Information superhighway

Old Grumpy can now cast some new light on Cllr Rob Summons’ uncanny ability to navigate the county council’s Freedom of Information (FoI) maze.
I must admit to a bit of professional jealousy here, because I’ve been struggling to get information out of PCC since the Act came into force more than ten years ago, and along comes the bold Rob and cracks it within a few short months.
Just goes to show that hard work is no substitute for talent!
Readers will recall that, during December’s council debate on my notice of motion seeking information about the grants business in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock, Cllr Summons was able to regale members with detailed information about No. 25 Dimond Street Pembroke Dock that had previously been locked away in the cupboard marked “commercially confidential”.
For months, I had been seeking this stuff through the council’s FoI system, but after some limited early success when I was provided with complete bills of quantities (BoQs) for Nos. 25 and 29 Dimond street with only the financial information blacked out (redacted) the council went into lock-down mode and when I requested the same documents for No. 27 and all I was sent was the black ink-covered summary sheet from the back of the BoQ.
This rather spoiled the fun I was having comparing the quantities in the BoQs with the drawings that were freely available on the planning department’s website.
The council’s reason for denying me access to the quantities in the BoQ was that it would damage the architect’s business by revealing his designs to his competitors.
My case was that, while it is possible for someone familiar with these sort of documents to get a fair idea of what a building looks like from the BoQs, they are not nearly as revealing as the drawings which, as I said above, are freely available in the planning files.
There must be some flaw in my logic because, when it came to the vote, the IPPG voted solidly (Cllr Reg Owen excepted) against my plea for more openness.
However, there was a glimmer of hope provided by Cllr Summons’ intervention in the debate.
Cllr Summons was able to tell members that one of the mysteries that had been baffling Old Grumpy – the amount of grant paid in respect of rendering etc at No. 25 – was no mystery at all because it had cost exactly £1052.47.
Now I had done some fancy calculations involving the quantities in the BoQ that accompanied the tender; what was shown on the drawings; and the same builder’s prices from another contract – details of which I had obtained during the public audit inspection in July – and I had concluded that the discrepancy between what was shown on the drawings (50 sq metres) and what was in the tender (125 sq metres hack-off and re-render and 300 sq metres painting) could have led to an increase in the grant of anywhere between £7,000 and £9,000.
However Cllr Summons was able to tell the council meeting that my calculations were way out: “The actual cost in grant money to this council was £1,052.47 for the three items.”
The reason he could be accurate down to the last penny (see below) was:

“Because I put a Freedom of Information request into this council asking for the total amount of money paid on those three items.
That’s the price I had back referring to those three items.
That is council property, that money – it’s not commercially sensitive.
I don’t believe you’ve ever asked for that.”

And, after I interjected to suggest that he’d been given preferential access to this information, he countered:

“I don’t think I received any preferential treatment because I put in a FoI request asking for the council to provide me with the total amount of grant funding actually paid for the work at 25 Dimond Street for the work highlighted by you with a £7,000 overspend.
That’s council information freely available to me and to you.”

What was interesting about this was the speed with which this information had been forthcoming.
I posted the article on my website on December 7 (a Saturday) so the earliest Cllr Summons could have submitted his FoI request was Monday 9 December and here he was on the 12th with the full story.
I now know he had the information on the 11th.
So, if a member requested details of the grant paid (council property and not, therefore, commercially confidential) they could have the information almost by return.
Ever the quick learner, Old Grumpy put in a FoI request on 16 December asking for the amount of grant paid for slating the roofs at Nos. 25 and 29 Dimond Street and I’m still waiting, though I have had an email from the council informing me that it will respond before the statutory 20-day period expires on January 20.
In the meantime, I emailed Cllr Summons pointing out that his figure was for the final account, while mine was based on the quantities in the tender and that, with a bit of fancy arithmetic based on the assumption that the builder would use the same or similar rates at No. 25 Dimond street as those on a job round the corner for which I had a fully-priced BoQ, it was possible to show that, despite the apparent gulf between £1,050 and £7,000, there was a degree of consistency between our numbers.
On Thursday, he sent me an email (copied to all councillors) with a six-point critique of what I’d written on my website.
I’m afraid he didn’t get off to a very good start because his first point read: “The figure that I was provided with was £1052.47 for hack off, render and painting at 25, Dimond Street. The figure was not £1050. I appreciate that you may have just rounded this down.”
You just sort of know that any dialogue with someone who nitpicks over £2.47 (0.2%) isn’t going to go well, but I replied anyway (copied to all councillors – two can play at that game).
I took the opportunity to point out the vast difference in the response times for my FoI request and his.
He explained:

“With regard to my Freedom of Information Act request I can confirm that this was not required. [name of officer] was prepared to give me the information without recourse to such a request as it was not commercially sensitive. Please feel free to confirm this directly with him. I put in the request only to formalise matters.”

I replied:

“Obtaining the information directly from an officer would explain the speed with which it was provided.
I must admit I got the impression from what you said at full council [see above] that you had received the information following an FoI request.
I can’t see any sign of [officer] anywhere in that.
And I’m having difficulty reconciling your statement to full council: “That’s the price I had back referring to these three items” which can only refer to information you ‘had back’ in response to the FoI request mentioned in the previous sentence, with your claim that you “put in the request only to formalise matters” which would seem to indicate that you had the information before you submitted the FoI request.

But it seems I got that wrong because, as Cllr Summons explained [his emphasis]:

“Confirming that an FOI request was not required and that [name of officer] was prepared to give me the information does not indicate that he did, as you state. The information was provided on the FOI request.

My last reply, which has drawn no response as yet, read:

“You went to see [officer], who told you were entitled to have the information, as of right, without bothering with a Freedom of Information request.
So you submitted a Freedom of Information request in order that you could have the information that didn’t require a Freedom of Information request because you had a right to the information anyway.
Have I got that right, or have I missed something?”

As for his earlier claim: “I put in the request only to formalise matters”. If he was entitled to the information as of right, it is not easy to see what there was to formalise, but one mustn’t be pedantic.
Cllr Summons also tells me that the [officer] was also happy to provide him with the quantity of the rendering etc at 25 Dimond Street.
Apparently this, too, is information that members are entitled to have without the need to jump through the FoI hoops.
“Information obtained via the [name of department] with no FOI request as not commercially sensitive.” as Cllr Summons puts it.
Now, there are some interesting legal points that arise from this labyrinthine process of obtaining information by means of unnecessary FoI requests.
Information provided to a member in his capacity as member may be given on conditions of confidentiality, but information provide under FoI is disseminated to the world at large, so it would seem that any member of the public could ask for this information and, as it is “not commercially sensitive” the council would be bound to provide it.
Anyway, we now have the amount of grant, the quantity of work done and the percentage rate of grant, which can be found in the publicly available procedure manual.
As the mathematicians among you will have already worked out, with that range of information even Jacob Williams could reconstruct the complete BoQ including the builder’s precious “commercially confidential” rates which the council has been trying its best to conceal from me for the past nine months.
Opening a can of worms is the phrase that comes to mind.
Now, I know there are conspiracy theorists out there who think that Cllr Summons has been put up to this by the IPPG leadership.
A sort of Sancho Panza to Jamie Adams’ Don Quixote, to borrow from Cllr David Pugh’s colourful description.
But nothing could be further from the truth, it seems.
As Cllr Summons has been at pains to point out during our email exchange:
“I would like to take this opportunity to advise you that the information I have obtained and presented is purely my own doing. I have not been detailed off or requested by anyone to do so.”
And in a later missive: I reiterate that I am doing this myself with no involvement or coercion from anyone.
What could be clearer than that?

PS. I have removed the names of officer(s) from these emails because to involve them in a dispute between members might compromise their absolute impartiality on which democracy under the rule of law depends.

PPS. I have transcribed Cllr Pugh’s tilting-at-windmills oration which can be found here and Cllr Summons’ speech/Perry Mason impression which can be found here.