Democracy dies another death

Just a few short weeks after publication of one of the most damning civil court judgments I’ve read in recent times, the council at the centre of that legal storm are in the news again: For all the wrong reasons.

North Yorkshire County Council, based in sleepy Northallerton , is the host Authority for the North Yorkshire Police and Crime Scrutiny Panel. It receives a substantial Home Office grant for its trouble.

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Constructed in the early 1900’s by architect Walter Brierley, the Grade 2 listed County Hall at Northallerton has, also, previously seen service as a Red Cross hospital and as a temporary wartime home for the local grammar school.

The senior officer in charge of the Panel Secretariat is Barry Khan, a qualified solicitor who also fulfils other roles within the county council: Assistant Chief Executive; Head of Legal and Democratic Services; and Monitoring Officer. He moved to North Yorkshire in 2014 after previously working for Stockport Council.

Khan’s short incumbency at Northallerton has not been without controversy. Apart from the desperately shocking Jeanine Blamires case [1], there has been an alleged ‘stonewalling’ over child safeguarding failures in at least one school in the quaint seaside town of Whitby.

His previous role as Solicitor and Monitoring Officer at Stockport Borough Council was not plain sailing, either. Most notably, over peaceful protester Michael Parnell, who died following a period where he had been repeatedly arrested, detained but was, eventually, cleared after a three day Crown court trial [2].

Khan’s role in the mistreatment of Parnell, particularly in securing a restraining order against Mr Parnell to prevent him protesting, has not been subject to complaint or application, as far as can be traced. But Mr Parnell’s supporters, including democracy campaigner, Sheila Oliver, continue to express disquiet over the council’s contribution to the illness that led to his death. On any view, it is a troubling case.

In my own sporadic, direct dealings with Khan there have been no notable communication issues. But, that is definitely not the case with the staff deployed beneath him in the Secretariat hierarchy:

I have been lied to by Ray Busby (for which I received an apology); addressed inappropriately by the same officer (for which I received another apology); had personal data released onto a public forum by Diane Parsons (a matter denied by the Secretariat and currently under investigation by the Information Commissioner) and treated to a display of ignorance and stubbornness over the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 2000, by the same officer, that simply beggars belief. To the extent that it would be a relatively easy step, given the history, to infer that the intention of the Secretariat was to vex, annoy and harass.

That history also includes a complaint that I made against Julia Mulligan, in July 2015, that concerned the failure of the Police Commissioner to hold the Chief Constable, Dave Jones, to account over a number of issues that included inter alia:

The £1 million funding of failed harassment prosecutions and a civil claim mounted by four very senior police officers and a political crony, Jane Kenyon [2a]; Poor communication/engagement: 101 service; Non-compliant Freedom of Information Act finalisations; Failure to publish Decision Notices:

The complaints were not upheld by the Panel, despite subsequent events proving, beyond doubt, that each one of those matters was, in fact, validly raised. In most cases, accompanied by seriously adverse publicity for the Commissioner, or the force. Or both.

The fact that I succeeded in a county court claim against the Police Commissioner, in February 2017, over data protection breach, has never appeared in Panel minutes either. Neither has reference to the £20,000 plus of public funds expended on defending that claim, and a parallel one against the Chief Constable.

More recent Panel failings include the chief executive farrago. Again, costing precept payers a fortune (latest estimates suggest a figure close to £80,000). Substantive post holder, Joanna Carter, is believed not to have been in post since very early in 2016. There have been two temporary ‘replacements’ variously imported from other PCC’s as acting, or interim, chief executive. Both Simon Dennis and Fraser Sampson, it is fair to say, arrived on the scene with ‘baggage’. Sampson and I clashed, repeatedly, during his tenure at, firstly, the disgraced West Yorkshire Police Authority and, later, the Office of the Police and Commissioner for West Yorkshire.

All questions to the North Yorkshire Commissioner’s office, concerning the absence of Ms Carter, are resolutely stonewalled: Even when they are legally obliged to provide answers, by way of an FOIA request [2b]. An insider has said that questions put by the Panel to the Commissioner, and Sampson, about Ms Carter’s unavailability have been fobbed off (unreported in the minutes it must be said). Another well-placed source says that Ms Carter signed off ill with stress, as a result of a series of disagreements with her ‘high-handed’ employer.

With Sampson now in post until 2019, the presumption is that Joanna Carter is not returning and, quite possibly, in legal dispute with Julia Mulligan. If this is the case, and absence of hard information only fuels speculation, then either a compromise agreement, or Tribunal proceedings, is going to cost the precept payer a mighty sum. Which would, of course, explain the wall of silence around the issue.

These are precisely the issues over which the Panel should be holding the PCC to account but, yet again, the meeting minutes (and Decision Notice) are silent on the fate of Ms Carter, a statutory appointment, and, as such, open to particular scrutiny.

It was a similar situation over the appointment of Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, Will Naylor. It is established, beyond doubt, that Naylor embroidered his employment history and had little, or no, relevant experience in taking on the role. Other than as a Conservative Party policy wonk [3].

There were also serious concerns about the recruitment process for the Deputy role, which had all the appearance of a well-orchestrated sham. The upshot was that, in a rare flexing of scrutiny muscle, the Panel decided that the confirmation of Naylor’s appointment was conditional of sight of a personal development plan, and a six month trial period, after which he would appear before the Panel. Which all sounded fine, until Mrs Mulligan unilaterally decided that the plan wouldn’t be produced after all – and Naylor didn’t appear before the Panel as scheduled to have his capabilities, qualifications, performance further examined [4].

Another scandal to surface very recently, unscrutinised, is the dramatic increase in office costs of the profligate PCC. In one year, ending March 2017, they have risen from £741,000 to £908,000. Over 20%. Which does not include the legal costs referred to above, which are tucked away elsewhere in the accounts. This flies in the face of what Mrs Mulligan told the Panel when the decision to have a Deputy was thrust upon them, unannounced, last September. There has been nothing, whatsoever, noted in the Panel meeting minutes, or any warning given by the PCC, that such a steep rise was on the cards.

NYPCC office costs 2016-17

But the most recent scrutiny fail concerns a remarkable refusal to accept a public question, from myself, at the Panel meeting which took place on 20th July, 2017. This was the question exactly as framed:

Freedom of Information Act compliance
 
(A) Statement
In July and September 2015, in response to a complaint and a public question made by me, these were amongst the submissions made by Joanna Carter, the chief executive at the time.
(i) At page 18 of the complaint response it was said:
“The Commissioner would agree that the FOI performance could improve, and that the quality of answers given on occasion could also improve….”
(ii) At page of the PQT response it was said:
“All FOIA’s, including any relating to this issue (Operations Rome and Hyson) are routinely published on the NYP/NYPCC website”.
Since those answers were provided,
(i) It is evident that not all requests relating to Operation Hyson and Rome were not published on the force disclosure log. Indeed, it is the regular practice of the force to conceal requests that may be perceived as causing reputational damage.
(iv) The force has refused an information request from me to establish the extent of the issue. A matter presently before the Information Commissioner (see attached WhatDoTheyKnow file).
(v) FOIA performance has worsened. To the extent that over 500 requests per annum are finalised unlawfully (See attached FOIA finalisation). That is a quantitative analysis, the figure would be much higher addressed qualitatively. Poor quality finalisations still feature regularly.
(vi) The Information Commissioner has indicated within Tribunal proceedings that the Civil Disclosure Unit are now under a monitoring regime as a result of poor performance (I have requested disclosure from them of more complete details).
(vii) If the oral and written submissions of the police lawyer running the CDU, to both the County Court and the First Tier Tibunal, are to be believed there are now less staff deployed in that Unit, than two years ago.
(viii) The Commissioner and the Chief Constable are both spending substantial amounts of public funds defending civil claims and Tribunal proceedings concerning FOIA where, on their face, the prime motivation is to avoid scrutiny and reputational harm, rather than the preservation of information rights. In the past year that figure, in my own knowledge exceeds £30,000 with the potential for that figure to double in the present financial year.
(B) Question
What steps has the Commissioner taken to:
(i)   Apprise herself of the extent of the non-compliance issues extant within the Civil Discloure Unit?
(ii)  Hold the Chief Constable to account over these long-term, repeated failings to comply with the law and use of public funds?
(iii) Keep the Panel informed?

Firstly, the email sending the question and supporting documents was intercepted and quarantined.

The Panel Secretariat, in the form of the aforementioned Diane Parsons, came back the following day and refused permission to ask the question. She said: “Having consulted the Panel Chair on your submission, I regret that the Panel are therefore unable to take your questions at the meeting this week.  However, I have passed your correspondence and attachments to the OPCC so that they are aware of the concerns you have raised“.

The rationale appeared to be that these were not matters with which the Scrutiny Panel need concern themselves: “To clarify, the purpose of PQT is to enable members of the public who live, work or study in North Yorkshire to engage directly with the Panel and pose questions on its remit and functions.  I have attached, if helpful, a copy of the Panel’s guidelines on PQT.  Any statements or concerns which you feel require the attention of the Commissioner would need to be directed through her office“.

The email from Ms Parsons, unusually, was comprised of three different fonts, and had obviously passed through a number of hands before she was elected as message bearer. The unseen hand of Barry Khan was, no doubt, part of the behind-the-scenes subterfuge.

As a card-carrying member of the press, the residency issue is a non-starter; I have previously posed a question to the same Panel: complaints against the PCC have also been considered by the same Panel; and on any reasonable, independent view the questions I posed met the Panels own guidelines or, even if the Panel felt they did not, modification was a very simple process.

But that, plainly, did not suit the Panel, or its Secretariat’s, purpose. To conceal their own failings as a scrutiny body, yet again, was clearly paramount. There was also what some might view as an unattractive element of childishness implicit within the response – and the intercepting of the email even before it reached the intended recipient. Which rather suggests that North Yorkshire County Council are interfering with my communications.

Following the re-direction of the public questions to the Police Commissioner’s office there has been a deathly silence. Which has also been the case from Deputy Chair of the Panel, Ashley Mason, who was passed full details of the questions prior to the Panel meeting taking place, by a well-known local democracy campaigner. Cllr Mason was rather more loquacious when, as if on cue, another unmitigated 101 disaster befell NYP during the first week of August, 2017 [4a].

This is a story that has some way to run yet as more information is passed to me by a source close to the Panel. This includes the claim, surprising to me at least, that the Panel chair, Cllr Carl Les, and the PCC do not see eye to eye, and that at least one conscripted Panel Member is very reluctant to take on her duties, having been pressed into service following the abrupt departure of another Member last year. A situation that chimes with a number of senior Conservative figures turning on Mrs Mulligan over her ‘crazy’ plans to take control of the North Yorkshire fire service [5].

There are also, it is said, serious frustrations at the PCC’s frequent refusal to provide requested documents, information to the Panel Secretariat. Again, a matter unreported in the minutes. There is also another controversy concerning the minutes as they are sometimes not, according to my source, a true record of what actually transpired at the Panel meetings. That would fit, certainly, with the known modus operandum of Fraser Sampson.

North Yorkshire Police and Crime Panel is, obviously, not a happy ship and needs an rapid overhaul, tip to stern.

The Police Commissioner’s office and the Panel Secretariat have both been approached for comment. Neither acknowledged the request.

Page last updated: Wednesday 2nd August, 2017 at 1745hrs

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article — I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

[1] Leeds County Court, 21st June, 2017: Judgment of District Judge Joanna Geddes in Jeanine Blamires -v- Local Government Ombudsman

[2] Manchester Evening News, 19th September, 2013: ‘Protester who held three year vigil outside Stockport Town Hall dies

[3] Neil Wilby, 22nd October, 2016: ‘Where there’s a Will there’s a way

[4] Neil Wilby, 23rd November, 2016: ‘Pick of the crop’

[4a] York Press: 4th August, 2017: Police apologise after telling public NOT to call 101

[5] Harrogate Advertiser, 25th July, 2017: ‘Police tsar plan for fire service branded ‘crazy”

© Neil Wilby 2015-2016. Unauthorised use or reproduction of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from and links to the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Author: Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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