What is so disappointing about the organisational culture at Shropshire Council is its refusal to take seriously the weaknesses in its scrutiny systems, to the point of denying even the possibility that something is wrong, a denial that is all the more incredible given that those weaknesses in scrutiny have been highlighted by that most independent of external bodies the Independent Remuneration Panel (IRP).
Shirehall is blithely ignorant of the irony implicit in their promoting the virtues of the Independent Remuneration Panel when it comes to that panel deciding how much should be paid as a Special Responsibilities Allowance to ‘Executive Councillors’, whilst at the same time denying the significance of that same independent panel’s assessment of Shirehall’s system of scrutiny as being “not fit for purpose”. That is not just ironic, it is perverse.
In fact perverse to the point of being downright bloody-minded because instead of taking that IRP ‘opinion’ on the ineffectiveness of Council scrutiny seriously, by ignoring matters that have been drawn to its attention in a report provided in some considerable detail it confirms the accuracy of that independent assessment.
Instead of calling-in to scrutiny incidents of suspected financial irregularities in Council land sales, as detailed in the closely researched Taxpayers Oversight Committee (TOC) report sent to the responsible senior Council officer many months ago, the report has been consigned to an in-tray in the sky, to be “considered” when whoever has more important things to think about than the prospect of Shropshire taxpayers losing out on many tens of thousand of pounds can be assed to get their act together.
And, of course, whilst all that was going on Shirehall continued to refuse to lift their labelling of the TOC chief investigator as “vexatious”. (See blogs #3 and #29.)
Now that wasn’t just very stupid of them but unfortunate because, by obstructing legitimate follow-ups to complex lines of enquiry prompted by the clues coming out of earlier Freedom of Information requests, Shropshire Council not only stopped TOC doing their work for them but in doing so applied an inappropriate section of the law.
2 out of 10 for that.
TOC had appealed Shropshire Council’s use of that inappropriate section of the law to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), who found in TOC’s favour, instructing Shirehall’s Legal & Democratic Services department to remove the ‘vexatious’ label. They did, but then cheekily reserved the right to apply the censorship again if, in their judgement, TOC again got too close to information that Shirehall appears inordinately keen to have left undisturbed in someone’s desk drawer.
Now that was naughty because reserving that right was something that the ICO had expressly forbidden.
2 out of 10 again for that.
Not doing very well, are they? Could do better, methinks.
This is how it all panned out (courtesy of Steve Mulloy, who regular readers will know to be TOC’s chief investigator)…
From Shropshire Council to Steve on the 29th Nov 2016:
“Further to the Council’s dialogue with the ICO in relation to your complaint, the Council has considered its position. Whilst the Council still considers the requests to be vexatious, as a gesture of goodwill, we intend to provide you with the information you have sought in these five requests.”
And further, on the 14th Nov 2016:
“The Council advised the Commissioner on Friday (11th) that having considered the Commissioner’s advice they are minded to maintain their position regarding Section 14(1) and are in the process of preparing legal submissions to the ICO.”
All of this happened after Shirehall’s earlier insistence – in the face of the appeal to the ICO – on maintaining the embargo on FoI requests, requests that had already revealed the potential loss to Council taxpayers (remember them? Shirehall seems to have forgotten them) of many tens of thousands of pounds.
Steve asks the “reasonable grounds” question:
“Could it have anything to do with the ongoing investigation by the External Auditor into alleged malfeasance at Shropshire Council based on information brought to his attention by TOC?”
You may well say that, Steve, but I couldn’t possibly comment. Well, I could, but…
I guess from Shropshire Council’s point of view, when you’ve been wrong-footed on one matter it’s a bit of a bugger to have the other foot kicked from under you, so best grab on to whatever’s closest to hand to maintain a bit of balance.
Fair enough, but the average score is still 2 out of 10.
What’s sad in all of this is the way it reflects the general tenor of Shirehall’s version of “openness” and, god help us, “transparency”. Personally, and I know many of you share this view, the use of that word “transparency” is wholly appropriate because it is so easy to see through what comes out of Shirehall to the underlying bullshit beneath the bland statements. Which of course you all accept at face value – why would you not?
For all my levity, these are serious issues that need serious attention, issues that could and should have been picked up by council officers charged with administering Council business on behalf of Shropshire taxpayers.
If TOC can, despite all the obstacles placed in its way, catch a whiff of something that has a distinctly fishy smell about it but which Shirehall doesn’t appear to have a problem with, then something is seriously not right in the pantomime world of Shirehall.
Fairy Godmothers are a bit out of place in this scenario, but the Godfathers that feature so regularly in our investigations still seem to have working magic wands that turn dormant companies into magical vehicles, transforming taxpayer’s money into invisible items of trade which, despite their lack of substance, still present the optical illusion of solidity good enough to pass muster, or at least the casual glance of a trusting official prepared to suspend disbelief long enough for the illusion to be signed off.
I genuinely want to be wrong about this, but suspect that if ever that pantomime magic carpet takes off it will leave behind all the stuff that’s been swept under it all these years.