Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Sometimes, Sorry Is The Hardest Word...

A mixture of *facepalm* and sympathy for a particular Information Governance worker today.

NCC's latest solution to its inability/unwillingness to respond to FoI requests is to send apology letters to all those cases still waiting on the Whatdotheyknow website. At time of writing 12 had been sent out.

Not sure that's the best use of a chap's morning but that's for his manager to decide.Wonder how many of these are down to being held up by the Comms team due to the non PR friendly nature of the answer.

Two of the letters have gone out to me but they forgot the one where I've been waiting 8 1/2 months for any response at all. The ICO told me that decision notice is going out on this on this week. If it's still ignored it's contempt of court time.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Gor Bless Ya Ma'am

Turns out that Cllrs Chapman, James and Unczur approved a grant of £600 for a Royal Wedding street party on the date of the royal nuptials back in April.

What a load of old bollocks.

Can't see why a grant for a party in April wasn't approved* until July. Must have been a bit risky going ahead without knowing you could pay for it but there you go.

*Officially approved anyway

Is the Enemy of My Enemy My Friend?

No, is the short answer.

One of the problems with writing critically about the public sector, especially an element of the public sector that happens to be a Labour administration, is that you can end up attracting the attentions of and being linked to a range of rightist wingnuts.

Examples I've had include being followed by Grant Schapps on Twitter, my Freedom of Info trials and tribulations being featured by the Taxpayers Alliance (I'm not linking) and finding myself uncomfortably close to Eric Pickles' views on NCC's (lack of) transparency. However, my views on Eric Pickles are in fact much closer to JoCo's i.e. he's a pie faced buffoon.

The TPA is particularly opportunistic and hypocritical because, although JoCo has repeatedly exaggerated the costs of FoI, it's a fact that openness does come at an extra cost, not something the TPA is known to be in favour of. They get round this by claiming to be 'transparency campaigners' but they're particularly selective on that front. For example, we haven't heard much from them about the government and Prime Minister's links with the Murdoch empire. There are several million other ways in which they are full of shit but space is tight.

For that reason I should perhaps let people know that I write from a left/liberal point of view and I am very much in favour of and believe in a strong public sector. If you're looking for an ally for your market based pro private sector 'solutions' you won't find one in me. On the other hand I'm passionately against abuse of power in any form, wherever it may be.

The flipside of having a strong belief in the public sector is that I get very unhappy when I see it being abused and that's my motivation for writing the blog. I'm not really that interested in the fact that NCC is nominally a Labour council and I do in fact support a number of its policies, particularly those around transport. My criticisms tend to be organisational rather than policy based and, unfortunately, organisations that claim to be of the left tend to be just as susceptible to such problems as those of the right.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

You're Not Interested in That Are You?

There's been a slight re-arrangement of NCC's website, specifically index. Here it is

There used to be an item in there called 'Council and Democracy' which was where you'd find all the various meeting minutes and agendas, the constitution etc. Basically, the stuff that 75% of this blog is based on and of interest to anyone who wants to take a bit more interest in what goes on at the council than just what day your bins are emptied.

So, why has it been taken off the front page? Is NCC getting a bit less keen on citizens taking an active interest on what their local taxes are spent on?

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Framework's Judicial Review of City's Supporting People Cuts Failed

One from earlier in the year that I missed. Can't really find anything in local media and blogs either except in the NCH Bulletin.

It seems that Framework Housing's application to have NCC's Supporting People cuts Judicially Reviewed was refused back in March, according to an article in 'Inside Housing'.

It's not overly surprising, judicial reviews of governmental policy decisions, both local and national, are somewhat hit and miss but what is interesting is IH's reporting that correspondence between JoCo and DCLG "...indicated that the city’s formula grant allocation for the coming year includes at least £19.8 million for Supporting People..." whereas NCC cut its SP budget by 45% to £12.4m.

That £19.8m figure appears to have come from this letter from Grant Schapps to JoCo sent in January. The thing is that 'Supporting People' no longer has a ring fenced amount provided by central government. It was decided to roll SP into the overall 'Formula Grant' from this year (a decision actually made by the previous Labour administration) meaning that councils can more or less spend it as they see fit. This is probably why the JR action was refused; it was a local decision as to how to allocate formula grant to SP and other services and NCC's decision was not considered to breach the limits of 'rationality'.

I've touched on this before but as JoCo is still going about the place saying that it was the Tory Government that cut SP by 45% not NCC, it perhaps bears repeating. The Tory government axed NCC's overall 'spending power', a new measure which includes contributions to NHS and other services and thus probably disguises the true extent of cuts, by 8.9%. NCC calculates that this is equivalent to a cut to the actual council of 16.5%. Lets make no mistake this was an appalling and unjustified cut and we must continue to challenge it.

However, it was NCC that decided to disproportionately cut Supporting People by 45% rather than apply a proportional cut of 16.5% (or less for that matter), while at the same time protecting funding for Community Protection Officers (waste of space and a remnant of Labour's authority wank) and children's centres (more justifiable). We must all continue to challenge this with equal determination and Collins could do us all a favour and come clean.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

I Remember It Well..

Many readers will have happy memories of sitting around for hours at this location, wondering what had happened to their benefit claim.

This is where the Housing Benefit offices used to be

...whereas now there's just a great big hole.

Some might suggest that's all it ever was, a big hole for losing housing benefits applications in. Such people are obviously bitter and twisted and have no place on a blog like this. Oh no.

If you're wondering what they did wth the management, here's another shot, this time giving you a clear view of the passage they used to report their works to Satan...

...I'm not sure they've been seen for a while.

Friday, 8 July 2011

How Much Does Freedom of Information Cost?

Back to JoCo on Twitter again for the latest in his campaign to discredit Freedom of Information.

Firstly, he told the Save Supporting People campaign that FoI costs NCC £500k pa and that you 'could save a lot of services with that'.

Ignoring the fact that you probably couldn't save 'a lot' of services with £500k, maybe one or two perhaps, it does seem strange that NCC is spending the equivalent of five housing scandal 'investigations' just on Freedom of Information.

Especially seeing as a report to the Overview and Scrutiny Committee last year said that at full strength (at the time there were two posts open), the whole Information Governance service had a compliment of SEVEN staff. And they have to deal with Data Protection as well.

Even allowing for 'on-costs' that suggests that the average salary in Info Gov is around £58k. Don't tell the Daily Mail.

What Does He Mean?

JoCo is behaving a little strangely on Twitter atm. If I didn't know that he was a man of impeccable integrity I'd be wondering if he was hinting at something. It started with this -


Somebody then asked him what he was on about...

to which he replied...

Well, that's cleared that up then!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Jon Collins Receives the News that the Post Has Defied Him

Yes, we've done a 'Downfall' parody at long last. See the previous post if you want the background. It is a bit sweary though so prob best not to watch it at work.

Now all there is to do is wait for the trained idiots to write in with their 'outrage' at me comparing Collins to Adolf, like an internet meme never happened.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

JoCo Parks His Tanks on the Post's Lawn

It seems that Collins was a bit rattled by the Post's recent reporting of his apparent refusal to let NCC's Information Governance staff search his emails for a FoI request. So rattled in fact that he's made a subject access request to the Post asking for any information they hold on him and written a blog post about it.

JoCo says -

"I believe this was misleading since all my Council e-mails are covered by the act..."

Well yes, we know that but stating that the emails are covered by the FoI Act doesn't explain why the Post's article was misleading. Information being covered by the Act is not necessarily inconsistent with a public authority withholding that information; it just means that the authority is in breach of the Act. Is JoCo saying that he didn't try and stop his emails being searched and that the Post was lying or had made a mistake? Perhaps he'll be going to the Press Complaints Commission about it?

He goes onto claim -

"... the Council has spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of City tax-payers money providing this information to the Nottingham Post."

Ah, the oft claimed NCC Freedom of Info victim status makes an appearance. Except of course NCC hasn't spent hundreds of thousands of ponds on providing JoCo's emails to the Post, he's referring to the total spend of NCC's FoI obligations. A sum inflated by NCC's often unjustified attempt to avoid disclosure requiring unnecessary and time-consuming trips to the Information Commissioner.

Cllr Collins of course has as much right to make a request for information under the Data Protection Act as any other citizen and the Post of course has a duty to treat his request in the same way it would treat a request by anybody else. In the event, the Post has refused his request under s.32 of the Data Protection Act, an exemption to disclosure rights for information that has been processed for journalistic purposes. JoCo says this is hypocritical.

But is it? Well it is conceivable that SOME of the information the Post has on JoCo isn't necessarily connected with its journalism . Furthermore, JoCo rightly points out that there is a public interest consideration for this exemption. JoCo presumably considers that there is no public interest in not providing the information to him. He would therefore be entirely justified with pursuing a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

I have to admit that Data Protection is not my strong point but you can see why there is an exemption for journalistic purposes, even though I can understand that it would be frustrating for an individual affected. Journalists need to protect their sources and people may be less willing to help journalists if they know that the subject of an investigation will see a copy of any info they provide. Even if any personal details are redacted it may well be possible to identify a whistleblower from the nature of the information concerned. I'm sure journalists could come up with a number of other reasons. Some of the info held may also be wrong and providing it to the data subject may open a journalistic source to a defamation claim. Again, the risk of this may well cause sources to dry up.

Furthermore, it seems clear that JoCo is only making the request to make a point (more on possible motivations in a bit) which hardly assists his public interest arguments. You might even see a parallel with the 'vexatious' request provisions in the FoIA, although there isn't an equivalent provision in data protection as far as I know.

But what if that isn't his motivation and he is in fact trying to find out who's been dobbing him in at the council? What would that say about his respect for journalists' responsibility to protect sources? I've left a comment on his blog post asking that very point and it will be interesting to see if a) he publishes it (it was subject to moderation last time I looked and I wouldn't be surprised if it stayed there, JoCo has form on that) and b) if he answers it. I'll update if he does.

Update - 10.30pm and my comment on JoCo's blogpost is STILL awaiting moderation

Monday, 4 July 2011

Housing Benefit Expenditure

It's not one of mine (because that would be 'vexatious' and we can't have that can we?) but there's an interesting FoI response on the 'What Do They Know' website about Housing Benefit expenditure.

The reply gives us the figures for actual expenditure on Housing Benefit and the number of claimants for the last three financial years. Expenditure has increased from £105,437,333 for 2008/9 to £125,973,607 in 2010/11, an increase of just under 20%. It's not a particularly meaningful comparison but to put that in context if expenditure had increase purely by the rate of inflation it would have increased to £109,654,826.

Furthermore, and partly in explanation for the above inflation increase in expenditure, the number of claimants rose from 30,465 to 34,085, an increase of about 11%. This means average annual expenditure per claimant has risen from £3461 to £3695, whereas by inflation alone it would have been £3599.

It's not clear what conclusions we can draw from this. I certainly don't think it is fair to blame NCC, in fact it's more arguable that NCC and the various advice agencies have been successful in increasing awareness of HB entitlement in Nottingham which is a good thing. I also don't feel safe in drawing any conclusions about rent levels due to the complex way in which HB is calculated, other variables include government set 'applicable amounts' (a kind of income threshold above which HB entitlement starts to reduce) and of course people's incomes.

I do feel on stronger ground in guessing that the figures are hardly consistent with a booming and expanding Nottingham economy. "No shit Sherlock", I hear you cry and you'd be right; it's no secret that the economy is in the shit pit and has been over the period covered by the figures. And despite NCC's tendency to claim the credit for any inward investment or other economy boosting measures in the city, government in the UK is highly centralised and I don't really think councils really have that much power to buck the national trend.