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News and Comment July 2012

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27 July - Bexley council. A matter of priorities

How to deal with vexatious correspondenceJust a few days after revealing the new complaints job at Bexley council I have been sent a copy of the first fruit of their new found interest in complaint handling. Adorned with their ever more incongruous slogan, ‘Listening to you, working for you’ comes a lavishly produced booklet for staff giving guidance on how they might dodge awkward questions. Nothing new on how to answer questions properly yet, but that’s not the priority.

Councils have a massive armoury of defence weapons against doing anything they don’t want to do. The Information Commissioner (ICO) has no real teeth, it recommended I go to law myself when Bexley council refused its instructions on my Subject Access Request. The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) supports criminal intent, and if all else fails councils can make up their own rules to suit themselves; and change them on a whim when they don’t. When backed into a corner a council has a simple escape route. It simply applies the ‘vexatious’ label and refuses to talk to you, hence the haste in publishing the new booklet on when and how that ruse can be exploited.

It is only right that there is an agreed policy on dealing with complaints. Eleven years ago I was threatened with the council’s ‘vexatious’ nonsense for writing three letters over two years covering seven different subjects. It wasn’t vexatious then and probably wouldn’t be under the new guidance so if it prevents rogue staff making unjustified threats it may have some merit, but was fending off the more vociferous complainants really the highest priority issue requiring attention?

Behaviour that might fall foul of the new rules include “making lengthy phone calls, emails expecting immediate responses, detailed letters or emails every few days”. Other things that may get you ruled vexatious are “Changing the complaint as the matter proceeds” and “Refusing to accept a decision”. When I found myself in the latter position and facing silence I started this website. Maybe Bexley council has yet to learn the lessons of unintended consequences.

Decisions on vexatiousness will in future be made at Deputy Director level and there is no appeal process other than to take the matter to the ICO or LGO.

Once labelled vexatious by Bexley council they may absolutely refuse to talk to you again or limit communication to one method only, email, letter etc. They may prevent you using services such as libraries, or to access any council building. Draconian stuff if you upset a council officer as I did with my three letters in two years.

I am sure some in the borough will be difficult to handle but Bexley has already shown how easily it allows common sense to fly from its window. Both Peter Ellershaw and Will Tuckley wrote to Olly Cromwell banning him from council premises for following the Communities Secretary’s guidance on filming and Tuckley lied to the police in an attempt to stop “criticism of councillors”. Guidance is necessary but is there any senior council manager in Bexley one could trust to make the right decision? Based on what we have seen so far I think the answer must be no.


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