June 13 2006

 

Open secrets

Pembrokeshire County Council's reputation as a secretive, arrogant and undemocratic institution received a further boost last week with the publication by the Information Commissioner of two notices stating that the council was wrong to refuse to provide documents to Cllr Michael Williams and myself.
It had been Old Grumpy's ambition to be the first person in history to win a Freedom of Information appeal against Pembrokeshire County Council but, unfortunately, Cllr Williams beat me to it by just two days.
Still, it's no disgrace to be beaten into silver medal position by such a worthy competitor.
And, I must admit that Cllr Williams' case, which concerned information about Cllr Brian Hall's former business associate and county council economic development consultant, Dr Michael Ryan, was by far the most interesting of the two.
Cllr Williams' interest stems from the good Doctor's threats to sue him over allegedly defamatory remarks in an e-mail he sent to to Head of Economic Development Kefin Wakefield which was thoughtfully forwarded to Dr Ryan by his line manager Mr David Thomas with the advice that it was probably libellous (see First blood).
As part of his job application, Dr Ryan had provided the council with a list of completed projects and Cllr Williams was keen to discover how this list compared with the one on Dr Ryan's website (www.oriain.com) which claimed completed projects in 45 locations worldwide, including one in Pembrokeshire.
The website offered "Comprehensive list of list of clients and projects available on request", but when Cllr Williams e-mailed Dr Ryan asking for details of the Pembrokeshire project, the website was taken down for "reconstruction" and, when it reappeared some weeks later, the completed Pembrokeshire project was no more.
The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act allowed the persistent councillor a second bite of the cherry and, when the council refused to disclose the information that had accompanied Dr Ryan's job application, he appealed to the Information Commissioner whose complete decision notice can be read at www.ico.gov.uk (click on freedom of information and then decision notices).
The council put forward several reasons why the information should be treated as confidential - none of which seems to have cut much ice with the Commissioner.
With regard to the company profile, the Commissioner discovered that the document which the council was trying to protect was "word for word" identical with the company profile on the website.
To attempt to throw the cloak of confidentiality over information published on the Web, is beyond Alice in Wonderland.
The list of completed projects fared little better because ORA's website advises visitors that "a comprehensive list of clients and projects available on request".
Not easy to sustain the argument that information which is on offer to anyone who asks is confidential.
However, the council had another string to its bow.
It claimed that there was an acrimonious relationship between Dr Ryan and Cllr Williams and that, if the information was disclosed, Cllr Williams and "an associate [Old Grumpy]" would use it to Dr Ryan's detriment because it was intended that it was to be used to question Dr Ryan's credentials.
Understandably, the Commissioner was seriously unimpressed by this line of argument.
As he points out the information was provided in order to show that Dr Ryan was qualified to contract with the council at public expense, and the only circumstances where its disclosure could be to Dr Ryan's detriment would be if it was found to be untrue and "this is not the sort of detriment the Commissioner believes is needed to establish a duty of confidentiality."
Quite so!
Another interesting aspect of the case is that the commissioner sent a Preliminary Decision Notice (PDN) to the council on 6 March this year informing them that he was minded to compel them to release the information.
The purpose of the PDN, he says in his report, was to "assist informal resolution".
A less secretive institution than Pembrokeshire County Council might have concluded the game was up, but, no, they decided to battle on to the bitter end.
Ah! the arrogance of power.
Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if the council decides to delay matters even further by exercising its right to appeal to the Information Tribunal.

The Intimidator

One sentence from the Commissioner's judgment that caught Old Grumpy's eye was his dismissal of the council's claim that disclosure of the requested information would be to Dr Ryan's detriment.
The Commissioner writes: "If there was a real prospect of direct persecution or intimidation of Dr Ryan, this would amount to a significant detriment, but this was not established by the public authority [PCC]."
I take that to mean that the PCC had suggested that such direct persecution or intimidation was likely if Cllr Williams and his "associate" were given the information, but had been unable to provide the evidence to substantiate its claim.
Coming from an authority that ranks Cllr Brian Hall (see The Time Lord) among its leading lights, that is truly Orwellian.
Strangely the council didn't seem too concerned about lining someone up for direct persecution or intimidation when Mr David Thomas forwarded Cllr Williams e-mail to Dr Ryan (see above).
As a result of that, just before Christmas 2003, both Cllr Williams and I received what looked like official court papers from Dr Ryan's solicitors threatening that, if we each didn't pay him several thousand pounds, he would institute legal proceedings without further notice.
At that point we decided to send him a copy of a fax he had sent to Cllr Hall on 16 October 2000 outlining their extensive plans to trade in Pembrokeshire in direct conflict with a promise he had given just five weeks earlier, on 3 September 2000, that, in order to avoid a conflict with his duties as the council's economic development consultant, any UK business in which he became involved would not um, er trade in Pembrokeshire (see Hall-Ryan).
It seems that Dr Ryan decided that this evidence of his dodgy relationship with Cllr Hall wouldn't play too well before a High Court Judge because that was the last either of us ever heard about legal action (see Freedom come).
Naturally, Cllr Williams is eager to discover what the council has told the Information Commissioner about his intimidatory tendencies, so he has submitted a Freedom of Information request for correspondence on the subject.
Predictably, the council has refused, branding his request vexatious because, the council says it “can fairly be characterised as obsessive or manifestly unreasonable".
Sounds like another appeal to the Commissioner is on the cards.
P S The county council have also taken a bit of a pounding in an Inspector's report on the Tenby Pedestrianisation Scheme.
This report can be read at (www.talktenby.com) follow the link to TWTRA.

Nice little earner

Continuing with the FoI theme, it was heartening to see the Western Telegraph getting in on the act with last week's splendid article on the chief executive's salary.
What the voters should remember is that this pay rise was pushed through by the Leader and three of his Cabinet cronies (Cllrs David Wildman, John Allen-Mirehouse and Michael Evans) who dominate the six-member senior staff committee.
The same four also made sure the public were excluded from the meeting.
Unfortunately, this committee has plenary powers so the other 54 councillors had no say in the matter.
And, it seems, the members of the Independent Political Group are happy to keep it that way because, when I put forward a notice of motion that would have restricted the committee's powers to making recommendations to full council, it was soundly defeated.by the ruling group.
I have now resubmitted the motion, which is due to be debated at next month's meeting of full council.
Perhaps the local papers will pay attention this time round.
The Western Telegraph reports that the senior staff committee awarded a rise of £21,625 to £145,000.
However, what should be remembered is that that is merely the starting point of his new salary scale.
By 1 January 2010 (only three-and-a-half years away) his salary will have risen to almost £159,000 and that doesn't include the normal cost of living increases which will add a further £15,000.
In addition he is allowed up to12% of his salary (£17,400) to lease a car, plus whatever he collects for acting as returning officer at local and national elections.
A nice little earner - as Arthur Daley might say.

Green-fingered red?

It seems I may have seriously underestimated the gardening abilities of my socialist friend, who was on the phone the other night to tell me his courgette plant is loaded down with fruits.
This is particularly galling because I gave him the plant and the three I kept are nowhere near ready.
I gave up on religion about 50 years ago, but I will always remember a story from the Bible that we were told at school in which a father took his two sons to the top of a mountain in order to decide on the division of his land.
On one side of the mountain was a fertile valley; on the other a barren wilderness.
When he offered the elder son the first choice, he selflessly chose the wilderness.
This is an inspiring story and I've always believed that the world would be a much better place if we could all behave like that.
With that in mind, when my socialist friend called round to collect his courgette plant, I went down to the greenhouse to choose one for him.
You might be surprised to hear that I presented him with the least healthy-looking of the four.
Honestly, I thought one of the better ones would be wasted on him.

Back to home page