14 September 2012

Why did it take so long........

Since the publication of the independent report into the Hillsborough disaster there has been a mass chest-beating in all parts of the political and media spectrum. As I write this, another group of worthies discuss Hillsborough on Radio 4's 'Any Questions'. The question on everyone lips seems to be, 'Why did it take so long for the truth to come out?'.

On Thursday 14th, immediately after the publication of the report I listened to Lords Falconer (ex-Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice) and McDonald (ex-Director of Public Prosecutions) discussing the contents of the report on Radio 4's 'Today'. (You can download a podcast of the piece here - or email M&B if you miss it.) The conversation looked at the 'how long it took' issue and set that in the context of what was described as 'Britain's suffocating culture of secrecy'. Falconer & MacDonald discussed the inertia within bureaucracies, how that inertia slows any process down and how slowing any process down can be in the interests of interested parties. They also discussed the cultural problems within bureaucracies with regard to the Freedom of Information Act, legislation which was described by its author, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, as a "blunder".

All of this debate and discussion is interesting, as are the demands for the prosecution of those involved with doctoring or editing statements to deflect responsibility from the Police. And there is an inference that, somehow, we are beyond all of that now, in 2012. The perceived wisdom being that such events could not happen today because we are more informed and more able to get at the truth through legislation like the Freedom of Information Act. But is this true? I think not.

You only have to look at my own efforts to gain access to documents held by South Somerset District Council (documents which actually refer to myself) to understand that, if public servants don't want you to see information, for whatever reason, they have many and varied ways of making sure that you don't or delaying your enquiry till the interest in your enquiries has died away.

I started the process of requesting information (about complaints against Cllr Fraser-Hopewell) from SSDC back in April and today, 5 months later, still nothing. SSDC, in the person of Mr Ian Clarke, the District Solicitor, have refused access at every stage citing fears of ridicule, potential prejudice and the Data Protection Act. Strangely, back in July, almost 2 months ago, SSDC, in the person of one of Mr Clarke's colleagues, Ms Amy Cater, proposed that they provide me with a redacted version of the investigation report (an investigation which I assisted voluntarily and where the complaints named and implicated myself) and today, still nothing.

Now I could go to the Local Government Ombudsman but I suspect that would play into the hands of SSDC's bureaucrats by tying my request up in even more red-tape so I'm waiting, not as long as the Hillsborough relatives and for something nothing like as serious as their enquiries, but I'm still waiting.

So, when people ask, 'why did it take so long?' I'd suggest that they point the question at people like Mr Ian Clarke because, from where I sit, he, and public servants like him, represent 'Britain's suffocating culture of secrecy'. Until those public servants accept that their own narrow and parochial interests stand beneath the public interest, we will continue to ask the question, 'Why did it take so long?'.

Till next time, I'm still Niall Connolly