I know from my own attempts at discovering what’s behind some of the happenings at Shirehall just how difficult it is to get at the truth when you’re following up on the vaguest of clues that make up just a small part of what you sense to be a much larger picture you have only a vague outline of.
It’s a process of iteration, often depressingly slow because it often happens that the only way of obtaining the information you need is with a Freedom of Information request to Shropshire Council, a process that should get you a response “within” the 20 day time limit but which is grudgingly taken to the extent of that limit.
When that happens, it is tempting to blame a natural bureaucratic reluctance to release information on the grounds that such information is no one’s business but the Administration’s – and you’d be right, although there can be occasions when you suspect something more sinister is afoot, but when such thoughts do occur they’re usually attributable to the paranoia generated by the council’s anticipated knee-jerk reaction in putting up obstacles rather than it being a case of their openly defying the law, although that can occasionally happen…
What is particularly significant about that local case is what was said by the Group Manager in Enforcement at the Information Commissioners Office:
“This case is about the public’s right to know, and we will not hesitate to take action to protect people’s right to access the information they are entitled to.”
“This case emphasises the critical importance of transparency for public authorities in the way they carry out their business.”
“People should have trust and confidence that they can access public information without the danger of it being doctored, fabricated or corrupted in any way.”
So, you ask a question and get an answer that often raises further questions by intimating something you wouldn’t otherwise have known existed and which points to a new avenue of enquiry; such moments are golden.
Either way, further questions, often to the same officer or department, have to be asked in order to either confirm a line of inquiry or dismiss it and move on, and that’s when an enquirer can find themselves labelled as vexatious, the questions are too close to an earlier line of enquiry. Can you see how that can happen? You’re following clues, but on that basis how do you “prove” the legitimacy of your enquiry until those clues are linked? And how do you know they’re linked if they’re still out of sight in a folder in someone’s desk drawer?
Keith Barrow’s forced resignation in 2015 brought a change of Administration to Shirehall and the cancellation of his disastrous plan to sell off Shirehall and scatter council staff to locations around the county. That change would not have happened if a situation that had been ignored for years been allowed to continue unchecked ever since Shropshire Council went unitary in 2009.
There is only one way to apply sanction to someone wielding that kind of power and that is to use whatever information is out there about what they have been up to, when and with whom, in order to determine beyond reasonable doubt whether they have a case to answer which, in the case of someone holding public office, will concern the extent to which they may have brought that office into disrepute and opened themselves up to a charge of misconduct in public office, a criminal offence under the Localism Act 2011.
But back then, Shirehall labelled ‘vexatious’ one of the people I had worked with for a number of years gathering the complex information needed to make the case against Keith Barrow. I was not impressed to be told that the justification for Shirehall’s action against Steve Mulloy was that they considered the sheer number of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests placed too great a strain on limited resources.
It’s perhaps worth taking a look at what the courts say about the term ‘vexatious’ in the context of FoI requests…
‘…emphasis should be on an objective standard, and the starting point is that vexatiousness primarily involves making a request which has no reasonable foundation, that is, no reasonable foundation for thinking that the information sought would be of value to the requester, or to the public or any section of the public.’
Interestingly, the court (in Dransfield v Information Commissioner) has said that even a vengeful request could be non-vexatious if the information that would be disclosed is important, ought to be publicly available and promotes the FoI Act.
That’s where the problems came in for us, because the onus was shunted onto us to prove that, in our opinion, the information that would be disclosed was indeed “important [and] ought to be publicly available”.
Shirehall insisted (and still insists) that it is at THEIR discretion to make that distinction. I don’t blame them, if I was in their position I’d probably do the same, except that I’m not in their position because I’m coming at it from my position as an elected Member, not as a salaried officer protective of my organisation’s (and, by implication, my professional) reputation, especially if the information I’m choosing to withhold could seriously compromise that reputation if it proves damning.
In Steve Mulloy’s case it was down to him to formally appeal against his being labelled vexatious because the onus is on the appellant, who is, effectively, guilty until they have proven themselves innocent. Hardly fair. But then:
“Law is a human invention; Justice is a divine inspiration.”
I’d interpret that as saying: “You’ll get justice if and when you get to heaven, meanwhile you’ll have to make do with English Law.”
But in Steve’s case he proved that Shropshire Council had based their labelling of him as vexatious on the wrong section of the law, forcing them to back down although, churlishly, Shropshire Council insisted they had the right to reserve their position at the next opportunity confrontation.
So what have such attempts at censoring meant for ongoing investigations into the more shadowy corners of Shropshire Council? Well, it has obviously slowed them down but it certainly hasn’t stopped them.
At the time of going to press investigations are ongoing into a particularly disturbing case too sensitive to be other than hinted at here.
Watch this space.
“Law is a human invention; Justice is a divine inspiration.”