan Ahmed. Note the finding that he breached the members code of conduct, which is the second time he has been found guilty of this. he has gone now as I say but the other findings, including that NCC breached its constitution, standing orders and financial regulations is as damning as it gets.

It's not clear whether NCC intends to make the full report public. There have been numerous rumours about the matter for some time involving certain usual suspects. If it is going to be made public it is likely to be alongside the AAL at the next Audit Committee meeting due on 6 January 2012. If it doesn't appear there it'll be Freedom of Info Act time again.

* Since posting this document yesterday, NCC removed it from their website, presumably hoping to scupper my article in the process. This is why the link now goes to Google Docs, where I saved a copy.

Friday, 2 December 2011

All's Well That Ends Well

Remember the picture theft drama?

Well, NCC has been back in touch following my assurance to them that I would be taking them to the small claims court if they weren't a bit more accommodating and have agreed to make a payment for the use of my pic.

It's not a lot but then I didn't ask a lot because I didn't see any sense in taking the piss. That would have just made them dig their heels in.

So it's all cool now on the picture front although it's a lesson learned that it's worth sticking to your guns if something similar happens to you.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Overview and Scrutiny Draft Report on Fuel Poverty

NCC's Overview and Scrutiny committee has had a panel working on fuel poverty and they have now produced a draft report to be considered at their next meeting.

Of course even considering the issue is a good thing and is more than many other councils do and NCC's record on this is quite respectable within the constraints of local government finance.

However, as usual I have found what I consider to be an ommission so I have sent the scrutiny panel the following email -

"I have just read the draft report and I was hoping to draw your attention to what I consider a major omission.

I should first give you some information about my background. I used to be the Team Manager of the Playter Court Welfare Rigghts Service at the City Council before being constructively unfairly dismissed in August 2008. Prior to thatr I was Team Manager for Leicester City Council's welfare rights team and my background in welfare rights and other advice work goes back to 1992. I was deputy Chairman of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers from 2006-08. I live at *** ********* ***** so am a City Council resident. You will probably know me more recently as the writer of the Nottingham City Council LOLs blog but if that tempts you to immediately stop reading I would strongly advise you that would be a mistake.

My first point is to agree that fuel poverty is a combination of income, fuel prices and energy efficiency. I would modify that slightly that expenditure on  and council tax other than fuel plays a major part in the equation as well. If you are spending disproportionate sums on rent and council tax you obviously have less money available for heating. It's also true to say that a person in fuel poverty probably doesn't care where an extra income actually comes from as it long as it means they have more money to spend on keeping warm.

The report makes the point that fuel poverty is 3.3 times higher for private sector tenants than the city average. You will also be aware that housing benefit for this group of people has recently been cut significantly which is likely to make the problem worse. Further cuts to benefits which are planned are likely to exacerbate the situation further.

Something you may or may not be aware of is that one of the government's 'sweeteners' (some would say band aid) is to increase the fund for Discretionary Housing Payments

has been increased by £10m nationwide. I wrote a blog post about this recently so to save time here's a link

Unfortunately, NCC has a very poor record of administering DHPs with a long history of underspending while the vast majority of claims were being refused. The problem with underspending is that your following year's budget is then reduced.

2009/10 was the furst year that NCC even managed to spend the full allocation actually provided by central government, never mind spend any of its own funds that government rules allow it to spend. In 2009, I estimated that, if NCC had managed to spend just the full central government allocation for DHPs i.e. NOT spend any of its own money, then along with the knock-on effects on future allocations around £500k extra would have found its way into the Nottingham economy.

It therefore follows that, if DHPs had been properly managed then a very vulnerable sector may have a much reduced problem with fuel poverty because they would have had more money to spend on keeping warm. This issue is now more urgent than ever because of the increased reliance on DHPs caused by mainstream HB cuts and the increase to the DHP budget.

The big issue here is that it is one of the few situations where NCC actually has some control over what it can do. You cannot force energy companies to drop their prices, you cannot re-write the mainstream HB rules. However, you can choose to properly administer the DHP budget to help the group of people you have identified as being worst affected by fuel poverty and I would strongly recommend that this be added to the report as a viable action point.

I will be publishing this email on my blog as my aim is to widen awareness of DHPs and NCC efforts in this area as much as possible."

Uh, Been Doing This Blog Thing 3 Years Now

Go me, eh?

Three years of the blog have now happened. On previous anniversaries I've done a retrospective of the past year but this time I'm afraid I really can't be arsed, sorry. You'll just have to look back yourself if you're interested. Short summary - Freedom of Information was involved.

Here's to another year of not letting the buggers get me down...

Monday, 28 November 2011

Was It the Astroturfers Wot Won It?

One thing about any election is the amount of waste paper they cause to arrive through your door. At least the rest of the time you get phone numbers that will result in high calorie food being delivered to your residence.

One leaflet that was delivered to homes in at least part of Nottingham (think Nottingham South mainly, I certainly didn't see it up north) was this one -

(click for big version, fairly big file mind)

It was the second in a series of two, there was an earlier edition sent out around 18 March. The one above was sent out some weeks later.

Now electoral law states that any candidate is limited in their spending for campaigning and has to declare all expenses spent after the date that the election is declared, which is normally also the date that anybody declaring themselves as standing in the election officially becomes a candidate. For the 2011 local elections this date was 25 March, therefore, if you were standing in that election and you send out a leaflet before this date you don't have to declare it, send one after and you do and its cost counts as part of your limited election expenses allowed.

Another requirement of election law is that certain information must be included on the leaflet, including the names and addresses of the printer and the promoter of the leaflet and details of any 'person on behalf of whom the material is being published'. If you look closely you'll see our above leaflet has been promoted on behalf of the 'ConDem Campaign'.

Or has it? If you check the link to the older version you'll see that suspicions were already raised. For a start the promoter is said to be Carole McCulloch, now one of the Labour members for Aspley.

I have since had sight* of another elected Labour councillor's declared expenses which includes a payment of £43.60 for '2nd ConDem Leaflet', the supplier being listed as 'Nottingham Labour'. A note says this was calculated from an invoice for £1993 issued to 'Nottingham Labour Party'. The invoice comes from 'Digital Printing Services', who are at least properly named on the leaflet.

So, putting all that together, it looks very much like our leaflet was not prepared for the 'ConDem Campaign' at all but was in fact a Nottingham Labour Party product. Unless of course they are referring to a completely different '2nd ConDem leaflet' I suppose.

So what Nottingham Labour seems to have done is to send out a bunch of leaflets which claim to be from a fictitious** grass-roots campaign, the motivation presumably being to attract non-Labour voters who wouldn't respond to an openly partisan campaign. Nottingham South is known to be a bit woolly for the Labour Party so you can see how such an approach might make a bit of a difference. There's a phrase for this sort of thing in the trade and that phrase is 'astro-turfing' (from false 'grass-roots' see). The classic and most successful example of this technique is 'The Taxpayers' Alliance' who frequently manage to get quoted as an expert source in newspaper articles despite being an obvious Tory front.

The thing is, this isn't only dishonest and underhand it also breaches election law. The law is quite clear that any election leaflet must include an imprint naming anyone on whose behalf the leaflet is produced and, in this case, it appears pretty clear that that would be Nottingham Labour Party.

A breach of this condition is a criminal offence so what are the chances of Cllr McCulloch getting a knock at the door from the rozzers? Sadly none, it is more than six months since the offence took place and what's more, JoCo is Chairman of the Police Authority.

* Decided not to post it up as there may be privacy issues that I don't really want to deal with. Anybody involved with this leaflet can see from the figures quoted that I'm not making it up.

** At least I presume they don't exist, I couldn't find anything on them. If anybody is a genuine member please feel free to get in touch, you can invite me to a meeting.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Benefit Fraud - Because You're Worth It

I've occasionally made the odd comment about NCC's record on pursuing benefit fraud which hasn't been super complementary. No doubt there are people within certain circles who think that means that I'm against any form of sanction against benefit fraudsters and thing there should be a free-for-all.

Not true. I accept and in many cases positively encourage the proportionate pursuit and prosecution of people who defraud the benefits system. The key word there is 'proportionate'. I also strongly object to constant government sponsored propaganda on the subject which simply serves to demonise benefit claimants and put people off making legitimate claims. It is also an outrage that nothing like the same effort is made against those who defraud the tax system.

Another issue to consider is that anti-fraud action does have a cost and it should justify itself in value for money terms like anything else. Well, I've just stumbled across a bit of information which makes me wonder whether NCC manages to do that.

In 2009 I wrote about the fact that NCC boasted in a press release that it had reclaimed around £300k from benefit fraud. presumably it will have increased since then but it's likely to be in the same ballpark. At the time this amounted to 0.24% of total benefit expenditure, about 10% of comparable rates of recovery nationally.

Here's the new bit. In an aside in a report to the Audit Committee it is said that the benefit fraud team has 10 officers, so that gives us a vague idea of the cost of the council's expenditure on anti-fraud measures. I say vague because we don't know if those 10 officers comprise the entire team including admin and management/team leaders but let's presume it does. At a very conservative estimate I reckon a team that size is going to cost approx £300k in employee costs alone. The officers concerned will be relatively senior because they must have 'authorised officer' status (see s.109A of the SSAA 1992) allowing them to investigate people, including getting info from banks, utility companies and stuff (you did know they can do that when investigating you for fraud didn't you?). You will presumably have significant travel expenses because fraud inspectors spend a lot of time sitting outside people's houses watching for illicit visitors. And of course, if a prosecution does occur this will mean shedloads more money spent on legal services.

So on this basis I think we are in a fairly strong position to question whether NCC is getting value for money from it's anti fraud measures.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

JoCo's Starring Role at the Leveson Enquiry (In His Dreams)

The Leader of Nottingham City Council, Councillor Jon 'JoCo' Collins, made a dramatic appearance at the Leveson enquiry. In the literal sense because he tends to just make shit up.

(Jon Collins, yesterday)

After being calmed down, JoCo finally managed to negotiate a couple of minutes to present his indisputable evidence of phone hacking to a minion. But the evidence he provided to the enquiry, comprising of two messages he wrote himself on his own Twitter feed, was universally agreed to be devastating. Kinda.

"Ta-Daaaaa!!!" ejaculated Collins.

"Um, you got anything else?" said Counsel to the Enquiry, Sir Herbert Buffington-Tufton QC. "Maybe, for example, something that you didn't write yourself? And with coherent grammar?"

"Yes!" giggled JoCo. Let me just check my special private FoIA proof council email account...Ah..."

"See?" That conclusively proves that I believe I've been hacked by a local newspaper" he said "What more do you need?"

There was silence.

"See...?" said little Jon, less confidently, feeling a bit small.

Some men in funny uniforms, like big red coats, medals and knickerbockers, appeared at JoCo's shoulder before leading him gently away so as not to hurt himself on biros and stuff.

"Who the jiminy was that?" said Lord Leveson, after the dust had settled. "Not another of those local politicians trying to 'be somebody' by being hacked?"

Sir Herbert imagined dragging languidly on a huge Cuban cigar (because of course you can't actually do that indoors anymore) while in fact nearly swallowing one of those electronic cigarette things.

"Yus m'lud, I do believe it was. Shall I get someone to sort his bus ticket back up North?"

Monday, 21 November 2011

Questions the 'Post' Should Have Asked NCC About Benefit Fraud

The Nottingham Post has published an article about Housing Benefit Fraud committed against Nottingham City Council. Unfortunately it actually tells us very little and merely provides an excuse to run the 'BENEFITS FRAUD INCREASING SHOCK HORROR' meme again. It's a classic case of not asking the right questions or, if they did, not putting the answers to them in your article.

The headline is that benefit fraud prosecutions have increased by 39% and Graham Chapman says that the tough economic climate is to blame. He may well be right of course but we can't tell that from the article.

You see, as the article does explain, prosecution is not the only option open to councils when dealing with benefit fraud. There is the administrative penalty (a kind of bribe/blackmail designed to persuade you to 'fess up, pay a chunk of extra money you haven't got so you don't have to go to court), cautions and simply requiring the money to be repaid. There are arguments in favour of all these options depending on the individual situation. In short therefore, an increase in court prosecutions could simply be down to a change in prosecution policy, formal or otherwise*. In fairness the Post does say that NCC is resorting to prosecution more often but I can't tell from the article whether that was Chapman expressing NCC's declared policy or whether this is simply the Post reporter's conclusion.

Taking the article at face value then, NCC's response to increasing financial woes is to make things worse for those most affected by prosecuting more often when desperate times force poor decision making. I'm not sure that reflects too well on NCC.

It would have been helpful if the Post had asked NCC whether detected fraud had also increased as this would at least help answer the 'changed/not changed prosecution policy' question i.e. if greater detected fraud occurred along with more prosecutions then we could conclude 'no change'. On the other hand, if you assume that any organisation would get better at finding fraud over time** (practice makes perfect and all that) then if there isn't an increase in fraud then it may not be unreasonable to conclude that NCC has merely toughened its stance. It has to be said that NCC doesn't seem to actually find much benefit fraud, managing to find fraud worth only 0.24% of total benefit expenditure in 2009, about 10% of the national rate. This means that the margin of error is larger and any claim of an increase is less significant. The fact that we're talking about an increase in prosecutions from 31 to 43 in a six month period reinforces this concern.

We know that actual Housing Benefit expenditure has increased by nearly 20% in only two years (I think that's known as 'rocketing' in the trade) and that is without doubt down to the worsening economic conditions. Would we also expect that fraud as a proportion of this expenditure would also increase? It would be worthwhile knowing if that is what is happening.

If we had been given the figures for fraud I'd also want to be sure that they really were actual fraud as opposed to 'fraud and error' which is what tends to be reported in order to amplify the alarm bells further, the 'error' of course tending to combine official and customer error and leaving the general public to assume it's all down to claimants. I've previously uncovered evidence of a perverse incentive for NCC to try and reclassify their own errors as customer error, combine this with clear evidence of the Benefits Service's standards slipping in general and you've got a bit of a mess brewing.

Ok, so I've gone further than you might expect a local newspaper to go writing an article afresh but the information for Post reporters to use has been up here for a while and all the links to sources are still fully functional. There may well be a big story here but, unfortunately somebody somewhere still has a lot of work to do to find out.

* I'm getting indications that quite a bit of high level decision-making is being done 'off-minutes' so to speak, almost certainly to evade Freedom of Information requests.

** Naive I know.

Nottingham City Council Press Releases

I occasionally get the stereotypical complaint that I never write good news about Nottingham City Council. I'm not sure that's entirely true but there are a couple of defences I can make.

Firstly, of course, doing NCC's PR function for them without payment is not exactly what I consider to be a core function of this blog. NCC spends quite a lot of money on its Communications (the Director, Stephen Barker, gets £75,079 plus £14,131 pension contributions alone, see page 89), much of which is PR. They can clearly afford to write their good news stories themselves.

Notwithstanding that, I did set up a RSS feed of NCC's press releases in the sidebar but unfortunately that stopped being updated in May. Why, I have no idea. The only thing I can find now is the website's front page stories so I've put that up. These really are puff pieces though.

I'd much prefer to have the press release feed back and be a minor part of NCC's propaganda machine but if it's not there I can't post it.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Hate Speech On Nottingham Post Website - Off Topic Post of the Week

The Nottingham Post website comment moderators are guilty of a serious lapse of judgment at the moment, regularly allowing disgusting hate speech comments despite them being reported. In fact, they are more likely to remove posts challenging the hate speech while leaving the original post online.

Let me give you some examples of posts that remain despite being reported -

On this article about an organisation on refugee issues -

“We spend to much money and devote too many resources to Asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, the overwhelming majority of people do not want them here and they add nothing to our society other than debt."

“Brainwash them young. I wonder if the stories will tell how they passed through several safe countries, which they are obligated under conventions to seek asylum in first, before they came to easy touch Britain.”

“Will this exhibition be in the fiction section ?”

“Guess what, Erik, the vast majority of people don't want any more ''asylum seekers'. They go on what they see in real life, not what they've read in Das Kapital.”

In addition, a commenter made justified criticisms about Israel in the comments and this was removed immediately. I also wrote a more detailed post providing details of the oppression of Palestinians by the Israelis and that was also removed within hours. However repeated posts libelling the first poster as an anti-semite have been left up. That is just not acceptable.

Now let's have a look at this one about the Market Square occupation, a demonstration that I fully support -

"These people serve no purpose what so ever...This bunch of campers are no better than a beggar apart from they get away with begging."
Nicely bringing 'beggars' in here...

"...perhaps the benefits agency should take an interest just to see who is actually not actively looking for a job, or supposedly too ill to work ???"

Ah yes, the 'benefit cheats' meme, always a winner.

"...water cannon the lot"
Absolutely, a bit of violent oppression never goes amiss after all...

"...just remember what today is" (posted on Remembrance Armistice Day)
BOOM! Internet smackdown. Evoking poppies/our boys/Remembrance Day ALWAYS wins the argument, no matter what you're trying to say. Mint Imperials are MUCH nicer than Werthers originals, JUST REMEMBER WHAT DAY IT IS.

This is where it got a bit nasty. I have previously admitted to having mental health problems so when this type of comment comes up -

"veggiesosage - keep taking the tablets they dont appear to be working"

I reserve the right to get a bit upset. Despite reporting it this comment is still there. I tried adding a riposte but it was immediately removed, although does now appear to have been allowed. I would much rather both the above comment and my reply were removed.

Moving on to an article about the government's work programme where your punishment for being unemployed is being made to work for free sweeping up a Tesco warehouse -


Nice use of capslock there. Textbook.

"To many people rely on benefits its about time they get kicked up their ****s end of"

That benefits cheat/scrounger meme combined with violence. There's a lot of that.

"The very least that the long-term unemployed should be made to do is get up in the morning and sign in at 7:30am at an unemployment centre, stay there all day and sign out at 5pm... That would, at least, keep some of them away from crime, working on the side or watching TV all day...If they don't want to do it then no benefits of any kind should be offered."

See? Often combined with "THEIR ALL CRINIMULS" logic.

" doesn't need trained nurses to see if frail patients need a drink or help being fed. Equally cleaning up road verges and canal tow paths isn't putting someone out of a paid job."
Ok, I accept that simple galloping inaccuracy is not the same as hate speech but the person who made that comment is a former benefits office manager. Not only should he know better but imagine being a claimant at his office eh? You'd be replacing nurses and council roadsweepers within the week.

It's too depressing to go on with this. You might think me rather sad for joining in with such conversations never mind getting upset about it and you may well have a point. But I find it very hard to stand by when blatant fascist rhetoric is encouraged and supported on a public 'news' website.

From what I've been told the 'moderators' are probably journalism interns based at the Daily Mail (the Post's owners) headquarters in London. They clearly have no proper understanding of racism, disablism or classism and will probably fit in very nicely in their future career as Mail 'journalists'. Unfortunately their actions reflect very badly on the Post, whose journalism I generally have a great deal of time for.


Comment allowed on refugee exhibition article by 'john_carlton'

"Now you know where the marxist Veggie and Neilant get their anti-semitism from. It is politilically driven, bigoted, racist hate - no different from the type trotted out by the old National Front. And no different to the attitudes of the those have persecuted Jews through the ages."

Addendum; This is the comment that the Nottingham Post repeatedly removes, without explanation -

"John_carlton you really need to look up what 'anti-semitism' means. The Semitic peoples includes a number of peoples not just Jewish people. For example it includes Arabs. As Israel is among the countries with the worst records of oppressing Arabs, particularly the Bedouin people who are being subject to enforced removal from their ancient lands in the Negev desert. It was even reported that Israel tried to sue the Bedouin for eviction costs.

Of course Israel's record of brutal repression of the Palestinians is well known. They are also one of the ancient semitic peoples. Again, forced removal, illegal settlement of their land by Israelis is common, as is punishment of entire communities for the (admittedly criminal) actions of a few individuals. It's a bit like when you were at school and teacher said everybody would be kept late after school if the boy who stole the pencils doesn't own up. Only with helicopter gunships.

It is therefore fair to say that the Israeli government is one of the most anti-semitic institutions on the planet.

It's also worth remembering that only a tiny number of the world's Jewish people are Israelis in the nation-state sense.

So to conflate 'criticism of Israel' with 'anti-semitism' is wildly inaccurate and I can only assume that you continue to do so for your own reasons, not for any real concern for Jewish people.

Israel's secret service, Mossad, regularly engages in planned state-sponsored assassinations of Israel's political enemies, mostly Palestinians. In a recent case, Mossad agents used stolen British passports to get near to their target.

Still want to try and argue that criticism of Israel is invalid? All of these traits mean that comparison of the world's most oppressive regimes in history, including the Godwin's Law defying one, is not inappropriate. Claiming equivalence is going too far I agree but the idea is that we are supposed to learn from the mistakes in history but Israel's treatment of those it considers its enemies questions how well they at least are doing that. Our government's support for them also questions ours.

The final irony is a group of people happily demonising refugees while accusing another of anti-semitism. Before the war certain right wing media continually denied pre-war Nazi Germany's treatment of the Jews and continually argued against accepting Jewish refugees to the UK (I won't name the newspaper concerned but it rhymes with Waily Fail). You, John_carlton and your racist friends on here would have been standing shoulder to shoulder with such people and you are their equivalent today. At least the Post is presenting refugee issues in a neutral light."

Nottingham Post readers; you decide whether the above breaches their comment terms and conditions but please do check the context if you think it does.

Whoever john_carlton actually is he is clearly a disgusting fascist and it is appalling that the Post repeatedly subjects its readers to his Nazi sympathising opinions and allows him to run a sustained harassment campaign falsely accusing others of anti-semitism.

If you agree with the above and you're on Twitter please have a pop at Tom Pegg, [Tom tells me he has made representations to Northcliffe Media which is probably all he can do] the Post's online publisher. I suspect even he isn't entirely responsible for moderating Nazi sympathising posts but he's certainly a lot nearer whoever does than the actual journos are.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

It's Said That We Learn More From What They DON'T Say

Another interesting FoI response from NCC to another requester which fits very appropriately into the 'beggars belief' file. Bit like another I discussed the other week.

In this new case the requester asked for -

"...copies of all emails, letters and memos sent to or from the leader of Nottingham City Council which mention Freedom of Information, and in particular, any correspondence about the Council's compliance with FOI requests."

The reply came thusly -

"The department advise that a thorough search of the Leader's email account has been undertaken on and in particular any correspondence relating to compliance with FOI requests and as a result find no such reference which contains material that fits the description you require has been located."

before confirming that the information could not be provided as it was not held.

First thing to note is that it only mentions a search of JoCo's emails whereas the requester asked for any memos or letters as well. Now that could just be an oversight, or could be a sin by deliberate omission. Either way it's clearly not an adequate response and I hope that the requester takes it further.

If it isn't just a case of sophistry and NCC really is claiming that no communication on FoI policy has gone through the Leader's office then that sounds a little bit fantastical. JoCo has been very vocal about the costs of FoI to the council and, unless he just made a figure up off the top of his head, people would have been assigned the task of coming up with a figure for him. Where are those communications?

I take it NCC and JoCo know it's illegal to delete stuff to avoid it being released under FoI? Like the claim that no internal correspondence was held about plans to deal with NCC's dog poor FoI performance, you really have to wonder what is going on here. Is NCC really defying its FoI obligations by just pretending that internal communications just don't happen?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Not Just Me Then...

Here we have another decision by the Information Commissioner Nottingham City Council completely fails to provide a response to a FoIA request and for once it isn't one of mine!

This case concerns a request for a service agreement between NCC and a student housing organisation. That's it, nothing more. To provide it, all NCC needs to do is find its lowest paid clerk, ask him/her to go to the relevant filing cabinet, scan or photocopy the agreement requested and post it off. I reckon that's half an hour's work at best.

Instead the request, made on 16 April 2011, had still not merited a response by the time of the decision notice which was issued on 6 October.

The Commissioner had this to say by way of comment -

"The Commissioner considers that this complaint demonstrates that there are a number of deficiencies in the procedures carried out by the council which were previously evidenced in Practice Recommendations issued by the Commissioner on 23 October 2007. The council is currently being monitored for its compliance with the Act."

Do you think this is the sort of stellar practice NCC refers to in its action plan as follows?

"To market NCC as best practice model and take on others workload for fee."

Good luck with that.

I have no idea what would be in this service agreement nor why the requester wants it. However, my guess is that the delay is caused NCC's obsessive secrecy because they seem to assume that any document requested under FoI MUST have something that they'd prefer to be kept quiet.

So they spend about six months going through the documents with a fine tooth comb to check. Then of course they spend another six months trying to think up an argument for keeping it secret. It takes so long because it gets passed to the legal dept for this task and they are utterly shit. Imagine a well stocked graveyard for crap lawyers who can't get a job anywhere else (including the shop floor at Asda) and you'll get the idea.

If they can't think of anything it goes off to the Communications team who '...assess the impact of disclosure from a reputational standpoint...' What they do if the disclosure looks like it will have what I'm sure they'd refer to as a 'negative reputational impactisation' I don't know. But whatever it is would probably take another six months or so if they're quick.

No doubt along the way various officers will get visits from JoCo shouting and screaming and generally meddling, because that's apparently what he does.

Meanwhile the Information Commissioner has died of old age and the rest of us have lost the will to live.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Discretionary Housing Payments - Any Change?

So then, back to my favourite obsession. Where had we got to?

Ah yes, last we heard was that in the 2009/10 year NCC got £59,639 from the government towards DHPs and, joy of joys, the total actually paid out went up for the first time in years to £66,677 from the previous year's £51,882.

Strange then that the 2010/11 central government grant dropped to £55,863. You see, normally, the amount allocated should be half way between the previous year's grant and actual expenditure so an increase in DHP payouts should pull the grant up. So I'm not sure what that was about.

Anyway that was the last year that the old rules applied because since then the lovely Tories have cut mainstream Housing Benefit even more and part of the 'sweetener' for the deal was an extra nationwide £10m DHP allocation (making £30m in total) to allow councils to apply a scrap of band aid. This extra £10m is not allocated via the normal formula mentioned above it is weighted in favour of councils who would lose the most from the cuts which, as I've posted before, kinda means Nottingham.

Now I have been ranting about this for a while because it means that tenants on benefits will be even more reliant on DHPs to keep a roof over their heads. One Nottingham failed to even mention DHPs in it's recent 'concern' about benefit cuts. So I was interested to find out how much Nottingham had actually got for the 2011/12 financial year i.e. the current one. Turns out it's £119,316 which is more than double that of last year. This implies that a big chunk of that is from this extra £10m. Councils are also allowed to spend a certain amount of their own money on DHPs and if NCC spent the maximum it is allowed to that would be a potential total fund of over £298k.

So, we know that Nottingham is expected to do disproportionally badly out of mainstream HB cuts. We know that Nottingham's share of the band-aid is bigger than most. What we don't have is any evidence that NCC has anything approaching a plan for ensuring this extra money is used most effectively.

The result of this is that any mitigation of the worst effects of the HB cuts that would have been possible from this extra funding probably won't happen and we will see a big increase in rent arrears and evictions as a result. How many of these could be prevented by a decent DHP strategy is impossible for me to say but if only one person loses their home when there's money there to stop it I think that's criminal.

Note; if you are currently suffering a shortfall between your housing benefit and your rent I would strongly recommend that you apply for DHPs, even if you've been turned down before because of the increased budget.

The forms are available here. Note that the DHP leaflet there was prepared in 2005 and the contact address is for a building that doesn't exist anymore. That probably tells you all you need to know about the amount of effort NCC puts in and how much they give a shit about you becoming homeless.

Addendum; I've just found that One Nottingham have had further discussions on welfare issues at their May Meeting. A policy document is available but ON seem to have got bored of publishing their minutes. Obviously there was no mention of DHPs in that paper. It seems to be all about blaming the government which in itself is fine but it's more productive to discuss the things that you do actually have some control over.

Picture Theft - The Latest Latest

Had a response from NCC, here it is...

"Please accept our apologies in relation to the use of your image on the Council’s website. We have investigated the matter but have not been able to find out how the photo came to be used. The image has now been removed from the site. We are not aware that it has been used by the Council elsewhere.  

If you are not satisfied with our response, you can appeal. Further details are included in the attached leaflet."

If I'm not satisfied with the response? What is this 'if' that you mention?

You're gonna get fuckin sued.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Picture Theft - the Latest

Remember NCC stole one of my pics for their website? Well I sent them a nice email about it asking them to pay the going rate for a stock photo plus an extra amount to reflect their use without attribution etc.

Well compare and contrast the 'Freezepage' capture of the Market Square gallery on 20th October here with the actual gallery page as it is now.

Notice something has gone? Took them over a week to do that.

Of course what hasn't happened is any form of response, explanation, apology or of course payment. We'll see whether that situation changes but I doubt it will some official or court induced prompting.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Do They Mean Me?

Being very sad, with nothing else to do in life*, I had a look at the latest full council minutes for a bit of knockabout fun. When you're poor you've got to take your laughs where you can get 'em, know what I mean.

In the manner of such things, one of the Tories asked JoCo if he would apologise for wasting money on a big Christmas tree at Loxley House then lying about it being paid for by outside sponsorship.

JoCo gave it both baubles. Sorry barrels -

"It is actually, frankly, the kind of question that I would only expect to have been asked by a Conservative Councillor that knows the cost of everything, but the value of nothing..."

Yeah, you tell 'em, go Jonny Boy, I like it when you give 'em what for

"...a sad blogger who has nothing better to do in life than sit in front of a computer screen criticising others who try and do something more useful with their time..."

Eh, what?

"...or indeed a newspaper that seems long ago to have forgotten what serious journalism is all about."

Blimey. I wonder which newspaper he means? And I bet whichever blogger he's talking about will be very upset at that.

JoCo is prone to these outbursts it seems, although if he wants to start accusing newspapers of forgetting what proper journalism is he'd better have a good set of examples ready for when somebody calls him out on that. Or maybe he'll blame it on inadequate briefing from an officer, or his secretary maybe.

It's also probably bad form to start ranting about bloggers being 'sad' and having 'nothing better to do in life' because that gives the impression that you read them and you're a bit worried what they write, whereas the correct approach is to feign untouchable indifference.

A more serious concern is that it demonstrates politicians' dislike of anyone who has the wrong level of political interest. They are very happy to pay lip service to encouraging the hoi polloi to vote in elections (safe, in the case of local authority members, that few will bother) but anything else is strictly frowned upon. Unless it's on behalf of the party of course. Heaven knows, you might find something out and tell other people and then where would we be?

Anyway, as JoCo seems to have got his knickers in a twist about local media, lets cheer him up with a reconstruction of the day he decisively dealt with the Post's piffling enquiries.

*Actually I do quite like photography, like writing it's good therapy. But then NCC just goes and nicks it. I dunno, some sad little employee, nothing better to do in life than scour the internet, nicking other people's stuff...

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Fire Station Fuck-Ups

I have to confess that I don't really take much notice of what Notts Fire Authority do, even though their committee minutes are all posted up on NCC's website. Perhaps I should as there may be worthwhile lols to be picked up.

However, I'm not sure checking minutes would have helped me find this stuff that the 'Post' is reporting on regarding NFA and NCC being hit for big out-of-court settlements of £2.7m. This followed a stalled legal action against a private development company, Gladman Commercial Properties, who had pulled out of an agreement to buy the old Dunkirk Fire Station site and surrounding land.

Briefly the allegations are as follows. NCC had land around the fire station it didn't need so it teamed up with NFA to sell the lot together for added value purposes. Gladman claimed that they were told the site could accommodate 600 student flats and, when they worked out it couldn't, pulled out. NCC and NFA went to m'learneds to try and get them back into line. It didn't go well it seems, hence the hefty out-of-court settlements.

Fact is, the whole business seemed pretty bejiggered from the start. The point of selling Dunkirk FS was that, combined with the sale of another station in Beeston, they could build a whole new big spangly station.

Simple enough you'd think but have a look at this report to NFA's Finance and Resources Committee in September 2007. One thing that alarms is the number of times the phrase 'it became clear that...' features at the start of paragraphs, almost as if nobody had actually tried to spot problems before they arose.

One problem that caused a significant deviation from the original budget was the realisation that the plot for the new station, assumed to be industrial land and thus worth about £300k, turned out to be residential land worth £2m. Whoops. That's an extra £1.7m please.

Moving on a few years to the actual court case, this was handled with the usual finesse and expertise that we have come to expect from NCC's legal department. First of all, here's a quick summary of the issues from the Property Litigation Association which is what I'd advise you to read if you're a vaguely normal person. If you want the full fat court decision it's here.

It seems that what NFA and NCC were claiming depended rather heavily on what was said in conversations between the selling agents and Adrian Jones, NCC's Director of Planning and Transport at the time. However, in a stroke of pure genius, they hadn't listed him as a witness, hadn't secured a witness statement from him and he wasn't there to do his stuff at the hearing. When asked why by the Judge the reason given was that he was no longer working for NCC. It's quite likely that, at around this point, Gladman's lawyer took the piss somewhat mercilessly because the big golden rule of court action is that you set out your case from the beginning.

Anyway, NCC requested an adjournment in order to get Mr Jones to appear. After some considerable opposition from Gladman the Judge agreed BUT, and here's the rub, he said that 'there will be heavy costs consequences' for NCC due to the delay and the extra work this would cause Gladman and their legal team.

And that's the point of this post really. Because the substantial issue was settled out of court we have no way of knowing who was actually right. It's not even clear whether Jones ever did appear on the stand or what he (would have) said if he did. But one thing we can be sure that the final settlement, and thus the cost to taxpayers, was inflated by NCC's legal team screwing up the case from the beginning.

One last thing. The Post reports that the following statement was issued by Gladman on conclusion of hostilities -

"GCP wish to make it absolutely clear that they accept that no member (councillor) of either Notts Fire Authority or Nottingham City Council played any part in the misrepresentations alleged by Gladman in the High Court claim."

This seems to have been designed to get any politicians caught up in this off the hook and has already been used as the excuse for the Chair of the Fire Authority, Darrell Pulk, not having to resign. Makes you wonder how much extra that statement cost just to save a few political asses.

PS. If you fancy further reading about another fuck-up by NCC's property and legal wings, not to mention the efforts made by the politicians to extricate themselves from a quagmire, you might like to have a look at the saga of the Radford Unity Complex.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Looks Familiar, What Do You Think?

Here's a pic I took a few years ago the first year that big wheel turned up in the Market Square.

Now here's a pic on the NCC website, in a page labelled as a gallery of Market Square pics

What do you reckon?

It's clearly been cropped and the remains of a green border disturbingly suggests they've used it elsewhere as well.

Not good is it? I may take action.

Addendum - Here's a FreezePage capture of the gallery page in case the original gets changed at some point.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Speak No Evil

Looking at another's FoI request to NCC today. It's a request about what NCC is planning to do about its woeful FoI performance.

One of the things requested was as follows -

"1. Any internal correspondence it has setting out why the Council has not been meeting its statutory obligations"

 to which the answer beggars belief. Here's the first bit -

"In accordance with section 1 of this act this information cannot be provided as it is not held by this authority."

 What the heckins? There has been no internal discussion about FoI failures? Even when they were being formally monitored for non-compliance by the Information Commissioner? Even though they've had 12 decisions (at least partially) against them by the Commissioner?

Or, indeed, even though they've somehow managed to produce an 'action plan' (pdf) which is encouraging. I can only presume that this appeared out of thin air, or perhaps was produced by a single person kept in a box, prevented from consulting with anybody else at NCC, in writing at least.

By the way, this action plan contains the following 'medium term' objective -

"To market NCC as best practice model and take on others workload for fee."

That gap was where I couldn't stop laughing.

Another suspicious bit is this -

"Further, we have received a similar request for ‘information and communications relating to FOI procedures’ and I can confirm that that information was exempted from release under Section 36 of the Act and it is likely that if we had held any information specifically relating to this question, we would have sought to apply the section 36
exemption to that material."

S.36 is the one where they can refuse to tell you stuff if it would inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views or prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

Now, why would they need to mention s.36 if they are saying that they don't hold the info?

I'm beginning to suspect that NCC is going to pull the s.36 line in any case where internal memos, minutes etc are requested, they certainly did on my 'exemptions bingo' case. It is subject to the public interest test but as I've frequently remarked, NCC equates the 'public interest' to 'not being embarrassing to JoCo and his favoured ones'.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

JoCo to Have a Word With Himself

No, really. Cllr Jon Collins is going to have a meeting. With himself.

I can only presume it's all to do with the new 'strong leader' form of executive governance we've got along with the new constitution for the council. This allows Collins, as the aforementioned 'strong leader' to decide key decisions by himself if he feels like it whereas before they would always be made by the Executive Board.

Because as you can imagine, Executive Board was totally a hotbed of unpredictability and rebellion before and you could never get anything done.

Let's hope he makes it on time...

Friday, 7 October 2011

Newstead Abbey Placed on 'Watch' By Heritage Group

Newstead Abbey features in the 2012 'Watch' list of threatened heritage sites compiled by the World Monuments Fund.

Despite its location in NottinghamSHIRE, Newstead Abbey is owned and run by the City Council after having been covenanted to it's forerunner the Corporation of Nottingham by the previous owner Sir Julian Cahn in 1931. Its stewardship was recently criticised following a major cut in opening hours due to budget cuts, which also resulted in the loss of a number of jobs.

WMF say -

"Newstead Abbey has suffered significant deterioration, and a strategy for its conservation and long-term maintenance is greatly needed. Restoration and renewed interpretation would benefit the local community and other visitors and could reinforce the historical connections to one of the world’s greatest poets."

Newstead has also been on the English Heritage 'Buildings at Risk' register since 1998 and there is a £1.35m restoration plan in place which appears to be making slow progress, especially considering how long concerns have been raised for.

The reduced opening hours will surely mean loss of interest in the Abbey by the public which will hardly increase the chances of success in the appeal for funds. I doubt it's what Sir Julian intended when he gave the abbey to the city either.

Hat tip - Nottstalgia forums

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

NCC Plays FoI Exemption Bingo

Back to my FoI request on the housing allocations scandal which I briefly discussed here.

You may remember that NCC initially claimed my request was vexatious, calling me obsessive and other unpleasant things. I challenged that and they came up with an entirely new set of reasons why I could only have a little bit of information. That was about as far as I got round to writing last time, citing laziness and a desire to get my next challenge in before blogging about it.

Well, the Information Commissioner kindly said I didn't need to send a completely new application in but obviously I needed to provide revised grounds to challenge the revised reasons why I can't be told anything. It took me about four days but these grounds are here and I have sent them winging their way to the ICO. Have a read of them if you like but be prepared for long-winded dreariness. It had to be like that for reasons I will now explain.

Basically, NCC appears to have attempted to cram in as many exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act as possible. Let me list them for you now;

Section 12 where the costs of gathering the information exceed a statutory limit

Section 30(1)(a) concerning investigations by public authorities

Section 31(1)(a), (b) and (h), all concerning law enforcement

Section 36(2)(b)(i) exempting information that could 'inhibit the free and frank provision of advice'. They had to get a 'qualified person' to decide that one you know

and finally, section 42, that exempts information that is covered by legal professional privilege, basically confidential lawyers' advice.

Remember, all that is AFTER they had originally relied on section 14, vexatious requests, which they then abandoned without any explanation after I had spent a significant amount of time preparing a challenge against it.

Now let's have a look at some of the stuff that they did tell me. Here's an interesting admission -

"For information, I can confirm that a meeting was requested with Councillor Collins however Nottinghamshire Police did not indicate the purpose of the meeting. Once it was established that the meeting related to housing allocations it was passed to Glen O’Connell to progress and Councillor Collins had no further involvement with
Nottinghamshire Police over the issue."

They don't give any date for this but it would be interesting to know if it was around the time that JoCo took over the Chair of Notts Police Authority.

Another suspicious looking snippet came from Chief Constable Julia Hodson in an email to Jane Todd -

"As a result I think that our communications people need to get together to mitigate the risks around the publication of the outcome."

NCCLols Translation Service; "We'd better get our story straight before the shit hits the fan".

Also, check out the significant redactions of that email. No explanation was given for that which is a breach of the duty to provide a proper refusal notice.

That's about it really. There are a couple more emails about meetings but nothing with any substance in them and one of them containing further unexplained redactions. In other words they told me nothing.

Still, the substantial issues are now before the ICO and NCC cannot be assured of their exemptions being supported. Whatever happens I suspect this case will go on to the Information Tribunal because I very much doubt that NCC would agree to release the info if the ICO supports any part of my case.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Not 'Vexatious' After All (But We Can't Bring Ourselves to Say It Out Loud)

Remember a little while back I had a couple of FoI requests refused on the grounds that they were vexatious? I got round one of them by getting the information elsewhere but the other ended up going to the Information Commissioner because NCC failed to deal with my request for a review. Which is so unlike them.

However, they have now responded (about 3 months late mind). It's quite interesting.

First thing to notice is that, despite the fact that my original request was clearly refused on the grounds of being vexatious, they seem to have forgotten about it by the time of the latest response. All they say is that they have failed in their duty under s.10(3) of the Act which, as far as I can tell is the provision that allows them to go beyond the normal 20 days for a full response if they are considering public interest arguments under a possible exemption.

This wasn't the situation at all. They refused on the grounds that my request was vexatious (although their reasons clearly showed that in fact, what they meant was that it was ME that is vexatious rather than the request which isn't allowed). This is an absolute exemption so there would be no need to consider the public interest.

It seems that NCC couldn't bring themselves to actually admit in writing that my request was not vexatious and that they were wrong to say that it was. Which is pretty pathetic really. Almost as pathetic as their rather obvious tactic of delaying responses by not dealing with requests properly until the Information Commissioner gets involved.

I'll be writing a separate post about the actual content of the response because a) I can't be arsed to deal with it right now and b) I need to consider how I'm going to challenge it first.

Friday, 23 September 2011

NCC Brings in ATOS Style 'Independent' Assessment for Disability Bus Passes (And Sneaks In Some Cuts to Eligibility)

People with certain disabilities are entitled to a Mobility Citycard which gives you free travel on buses and trams. This is part of the national scheme plus local discretion to include travel at peak times. If you get the higher rate of the Mobility Component of Disability Living Allowance you can apply without getting your GP to sign a declaration, if not you have to bother your doctor.

NCC has decided to change this though and has now decided to commission 'independent' assessment of disability by a private company. This is expected to cost the Council £480k over three years.

Such a tactic has echoes of national policy in that examinations for Employment Support Allowance are carried out by ATOS, a private company who has come up against considerable criticism.

The rhetoric involved is not too dissimilar as well. The Portfolio Holder decision (in the name of Jon Collins so don't expect him to have had any input into it or to know anything about it) justifies the cost on the basis that the move is likely to result in drop in eligibility of 15%, meaning a saving of £710k over the time of the contract. In other words, disabled people are swinging the lead and only the free market can save us. Sound familiar?

Another similarity is that there is a reduction in the eligibility rules being snuck in as part of the new arrangements. Disabled users will no longer get free travel in peak times, i.e. before 9.30am or after 11pm so those who have a job and/or a social life can obviously go and whistle. In addition, some disabled people will lose their right to have a companion travel with them. This is justified on the basis that the Mobility Component for DLA includes a payment for this. Except of course it doesn't really.

It's quite likely that it is these reductions in eligibility that will result in the expected savings rather than the use of the 'independent' assessor so why not ditch that and keep some of the eligibility?

Oh and the final comedy moment - Cllr 'Calamity' Jane Urquhart has disclosed that her own GP works for the appointed company, called 'Fit4Work' (can't find any definite info on these, mainly because 'Fit4work' is such an unimaginative name for a company involved in medical assessments that there's loads with that name). As such, to avoid any possibility of a conflict of interest she avoided taking the decision herself and gave it to JoCo, a well known safe pair of hands. Apparently they already do the Blue Badge stuff.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Baubles to You!

You might remember that last Christmas Nottingham City Council rented a big tree for Loxley House.

This was criticised by some due to the cost when people were losing their jobs. According to the Post's story at the time the tree cost £5k but this was offset by "...just over £1,000" in sponsorship with NCC aiming to cover the whole cost from sponsorship.

Unfortunately it a recent FoI response confirmed, as many suspected, that it didn't quite turn out that way.

Yes the tree cost £5k but the sponsorship raised turned out to be, well, only £550, rather than the above claim of just over £1000. It also turns out -

"...that in all cases, sponsorship/ donations were for the purposes of providing Christmas presents for needy children."

So. In fact NO sponsorship was raised to pay for the tree at all, it all went to the kiddies. Maybe the Post misunderstood?*

Addendum - Oh and look what JoCo said on Twitter when challenged back in July -

Maybe his tweet was "prepared by professional officers" like with his portfolio decisions...

*Probably not

(Hat tip - Sam Dixon)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

NCC Finally Completes the Full Circle in Social Work Leadership

Back in the day most councils had a 'Director of Social Service' in charge of a 'social services' department.

This department would be responsible for services to both adults and children, so adoptions, child protection, adult mental health, meals on wheels and all those myriad services were under one roof, with one Director in charge of them all.

Then the tragedy of Victoria Climbie's murder happened.

This resulted in a number of changes to the structure of social services including the separation of services for adults and children as part of the 'Every Child Matters' initiative, as it was felt that children were getting a poorer service by being lumped in with adults. As a result most councils ended up with an Adult Services and a Children's Services department with a Director atop each (Or 'Corporate Director' as they are called at NCC). Education was absorbed into Children's Services departments, as was always intended to ensure integration of the most important services for children and generally, following the hiving off of housing provision to ALMOs or sold off together, the rump of housing services tended to be absorbed into the Adults Services departments. As a result there generally wasn't an increase in the number of senior managers which of course is expensive and generally politically unpopular.

That's the sort of potted general background, now back to the more specific issues at NCC.

Anyway, as you know NCC has made quite a lot of cuts in recent years and fair enough, they reached as high as the Directors as well as the foot soldiers. As I wrote about at the time, Adult Services was absorbed into the Communities department and the Corporate Director for Adult Services took voluntary redundancy. This caused a problem because Michael Williams, the Corporate Director for Communities at the time, did not have any background in social work. A second tier Director post reporting to him was cobbled together to do the actual work but a further issue that this didn't deal with was that there is a statutory requirement to have a (Corporate) Director of Adult Services of the same seniority as the chief officer for Children's Services and, nominally at least, this was Williams.

This was allegedly fine until Williams retired and his temporary replacement wasn't able or willing to take the adult services role on. The solution was to appoint another Adults Services Chief Officer, at least temporarily, less than a year after the post was deleted. Good planning this was not.

Anyway, now things have moved on again because the Appointments and Conditions of Services Committee has considered a report recommending that the Adult Services chief officer role be passed to the Corporate Director for Children's Services. This apparently ticks all the boxes legally and organisationally.

Except, of course for the fact that NCC now has a combined Chief Officer for both adults and children which was apparently a bad idea eight years ago. He also looks after education too which wasn't a responsibility of the old Social Services director.

So we've come full circle. Deja Vu. Something will presumably have to give, it remains to be seen what.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Now Nottingham City Homes Gets It in the Freedom of Info Neck

A rather encouraging decision from the Information Rights Tribunal (the body to which you appeal if you are unhappy with a decision by the Information Commissioner) has come to my notice. It concerns Nottingham City Homes who, as I'm sure you all know, serves as the housing wing of Nottm City Council.

There are a couple of interesting aspects to this case. The applicant had asked for information about repair and improvement spend on two other properties in his block because he apparently suspected that was being denied repairs when others were being provided with them. It was initially claimed by NCH that such information was personal data because it concerned personal details of tenants. However, this was dismissed on the basis that there had been a number of different tenants at the property and so the information, if provided, wouldn't be necessarily linked to any one tenant.

The second interesting point was that the Information Commissioner found that the original request was 'vexatious', a fate that has befallen one of my own requests.

One of the reasons for this that was accepted by the Information Commissioner was that the applicant had used 'threatening and intimidating' language in his correspondence. The Tribunal prefers to describe it as 'intemperate' and says that -

"...experienced members of staff receiving such a letter would be unlikely to significantly concerned by its contents..."

In other words, get a bleedin' grip. It is quite offensive how large public authorities turn into fragile drama queens alleging 'harassment' when people understandably get upset and complain. It's encouraging that the Tribunal have a sense of proportion on this.

But perhaps the most important issue here is the Tribunal's disapproval of the way that the background to the dispute was taken into account when deciding the 'vexatious' issue.

Some background. It is an accepted principle that it must be the request for information itself that is vexatious, not the requester. On the other hand, caselaw has long accepted that the context of a request can and should be taken into account when deciding the vexatious issue.

Now there is clearly a very fine line between the two and you might argue that the two are contradictory. It can and does mean that campaigners can easily get caught up in the 'vexatious' quagmire.

Happily, this particular Tribunal has moved things a bit more favour of requesters (prior to this no appeals on vexatious requests had been accepted by the Information Tribunal) and said -

"The Tribunal is satisfied that in its response to the request for disclosure of information [NCH] has focused too much on the history of its relations with the Appellant and has not considered the request on its merits.'

Quite right too.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Community Protection Officers Up to No Good (Allegedly - In Part Anyway)

I saw a report in the Telegraph about Met officers and staff being caught illegally accessing the Police National Computer for their own ends. It reminded me of something similar locally.

There have been two incidents reported locally (here and here) concerning Community Protection Officers being accused of rape. In one case the CPO was found guilty of using the PNC to find out if the woman had reported the attack, although he was found not guilty of the rape itself*. In the other case, it is reported that the CPO is accused of three rapes, two sexual assaults and 'misuse of computer systems'. I personally wonder whether this was again checking up for victims' reports. This second case has yet to be tried.

Notts Police has been in trouble for computer security before so you'd think that everything would be done to minimise risk. I can't for one minute see why CPOs would ever need access to the PNC so surely it would make sense to simply not give it to them?

As I say the second case has yet to go to full trial but if he is also found guilty questions need to be asked, and answered. As the Gunn case demonstrated, crooks who manage to get hold of police info find it easier to stay lucky. With rape cases having such low conviction rates anyway that's the last thing women need.

*Campaigners concerned with the low rate of convictions in rape trials, not to mention the woman concerned herself, might see this result as a bit of a kick in the teeth. Clearly I don't know all the facts etc but you have to wonder how a jury can see the accused man's denial of rape carrying greater credibility than the victim's accusation when they clearly found him dishonest enough to hack the PNC and then lie about it.