Tag Archives: FOI

Evasion and avoidance

15 Apr

A leading campaigner against the use of LOBO loans by local councils has accused Newham of operating a deliberate policy of delay and frustration in relation to Freedom of Information requests.

Joel Benjamin submitted a request to the council back in early February asking for details of financial disclosure forms submitted by Sir Robin Wales:

Dear Newham Borough Council,

  1. Please confirm if Robin Wales submitted a Members Financial Interest Disclosure form and/or party transaction disclosure for each of the years he was a councillor 1995 – 2016
  2. Please provide copies of Robin Wales’ Disclosure Forms for the 1995-2016 period and related ‘party transaction disclosures’ (which are related but not identical to the disclosure of interests forms members complete) which are required to be completed every year by the elected members.
  3. Please confirm the number of occasions upon which it was recorded Robin Wales withdrew from a Newham meeting, declaring a conflict of interest?
  4. Please confirm the dates upon which Newham Council has audited Members Disclosure forms and ‘party transaction disclosures’ between 1995-2016 to ensure member compliance.
  5. Please confirm on how many occasions, 1995-2016, Newham members have been cautioned, disciplined or otherwise sanctioned for failing to fill out a disclosure log, or for failing to disclose personal financial interests and potential conflicts?

Yours faithfully,

etc.

At the same time he submitted an identical request relating to councillor Lester Hudson, the cabinet lead for finance and chair of the audit board.

Despite reminders, these requests remain unanswered. This prompted a request for internal review (my emphasis added):

I am writing to request an internal review of Newham Borough Council’s handling of my FOI request ‘Disclosure of Newham Register of Elected Members Interest Forms – Robin Wales’.

I note that a formal response from Newham Council to this FOIA request is now approaching 20 days overdue, and is set against a backdrop of unexplained delays, refused requests and opaque decision making, which increasingly casts Newham Council as a FOIA non-compliant outlier for local authorities contacted for information regarding LOBO loans.

Mayor of Newham Robin Wales has staunchly defended the use of LOBO loans by Newham Council, which have been shown to cost Council taxpayers a £10m interest premium over the past decade, to say nothing of the LOBOs taken out by Housing Associations indirectly under Newham control.

It is therefore important to establish if conflict of interest forms have been formally lodged by Robin Wales and monitored by Newham Council and its auditors PwC for the period 2002 – 2011 when £653m of LOBO loan borrowing was negotiated.

A review was also requested, in the same terms, of the unanswered questions about Cllr Hudson. 

And again today, in relation to another FOI request, another request for internal review (my emphasis added):

I am writing to request an internal review of Newham Borough Council’s handling of my FOI request ‘Correspondence regarding Newham 2014/15 account objections re: LOBO Loans’.

I note that a response to this FOIA request is now 2 weeks overdue, and joins 3 additional requests left unanswered by Newham Council, whose FOIA policy is clearly to defer, delay, frustrate in the hope that requesters will not bother with an internal review and subsequent ICO referral.

Given failure to answer these FOIA requests is clearly part of a deliberate Newham policy and pattern, I will be referring the entire suite of unanswered FOIA requests to the ICO, and will let them determine the appropriate course of action to ensure that Newham Council administration acts in the public interest and the FOI officer observes the appropriate legal guidance timeframes.

I know from my own experience that Newham has no regard for the law when it comes to freedom of information, and no respect for the public who are simply exercising their right to know what is being done in their name. They will delay, refuse or simply ignore any request that might result in political embarrassment for Sir Robin or his circle of friends. It is long past time that the Information Commissioners Office intervened.

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FOI – a timeline

4 Mar

Grey’s Law states that “any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

With that in mind, take a look at this timeline of a recent FOI request to Newham council:

August 2014

Question: Please forward copies of the current portfolios for each Cabinet Member, Mayoral Advisor and Community Lead Member and for any other position generated by the Mayor and which incorporates an allowance that is additional to the basic councillor’s allowance.

September 2014

Response: The full details of the portfolios held by all Members are already publicly available on the individual pages for each Councillor, found on the Newham website.

September 2014

Question: Please forward copies of the portfolios as requested. They ARE NOT available on the authority’s web site.

February 2015

Response: I have now checked whether this information is available on the web and I can confirm that all portfolios have now been published and appear under the names of each portfolio holder.

February 2015

Question: Would you please inform me of the date(s) Newham Council posted Mayoral Advisor Portfolios on the authority’s web site.

March 2015

Answer: 15th January 2015

But perhaps we should be charitable and employ Hanlon’s Razor instead: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Something to hide?

20 Aug

Back in June local resident Alan Combe submitted a Freedom of Information request asking about deductions made from elected councillors’ allowances and paid to the Labour party. He had two questions:

Between 6 April 2010 and 5 April 2014, how much, in total, has been deducted (by the Council) from the Basic Allowances paid to elected members of Newham Council and passed to funds/ accounts controlled by the Labour Group or the Labour Party?

Between 6 April 2010 and 5 April 2014, how much, in total, has been deducted (by the Council) from the Special Responsibility Allowances paid to elected members of Newham Council and passed to funds/ accounts controlled by the Mayor, the Labour Group or the Labour Party?

The request was due to be answered by 23rd July but the council didn’t get round to dealing with it until yesterday, when they informed Mr Combe that they were refusing to give the information:

Under the Freedom of Information Act we have the right to refuse a request for information held if an exemption applies. We believe in this case such an exemption applies and have decided to refuse your request.

We believe that disclosing even the total figure of deductions from the allowances of any Councillors over a specified period would contravene the first data protection principle, which requires that personal data shall be processed fairly and lawfully by the London Borough of Newham.

The council has deliberately misconstrued the request in order to find an excuse to say no. Any reasonable person reading Alan Combe’s questions would understand them as a request for the aggregate total of deductions from all councillors, not a list of councillors and the money deducted from each of them.

It is common practice in local government for elected members to hand over part of their allowance to their party. It is an important source of funding and all parties do it. It’s not a secret. Newham is exceptional only in that all 60 councillors, plus the mayor, belong to the same party and therefore all the money goes to Labour. 

The amount is actually fairly easy to estimate. We know that the total amount paid to councillors (including the mayor) is a touch over £1.2 million a year. If the party takes 10% – which is a number I’ve heard mentioned – that’s £120,000 a year; a total of £480,000 over the four year period.

I’m not sure who decided to try and dodge the question or whether it was down to an order from on high, but all they’ve succeeded in doing is making it look like there’s something to hide.

Random facts about Newham

30 Aug

Five interesting things I’ve learned about our borough from reading recent FOI disclosure logs:

  • The council spent £10,392.88 on hiring private detectives in 2010/2011.
  • You are more likely to get a parking ticket on Romford Road than any other road in the borough. 8,273 penalty charge notices were issued for parking offences there in 2012-13, yielding £199,782 in revenue to the council.
  • The council’s total take last year from parking tickets, including car parks, was £9,087,594.
  • Newham Council does not own any residential properties in the Thanet District Council area.
  • There are a total of 3,543 Polish nationals registered to vote in the London Borough of Newham.