A Letter to the Editor from a couple in the District of Hambleton, who write in response to a recent NY Enquirer article – “Equal UnderThe Law? Parish The Thought!” – to share their personal experiences at the hands of their broken Parish Council.
Dear Mr Editor,
We have noted with a keen interest long-running articles/sagas on various issues concerning Local Government and the problems encountered in getting answers to legitimate questions reported on your website, the NY Enquirer.
Your most recent article on the subject – “Equal Under the Law? Parish the Thought!” – is both thought-provoking and indeed particularly relevant to our personal situation.
The Parish Council you have exposed, Exelby, Leeming and Newton (ELN PC) in Hambleton District, is the very same Parish Council we are experiencing a great deal of difficulty (to say the least) with at the present moment.
Of particular interest is the fact that you have received replies to Freedom of Information Requests, all of which clearly demonstrate an appalling lack of regard for legislative requirements and statutory obligations by ELN PC.
If we can give you a little background, I am sure your readers will be amazed (though perhaps not surprised) at the lack of parity and respect afforded to Nigel Ward as a gentleman of the press, versus ourselves, as mere ratepayers and a part of the community of the Parish Council, for asking questions of a similar nature to yours. I detail below a number of examples we have experienced at this lack of equality:-
1. Complaints Procedure (or Lack of)
By way of a brief history of this issue, we requested a copy of ELN PC Complaints Procedure on the 26th February 2014. We were told that they did not hold one but would “adopt the Local Council Model”. After repeated requests to illicit some kind of response from ELN PC as we were persistently ignored, a complaints procedure was hastily adopted (in advance) on 19th May 2014.
I received a letter from ELN PC dated the 13th May which claimed to enclose this post-dated document (the Clerk – Mrs. Stead had obviously forgotten to include it). I immediately requested the document as the content of the letter dated the 13th May relied heavily upon reading this document in conjunction therewith. It then took ELN PC a further two weeks to supply it to me.
A complaints meeting was eventually called by the Clerk to ELN PC for me to attend on 23rd June, and this without any regard to their own procedures laid down in the aforementioned newly adopted ELN PC Complaints Procedure document.
For example, the Parish Council refused to recognize my husband as a Co-Complainant and subsequently he was NOT invited to attend the meeting scheduled by ELN Parish Council.
Also, under the Parish Council’s newly adopted procedure, the Complainant should be given 7 clear WORKING days to exchange documents with the Complaints Committee of ELN PC – this did not happen.
A particular letter of complaint from me to ELN PC dated the 28th May was not accepted as such by the Council (a further failure to adhere to its own newly adopted Complaints Procedure), and therefore we did not know if it would be discussed at the scheduled meeting.
Despite the above, we actually made the decision to attend the meeting on the 23rd June. When the above points were relayed to the Chair of the Complaints Committee – Mr. Raymond Andrew Wrigglesworth – we were greeted with the comment: “What do you think the consequence or penalty of us not following our complaints procedure would be because we have no legal requirement?” This was quite frankly ridiculous; having hastily adopted a Complaints Procedure Mr. Wrigglesworth now claims he does not have any requirement to ensure adherence to it.
In addition to the above, Mr. Wrigglesworth conducted the meeting single handedly despite the “Committee” being comprised of two other Councillors – Mr. John Peirson and Mr. Louis Robinson – however the only time these two gentlemen actually spoke was to confirm their identity.
Throughout the meeting I was continually interrupted by Mr. Wrigglesworth, told to “speak when spoken to”, and advised that my complaints would cost “five hundred quid” for Mr. Wrigglesworth’s own law firm to read.
I have since found that the “law firm” to which Mr. Wrigglesworth refers is in fact an “employment advisory” outfit, and therefore has no relevance or legal standing in regard to the issues at hand.
Mr. Wrigglesworth also attempted to introduce “evidence” to the proceedings without prior notification, stating he had received “comments” from “various sources” such as North Yorkshire County Council, Hambleton District Council, Environmental Health and a resident of Londonderry (our home village).
This again is quite clearly outside of the terms of reference and in direct breach of ELN’s Complaints Procedure, (and I believe quite sinister in intent) and when challenged Mr. Wrigglesworth conceded that this “evidence” was indeed “tittle tattle”.
Mr. Wrigglesworth stated he was sitting in judgement impartially as to whether I was personally guilty of “harassment” (incidentally my “crime” here was in regard to writing letters/FOIA Requests – all of which were actually accepted as valid by the Information Commissioners Office), and with which on more than one occasion ELN failed to comply with timescales laid down in legislation.
On this point I questioned Mr. Wrigglesworth’s “impartiality” as he had sanctioned a letter with the very accusation of “harassment” being sent to me dated the 13th May 2014. He later claimed, more than once during the course of the meeting, to know nothing about this letter sent from ELN.
The previous PC Meeting Minutes clearly evidence that he did know, and I believe it would be charitable to suggest that Mr. Wrigglesworth had got himself confused during the course of the meeting.
Several months ago I raised the issue of why ELN PC did not take advantage of the free service afforded to them by their District Council – Hambleton in that there was a “tab” on their website for the ELN to place all declarations of interest, minutes etc., etc. The answer I received in writing was “there is no requirement to do so”.
This is particularly interesting in the light of Nigel Ward’s recent article, as he has discovered via FOIA Request that the Parish Council in question did NOT have the Councillors’ Declarations of Interest up to date until after his request (this may explain why they refused to use the facility made available to them by HDC when asked by me).
It is also interesting to note that when Nigel Ward brings the issue of websites to the attention of the Clerk, she thanks him profusely for bring her attention to it and resolves that ELN PC will revisit its decision on the matter – the direct opposite to the response I received for my troubles – see above.
3. Data Protection
We have very real ongoing concerns regarding the retention and processing of ELN’s electronic (and for that matter paper) data. Nigel Ward’s recent article has uncovered that the Clerk – Mrs. Margaret Stead PERSONALLY OWNS the very laptop ALL Parish Council business is conducted and stored upon. Not only this, but it is all stored at her home address.
This present situation leaves serious questions as to security, privacy, contingency business planning, fire, theft, accidental damage, leaving her job as Clerk, the integrity of previously written and recorded correspondence, minutes etc. ELN state that the “back up” is a memory stick.
I am sure readers are well aware of the limitations of these devices, not to mention the fact they can be lost, stolen (very easily due to their portability) or simply mislaid. Further, it appears the back up memory stick is at the same location as the computer owned by Mrs. Stead (Clerk) i.e. her home address. There could be further ramifications regarding data owned and registered by the Parish Council being held on a computer which is NOT within their ownership.
I have personally raised concerns regarding the control of sensitive data to ELN PC, and have most recently (16th June 2014) received an assurance from the Chair – Mr.John Kettlewell – stating the following “Data is stored electronically and stored on a memory stick which is password protected, paper correspondence is stored in a filing cabined which is locked away. Only the Clerk has access to this”
However, I have located an e-mail (holiday reply) sent from ELN to me dated the 10th September 2013 which contains the following statement “The Clerk is currently away on holiday until 17 September and I am checking the emails in her absence. I have passed your emails to the Chairman for his attention. Regards [redacted]”.
This clearly makes nonsense of the Chair’s assertions that Mrs. Stead in her position as Clerk is the only person to have access to data. Incidentally, the third party who sent this “holiday reply” e-mail has no position or standing whatsoever within the Parish Council.
4. Decision Making
We have long expressed concerns with ELN PC that the decision making process was not properly followed through i.e. when a Parish Council makes a decision it must be recorded in the Minutes of the appropriate meeting.
We have raised this several times with ELN PC (amongst other ways, through an FOIA request) and have been ignored. When Nigel Ward raises the exact same issue he receives the following response “However, the decision making process is another issue on which the council has recently been taking advice as we are now aware that all decisions need to be made by the council by councillors present and voting at a meeting. I hope that you will see that the council is striving to improve its procedures and I thank you for drawing this matter to our attention”.
Upon questioning the mechanics of the decision making (and minuting process) with ELN PC back in February 2014, the response I received from this was firstly by way of a letter from the Chair – Mr. John Kettlewell – to this particular organization stating the “Parish Council will neither comment further not answer any questions on information sent to you under your recent requests”.
ELN Parish Council’s stance took an even more grave and malevolent turn and by way of a sharp contrast to the kind thanks and assurances of improvement Nigel Ward has received from the Clerk – Mrs. Stead.
My “thanks” for raising these matters with the Clerk and ELN PC as a ‘corporate body’ is a letter written with the assent of ALL Parish Councillors (although Mr. Wrigglesworth is somewhat confused on this matter), accusing me of harassment (a criminal act), being vexatious, and obsessive behaviour (a mental disorder).
On the vexatious front, I would point out that this is a relatively recent tactic deployed by Local Authorities in an effort to excuse them from answering difficult/unpalatable questions presented to them by members of the public. I have discovered that this is something happening the length and breath of the country and, I am advised, without any legal standing.
5. Declarations of Interest
I was very interested to note ELN Parish Councillors very recent (end of May/beginning of June 2014) complying with their legal requirements to register and display their Declarations of Interest.
It has been a criminal offence under the Localism Act 2011 (in force as of 1st July 2012) for elected Members to fail to make a declaration immediately upon their respective elections, and/or to fail to update their respective Registers within 28 days of any notifiable disclosable interest arising.
The Clerk, Mrs. Margaret Stead, could produce no Declarations of Interests whatever until they were hastily completed and addressed to Hambleton District Council (HDC) Monitoring Officer Martyn RICHARDS on or after 3rd June 2014 – two weeks AFTER Nigel Ward’s FOIA requests went in.
Nigel Ward in his recent article states that “All seven ELN Parish Councillors (Cllr. John Kettlewell (Chair), Cllr. Dorothy Dixon (Vice-Chair), Cllr. Louis Robinson, Cllr. John Peirson, Cllr. Frank Herbert, Cllr. Brian Shuttleworth, Cll. Raymond Andrew Wrigglesworth) have, therefore, been guilty of a criminal offence since 29th July 2012.”
I would ask the reader to bear Nigel Ward’s words in mind in view of the unwarranted, defamatory and offensive allegations made by ELN PC against my personal character and good name, described above.
I can only attempt to conclude why I (as a rate-payer to the relevant Parish Council) and Nigel Ward (a highly-esteemed and well-connected investigative journalist) are treated in such a comprehensively different manner by the Parish Council in question. Perhaps your readers can determine this for themselves?
6. FOIA Requests and backdated correspondence
I note that Nigel Ward submitted a FOIA Request and (presumably) was furnished with the information requested within the 20 working days stated within the Act.
By sharp contrast, I have made FOIA requests; perforce, due to the fact that when I have asked for information on an informal basis it has not been provided to me (for instance the issues surrounding “decisions”, as listed above).
The information requested under these FOIA requests has arrived late on numerous occasions, necessitating the intervention of the Information Commissioners Office. On one memorable occasion ELN PC claimed to have alreadysent a letter to me in compliance with the recommended timescales permitted within the Act and forwarded a copy of this letter to the ICO when in fact I had never received it, necessitating the ICO themselves to furnish me with a copy of this communication.
When I did eventually receive the letter in question it was sent recorded delivery and back-dated so that it appeared to comply with the 20 working days recommended within the Act. However, the “give away” was the fact that it was posted (and marked as such by the Recorded Delivery System) the very day before I received it which was several days after it had allegedly been written.
I have since ascertained that ELN PC were NOT registered as a Data Controller with the ICO, which they have an obligation to be, and are only now in the process of rectifying this omission.
The above sequence of events offers the merest glimpse into the widely differing reception Nigel Ward has received to his enquiries versus our legitimate concerns as Precept-paying members of the community which Exelby Leeming & Newton Parish Council purports to serve.
Andy & Michelle
A.R. & M. DOLAN, Londonderry. 4th July, 2014.