You may remember an article about the free Broadband connection that Hambleton District Council (HDC) provides to a number of their elected members that I published a few months ago.
You may also remember that HDC went to great lengths to conceal the names of those elected members receiving free connections. At first, the Council claimed that naming the Councillors in receipt of the free connection would breach the Data Protection Act
“The Council declined to provide the further information on the basis that the information would reveal personal details and that this would be a breach of the Data Protection Act.”
I then asked the Council for a review of its decision to withhold the information requested. On the March 28th 2013, I received a copy of the Internal Review from Martyn Richards, Director of Corporate Services at HDC. The Council amended its view and then sought to rely on Section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act to withhold the names of Councillors in receipt of the free connection.
“For the reasons set out above my conclusion is that the request for information about the individual Members who have received support from the Council for broadband access is covered by the exemption in Section 40(2) of the FOIA because disclosure would breach the first data principle in the DPA.”
Amusingly, the HDC Constitution considers that transparency regarding information about the allowances, expenses and perks that elected members receive is required under the Council’s Constitution [1.03(7)]. Currently, there is no version of the Council’s Constitution available on the HDC website to peruse.
I was left with no option but to complain to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) as information about the allowances, expenses and perks of elected members is firmly in the public interest.
Where possible, the ICO prefers complaints to be resolved informally and asks both parties to be open to compromise. The ICO wrote to Hambleton District Council in October and asked them to reconsider their decision to withhold the information. Shortly afterwards, I received the following from HDC:
“Dear Mr Thorne,
I refer to your complaint to the Information Commissioner about the Council’s decision not to provide information about Members’ broadband.
The Commissioner has offered the Council the opportunity to reconsider its position. The Council has done so and, whilst it maintains that its original position fulfilled the requirements of the Act, it has decided that in the spirit of openness and transparency it would be appropriate, on balance, to release the information. I attach the information originally requested by you.
The Information Commissioner has been notified.
Director of Corporate Services
Hambleton District Council”
So, nine months after initially requested, we now know the names of Councillors who are in receipt of a Broadband connection paid for by Hambleton District Council. HDC’s efforts merely delayed the release of the information and HDC received a black mark from the ICO in the process.
The spreadsheet sent to me by Martyn Richards of HDC made for interesting reading, too. Not only did it contain the names and costs of the elected members Broadband connections as requested, it also contained the user names and passwords of those Broadband connections. HDC may have to report themselves to the Information Commissioner after disclosing information to me that likely contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998.
As regular readers will know, Councillors in the local Tier-2 District or Borough Councils often also hold seats on the Tier-1 North Yorkshire County Council. All Councillors who sit on NYCC receive a £500+ Broadband/IT Allowance as part of their Basic Allowance, unless they choose to ‘renunciate’ that part of their Allowances payment, which none currently do.
So, which Hambleton District Councillors receive the free Broadband connection from HDC and also receive £500+ from NYCC for Broadband?
Also named was former Hambleton District Council Leader Neville Huxtable. Former County Councillor Huxtable did not stand for re-election in the May 2013 County Council elections and resigned from Hambleton District Council on the 30th October 2013.
The Members Allowance Scheme at Hambleton District Council is quite explicit regarding Allowances paid by other Authorities:
“Where a Member is also a member of another Authority that Member shall not receive Allowances under this Scheme if he/she is receiving an Allowance from the other Authority in respect of the same duties.”
The HDC page which details the allowances and expenses paid to elected members still doesn’t make any mention of free Broadband connection which Councillors receive, even though the original FOI request was made in January 2013. The annual cost of providing Broadband to elected members appears to be around £9,000.
The County Councillors concerned were asked if they would be willing to make a repayment. No replies have been received thus far, but I would imagine they’ll be in discussions with the relevant Monitoring Officers.
UPDATE: 03/12/13. I’ve received an email from Cllr Tim Swales. Cllr Swales states he has numerous broadband lines, including one for each of the Councils he represents. This would mean that Cllr Swales is not profiteering from his NYCC IT Allowance.
UPDATE 07/01/14. I’ve received correspondence from Hambleton District Council. Cllr Barker had asked NYCC in 2006 to stop paying him money for broadband as HDC were paying for his broadband line. Cllr Barker is quoted: “To receive payment for this from NYCC would therefore be inappropriate”. NYCC did as instructed for a short while, but then reverted back to paying full basic allowance for some reason. Cllr Barker noticed in October 2013 that NYCC had not done as he had instructed and the money has since been repaid.
Article first posted to Real Whitby on November 21 2013.