Is there treatment for “accountability allergies”?

Durham County Council really don’t like a penetrating freedom of information request

This all ends when the people say no

As part of my ongoing fracas with the gangsters at Durham County Council over their unlawful council tax debt collection process, I submitted a freedom of information request. The questions were simple ones about their policies for corresponding with the public and handling complaints, which is the bread and butter stuff of FoI submissions. They have responded in a file named “Response (vexatious request)” after the deadline has passed. It’s almost like they are working to delay the inevitable!

Here is what they say, with my commentary interposed:

Dear Mr Geddes

We hate you, with a passion, and it is personal, but we have to address you formally anyway.

Freedom of Information Act 2000

This request is being handled under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding.

We have delayed as long as we think we can get away with. Plus a bit more, just for you. We are sincere in our apology in the same way that Count Dracula is a vegetarian.

Durham County Council has determined that the request is vexatious in accordance with section 14(1). In reaching this conclusion, Durham County Council has taken the wider context of the issues relating to this request. In particular, we are of the option that your request does not serve a purpose relating to the freedom of information as it relates to raising matters regarding the potentially defective legal orders, which the FOIA is not the forum to determine, as well as referring to possible criminal matters, which require a referral to the police as the appropriate authority not as speculative questions for recorded information under the Act. As such, the questions present an unreasonable request to the authority.

The purpose of freedom of information requests is to generate more administrative work for us, and thus demand for budget. Your insistence of using them to hold us to account is annoying and we don’t like it, so please stop. We don’t believe that you have any right to inquire whether your encounters with us actually follow our own processes.

Section 14 has the effect of disapplying a citizen’s right under Section 1(1) of the Act where the sentence above is satisfied. As information officers, we have a duty to protect the resources (in the broadest sense of the word) of the public authority from being squandered on disproportionate use of the Act, your request is manifestly unjustified and an improper use of formal procedure.

My first question was “Is there a policy document that describes how correspondence to the Chief Executive is handled, and is this available to the public?”. Does that sound like a burdensome and unjustified ask to you?

Council tax in the UK is laid out in the Local Government Finance Act 1992 and its subsequent statutory regulations. This statute was created by a democratically elected Parliament of the United Kingdom which has received the assent of the Crown.

These statutes set out a local authority’s right to demand council tax, how to establish who is liable and take recovery action in order to fund services.

Local Government Finance Act 1992
The Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992
The Council Tax (Demand Notices) (England) Regulations 2011

All I did was ask for them to show me the court order for debt… which they steadfastly refuse to do so. As does the court itself. I wasn’t challenging the council tax legislation, just the lawfulness of their debt collection. Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat: The burden of the proof lies upon him who affirms, not he who denies. They claimed to have a court order, but cannot prove it. So perhaps there isn’t a valid one? Would explain their evasiveness!

In you request you raises issues of a criminal nature.

2. More narrowly, if a potential criminal act by council staff is raised by a member of the public in a letter to the Chief Executive, is there a defined internal process to handle this? If so, what is it?

3. Most specifically, is there a duty for the correspondence team to inform the Chief Executive personally when a member of the public raises a criminal concern?

4. Does the standard complaints process for the council have any qualifying or gating terms and conditions when the matter is of a potentially criminal nature? If so, what are they?

If you believe that a crime has been committed then you should contact the police as the proper authority to investigate criminal acts. The process is not by trying to use the Freedom of Information Act as a forum to intimate criminality by the council in its duty to collect council tax and council tax debts.

All I asked was whether the complaints process is a suitable procedure when there may be criminal acts involved, since stating there is a court order when there is not one is fraud, and threatening someone as a result to gain money is blackmail. Is this not a reasonable ask, to know if I have the correct process and forum for my issue?

They are refusing to answer simple questions about how a member of public should engage with the council when they have concerns about possible criminal activity by a member of staff. To refuse to answer this is to engage in a knowing cover-up.

At some point a member of staff will buckle and defect, if we keep pushing. They fear jail more than loss of salary and pension perks; we just have to keep pushing for prosecutions of their crimes. In my case that includes aggravated trespass.

Furthermore if you believe that the courts are acting incorrectly on enforceing [sic] a legally defective liability order, then you need to bring this matter to the court’s attention as they would decide the legal standing of such matters.

My questions are related to the enforcement of debt resulting from potentially legally defective liability orders, issued in collaboration with magistrates’ courts.

The FOIA process is not a dispute resolution process nor is a process for discussing speculative questions relating to determining whether council tax debt collection relies on legally defective liability orders.

We know you have caught us out, and we will do everything in our power to frustrate your efforts to hold us to account. Did we mention that we hate you? We really despise you, Mr Geddes, for not giving up and being weak and supplicant to our demands for money with menaces.

If you are dissatisfied with the handling of your request, you have the right to ask for an internal review. Please put your grounds for an appeal in writing and email us back explaining which internal review applies.

That is what I shall be doing! Every step just exposes the corruption more. And if I don’t get it this way, then I will sue and use discovery instead. Accountability is coming, like it or not.

I will now close your request as of this date.
Yours sincerely

Lawrence Serewicz
Information and Records Manager

That’s their way of telling me to “now f*** o** and stay in your place, serf”. As always is the case, the letter is not signed, so no actual man or woman in truly accountable.

As you can imagine, I am not being fobbed off so easily.

Here is my draft response:

I have prima facie reason to believe that Durham County Council has an unlawful debt enforcement process, since it refuses to produce any evidence of valid and lawful liability orders when asked, refusing to even acknowledge requests for due process. Peterlee Magistrates Court has also failed to show any memorandum of entry against me with a valid and lawful case under the civil or criminal produced rules. My freedom of information request is not about the validity of council tax in general; I am seeking due process, and wish to know whether my correspondence with the council is in compliance with the council’s own processes and policies.

Every single attempt to seek due process has been rebuffed by the council, including in this FoI request case, in violation of the Nolan principles which demand openness, honesty, and accountability. Such reasonable demands from the public for basic policy and procedure information are the reason freedom of information requests exist. I have a legitimate personal interest in knowing whether my own correspondence is being managed according to policy or not.

In terms of review, I seek only a response to my first question: “Is there a policy document that describes how correspondence to the Chief Executive is handled, and is this available to the public?”. If you are unable or unwilling to answer this most trivial matter of public accountability, then I will have to seek escalation through the Information Commissioner’s Office and/or via discovery in court.

If answering freedom of information requests is inconvenient because it exposes coordinated criminal activity by the council, then I suggest that you adhere to the law in the first place. That the information provided might cause embarrassment or bring police action is not a valid reason to refuse to provide a response. Matters of potential criminality should result in more officious offering of data, not less.

To classify a request for basic due process as “vexatious” indicates a lack of intention to act with integrity.

Is there a policy document that describes how Chief Executive correspondence is handled? Yes or no? That does not place any significant burden on public resources.

If you have ways of improving this, then let me know!