Sunday, 9 August 2015

Can I have that in writing?

DOUG COLLIE on how a Scottish council doesn't seem to bother recording important events

Fourteen years after receiving a public tongue lashing from Parliamentarians for failing to record top level discussions in writing, Scottish Borders Council's members and senior officers continue to conduct verbal briefings which are not minuted and therefore cannot be cited at a future date.

Last week a Freedom of Information requester who asked for copies of reports, minutes and other papers linked to the council's decision to terminate its disastrous waste treatment contract with New Earth Solutions was told that committees were given briefings on the subject, but those briefings were "verbal in nature" and there was no written record.

It is the latest in a string of high profile events which have not warranted the council's clerks putting pen to paper so that discussions, contractual agreements or decisions could be questioned or quoted 'down the line'.

Some would say this risky practice of relying on word of mouth or on the memories of those present at these verbal interchanges is fraught with danger, and at the same time conveniently absolves elected members of their important duty of accountability.

And yet given the events of 2001 when SBC's gross over-spending on its education budget provoked a full-scale investigation by the Scottish Parliament, many might have thought it essential that copious notes should be taken of all future meetings and briefings.

During an evidence session in December 2001 before the Education, Culture & Sport Committee, chaired by Jedburgh-born Labour MSP Karen Gillon, representatives of all political parties expressed dismay and alarm after being told that important discussions about the crisis had not been recorded in writing.

Labour's Frank McAveety asked former Borders education committee chairman David Suckling: "Were questions or actions recorded in the council minutes? One of the problems is the lack of clarity on how things were recorded".

He was told by Mr Suckling: "Responses were almost always not recorded. I am very impressed with the verbatim report of all meetings here (the Scottish Parliament). The council to which I belong does not have such a report. I do not have a list of the questions that were asked during meetings".

Murray Tosh, for the Conservatives, said he did not expect the convener of the committee to keep notes, but he would have expected a clerk or assistant clerk to keep notes of questions that were asked and answered.

An incredulous Ian Jenkins (Liberal Democrat) declared: "You mentioned you were aware that discussions between various officials were taking place. But it appears these discussions were not noted and there was no record of their taking place. Do you see the fact that those discussions were not recorded as an important error?"

And Ms Gillon chipped in with: "To an outsider Scottish Borders Council's internal workings are confusing, especially as there is no written record".

There was another convenient outbreak of the verbals when SBC responded to a Freedom of Information request in 2012 after Mr Raymond Dorricott asked for the date on which former Chief Executive David Hume intimated he would be leaving the local authority. A simple question,surely.

But no. The council notified Mr Dorricott that, in fact, there was no written record of the date on which their chief informed them of his intention to go.

When the responder referred the case to Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner, for investigation SBC advised her that Mr Hume notified them verbally and that no notes, emails or minutes recording details of this discussion were held. A strange way to run the largest "business" in the Scottish Borders you might think.

But SBC went on to tell Ms Agnew that Mr Hume had retired under the Voluntary Service Agreement, but did not submit an application form as part of the process. The council also advised that there was no requirement for staff to put notice of their intention to cease being an employee in writing. Sounds incredible. "I've had enough, I'm off", and that's your contract of employment immediately declared null and void.

Little wonder Ms Agnew wrote in her decision report: "The Commissioner finds it reasonable for members of the public to hold the expectation that such information would be recorded, and finds it surprising that no formal record appears to have been made by the council with regard to its former chief executive informing it of his intention to cease employment." Another rebuke which appears to have gone unheeded.

Presumably there is a written record of Mr Hume's severance package which is said to have included £103,174 compensation for loss of employment, a pension lump sum of £136,392 and an annual pension of £50,374.

This recurring lack of attention to written detail seems certain to throw up unnecessary problems and issues for the council going forward.

In fact the lack of a written contract over a six year period with SBC's chosen digitiser of paper pension records DID cause an enormous amount of grief in 2011/12 after he dumped hundreds of records in a skip, and the local authority was "charged" with breaches of the Data Protection Act.

A £250,000 fine imposed by the Information Commissioner was only overturned after SBC forked out more than £40,000 of public money for specialist lawyers and expert witnesses. But the tribunal judgement records: "He (the contractor) had worked with SBC from 2005 to 2011 yet there was no written processing agreement between the parties obliging him to comply with the council's instructions and to apply appropriate security measures to the data."

Surely it is time that SBC and all other public bodies are ordered to compile a full written record of all meetings and briefings, thereby removing the handy "verbal discussions" cop-out once and for all.

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