Manchester City Council has finally – after breaking the law – released correspondence from 2014 and 2015 between the politician who promised the public in early 2014 that she would start a blog and the officers who said ‘not here you won’t’. Nobody emerges with any real credit.
The Freedom of Information Act request (details at the foot of this blog) reveals that the politician (Executive Member for the Environment Kate Chappell) only made two requests to the council bureaucrats, in early 2014 and late 2015, despite having publicly committed to setting up a blog. She did not enact the alternatives that were suggested to her by the council’s officers for non-Council website to which the Council would link.
Meanwhile, the officers threw up frankly spurious objections. The leader can have a blog the council’s website, but because a green party exists in Manchester, the Executive Member for the Environment cannot… And they also worried that if the Environment Executive had a blog, the other Executives might want one. (Then where would we be – elected representatives engaging with the public without the officers controlling everything. It would be anarchy! Or worse, functioning representative democracy!
So we have a situation where an elected representative – with responsibility for the environment, allegedly a priority for this city – makes a promise to start communicating with the public using one of those technologies that Manchester keeps saying is the wave of the future (this new-fangled Internet thing). Her leader is already doing it, but she is disallowed. And after a mere two exchanges of emails, she gives up.
This is Manchester, in a nutshell.
In January 2014 citizens of Manchester (not ‘some environmental campaigners’ as Councillor Chappell characterises them) asked the City Council to take nine specific low-cost actions to try to revive momentum towards a low-carbon future. You can see the video below.
One of the 9 actions was for the Executive Member for the Environment (Kate Chappell) to start a blog. The Leader of the Council, Richard Leese, has had a blog for many years, so it was hardly establishing a precedent.
In late February Kate Chappell replied to the 9 demands, and on the specific subject of the blog, said ‘yes’ and said she’d try to get it going by the proposed start date of 15th March You can see the letter – on the Council’s letterhead – here.
She didn’t do that. In April, interviewed by Manchester Climate Monthly, she said was encountering resistance, but the blog would still go ahead. You can see the video here.
(the relevant assurance is at 6 mins 40)
Asked again in June what had happened, she said the blog would not be happening. No explanation, no apology.
In March 2016 she approached the editor of Manchester Climate Monthly at the launch of the Council’s latest shiny community strategy. She said she’d tried three times to get a blog established and been told no. She agreed that she would write an email – for publication – about this. She didn’t.
In April, Manchester Climate Monthly used the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) to request the correspondence between her and the officers about the blog. The answers were due on 12th May. They did not arrive. After MCFly contacted the Information Commissioners Office in London (the ICO overseas the FoIA), and after MCFly raised the issue of the council breaking the law with four different councillors, finally a reply.
Dear Mr Hudson
Re: – Request for Information CEX/A8ZJH8
Thank you for your request for information, which was received by Manchester City Council on 12 April 2016 and has been considered under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”). Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your request.
You requested the following information
I am requesting copies of all the correspondence sent by you [Councillor Kate Chappell] and the relevant council officers about the setting up of a blog (this includes both emails and letters).
I am requesting copies of all the correspondence from council officers about the setting up of a blog, including all the reasons they have given you [Councillor Kate Chappell].
In response to your request, I confirm that the Council does hold the information that you have requested and I have attached a partial response. However, having carefully considered the information, the Council has determined that it is unable to comply with part of your request. This is because one of the emails is exempt from disclosure under Section 42 FOIA which covers Legal Professional Privilege.
This exemption applies because the information has arisen as a result of communications between the Council and its professional legal advisers, created for the primary purpose of providing legal advice, and the information has the necessary quality of confidence required for LPP. The client for the purposes of LPP includes Council Officers and Members. I would like to make it clear however that in this instance the advice in question was between Council Officers within legal services and communications and not between Council Officers and Councillor Kate Chappell.
This exemption is a ‘qualified’ exemption, which means that it is subject to a public interest test. The Council has applied the public interest test and has determined that, on balance, it is more beneficial to the public to withhold the information than to release it. In reaching this decision the Council has considered that under the Act, there is an assumption in favour of disclosure in the interests of accountability and transparency, and furthering public debate.
However, this needs to be balanced against the public interest in protecting a client’s confidence that any communication with their professional legal adviser will be treated in confidence. Disclosure of the information may undermine the legal adviser’s capacity to give full and frank legal advice
The Council considers that the advice given in 2014 carries significant weight in that the advice provided may inform other similar events in the future.
The rest of the emails are enclosed with this letter. The Council has redacted the names of officers under sections 40(2) and 40(3)(a)(i) FOIA as the information constitutes personal information about third parties. The Council has determined that the information relating to the third party should not be disclosed because disclosure would contravene one or more of the data protection principles under the Data Protection Act 1998, including the first principle that requires that information should be processed lawfully and fairly. I confirm that there are no letters relating to this matter
Here’s the reply
And in late 2015 a one-line email
And the reply
Ten out of ten for tenacity, Marc! This sheds an interesting light on the relationship between elected members of the Council and non-elected Council officers, doesn’t it? An (admittedly rather hackneyed) image of ‘puppet masters’ springs to mind! Which would be/is the greatest sin: an elected member inadvertently scoring a political point or an unelected officer not allowing an elected member to keep a public promise?
Cliches are cliches because they capture something important, and continue to do so. I think puppet masters is probably pretty accurate….
The irony is that a bunch of us were thinking of creating a website for Kate and then ‘handing her the keys’. Maybe we should have? But then, if she isn’t willing to take the basic steps to keep her promise herself, then there really is no hope, is there?
This species is doomed, sooner than it knows, and this city will not cope very well as the disasters begin to pile up… People with young children should worry about what those children will be saying to them in 10 years or so.
Comedy gold from facebook-
We should form a “bit shit and clunky and transaction-focused” party, thereby making their whole website political. It will create a singularity and collapse in on itself (if you believe the movies)
I live opposite a primary school and every day, when I hear those happy little voices in the playground, I can’t help thinking about the devastated world those kids are going to grow up in. But then their parents obviously couldn’t give a shit as they drive their offspring to and from school in their big, chunky 4 x 4s.
And last month, when councillors begged the executive member and her deputy to look at enforcement rather than education around the question of people parking illegally on the school run, the Kate (for it is she) and her sidekick Ollie Manco both… basically ignored those pleas and pretended that only questions about education had been asked. It was quite surreal.