The chief executive has all but gone, but deep rooted problems still persist in the higher echelons of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, writes Neil Wilby. Highlighted again this week by an admission that they cheated when responding to a freedom of information request made by a local politician and fierce critic of that same administration.
Simon Hodgson, who made the request in January, 2020, represented the Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth Party (the POOS) in the recent local elections. He contested the Saddleworth South ward, without distinction, finishing a distant fourth in the poll. He now describes himself as an unregulated ‘community advocate’ in the area. Although the Facebook page proclaiming this role is high on hyperbole, but skinny on detail.
The POOS were, and are, implacably opposed to Sean Fielding, the former council leader who lost his Failsworth East seat in those same elections A campaign against him was very largely orchestrated by Raja Miah, a disgraced local ‘political activist’ and co-founder and driving force of the POOS (read more here).
Hodgson was under the impression that his request, made via the iconic What Do They Know website, had been dealt with appropriately and marked it as ‘successful’ on his page. It was signed off by a Performance Analyst in the People Services Department of Oldham Council.
However, that relatively junior officer is very likely to be simply performing an administrative role, in effect ‘fronting’ the request for the actual decision makers. It is a practice common throughout public authorities when finalising information rights requests. Akin to the generals sitting two miles behind the front line whilst mortars and machine gun fire rain on troops on the front line.
It is intended that those ‘generals’ in this particular battle are identified and brought before a ‘court martial’. In this case, one plausible remedy is by way of a complaint under section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2000 which can lead to a criminal prosecution brought by the statutory regulator. Oldham Council are invited to self-refer the matter to the Information Commissioner’s Office as an alternative to such action.
It was during a wider search for links to the ubiquitous Common Purpose, across the Greater Manchester Region, when the Simon Hodgson request came to light. Peter Fahy, a former chief constable of the Region’s police force, was a noted proponent. He featured in a promotional video towards the end of his service (view here).
Many blame Fahy, in large measure, for the desperate state of GMP today. Which throws serious suspicion on the effectiveness of Common Purpose and some of its key players.
One of his trusted lieutenants, retired assistant chief constable, Garry Shewan, still remains one of Common Purpose’s key activists. Shewan, of course, is responsible, amongst other failings, for the infamous £100 million iOPS debacle (read more here).
Senior paid officers in local authorities is, anecdotally, fertile ground for Common Purpose which is, presumably. how Simon Hodgson and Neil Wilby arrived in much the same place. It is also argued strongly, by others, that it is a cloak both for incompetence and a more sinister network that operates against the public interest (read more here).
But there was something immediately striking about the Hodgson information request to eyes that roam across hundreds of pages of court documents, in an average week, looking for weakness in argument or flaws in facts and evidence: What was presented by Oldham Council as a response simply wasn’t plausible under trained scrutiny.
This is how the challenge to the request was framed in a communication dated 19th July, 2021:
“Dear Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council (OMBC),
“As part of a wider journalistic enquiry this Freedom of Information Act request has surfaced:
“In this connection, may I request disclosure of the following information via the Act:
A. With regard to Questions 1. and 2. in the request made by Simon Hodgson (a candidate in the recent Oldham Council local elections) what searches were undertaken by OMBC to arrive at the zero totals in both cases.
Taken at its face, and viewed the lens of an investigative journalist at least, they would, without canvassing every single OMBC employee, past and present, back to 1989, be very difficult conclusions to arrive at, without any form of qualification attached to them. Particularly, as I know of one present employee who was Common Purpose trained, albeit by a different organisation in the Region.
B. Similarly, with regard to Question 3 in Mr Hodgson’s request, how were searches of accounts conducted all the way back to 1989 in order to arrive at the conclusion that there was zero spend. That may, of course, be the correct answer – but the methodology is important for the wider public to understand.
C. Question 4 in Mr Hodgson’s request is, with respect to him, poorly framed, but the query raised in the instant request is related to that raised in my Question 3. How many years were searched and did this not present an overcost issue with a potential Section 12 exemption to be applied?
D. With regard to Question 5, was Cllr Fielding asked verbally regarding his Common Purpose status or via written communication?
It should be noted that the answer to D. was already known that point by way of a separate and preliminary enquiry to Sean Fielding, by then a member of the public rather than a public figure.
The core of the Council’s acknowledgement is reproduced here. It was not at all welcome given previous experience with them, where prevarication had little, or nothing, to do with a pandemic but more to do with the embarrassment over the information they were being asked to disclose:
“The Information Commissioner’s Office has recognised the unprecedented challenges all are facing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and that people may experience delays when making requests for information during the pandemic.
“Please be aware that your response may not be complete in whole or in part. This is due to government wide measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Oldham Council is currently handling a large volume of business-critical work aimed towards the protection and safeguarding of residents during the COVID-19 outbreak, and as such the business area may not be able to respond to your request within the expected timeframe or provide full information for the completion of your request”.
The clarification offered to the Council was not only intended to focus the mind of the its senior officers, but also made in full knowledge that this was a developing public interest story and a marker put down accordingly:
“Please be aware of the following points:
1. Central Government has not granted emergency relief to any public authority in terms of their lawful obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (“the Act”) during the present virus epidemic:
2. Similarly, on the Information Commissioner’s (“ICO”) website, in the section specifically relating to the Act, there is no announcement regarding the virus epidemic. Indeed, a non-exhaustive check of the same website reveals that the neither of the words “epidemic” nor “pandemic” appear.
3. It is trite that, in any event, the ICO is a statutory regulator (and a notably poor one it is respectfully submitted), not a legislative body.
4. To an investigative journalist at least, it is, therefore, a curiosity as to how the proposition was advanced, and communicated, by the ICO to public authorities that they could abrogate Parliament’s specific directions on the basis of a health issue that rates no mention at all on their own website. Can OMBC assist with this, please?
5. It is also noteworthy, within these submissions, that the four other bodies from whom disclosure has been sought over the last five years in the Greater Manchester Region (GMP, GMCA, GMPCP, GMPF) all routinely break the law (FOIA, DPA, GDPR, CPIA). GMP to the extent that at least one request took over two years to finalise, long before SARS-CoV-2 became an issue. The OMBC chief executive was/is lead chief executive of GMPCP. The OMBC Director of Strategy is a former assistant chief constable in GMP.
6. As a journalist, and experienced information right practitioner, it is respectfully submitted that the instant information request would take a competent, qualified officer less than two hours to finalise and an experienced, competent manager less than an hour to quality assure. The disclosure sought is contained in a single file held in the Information Management department relating to finalisation of a previous information request made by Simon Hodgson.
7. Readers and other users of this WhatDoTheyKnow website – and thousands of followers on social media – might, very fairly, ask why the matters in the preceding paragraphs have been so laboriously set out. The answer is this: Lawful disclosure of the requested information is, it can be said with certainty, going to cause OMBC considerable organisational discomfort and it is expected, given their wider conduct when such matters are in issue, that there will be prevarication, obfuscation, delay and, likely a refusal on spurious grounds. In those circumstances, these early submissions take on additional significance if the matter is ultimately determined before a Tribunal”.
Oldham Council provided an answer on the same day:
“We note the concerns you have raised. Your request has been passed to the appropriate officer to answer, and they have been informed of the deadline for completion in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.
“In reference to point 4, you have requested the council to assist you in locating information on the Information Commissioner’s website in relation to the handling for Freedom of Information Requests during the pandemic. Please find below a link to information published by the commissioner regarding its regulatory approach through the pandemic”.
The link provided does require some scratching around to locate the subject information. This image may assist:
In the ICO open letter to Oldham Council, this is the key line: As a regulator, our primary responsibility is to ensure compliance with the law. Nowhere, does it give any public authority the right not to comply with the Act. Or the liberty to provide generic, misleading, falsely grounded acknowledgements to disclosure requests. These are matters for precision and great care that can, and very often do, have far-reaching consequences.
The Borough Solicitor, Paul Entwistle, should be abreast of all that knowledge. From other dealings with him, he plainly is not.
On 13th August, 2021 a substantive response was received to the information request. It was sent anonymously from “Oldham Council HR Department”. In the circumstances, it might have been reasonable to expect a senior paid officer to ‘own’ it.
For ease of reading, the questions that form the request are repeated again – and the Council’s replies are beneath:
Question A: With regard to Questions 1. and 2. in the request made by Simon
Hodgson (a candidate in the recent Oldham Council local elections) what
searches were undertaken by OMBC to arrive at the zero totals in both cases. Taken at its face, and viewed the lens of an investigative journalist at least, they would, without canvassing every single OMBC employee, past and present, back to 1989, be very difficult conclusions to arrive at, without any form of qualification attached to them. Particularly, as I know of one present employee who was Common Purpose trained, albeit by a different organisation in the Region.
Council’s Answer to Question A: The original response was arrived at on the following basis:
o Whether the Council had paid for or delivered any training referencing “Common Purpose” for current employees.
o A search of the Council’s training records for any reference relating to “Common Purpose”. Our searchable records date back to 2016 and revealed no results.
o A search of the Councils’ financial records for any reference to “Common Purpose”. Our searchable records date back to 2008 and revealed no results.
On review, and as you have pointed out, the above does not necessarily
mean that a current employee had not received common purpose training:
o Before joining the Council
o Prior to our latest financial/training records
o Outside of work
The original response should have either clarified the methodology noted above or instead stated that the question can not be answered. On reflection, the latter response may have been the most appropriate. However, the response given did represent the services best efforts to provide an answer [Emphasis added].
Question B. Similarly, with regard to Question 3 in Mr Hodgson’s request, how were
searches of accounts conducted all the way back to 1989 in order to arrive at the conclusion that there was zero spend. That may, of course, be the correct answer – but the methodology is important for the wider public to understand.
Council’s Answer to Question B: As noted above, our available financial records go back to 2008 and this should have been stated in the original response.
Question C: Question 4 in Mr Hodgson’s request is, with respect to him, poorly framed, but the query raised in the instant request is related to that raised in my Question 3. How many years were searched and did this not present an overcost issue with a potential Section 12 exemption to be applied?
Answer to Question C: As noted above.
Question D: With regard to Question 5, was Cllr Fielding asked verbally regarding
his Common Purpose status or via written communication?
A written email enquiry was made to the Leader’s (Sean Fielding’s) office and written response was received back.
That concluded the Council’s response.
Curiously, although it is put down to oversight and, maybe, inexperience, there were no ‘right to complain’ details at the foot of the communication. These are standard, not just for Oldham Council, but across all public authorities. They form part of ICO Guidance.
Nevertheless, the right to have the request reviewed afresh is embodied within section 45 of the Freedom of Information Act, 2000 and the same ICO Guidance.
Accordingly, such a request was filed on 15th August, 2021
“This is a request for an internal review of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council’s handling of my FOI request ‘Common Purpose’.
“The grounds for the review are:
The Council’s response to A. is an admission that it breached the Act and, on any independent view, deliberately. Please confirm if the Council has self referred this matter to the Information Commissioner’s Office. The proposition that ‘the response given did represent the services best efforts to provide an answer’. Complying with the law of the land not discretionary or subjective. Please also confirm if the Council wrote to Mr Hodgson on 13th August, 2021 to inform him that the response to his information request ws falsely grounded.
Where are the records between 1989 and 2008 stored or archived. Please distinguish between paper and electronic records. On e might reasonably have expected a full response to the information request to have included this information given the inordinate time it has taken to finalise.
Please disclose the copies of the emails referred to between the Council officer dealing with Mr Hodgson’s request and Cllr (as he was then) Fielding. The reason this becomes necessary is that, when approached, Cllr Fielding said he had no recollection of such communication, either verbal or written.
“More generally, please disclose the job title of the officer quality assuring the original response. One assumes that it would have been at the level of department head at the very least. Given that Cllr Fielding featured centrally in the request and that it was, presumably, made in an attempt to undermine him, this matter would have also caught the attention of the executive management team and the Borough Solicitor.
“Finally, please disclose (i) under whose executive management portfolio freedom of information requests fall. It is not immediately apparent from the Council’s website (ii) the name of the Council officer who replaced Martyn Bramwell as Head of HR”.
Although discretionary, almost every public authority in the country complies with Section 45 requests, or internal review requests as they are quite commonly known. They require a response within 20 working days, or, in exceptional circumstances, for example when the original request was complex, 40 working days.
Regrettably, Oldham Council is not one of those authorities that see fit to comply. Probably taking the view that there is no meaningful sanction, so why bother. Especially if the request is likely to create discomfort – or the applicant is an investigative journalist noted for asking serious, but difficult, questions. Of itself, a breach of the Act as it is a fundamental principle that all freedom of information requests are ‘applicant and motive blind’. That is to say, the public authority is required, when responding to such a request, to ignore from whom it originates and why they are seeking disclosure. Simply take it at face value and focus on the lawfulness of disclosing the information sought or providing a well-reasoned argument for not so doing.
This all leads, as one might have already guessed, to a previous request made by Neil Wilby to Oldham Council. That, too, was, and still is, an embarrassing shambles.
The request was made on 24th December, 2020 and, for those sufficiently interested, it can be viewed in its entirety here. It concerned an ancillary role of Dr Wilkins’, as lead chief executive of the Region’s Police and Crime Panel. A tedious, but necessary, part of a wider journalistic investigation.
As with the Common Purpose requests, Oldham Council ‘played the man’, not the request. There always seemed, in addition to that aberration and informed by an investigator’s sixth sense, a drive to conceal as much information about the administration’s most senior paid officer as possible.
The out-turn from the request was ludicrous, and it simply became disproportionate, both in terms of time and mental energy to pursue it further. That is until, by chance, a nugget of information was dredged up accidentally, elsewhere, that cast doubt on what the Council had set out in its responses to the request.
Further submissions to the Council were then made in these terms:
“Dear Legal Services,
“Receipt of your communication dated 28th June is acknowledged.
“The apology cannot be accepted for two reasons: (i) it is given anonymously (ii) no explanation is given for the delay. Nevertheless, the internal review part of the request is closed, at least as far as I am concerned, and does not require further response.
“There has, however, been a concerning development which, through this lens at least, strikes at the heart of the integrity of the Council and, potentially, the officer concerned in providing the response on 8th February, 2021. That is Lewis Greenwood.
“In his communication he states that Dr Carolyn Wilkins left her role as lead chief executive for the GM Police and Crime Panel in July, 2020. As part of a quite different exercise conducted on Monday connected with the Panel and the Council (raised separately with the press office) it was revealed that Dr Wilkins gave apologies to the January, 2021 meeting of the Panel. The inconsistency is clear.
“If this was an isolated incident it would be written off as an honest error and we would all move on. But I am finding, at every entry point for a journalist into your Council, that there is this level of obfuscation and, in some cases, what appears to be deliberate deceit or, at the very least, a circumventing of serious public interest issues. It is not an attractive look for a public authority and not at all aided by the way the instant disclosure request has been handled.
“If you prefer to deal with this matter outwith the What Do They Know platform, the Council’s press office has my email address and I am content for it to be dealt with in that way”.
Since then there has been an eerie silence. That communication has not been acknowledged, lat alone had the benefit of a substantive response. It was not apparent at the time, but is now, that Lewis Greenwood is paid over £60,000 in a job described as Head of Executive Services at the Council. Which, according to insiders, is a role and a level of remuneration created by Dr Wilkins by breaking a number of rules and policies. It was only ten years ago that Lewis, a likeable Failsworth lad by all accounts, joined the Council as a 17 year old apprentice. His devotion to his mentor is said to be absolute.
This communication, and the integrity matters it discloses, is one of a number of issues that will be piling up on the desk of the new interim chief executive, whose appointment was announced exclusively on this website two days ago (read here). Another is underperforming senior executives; add in a toxic atmosphere amongst them, leaked documents, conflicts of interest, and the necessity of the Deputy Leader earlier this week having to introduce Minimum Performance Standards at all paid officer grades. A troubling matrix on any independent view.
Harry Catherall has a tough job on his hands, make no mistake about that.
Page last updated at 0755hrs on Friday 20th August, 2021.
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