Parkrun Freedom of Information Act Release: Public Policy Gone Bad

Parkrun is an organization that coordinates a series of 5km runs for the public.  Crucially, there is no charge for participating in these runs, and this has contributed to over 1 million people registering themselves as runners.  It does good, doesn’t take a profit, and generally is regarded as a Good Thing.

Generally, the locations at which these runs take place are happy for the exposure, and local restaurants, coffee shops and pubs are also happy for the passing trade caused by the events.

However, this all changed earlier in the year when Stoke Gifford Parish Council decided to charge for the event.  Quite what the grounds were for the charge were unclear, but the Council have now disclosed to me the grounds for their action.  It is worth noting that the Council did not comply with section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, nor to a first reminder issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The released documents are here.  I have redacted personal email addresses and phone numbers that were included in the documents.  Despite asking for all information, the Council stated: ‘Please note the majority of e-mail communication received was from Parkrun runners personal e-mail addresses, and will therefore not be published.’

The case boils down to a matter of national vs local public policy: the UK government want people to get moving, and the parish council don’t want to pay for it (or rather, want to be paid for it).

Parkrun set out (through their lawyers) the legal basis for their case.  Oddly, the Parish Council does not appear to have disclosed their reply (if any) to the lawyers.  It is good to see letters from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and from the local MP.

The Parish Council set out what at first glance appears to be a rather odd justification of charging under section 19 of the Local Government Act 1976 (which, incidentally, is an act of Parliament of Malaysia – presumably they (the Secretary of State and the Parish Council) mean the Local Government Act (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976): that as the runners run on a cycle track, and as such this gives them a right to charge for this (para 19b); or premises for the use of clubs or societies having athletic, social, or recreational objects (para 19d); or facilities in connection with any other recrational facilities (ps who writes this stuff?) (para 19f).

Pretty weak justifications in my view.  Particularly when HM Secretary of State gives you a pretty big hint that you are out of order.

Parkrun’s lawyers suggest that they may request a judicial review of the decision.  And maybe this would be a good time for Parkrun runners to fund such a review.  Not just for this case, but for the general principle of local authorities’ interests vs. the national interest.

 

Has Anyone Seen our Byelaws?

HomeOfficeDCLG

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, our Byelaws have been lost.  The Government can’t find them.  They are not even on display:

“But the plans were on display . . .”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a torch.”
“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur”, yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

You see, byelaws are important.  Not as important, as, say, the Brexit referendum, but important nonetheless.  Recently, Alan Rusbridger, erstwhile editor of The Guardian and incumbent Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, assisted the Hampstead Heath Constabulary with their enquiries as to an alleged offence of using a camera tripod without a permit.  Byelaw broken.  £60 fine.  Banged to rights.  And of course, if you don’t pay up, you go to jail.

It is for this reason that Her Majesty’s Government doesn’t trust Town Halls to write their own laws.  Byelaws need to be rubber stamped by the Secretary of State to make sure that the i’s are crossed and the t’s are dotted.  In case, well, anyone goes to jail for a crime they didn’t commit, and the A-team have to get involved.

Of course, you could write to every local authority to ask for their byelaws, but I would imagine that they are protected by a leopard somewhere on the Civil Service pay scale.  Instead, I wrote to the Department of Communities and Local Government, who rather helpfully gave me a list of every byelaw that was graced by their rubber stamp.  That was nice of them.  But, amongst various caveats, was this:

” I should further explain that the list of byelaws covers only byelaws made by this Department, as this Department does not hold any records of byelaws confirmed by the Home Office. You may wish to consult the Home Office on any byelaws confirmed preceding this date.”

So, albeit a couple of years later, I wrote to the Home Office, who also helpfully replied:

“The Home Office does not hold the information which you have requested. The Bylaws unit moved from the Home Office to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) around 10 years ago.”

So, there we have it, the Government has lost the byelaws from before 2002.  Or maybe they are in fact in the display department after all.  Guarded by leopards.

Into the Depths of the Freedom of Information Act

FOIAThe Freedom of Information Act is a thing of beauty.  So much so that Tony Blair described the prime minister that introduced the Act as an ‘idiot, a ‘naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop’.

Government departments have now taken it upon themselves to publish a list of requests (although not necessarily refused requests – more of that later).

Take, for instance, the Department for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs.  Somewhere in the bowels of [redacted], some poor civil servant has to, presumably with a straight face, reply to [redacted]’s request for – long breath – ‘REQUEST FOR INFORMATION: COMMUNICATIONS RECEIVED BY MINISTERS, OR THEIR OFFICES, RELATING TO TAKEAWAY COFFEE CUPS SINCE 11 MARCH AND INFORMATION RELATING TO RESPONDING TO MEDIA ENQUIRIES ON THIS TOPIC’.  I am not sure that the request was originally in capitals.  Although I expect it was.

And, lo and behold, we are treated to the delights of the requests made to Rory Stewart OBE MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.  Discussions abound about Guinness (‘And a jolly good drink it is, too’), an 18-point manifesto for cup eradication, something about quality control and Pareto, an offer of free cups together with a very scary disclaimer, and finally a letter with far too many ‘inverted’ commas.

Do give them a read.  Although probably best if you don’t print them out.