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.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Riots # 4 - The NCH Tenancy Agreement and Eviction

There has been a lot of political bluster by local politicians threatening fire and brimstone, in particular the threat of eviction for any council tenants found to be involved in the riots. Oh, and their parents, even though they may have had no idea what their kids were doing at the time and no reason to suspect they would be up to no good.

Some people have wondered whether this could actually happen so I've dug out what seems to be the latest NCH tenancy agreement. In addition I'm looking at this basic advice page* from Shelter.

The first stop is that if you are an introductory tenant, which the vast majority of council tenants will be for the first 12 months of their tenancy, you have pretty much diddley squat in terms of rights because you can be evicted without NCH having to demonstrate any grounds to do so.

Once you are a full secure tenant then the landlord does have to show grounds, although in many cases eviction isn't a foregone conclusion, a judge has to decide whether it is reasonable to evict you.

A key and often wide ranging ground is a breach of any term of the tenancy agreement. With the antisocial behaviour political juggarnaut having been steaming along for over a decade, tenancy agreements tend to have lots of things in them that could be applied to alleged rioters and their families. Scroll to para 3.12 (page 10) of the tenancy agreement for a read.

Para 1 makes it clear that NCH holds you responsible for anyone living at your home, any friends, visitors etc. So if the gas meter guy pops up and starts screaming racial abuse at the neighbours then theoretically...

In all seriousness, para 2 gets to the nitty gritty and forbids the tenant, others at the property etc causing a nuisance (ok, we expect that) or annoyance (what?) to anyone in Nottingham (whaaat!!!???).

There is more but as you can see there is enough there to catch anybody who is proven to have had any part in the riots.

As I say, proving a ground does not automatically mean you are evicted, the judge has to agree that it is reasonable. The key thing here then is to get advice and assistance asap if you find yourself in the middle of this shitstorm.

My own opinion is that dealing with crimes should normally be left for the criminal justice system and people should only lose their homes if they receive a prison sentence long enough to mean that their tenancy is no longer sustainable. Unfortunately, politicians are always looking for ways to look tough and they have an opportunity on a plate here. I suspect however that too much tough action against otherwise innocent family members will lead to a backlash, especially in Nottingham where the fairness of council house allocations has little credibility anyway.

*Note, don't take this article as legal advice, I've glossed over details and allsorts, my point is to demonstrate how the legal framework is well and truly in place for evictions of rioters and their families, although it isn't inevitable. If this happens to you, just make sure you get advice as soon as you can. You might want to try Notts Housing Advice as a first port of call or you can search for a solicitor here.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Notts Police Authority See No Evil etc

Sorry to upset the current lovefest and hero worship for our wonderful police force following their apparently effective handling of the local riots and I suppose I should also apologise for again reviving the festering pustule that is the housing allocations scandal.

I thought I'd try a bit of a curveball in my attempts at getting hold of information about how aa bunch of NCC and NCH employees got away with nicking a load of council houses. So I sent a FoI request to Notts Police Authority (as opposed to Notts Police themselves, more on that in a bit) asking about any communications, meetings etc they'd had where the subject had come up.

After all, NPA's job is to monitor Notts Police's performance so if there were any doubts about their failure to look into the misappropriation of council houses you'd think that they'd have reason to discuss it wouldn't you? And that would pop up all sorts of difficult 'conflict of interest' questions for any NCC councillors also serving on NPA including, of course, its Chair.

Strangely, the Whatdotheyknow site got its wires crossed and initially sent my request to Notts Police itself. What could have been a slight irritation turned out to be quite interesting as their response confirmed that they held such information but refused it on the grounds of an exemption under s.30 FoIA, investigations into crime. They said the information had been previously requested and refused and the matter was currently before the Information Commissioner.

The thing is, I understood that the justification for Notts Police letting NCC investigate the matter themselves was that there was, in their opinion, no evidence of a crime. Furthermore, this is a 'qualified' exemption i.e. the public interest must be considered. This is one to watch therefore.

Anyway, back to Notts Police Authority.

Their response was that they did NOT hold any information related to the housing allocations scandal. In other words, NPA has never discussed Notts Police's decision not to investigate the matter itself, no meetings have been held to discuss it and, most amusingly, no NPA members have had any contact with police or council officers to discuss it.

I find that one a bit difficult to believe meself. Might have to follow it up.

So we have Nottingham City Council and Notts Police doing everything they can to cover up what happened and now the Police Authority seem to be playing the see/hear/say no evil thing. Not good.

PS If you are the person who submitted the FoI request to Notts Police mentioned above, please do get in touch and let me know how you are getting on.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Riots # 3

One of the surprising things about the Nottingham Riots is that I haven't seen a single word of criticism about the way Notts police handled things. In fact everything I have read points to them dealing with matters pretty much as you would hope they would.

Also refreshingly we don't appear to have had any of the ridiculously over the top sentencing for what are often minor offences so far. A judge has thrown himself into the verbal attacks on those before him but you kind of expect that these days.

What a good job therefore that we can rely on fucking idiots like Jon Collins vigourously wanking themselves into a frenzy of frothy revenge fantasy in order to keep up appearances. This is the lying bastard who has done everything possible to protect the crooks who stole Nottingham's council houses as well as looting taxpayers' funds to pay his consultant mates £100,000s with no lawful authority*.

Stinking hypocrite, it's people like that who should be up in front of the beak.

*And Collins, if you're reading this, remember that if you sue me you'll have to produce the evidence that Tinworth was lawfully engaged which your officers have been unable to do so far. And we both know that the last thing you want is a court looking into the housing allocations scandal.

Good News!

No really! And it's about freedom of information too! Not shitting you I PROMISE!!!

Anyway, via a slightly bizarre route*, I have received confirmation that NCC is planning on publishing all its FoI responses on its website.

This is an excellent development and, not only will it increase openness, it will hopefully reduce information governance staff workloads a bit too. So they'll have more time to answer all those extra FoI requests we've all got saved up! (only joking).

But yes, good stuff, lets keep it up and all that and I hope it works ok.

*I originally asked about this on the questions for full council bit of the website because, naively perhaps, I thought it was a policy issue that the politicians would have to decide. I was a bit confused when it got shunted off to FoI. Not least because I wasn't accused of being vexatious...

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Riots and Hypocrisy Part 2

After my last post it occurred to me that I was concentrating entirely on the hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. It might be worth remembering that such double vision is rife among other social classes as well.

Over the last couple of days I've been talking to a former Nottingham resident in his mid 40s. He's been condemning the rioters in florid terms with a tasty bit of racism thrown in. Sending people back on the 'banana boat' was one of his solutions.

Thing is, this person used to work for Nottingham City Council's street cleansing department. He has repeatedly and proudly regaled me of all the things he'd nicked from the stores during his time there, in fact he's shown me a few of the goodies as well. He tells me that it's rife and tolerated by management, although this could simply be to try and claim some legitimacy for his actions.

Obviously I can't identify him and it's perhaps worth saying that he's not the sharpest tool in the box so it might be asking a bit much to expect him to see any connection between robbing taxpayers in this way and those who loot shops. Certainly he sees no problem with telling me, a Nottingham council tax payer in years past, about his escapades despite directly contributing to my taxes increasing.

Of course he's not alone. It quite likely is rife at NCC. I suspect if you challenged any of those doing it they would respond with tales of how management treat them badly (and if it were a worker in the Woolsthorpe depot they'd have a point), poor pay etc. These are valid issues. Looking wider how many of the rest of use are quite happy to justify our own casual lawbreaking? Speeding kills children but anybody caught is full of righteous indignation about how the police should concentrate on 'real criminals'. I've sat in pubs while blokes come in selling knock-off cigarettes which deprives the exchequer of much needed taxes. I've argued online on photography forums with a serving police officer justifying his use of overseas ebay sellers which falsely mark £1500 lens packages with 'no commercial value' in order to avoid import duties. This is a key selling point of these merchants, they even offer a guarantee that if you are clobbered with duties they will refund them, confident that Customs and Excise only have the resources to check a tiny minority of packages.

Think about the levels of hypocrisy on that last one. A publicly employed law enforcement official using a service which illegally deprives the UK government of taxes and helps to put UK companies out of business.

The fact is that society is riddled with 'respectable' crimes, crimes that aren't 'real crimes', crimes that 'don't really matter' and that we 'shouldn't worry about'. We're all guilty of it. Yet we all excuse it when it's us that do it.

Of course when it's 'them', 'over there', those who aren't 'one of us' it's different, out come the pitchforks. Some of the magistrates salivating over 'making an example' of the recent troublemakers would do well to subject themselves to close examination of their own lifestyles and bear them in mind before throwing away the key.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


So we got riots in Nottingham too. We can still kick it with the big boys eh? We're still nationally relevant aren't we?

Obviously I'm being ridiculously obtuse for comic effect. Or it would be comic effect if it was actually funny. I ummed and ahhed about writing about any of this because I really wasn't sure if I had anything useful to say. Time will tell I suppose.

The thing I've been asking myself is why did riots occur in Nottingham? It's not like the entire country has been engulfed in civil disorder, it seems to have been confined to a few urban areas, London obviously, Manchester/Salford and Birmingham as far as I know saw significant problems, although there was some less serious trouble in Leicester. Why these and not, say, Leeds or anywhere in Scotland or Wales.

An easy answer of course is poverty. The Guardian made an interesting map of the London riots against deprivation and there certainly appears to be some visual correlation there. Nottingham does have areas which are very much at the upper lower worse end of deprivation indices. It's also probably not controversial to suggest a certain 'copycat' element  and of course, the reality is that individuals are making bad, selfish, destructive decisions about how to behave.

It's this latter element that the right wing tends to concentrate on in isolation whereas us lefties are duty bound to think about the first. I think there's more to it than that and it's important to remember that just because one explanation has merit doesn't mean that none of the others do. As a lefty I would never try to argue that a person in a hoody making his way into town and smashing his way into JDSports is entirely blameless and had no choice in what he was doing because it's poverty innit. Such a person is an individual and is capable of making his own decisions. However, context does, I believe have an impact in how often those decisions turn out to be bad but that context does not mean the individuals shouldn't be held to account.

Another crucial aspect of context is, I believe, the example set by authority. Again there is a certain amount of selectivity in how this is discussed by the right, concentrating almost exclusively on bad parenting, as if our parents are the only examples of behavioural standards in our lives. Of course this can be a factor and it's right to discuss that. But what is often forgotten, mainly because our politicians have an absolute vested interest in never acknowledging it in any way whatsoever, is the example set by those in power. I'm talking here about how politicians, police, judges, media bigwigs, councillors etc behave.

Things the British public have been expected to swallow uncomplainingly include MPs massively defrauding their expenses with only a tiny proportion held to account, bankers looting our financial system with barely a job lost, being bailed out by public funds and then going out and doing it again with bonuses back at boomtime levels. Meanwhile we're told that because of this bailout we have to endure years of austerity.

We have had to watch how the phone hacking scandal has unfolded after years of denial from the Metropolitan Police, now followed by numerous media figures arrested and a growing list of resignations and investigations into senior police officers.

Locally we have had to sit by as the Housing Allocations scandal has been covered up by local politicians who then feel able to threaten rioters (or their parents) with eviction*. There have been absolutely no evictions for illegally obtained council houses and one councillor publicly implicated was rewarded with a spell as Lord Mayor with the investigation into his behaviour strangely making no progress throughout his entire term of office and now extending way beyond the election. While our local police force appears to be dealing with the current disturbances well, they were entirely complicit in allowing NCC to cover up the housing scandal.

The Post has said the police are expecting an extra bill of £400k for the riots and this is clearly bad news but let's remember that they were happy to shell out £700k on a doomed and corrupt operation to stop a protest at Ratcliffe power station. A fine example to us all.

I understand of course that, just as we were all told by our teachers when we were very small, two wrongs don't make a right. But if you constantly see these powerful people constantly getting away with allsorts, while you can't get a council house and maybe got beaten up by the police at a demo recently, you may not feel as committed to the high minded principles of law and order and responsibilities for your actions as you once did. Multiply this up to a societal level and the chances of a breakdown of law and order is bound to increase as more people think 'why bother?'

So yes, of course those individuals have individual responsibility for their actions down at JDSports but our politicians and other people of power need to get their own houses in order and accept their responsibility for creating this context. I would at least then feel a bit more enthusiastic and supportive of the calls for condemnation that are being parrotted robotically by our politicians at the moment.

*Addendum - they have also issued calls for private landlords to evict people as well.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Cunning Stunt

You might guess from the title that I'm not a particularly happy blogger. And if you'd guessed 'Freedom of Information' you'd be spot on but I don't think that deserves a prize.

This one goes back to the Radford Unity Complex affair. That's the one where a Nottingham Arts group were strangely offered a former school at around half its market value and the council's legal services forgot to take into account that there were a bunch of community groups based there who hadn't been consulted properly and hadn't been served a valid notice to quit. The arts group were represented by an agency called Artreach.

So, I thought it might be an idea to ask for details of all the negotiations between NCC and Artreach because it seemed a bit fishy that there should be such a rush to get this particular group into a former council property at the expense of a number of voluntary groups and at an apparent loss. And there was evidence of JoCo being involved too.

So, I made my request on 8 November 2010 and NCC acknowledged it the same day. Then silence until I requested an internal review on 8 December 2010. This was acknowledged the next day and that was the last time I heard from them until today.

In the meantime I sent numerous chase-ups, the ICO wrote on 9 March 2011 instructing NCC to reply within 10 days which was ignored. By that I mean that the ICO told me clearly that NCC did not respond to any of their letters and chase-ups. Despite this it took until 28 July for the ICO to issue a decision notice which, because NCC had not provided any response at all, could only be framed with reference to s.10 of the FoIA i.e. the time limits for a reply.

Now, give it 5 days and suddenly NCC provides a response. After over 8 months. Here is the reply they sent.

As you can see, they have refused to provide the information under s.43(2) FoIA i.e. that its release could damage the council's commercial interests. The effect of this is that I am back at square one with regards to challenging the refusal because the ICO decision notice couldn't deal with s.43(2) because they obviously had no idea NCC would rely on it. I thought I was cynical but I have to admit I didn't see that one coming.

Now I was recently accused by a commenter of being a 'conspiracy theorist' so if he's still around I suggest he sits up and pays attention. Because I am extremely suspicious of a public authority ignoring a FoI request for 8 months, 7 months longer than the time limit for a reply, then, 5 days after the decision notice arrives, issuing a refusal notice on the grounds of an exemption.

Now why would they do that? Surely it would have been sensible to issue the refusal notice a bit sooner, keep the ICO informed of what was going on and then any appeal I make to the ICO could have included arguments around the exemption relied on. The only 'good' answer to this is that it took Legal Services all this time to draw up the grounds for refusal which, bearing in mind how they dealt with the RUC issues, isn't totally unbelievable.

The thing is, there is no actual time limit in the legislation for dealing with internal reviews. Guidance says 20 working days (as does NCC's own procedure) but a quick leaf through website's NCC pages reveals that this is rarely complied with. So I have to sit and wait for NCC to do an internal review (which I have requested natch) and, presuming a refusal, go to the Information Commissioner again. Worse still, if NCC simply ignores my review request, the ICO is likely to simply 'instruct' NCC to provide a reply within 20 working days and it's a hell of a battle to get them to take such cases seriously. Essentially, we're probably looking at at least as long again before we get a result and that depends on the ICO finding in my favour which can't be relied on.

I'm sorry but is there anybody reading this who doesn't think this was deliberate? A particularly dishonest ruse to stop or seriously delay a matter that might embarrass JoCo and others reaching the public domain? All this delay being a mistake? Bollocks on stilts.