Minute manipulation

It is now exactly a year since I first published my concerns about the Commercial Property Grants Scheme (CPGS) in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock.
Much water has flowed under several bridges since then.

In June 2013 Cllr Michael Williams asked that the issue should be included on the agenda for the next meeting of the audit committee.
That brought forth a report from the council’s internal audit service to the committee’s September meeting, which, not to put too fine a point on it, dismissed my concerns as a load of misinformed rubbish.
Undeterred, I put down a notice of motion at the October meeting of full council calling for members to have access to the files on these projects.
When that came before the cabinet on December 2, it was met by another report by the internal auditors which reached the same conclusions as the first, in spades.
Encouraged by this supposedly authoritative document, the Leader, Cllr Jamie Adams and his side kick Cllr David Pugh both asserted that I didn’t know what I was talking about.
And, when the cabinet’s recommendation that my request for information should be rejected came up for debate at full council on December 12, Pugh, further buoyed up by what he and the Leader had been told by the council’s project officer during their recent visit to Pembroke Dock, launched a personal attack during which he suggested that I was either a liar or a complete incompetent.
Unfortunately for Pugh, it didn’t take me long to demonstrate that every single “fact” provided by the project officer, and on which he based this conclusion, was false.
In the event, it remained in the hands of the audit committee, which met to discuss the matter on January 20.

After a long battle with the Monitoring Officer following the January 20 meeting, I was able to convince him that the law allowed all councillors (including me) to see the documents being considered by the audit committee.
And, once I had access to the files, it didn’t take me long to turn up the evidence that finally forced the council to call in the police.
Meanwhile, throughout the summer of 2013, I had been attempting to gain access to the documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
This, I have to say was not an unmitigated success.
However, one thing the council did cough up without too much resistance were the minutes of the Panel where the applications for these grants were evaluated and approved.
While these made interesting reading, they didn’t reveal anything of special interest and I had put them to the back of my mind.

Then last week, completely out of the blue, an email arrived from the council informing me that all was not well with the minutes I had been provided with because, between the time I submitted my FoI request and when the council eventually sent copies of the minutes out to me, they had been amended with the result that what I had received was materially different from the originals approved by the Panel.
Some of the amendments are trivial and some less so, but the point is that someone within the authority thought fit to make these alterations.
While most of the alterations are merely concerned with tidying up the grammar, those regarding No 29 Dimond Street (Paul Sartori) involve substantial additions to the text and seem to have been designed to give the impression that the Grant Panel’s evaluation of this application was a good deal more rigorous than indicated by the original minutes.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 appears to take a dim view of such activity.

Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure.

(1) Where —

(a) a request for information has been made to a public authority, and

(b) under section 1 of this Act or section 7 of the Data Protection Act 1998, the applicant would have been entitled (subject to payment of any fee) to communication of any information in accordance with that section, any person to whom this subsection applies is guilty of an offence if he alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals any record held by the public authority, with the intention of preventing the disclosure by that authority of all, or any part, of the information to the communication of which the applicant would have been entitled.

(2) Subsection (1) applies to the public authority and to any person who is employed by, is an officer of, or is subject to the direction of, the public authority.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

[Level 5 refers to a fine not exceeding £5,000, which is top whack for a summary offence.]

So the question remains: does the council know the identity of the officer who tampered with these minutes and, if so, what steps have been taken to prevent a repeat with other evidence?

And this is not the only problem I have encountered in my FoI dealings with the council.

Early in my information-seeking endeavours, I was sent a copy of the Bills of Quantities for 25 Dimond Street Pembroke Dock with all the financial information redacted.
On the summary page at the back of the BoQs was an item “Bill 1 general conditions and preliminaries” alongside which was an amount of money which had been blacked out.
However when I checked the BoQ itself there was no Bill 1 and the first page was taken up with Bill 2.
Thinking this was an oversight by the council, I emailed to point out this omission.
I was a bit surprised when the council replied that there were no missing pages.
“I can confirm that the redacted Bill of Quantities is complete i.e. there are no missing pages” and “Bill 1 has not been completed”, I was told.

Detecting a flaw in the logic, I wrote back: “You say “there are no missing pages” and “Bill 1 has not been completed”. So Bill 1 exists and, as it wasn’t included in the authority’s disclosure it constitutes a missing page(s).”

The council’s explanation began: “Firstly, when I say ‘Bill 1 has not been completed’ this does not imply the existence of Bill 1. What I mean is that there is no separate Bill detailing the preliminaries that forms part of the Bills of Quantities.”

I learned a long time ago never to fight above my weight, so I gave up and appealed to the Information Commissioner.

I should make it clear that none of this is meant as criticism of officers in the council’s FoI department – they merely repeat what they are told by the department concerned.
Now, as a means of extracting information from our rulers, the Freedom of Information act is a huge advance on what went before, but it has one huge drawback – time.
The public authority has 20 working days to respond and though the act says they should respond promptly, my own experience is that they take it right up to the wire.
If they refuse to provide the information, or provide incomplete information, you have the right to ask for an internal review – another 20 working days down the chute.
Then it’s off to the Information Commissioner where time stands still.
Indeed, I had almost forgotten my appeal, when, about a month ago, I received a phone call from the Commissioner’s Office about it.
I was told that the council was still insisting that Bill 1 didn’t exist and they were about to close the case.
It was with some pleasure that I was able to inform the Information Commissioner’s investigating officer that I had acquired a copy of the non-existent document during my inspection of the files and it has now been forwarded to them.

It is not possible to say what further action might ensue, but this would seem to fall within the description “conceals any record” in the above legislation.
During his attack on me at full council on 12 December, Pugh declared “the truth isn’t on his agenda”.
Could I suggest that, if he really wants to discover who is playing fast and loose with the truth, he should look a bit closer to home.