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  • Trouble by the seaside

    Posted on February 17th, 2012 admin 2 comments

    Actually I had always quite liked the rubber-faced Education Secretary

    I fear I have become the first victim of a phenomenon that may become known as a “reverse Gove”.

    I’ve coined the term myself in homage to legendary Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, who managed to get the term “reverse ferret” into common parlance.

    His phrase was used when his paper would suddenly turn a full 180 degrees and praise the individual or policy it had hitherto been viciously attacking.

    Why am I the victim of a “reverse Gove”? It all stems from an allegedly obscene nursery rhyme about the seaside town of Hastings. The ditty was e-mailed by the town’s police chief Mark Ling from his force mobile. When the story emerged I put in a request saying I’d like to see the rhyme.

    First Sussex Police turned me down on the basis that the information was exempt under S.40. I appealed saying how could it be personal, seeing as it was at the centre of a disciplinary hearing, and that it was sent on a e-mail system that specifically warns people the content can be released under FoI legislation.

    Well I’ve waited a long time for the appeal ruling to come back and this week, not long after the guidance on Gove, I got my response.

    Sussex Police said that they had been incorrect to claim that it was exempt under S.40, but they were still not releasing it to me because it was “personal communication”.

    The response from Sussex Police says:

    It is my assertion that the rhyme was a personal written communication between a Sussex Police employee and a member of the public and therefore not official information covered by the act.  We are therefore not required to consider disclosure.

    In making this decision I have considered that whilst you are correct in stating that we have policies informing staff that private communications made on the organisations equipment can be monitored, Sussex Police nonetheless actively allows its staff to use work equipment for their own use.  This includes the sending of email, making personal calls or sending SMS messages.  To support this we have a process to allow staff who have provided phones to pay for personal calls and texts made.

    Whilst the rhyme itself may have been deemed as inappropriate to have been sent by a member of Sussex Police, it was not an official communication but was a personal communication outside of the provisions of the FOI act.

    As an aside we find ourselves in a difficult position in that a misconduct hearing conducted under the provisions of the Police Regulations has ruled that it was inappropriate for the information to have been ‘published’ by a member of our organisation (albeit privately) and therefore to release it under FOI to the general public would be exacerbating the wrongdoing.

    So it would appear that although Gove and his cronies have been rapped for sending official communications on personal systems, I’m being denied what is claimed to be the exact opposite: personal information sent through an official communications system.

    Now, as you might suspect, I don’t agree. If this had been a request for his shopping list or what time he was meeting friends then I’d accept the proposition.

    But this is significantly different. It is a communication that was allegedly derogatory in nature about the very town that he had the responsibility of policing. If it contained racist language, is that not a relevant cause for concern about the way racist crimes might be investigated?

    Sussex Police considered it so seriously that Mr Ling was the subject of a disciplinary hearing. Indeed after the hearing the force’s Assistant Chief Constable said: “The officer failed to uphold the values the public and the force expect of all our people and disciplinary action has been taken against him.”

    I’ll be appealing the decision to the ICO and would be grateful for any advice. Here is a link to one of the articles that came out at the time, and here is one after the disciplinary hearing was concluded.

    I’m also linking to FoIMan’s excellent blog which has a spicy debate with the inappropriately named Captain Sensible over the Gove e-mail business.

    PS. I do have some sympathy for Mr Ling. I spent six depressing months living in Hastings at journalism school (yes I did go to one) learning mainly shorthand. A quick internet search  came up with this description of the town from a band who had to play a gig there.

    Hastings. There is very little you can say about Hastings. It is low rent, full of kids and all those kids are drunk with kids of their own. Need I say more.

    Even when Foyle was in Hastings the place was a crime hotspot.

  • Leave FoI alone you nincompoops

    Posted on February 15th, 2012 admin 1 comment

    Another great idea

    The publication of statements yesterday relating to the consultation on the future of Freedom of Information has, I suspect, left many of us gloomy.

    I have always thought the powers-that-be, when faced with the stark realisation of just what they had given birth to, would attempt to smother FoI as soon as politically possible.

    Their last attempt was scuppered with help from a well organised campaign from the press and the opportune timing of the MPs expenses scandal – brought to us with the help of FoI.

    Now the politicians and civil servants have risen from the dead in true local council zombie invasion style (in joke), and are coming back for a second attempt. I’m afraid I’m not optimistic that we can fight them off again.

    Why the pessimism? Firstly the press has got a battle for its own survival going on, so can be forgiven for taking its eye off the ball for a while. How upsetting is it that the clowns who hacked into the phones of non-celebrities could potentially be responsible for the retreat of FoI?

    Secondly we have the excuse of austerity. “When we are making people redundant and cutting essential services why should we be answering questions about how many toilet rolls we use?” On the face of it the argument seems powerful, but unravels if we look at it more closely. There is a saying that some people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing – it could have been coined for FoI.

    The transparency and accountability of FoI gives these public bodies the legitimacy to govern us. Without it where will they be? They seem not to realise that FoI acts as deterrent and antidote to corruption and vested interests. I’m not saying that take FoI away and you’ll have rioting in the streets similar to Athens – but you create that risk.

    Finally we have the argument that FoI has not improved Government. If ever there were an example of why Government isn’t improving, it is this piece of “research”. It was never for FoI to improve Government, it was for the people who govern us! FoI was supposed to act as the disinfectant or the light to allow the citizen to see that we were being well governed. Well we’ve had a look and we don’t like what we’ve seen, so what do the authorities suggest? A) Put their house in order or (B) turn the lights out so we can live in ignorance once again? Amazing.

    So with this three pronged attack, what will happen?

    In a bizarre way I’m relatively optimistic despite what I’ve already said, as I don’t think now there is a hope of squeezing the FoI genie back into the bottle.

    But there will be changes and one of the changes they are looking at is introducing a fee. This is such a bad idea, both in a practical and a philosophical way, that I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what we end up with.

    Why would it be so wrong?

    1. Any marketing expert will tell you that you can’t have a product called the Freedom of Information Act and then charge £10 for it. If Tesco said chickens were free and then charged you a tenner for them, you’d be angry, annoyed and you’d think Tescos was run by idiots.
    2. Any fee, be it £10 or £50, is going to be complicated to administer. When do the 20 days start? When the funds have cleared? The fee will not actually make any money for the authorities to offset the cost of FoI, but will just sit there to act as a deterrent to questions.
    3. If you think things are complicated now, just wait until you start charging. When people are made to pay, they will complain more, and they’ll sue. The vast majority of authorities treat FoI seriously now, but everybody will have to shift up a gear if it’s a service that’s charged for. I confidently predict that although the number of requests might plummet the number of appeals will more than make up the workload deficit.

    To my shame I didn’t send in a submission to Parliament. But just so as to conform to everybody’s hatred of journalists going of FoI fishing missions, I’m sending out a request to all the Cambridge colleges today (organisations that amazingly think they should now be completely exempted from FoI) asking them how the value of their wine cellars compares with the grants they give to less well off students.

  • The camera never lies……

    Posted on February 2nd, 2012 admin No comments

    Clegg and Cameron

    Eric and Ernie, Barker and Corbett, Keegan and Toshack are all great double acts. Few would disagree. At one point in history you might even have added Brown and Blair to that list, as everybody spent the money they didn’t earn propelling us to our present economic meltdown. But will anybody ever mention Cameron and Clegg in those same terms – I fear not.

    What makes a great double act? I would suggest it is that the individuals, although they may have different qualities and attributes, are widely perceived to be roughly equal in talent and skill. Also they are made individually better because they act as a foil for their partner. So when Toshack heads the ball on for Keegan to crack it in the back of the net; it’s the same as Ernie feeding Eric a gag.

    Now let’s look at the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of British politics – Cameron and Clegg. After their initial love-in at the No.10 garden, things haven’t gone great for the No.2 man.

    Clegg has been made to look a chump by doing the mother of all U-turns on tuition fees and managed to get snared in an unwinnable PR referendum, which means the Liberals will forever be on the fringes of politics.

    I’ve now been supplied with a FoI response from the Cabinet Office, sent only after I got the Information Commissioner involved, which shows just how seriously Clegg is taken inside Government.

    Those of you who have read this blog before will know I was trying to find out the communication between No.10 and Wimbledon in relation to the deputy MP helping himself to complimentary tickets for the women’s final this year – an event which two of my family attended AFTER winning a raffle AND then paying £200.

    The Cabinet Office said they could find no record of him having attended the event! But I saw him on television hobnobbing in the Royal Box.

    When I found a photo of him at the event and sent that to the Commissioner the Cabinet Office did at last find a record of the information.

    But let’s look at the excuse. Does it give us an insight into just how highly regarded Clegg must be considered within No.10.

    “The search for information in response to your initial request was co-ordinated by two members of staff (one inside No.10 and one for the rest of the Cabinet Office). Each thought that the other had contacted the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, when in fact neither had. I am very sorry for this oversight. I have now taken steps to make the search process more robust in future cases.”

    Ignored by not just one official but two!

    If you want to see the whole of the letter it is here No10, and the actual e-mail exchange in which Clegg first tries to go on a day when there is no tennis and then seems more concerned about who else will be in the Royal Box is here Emails.