Council Freedom of Information Request Refused

by Readers Question

9:20 AM, 1st November 2016
About 3 years ago

Council Freedom of Information Request Refused

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Council Freedom of Information Request Refused

I am writing this somewhat preemptively in the hope of some suggestions from the Property 118 readership.HHSRS

Recently the local authority (North East Lincolnshire Council) have been carrying out inspections at rented properties following a complaint by a tenant (justly or otherwise), with the results/hazards identified, of which there are always many, and the recommended remedies being forwarded to the landlord, with some of these repairs being mandatory. The inspections are taking place under the Home Health and Safety Ratings Scheme (HHSRS).

Part of my problem is that the council’s findings are often wrong, cannot be supported by legislation and the suggested remedies are nothing more than a ‘wish list’ of what the inspecting officer would like to see carried out in terms of works at the property. For some time I suspected the chap who carries out the HHSRS inspection was not competent and so I, along with around 50 other local landlords, undertook the HHSRS qualification course in order that we be able to better understand how the reports are compiled and the justifications for noting various ‘hazards’ within it.

Now that I am a proud HHSRS certificate holder and fully up-to-date with the latest material, I recently had an inspection by the main council officer (they are almost always carried out by the same staff member these days), it is clear to me that he neither knows how to perform an inspection nor, I strongly suspect, is even qualified at all.

I put my concerns to the LA and requested sight of his certificate in an informal letter, which was refused. I then made a Freedom of Information request that was also refused (as it is deemed ‘personal’ information), as was the subsequent Internal Review of that decision. When I spoke on the telephone with the inspecting officer’s boss, he laughed and said, ‘There’s no way you’re getting the certificate!’

I have now passed the request to the Information Commissioner and after 17 weeks of waiting, the case has finally been assigned to a case worker whom I had a conversation with today. He seemed sympathetic toward the Council and was really worried about ruling in my favour, because ‘How would I feel if my information was made public?’ This is a professional qualification for goodness sake! I asked how could anyone be sure that anyone in society is qualified in what the claim to be unless they prove so. I pointed out that I would not actually be gaining any new information as I already know the council officer’s name, I know what the qualification I am requesting sight of is in (HHSRS) and they have ‘assured’ me on a number of occasions that he is indeed qualified. Showing me the certificate is merely evidencing so, not in itself giving any further as-yet unknown information. The case worker seemed unconvinced.

In anticipation of a result that doesn’t reveal the truth, does anyone have a suggestion about how I could expose the Council and the truth as to the validity of their assurances that he is qualified. Of course, this could be the tip of the iceberg.

Luke



Comments

Simon Bentley

12:22 PM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

FOI is highly flawed but it is a lot better than the situation we were in pre 2005

Some further reading for you https://ico.org.uk/media/1185/awareness_guidance_5_annexe_v3_07_03_08.pdf

Luke P

13:15 PM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Simon Bentley" at "08/11/2016 - 12:22":

Perhaps it is better than before, but clearly not fit for purpose.

Not specific to my case or even HHSRS generally, but how can the public not be able to check basics (of varying nature) and be stonewalled by a third party contractor? This is democracy. Nor is it auditable!

The whole reason we have councils to run our towns, rather than private businesses is so they only work for the good of the area and its people. Yes the staff are paid, but the primary objective is not to make profit or answer to shareholders. It seems this whole third party partner nonsense results is entire towns being run by enterprises with differing objectives than that of the residents and a properly answerable local authority.

Have I just woken up in a dictatorial realm?

Simon Bentley

13:20 PM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Couldn't agree more though the tide is turning somewhat and I have heard that the outsourcing regime is being reversed with (re)insourcing on the increase, at least in some areas.

I caught this a week ago - it is somewhat enlightening - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0803b0s

Formerly I lived in the Selby area who's council are probably one of the most extreme examples of the outsourcing regime with only 14 employees (2013) - http://www.conservativehome.com/localgovernment/2013/03/selby-is-the-council-of-the-week.html

Luke P

13:26 PM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Simon Bentley" at "08/11/2016 - 13:20":

I too watched the same programme at home then again with some of my staff in the office the following morning...excellent reporting (especially that Welsh council chief squirming). It all came to mind as I have been dealing with my current predicament.

Utterly outrageous. We pretend we're all 'British sense of fairness', when in actuality it's just as corrupt as anywhere else in the world.

It seems public bodies love a good technicality to knock us peasants back on. I watch with interest (more dismay, actually) the Councillor I mentioned in a previous comment who happens to be a landlord and an extremely principled individual, muddle his way through his first elected year and the astonishment of how little information he has access to, how little he can hope to achieve and make any real changes. Disheartening, though exactly the truth of the situation.

Larry Sweeney

10:04 AM, 11th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Hi Luke
Full marks for your persistence and determination in your dealings with these Idiots. All landlords should film the Council Honchos as they carry out inspections. Some of these clowns may very well end up a laughing stock on u tube if they impart incorrect information. The regulatory regime has just about gone too far everywhere, and these bodies are an impediment to normal commercial activities. I had an interview with BBC Radio 4 last week, and Clr Hont from Liverpool was also interviewed on the same program. It was laughable listening to him spewing nonsense trying to justify their Licensing fees, as the Interviewer took him to task.
He actually said quote " Licensing Is not anti Landlord it is pro tenant. This tax payer funded individual thinks that imposing fees on landlords which will result in higher rents is Pro tenant. Even Worse, His scheme imposes duties on Landlords to spy on tenants, and report their guests staying over in the spare room to the local authority. These schemes are anti Landlord/anti tenant but pro council. The fees raised enable the Authority to employ more pen pushing idiots to administer this tosh.

Luke P

10:13 AM, 11th November 2016
About 3 years ago

We've just had a discussion in our office whether or not we should film the upcoming inspection we have because they are not sending their usual idiot. I think in light of my recent suspicions over the old chap's ability I am being 'issued' a new inspector. I don't want to antagonise them, rather I would like to formulate a good working relationship. The trouble is, whenever I come across new, green council staff, they are quickly brought into line by their superiors if they show even an ounce of an attempt to create sensible dialogue. I've literally had pleasant helpful new council staff that I've spoken to on the telephone one day, but the next they have had a talking to by management and become immediately hostile the next.

Chris Chance

19:38 PM, 11th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Hello,
This is my 2 cents worth.
I think that you are barking up the wrong tree. The issue is not his qualification but his Competence. Taking what the LA are stating at face value, lets proceed on the basis that he is qualified, so if you are provided with the information as to his qualification, then it does not help you. You may have won a battle of wills, but it provides you with no practical assistance.

You have to challenge his Competence. To challenge the competency of a professional you need another professional. I commend you on gaining your qualification but it cannot be you because you are not impartial, as they are your properties. I dont know the cost consequences and if my suggestions are cost effective, but if they are then I suggest that as recommended earlier you have his inspections video taped, the LA cannot prevent you doing that in your own property as long as they tenants agree when it is in their room. Then you get an independent inspector to also prepare a report, I would not suggest the teacher at this stage. Try to get the independent report as near as possible to the same time as the "bad" report. If you can get it straight after that would be ideal. That prevents the argument that it was different on that day for x reason. If you have the "bad" inspection video taped, then it also reduces the excuse of what did and did not happen. Then when you get the bad report you send it together with your reliable report to the LA and say that you do not agree with the "bad" recommendations because you do not believe that they are reliable. The LA cannot ignore this, I think that they would be negligent to do so. If you are able to do this for enough properties they will have to do something. I also suggest that you do not use the same alternative inspector, because that will allow the LA to say that it is just a difference of approach/technique, but if they have for example 5 different inspectors all disagreeing with the "bad" inspector they are in an extremely difficult position to ignore the documentation. Likely they will then set up a tribunal or some sort of hearing, you then ask for it to be dealt with on a paper only basis, that is you dont need to attend. THEN for that hearing you get the teacher to look at all the reports of the "bad" inspector and pull them to bits. In that report the teacher should list his qualifications, experience and teaching experience. In effect you will be relying on him as an expert. With that wealth of independent criticism, the LA will be in an extremely difficult position to seek to rely on the recommendations of the "bad" inspector.

I dont know the procedural correctness of what I have stated above, but hopefully you get my point that the real issue is competance not qualification. Only a professional can reliably contradict another professional in court/tribunal when it comes to professional opinion, and if it is not documentated it never happened. So get your paperwork in order, and put the LA in a difficult position whereby they are forced to look at the competance of the inspector.

I welcome your feedback on my comments.
Good Luck.

Edwin Cowper

21:12 PM, 11th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Luke P" at "08/11/2016 - 13:15":

I like your belief that the council employees are working for the good of the electors. How is this for (one example) of working for a local authority.

Me: (on being asked to do something which didn't seem to assist our citizens) How does this help the citizens of Peterborough?

Answer: It doesn't. But we get a grant for doing it.

Luke P

12:53 PM, 14th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Chris Chance" at "11/11/2016 - 19:38":

Thanks for the input Chris.

I think I've perhaps been a little disingenuous as I know how to make this particular property's problem go away and have already managed to stop the LA bothering me about houses in my sole name (I've been 'earmarked'), but I manage several hundred BTLs for other landlords as well as have a half dozen other company names that the council don't immediately associate with me and so do pursue.

What I'm really curious about is why it is that we -landlords/society etc.- accept certain behaviours from one section of public servants, yet not from another. As an example, a nurse physically holds the security key card to access their ward; they have the code (and necessary qualifications) to allow authorised access to the medication cabinet...so far no problem and at this stage nobody has any reason to challenge or stop what's to happen next. If they then select the wrong medication and administer it to the wrong patient (because they were being slack/incompetent/don't understand their training), there WILL be consequences. Pretty immediate and serious consequences. The same holds true for a Police Officer...they physically possess their warrant card and nobody is going to stop them from making an arrest (even if it's for something flippant...let's say, for wearing a red hat and clearly not illegal), but back at the station and in the aftermath, there WILL be consequences. These institutions will likely very quickly put out a reminder, have everyone on a re-training course in short order and the individual in question will very likely be fired, if not in Court.

Why is it then that we accept/expect so much less from a public body, with equally immense power over people's lives/livelihood, to behave as they please but with literally no consequence? Yes, if I were to go to 2/3/4 tribunals (at my considerable time, effort & connected expense) with the same incompetent 'inspecting officer' then I imagine the LA would remove him from active duty, but there'd almost certainly be no consequence and likely very little action to prevent the same situation occurring in future!

The expert and legislation co-author whom I have look over any reports I receive is obviously a very knowledgeable chap, whom I have questioned on some issues in the past, but the glaring difference between him and the council is that: a). he knows his subject, and b). he can actually point to legislation or pinpoint regulations when asked. This I have no problem with and would happily spend £20k per house if he insisted. What I am going to get later on this afternoon (I will report back later), is someone who will admit they are not an expert, nor a surveyor of any kind but a requirement to get a damp expert (because there's black spot mould on the wall behind the bed that's shoved tight against the wall in a freezing cold bedroom), an electrical report (because the tenant had more than one bulb blow in the past six month), a gas inspection (because their boiler 'doesn't work', despite always running out of gas) & an asbestos survey (because of a hairline crack in an artex ceiling...that, whilst causing absolutely no problems whatsoever, may or may not contain asbestos). This is all standard fare from these inspections and "carry out the recommendations of the report" (that I bear the costs of).

That's not an inspection of a qualified or competent person...that's someone 'inspecting' asking for more inspections.

Simon Lever

12:56 PM, 21st November 2016
About 3 years ago

HI Luke
Couple of points that may help.

Ask for a meeting with the "suspect" inspector at his office to discuss the situation. If he is anything like anyone with a qualification he will have his certificate framed and on his wall. You could then see just how qualified he is.

The CIEH says the following about its registration process:
"Candidates enrolled on accredited HCFPI and HCFC courses are required to apply for partial registration with the Environmental Health Registration Board in order to obtain the HCFPI practical training logbook or apply for the professional interview. When the registration form and fee are received the candidate’s details are entered onto a database and the candidate is sent a unique registration number and the HCFPI logbook."

The EHRB keeps registers of "all holders of a Certificate of Registration, who have completed the appropriate qualifications to become an Environmental Health Practitioner."

How you obtain acess to see who is on the register is a different matter!

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