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Public Access to Information Review

Posted on 12th March, 2017

Public Access to Information Review

 

It seems that another simple request for information has caused Bleadon Parish Council (BPC) a problem. This time it has led them to implementing their vexatious policy rather than giving us/public access to the information. We've therefore decided to review BPC's approach to public access to information in relation to us/BOB/public queries.

 

BPC Review of Policies

 

Last month, Feb 2017, BPC decided once again to review its policies whilst in the middle of an access to public information debate with BOB. A year ago, Feb 2016, during our access to timely accurate information complaint we requested a copy of the current BPC Complaints Policy, the Chair wanted to delay our receipt until after its review and the Clerk did not send a copy to us, so we used the most current version on BOB as given to us by the previous Clerk. This time BPC appear to have used a draft unpublished vexatious policy against us so we have referred to the currently adopted, publicly stated one as posted on the BPC website. 

 
We can only hope that BPC don't try and further restrict public access to information as one of the councillors tasked to review the policies this time was a strong supporter of the ex-councillors restriction of access to public information last time. This was confirmed in the minuted decision to remove the public email service in regards to timely public access to minutes (Feb 2016 Min 281.7.3) and our information requests in the Jan 2016 common ground meeting. It was the same councillor we feel that pushed through amendments to various polices in Feb 2016. This was despite the concerns of other councillors who indicated that amendments had not been made by a qualified person and that councillors had not had enough time to consider them (Feb 2016 Min 281.7.4).  

 

We believe that this lack of due consideration has had a subsequent effect on BPC's use, misuse and non-use of policies, plans, procedures, etc. a year later; potentially other policies may prove to be more restrictive as well, if/when they become enacted. When reviewing the polices this time BOB strongly suggests that BPC takes the pre-March 2016 versions into consideration as these were compiled by the then qualified Clerk.

 

BPC Implementation of Vexatious policy and accuracy of minutes/policies

 

At the beginning of this year, Jan 2017, in response to BOB's request for a copy of the Parish Plan and seeking to understand BPC's approach to current and future large scale development applications in the parish, BPC again started making negative and incorrect public statements. By Feb 2017 they publicly declared they had enacted their vexatious policy, yet wrote to us stating they were 'informally' writing to us? 

 

From our perspective there is no clear reason as to why our requests for information are considered 'unreasonable or unacceptable' or why BPC is 'unable' to answer them. BOB will of course keep you updated, and publish a copy of the Parish Plan and/or BPC's view of Bleadon's future if/when we receive a response. Also any policy updates.

 

Village Halls Ownership & Responsibilities and accuracy of minutes

 

In Nov 2016 BPC turned its attention to the Halls Committee regarding the ownership of the village halls and land, and associated responsibilities; with talk about taking legal advice at the public's expense (Nov 2016 Min 289.9BOB informed BPC that there was a BPC/Hall Committee Agreement-Protocol and requested a copy, which we received over two weeks later after various emails from us and another member of the public. From our understanding "The legal ownership of the Hall is vested in the Council as Trustees for the use and benefit of the Beneficiaries and it is therefore an asset of the Council."  to be logged on the BPC asset register as an asset of nil value as indicated in previous BPC minutes, the Halls Committee have "control and management of the property". We believe the Dec 2016 Min 290.13 misleads the public as it does not indicate that BPC has legal ownership in Trust as indicated in the agreement/protocol; we had last informed councillors of this six months before, in May 2016. 

 

We, and others, feel that a correct record is important because the halls and land are not BPC's assets to do with as they wish, they belong to the "inhabittants" of Bleadon. Also, should BPC 'fold' at any time in the future, e.g. be incorporated into a District Council,  these assets should not then pass to any other government authority.

 

BPC Newsletter and accuracy of minutes

 

The month following BPC's response to our complaint, in May 2016, BPC started a newsletter issue, again speaking negatively, incorrectly and mis-leadingly about us/BOB in its public meeting; and again before actually discussing our concerns with us. Following a meeting with BPC and the Clerk more issues were highlighted so, to try and resolve and mediate the issues we approached the newly appointed Clerk but to no avail. BPC did not indicate any amendment to public perception or accuracy of information but it did indicate its restricted approach to information and selective service to the public. We were later asked if we/BOB wanted to submit an article to the Sept 2016 newsletter with BPC choosing not to publish our submission unless it was rewritten in an interview/chatty style. We felt that this was inapproapriate considering BPC were not speaking with us and the fact that they repeatedly portrayed us in a negative light in their public meetings/minutes. We felt that it would have been a public mis-representation of BPC's actual relationship with BOB.

  

Access to timely, accurate minutes and website usage

 

By Nov 2015 BPC had removed public access to BPC minutes between meetings. BOB asked why and asked for timely minutes to be reinstated, also questioning the purpose/use of BPC's website in regards to access to information. In response BPC spoke about BOB/us negatively in public meetings for several months which culminated in BPC holding a closed extra-ordinary meeting as indicated in the Feb 2016 minutes introduction, There was no discussion with us/BOB either before, during or after the process so we/BOB submitted an official complaint

 

By the end of the process BOB/public access to minutes was resumed. BOB/public was not given a reason as to why BPC acted the way it did, with some questions still unanswered and issues unresolved to date. Two councillors and the clerk involved in this restricted access issue had resigned before we received our complaint response from BPC. Full service was not resumed until May 2016, seven months later, with the appointment of a new Chair of BPC.

 

Correction of BPC public statements e.g. minutes

 

On several occasions we have asked BPC to 'amend' their minutes to more accurately reflect an issue  e.g. access to minutes, newsletter, vexatious statements, parish plan, halls, etc. but this doesn't seem to happen. In Jan 2017, in relation to the Parish Plan and Public Inquiry statements BPC wrote "As far as the minutes are concerned, I will not be amending them in any way..... Everything in the minutes of the last meeting was said during the meeting. ... The issue of whether what was said is incorrect or not is irrelevant.  If it was said, it can go into the minutes..."

 

BOB's question has always been that if councillors know that a statement is incorrect, at or subsequent to a public meeting, how and when is the information publicly corrected? Similarly, if a member of the public asks for an issue or statement to be publicly corrected or clarified, how and when is this done?

 

Currency of BPC website

 

During our request for the Halls Protol BPC acknowledged that "It is true that the website is not up to date in some respects, (agendas and minutes are up to date)". What about all the currently adopted plans, policies, procedures, protocols, etc. that explain how BPC operates and communicates with the public; indicating what it has agreed to do, and not do, on behalf of residents as their elected representatives?

 

The Clerk has also stated that, "If anyone wishes to have a copy of a document which is held electronically, or is easily accessible then I will obviously provide a copy." As can be seen from the items above, e.g. in relation to the Parish Plan, this is not always the case in our experience.

 

In Summary

 

Despite BPC's public statements in minutes and newsletters we believe that Bleadon residents have poor access to information. BPC has resolved at least twice that they would follow government best practice guidelines but do not appear to implement them. The Clerk and Councillors have stated various times that they don't have the time to send us/the public information. In just over a decade BPC has commissioned and paid for three separate websites, each with their own associated clerk and councillor training, email addresses and ongoing monthly costs. The last one was launched just over a year ago, in Jan 2016, and was almost immediately out of date, lacking key information, and continues to be so.

 

We believe that if BPC better used their publicly paid for resources, and published key information on their website, then the public would not have to ask for it, the clerk and/or councillors would not have to rummage in filing cabinets to try and find it, documents would not become 'lost' and councillors and the public would know what has been resolved and agreed on behalf of Bleadon residents. Best of all none of us would have to waste time on long explanatory emails or meetings!

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