As I’ve been following the electronic and paper trails around the South West Pay, Terms and Conditions cartel (SWC), trying to find out some of the truths about their aims and motivation, and their communications with the Department of Health, I’ve encountered a variety of responses from the cartel’s member Trusts.
Some have provided fairly good responses. Some have failed to respond at all so far, even though the deadlines set by the Freedom of Information Act have passed. And some have formally refused to provide the information on a variety of grounds – mostly either that it would exceed the time/cost limits set by the FOI Act, or by claiming exemption for commercially sensitive information. I’ve challenged all these refusals and am waiting for the outcomes.
I sent one request only to Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, asking for copies of all emails sent by 3 key personnel over the last 6 months, as Poole is the lead Trust in co-ordinating the cartel’s activities and the names of those three people have recurred both in intra-cartel communications I’ve seen and in the few documents I’ve been able to prise out of the Department of Health regarding the cartel. These three people are Chris Bown, Poole’s chief exec, Jon Fisher, its communications manager, and Angela Challice, Bown’s executive assistant.
Today I received a response from Poole to this request, which they refused on grounds of ‘disproportionate effort‘. The reason given was that while they estimated it would take approximately one man-hour to extract the information, it would take the Trust’s Information Governance team around 100 hours to delete information that they wanted to exempt from disclosure – well in excess of the 18-hour guideline of the FOI Act. The Trust also mentioned that it had pre-checked this decision with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which had agreed with their conclusion – no doubt as a way of trying to discourage me from complaining to the ICO.
However, thanks to information disclosed by the Royal Devon & Exeter Trust, I know that the cartel asked its legal advisers, Bevan Brittan, for guidance on ways they could avoid FOI disclosures (which tells its own story!). The guidance provided by Bevan Brittan included the following passage:
The 2nd paragraph is crucial: ‘When considering whether the [18hr/£450] fees limit applies (or the request is manifestly unreasonable), the Authority is only entitled to take into account the time it takes to locate the information that falls within the request. Reviewing, redacting and considering..cannot be considered as part of the..calculations.’
Poole, as the cartel’s hub that feeds out such information to the other members, is of course perfectly aware of this legal advice – and yet it ignored this advice completely and tried to use the time required for ‘reviewing, redacting and considering’ the information as grounds for refusing my request.
One can only assume that the emails of the 3 key personnel identified in my request must contain information that is extremely damning and damaging to the cartel’s aims and activities.
In spite of it’s supposed pre-agreement with the refusal, I’ve complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office, quoting this information as grounds for overturning the decision. I’ve also written back to Poole’s FOI team to point out that I know that they’re ignoring their own legal advice and inviting them to reconsider their decision.
Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that what this damaging cartel says in public and what it says and does in private are two completely different matters – and that it’s prepared to go to great lengths to avoid disclosing the fact.