Saturday, January 09, 2010

There will be a growing spotlight on Castlereagh Borough Council ... but will it be easy to find out what's gone on?

Castlereagh Borough Council logo

Castlereagh Borough Council have come to public attention in recent days. Thursday night’s Spotlight programme made allegations (amongst others) that Castlereagh councillor Iris Robinson didn’t declare her pecuniary interest in a business venture (of her lover Kirk McCambley) that was awarded a lease by the council. That’s a criticism of an individual councillor rather than the overall council.

The council was quick to issue a statement on Friday morning to say:

“At a cross party meeting held this morning, the Acting Chief Executive was instructed to instigate a full investigation. In the interests of good governance, the Council will keep the local government auditor fully informed of this process.”

However, the involvement of property developers so willing to give substantial* £25,000 loans has started to resurrect old questions about perceptions of planning decisions in the borough (at least one instance of more houses being built than the sewage system could support) and the close relationships between politicians and figures in the property industry.

(*In mid-2008, £25,000 was still a lot of money, particularly in the property development trade which was feeling the pinch and would shortly have some high profile casualties.)

Peter Robinson resigned from Castlereagh Borough Council in July 2007, leading to the co-option of the borough’s current mayor Laurence Walker. Incidentally, the Robinson’s son Gareth was elected as a councillor in the same Castlereagh East district as his mother Iris in the 2005 elections. Though at no time has the media suggested he was aware of his mother’s financial dealings.

Promotional picture from the Lock Keeper's Inn cafe website

Lots of questions are now being asked of Castlereagh Council. Many will deal with the process around the awarding of the lease for Lock Keeper’s Inn café. Others will be looking into property, financial and procedural matters that should have been investigated long ago.

So what kind of response can broadcasters, print journalists and other inquirers expect to receive from Castlereagh Borough Council? Card-carrying journalists may fare well for information that is easy and straightforward to be shared. Some of the queries could be simply answered by reading through minutes of Council meetings and committees … but that’s not as straightforward as you’d imagine.

Regular readers will realise that the blog had a bit of a focus on local government accountability last autumn. Some councils like Belfast and Lisburn city councils automatically make a lot of information available to ratepayers and can be lauded as examples of best practice in accountability.

(I’m being generous to Lisburn given their recent failing to reply to an FOI within the 20 working day legal limit. After more than 40 working days, and after an email mentioning that the Information Commissioner’s Office would be willing to investigate the breach of their legal obligations, they did respond.

The information they are so far unable to share? Minutes of the Joint Castlereagh Lisburn voluntary transition committee that is working through the implications of merging the two councils if/when the RPA legislation is enacted.

The response was a delay. The matter would be discussed at the next meeting of the joint committee on the 21 January, after which they promise to be in touch.

They’re still seem to be in breach of the FOI Act, and have so far omitted to issue a refusal notice – that is used to cite the exemptions and relevant sections/subsections of the FOI Act that are being used to justify any delay to publication or decision.)

Castlereagh Borough Council homepage - captured in September 2009

Castlereagh Borough Council publish a very little administrative information online. Which means having to ask for information, and very quickly strays into the world of FOI, or Freedom of Information. In fact, back in early September 2009, their website no longer even referenced their Publication Scheme or Definition Document, which proved to be something of a surprise to their FOI Officer:

“I would also confirm that I couldn’t find my FOI stuff either. It was originally on the front page where it should be.”

“FOI should be on the front menu and I will be liaising with our IT to put it in place along with a couple of other minor changes.”

Weeks (perhaps months) later, this information was restored to their website.

Amongst other guidance, the checklist for public authorities produced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in relation to their approved model scheme (that was adopted by Castlereagh Borough Council on 1 January 2009), helpfully suggests:

  • Information will be published on-line and free of charge where possible
  • Members of the public can easily find out what information we make routinely available and how to access …

In light of the low level of mass-accountability, on 9 September I asked Castlereagh Borough Council whether various kinds information were available online. I also requested electronic copies of the kinds of useful information that many councils make available online to aid their accountability with the public – such as dates and times of meetings of the council and whether members of the public can attend, minutes of council meetings held in May 2009 (specifically mentioning the Castlereagh/Lisburn voluntary transition committee). And for good measure, I asked for an electronic copy of their Publication Scheme and Document Definition – since I’d so far been unable to get hold of!

After chasing, a reply was issued on 10 October from the helpful but obviously stressed FOI officer.

“Let’s just say that I have done my very best to try and provide you with a response. I have addressed all of the issues that I was supposed to. The Director of Administration & Community Services had completed some of what she was asked to do, but not all and I again had to approach this matter with her.”

“I have been endeavouring to response as best I can to your undernoted questions. To date some information is still unavailable but I will outline my responses in RED as FOI Officer.”

Later she added:

“As well as FOI Officer, I am also the PA to the Acting Chief Executive, and often torn between the two.”

Now for some of the questions and answers. You can judge the quality of the responses. (The colour scheme and font size changes are not mine, but reproduce what came back from the council’s FOI Officer.)

1. Can you confirm that Castlereagh Borough Council do not make any of the following information regularly available to members of the public on their website (http://www.castlereagh.gov.uk) …

1.1 … times, dates and locations of planned full council meetings and council committee meetings that can be attended by the public?

Times, dates and locations of planned full council meetings and council committee meetings than can be attended by the public are not yet regularly available on the website…………..response o/s. REMIT – Director of Administration & Community Services

The response remained outstanding and the Director of Administration & Community Services never did reply.

1.2 … copies of approved minutes of full council meetings and council committee meetings?

Council and committee minutes are available by making contact with the Member Services Section of the Administration Department. The minutes are not on the website but the Council is looking into this. This is within the remit of the Director of Administration and Community Services.

1.3 … the Publication Scheme and Definition Documents that specify the classes of information that the Council undertake to routinely publish (whether in print, online or by request)?

Prior to 1 January 2009, work had taken place to update the FOI website with the New Model Scheme and Definition Documents. It was only when you had pointed out to me that it was not on the system, was I made aware that the months preceding the update, when info was downloaded from the Information Commissioner’s website, that this information and other docs were not on the website. As I have previously indicated work is still needed on the FOI Webpage and I will endeavour to complete same, though I can’t specify when this will be completed. After I received your email I had approached the IT Department to see why this information did not go on the website. Whilst the information had been gathered, it never went live, an oversight it would appear. I should have checked to ensure that the information went live and I didn’t, having made the assumption that this already had been actioned. Thanks for bringing this to my attention and I apologise for same.

To be fair, most of the requested minutes were attached as Word documents, though no reference was made to the omission of the requested joint voluntary transition committee minutes for May. (Perhaps this was due to the meeting being held in Lisburn, and minuted by Lisburn City Council rather than Castlereagh?)

3. Can you confirm when the Publication Scheme and/or Document Definition was last reviewed, and who reviewed it.

The new Publication Scheme had to be ready on time for 1 January 2009. As I have said this work was ongoing and ready to go, but didn’t for the reasons I have outlined above. The updates were run past the Director of Administration & Community Services, but the full Management Team (MT) didn’t sign off as such though they knew I was progressing the matter prior to deadline. They were aware however of the obligations and as FOI Officer I had a couple of meetings with the MT prior to this.

Which is interesting, but didn’t quite answer the question.

4. Can you provide background information (for example - but not restricted to - minutes of committee meetings, council meetings, policy development discussions) about how and why the council came to decide on their online publication policy.

The Council does not have a publication policy. The Guidance for same is via the Commissioner’s Office as you have clearly demonstrated below. The documents list but not full list – is still ongoing and I want to be able to reformat same in due course.

Amongst other guidance, the checklist for public authorities (http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/freedom_of_information/introductory/public_checklist.pdf) produced by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in relation to the approved model scheme that was adopted on 1 January 2009, helpfully suggests:

  • Information will be published on-line and free of charge where possible

  • Members of the public can easily find out what information we make routinely available and how to access …

The Council has provided information free of charge in the past, but were a considerable amount of photocoping is undertaken, a charge of 10 p is now made per page. Dispersement costs also include postage. If the information is to be collected, then obviously no postage costs arise.

Given the extreme lack of online information about council business on the council website, it seems highly probably that the council members or officers made a deliberate and informed decision to keep meeting minutes and timetables offline - a very different position to the one suggested in the ICO’s non-mandatory “guidance”.

The council did not deliberately set about to exclude information from its website. Whilst you may not accept this as a reasonable argument, there is so much more council business being undertaken of late in relation to RPA, Transition Teams. Directors and managers time is of a premium and unfortunately in the scheme of things, other matters take priority. That is not to say that we don’t place value on FOI, we certainly do. We strive at all times to ensure the public are provided with information that they have requested by the deadline and I have declined very few requests to date. I pride myself on being able to release as much information as I can as FOI Officer, but I am also dependent on others providing me with the information to.

At the time I didn’t chase up the quality and content of the response, nor the unanswered questions. There was no point wasting someone’s time any further. To me, it served the purpose of confirming my suspicion that Castlereagh Borough Council put a low priority on being accountable to members of the public and perhaps sought to control the information that the general public could find out about its business, or at least control the ease of access to that information.

In the days and weeks to come, I predict their enquiry and FOI procedures will become slicker and more thorough.

2 comments:

Andy Boal said...

I'd refer you to the Local Government Auditor's report for 2007/08 on www.niao.gov.uk - should make interesting reading.

Alan in Belfast said...

Andy - doesn't look any worse than other councils in the list! http://www.niauditoffice.gov.uk/pubs/localgovauditreports.asp