The Mysterious Case of the Invisible Disabled Bay – part ii

For those of you who are familiar with the process of Freedom of Information, or have read my previous blog post, you’ll know that a local authority has 20 working days to respond to any request. Today is day 20 for my FOI request on this issue, in which I asked for copies of Council policy and procedure in relation to disabled bays. I also requested any email correspondence relating to this specific bay application; including any related correspondence between council officers and elected members.

I have to add that I think it’s beyond ludicrous that I’ve had to submit a FOI request in order to get copies of Argyll & Bute Council policy and procedure, as I believe that this type of information should be freely and readily accessible to all councillors as a matter of course.

At 11:10am this morning (day 20) I received the following response – which I’ve copied verbatim below, apart from where, to protect anonymity, I have removed the name of the member of staff who sent it and the address of the proposed disabled bay.

 

Dear Councillor McKenzie,

Request for information: Proposed Disabled Bay, Oban
Reference: argyllbuteir:7660

I refer to your request for information which was dealt with in terms of the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004.

Please see information below and attached in fulfillment of your request.

This disabled bay is currently advisory, and undergoing a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) to make it enforceable. The TRO process is a statutory one, which briefly is as follows:
• Stage 1 and 2 – consultation with emergency and statutory bodies
• Stage 3 – Advertisement and consultation with the general public.

We are at Stage 3 of the process. We have received 6 objections and 22 letters of support for this bay. The objectors have until Tuesday 14th November to withdraw their objections. If any objections are not withdrawn, this TRO will be considered at the Oban, Lorne and the Isles Area Committee on Wednesday 13th December.

The process concludes with consideration of the TRO by the Area Committee. As the process is still underway, it is not appropriate for information pertaining to this TRO to be released into the public domain at this time.

Some of the correspondence you have requested relates to the constituency business of local members, who do not fall within the remit of Freedom of Information legislation. The release of such information is refused in terms of Regulation 10 (4)(a) of Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations (EIR’s).

The release of any other information which falls within the terms of your request is refused on the basis of the following Regulations:

• Regulation 10(4)(e) – as the request involves making available internal communications.
• Regulation 10(5)(d) – the disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice substantially the confidentiality of the proceedings of any public authority where such confidentiality is provided for by law.

Where these exceptions have been used to refuse to disclose information, we are obliged to consider the public interest test. We accept that the release of the information would allow public scrutiny of the process being undertaken by the Council, however, the process is not complete, the final stage being consideration by the Local Area Committee. As such we do not consider that it is in the public interest to release the information you have requested prior to the matter being considered by the Committee In December.

You have also requested a copy of the policy/procedure regarding disabled bays, which is attached.

If you are dissatisfied with the way in which your request for information has been dealt with you are entitled to request a review by writing to the Executive Director Customer Services, Argyll and Bute Council, Kilmory, Lochgilphead, Argyll PA31 8RT, or by email to foi@argyll-bute.gov.uk.

Your request for review must state your name and address for correspondence, specify the request for information to which your request for review relates and why you are dissatisfied with the response.

You must make your request for review not later than 40 working days after the expiry of the 20 working day period for response to your initial request by the Council, or not later than 40 working days after the receipt by you of the information provided, any fees notice issued or any notification of refusal or partial refusal.

If you make an application for review and remain dissatisfied with the way in which the review has been dealt with you are entitled to make an application to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kinburn Castle, Doubledykes Road, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9DS (Tel: 01334 464610) for a further review. You can now do this online here – http://www.itspublicknowledge.info/Appeal.

You must make representation to the Scottish Information Commissioner no later than 6 months after the date of receipt by you of the notice or decision you are dissatisfied with or within 6 months of the expiry of the period of 20 working days from receipt by the Council of your request for review.

Yours sincerely

DIS Performance HQ Team
Performance and Business Support
Development & Infrastructure Services
Argyll and Bute Council
Tel: 01546 604674 Fax: 01546 604678
DISPerformanceHQ@argyll-bute.gov.uk

 

As I expected I’ve been denied much of the information that I asked for and instead been provided with a lot of information about where we are in the process, that I already knew.

I have to say that I find it odd that I’m being denied access to the correspondence between other elected members and council officers, as recently as a few weeks ago, I was advised by senior officers that correspondence such as this was not exempt from FOI, and that exemption only applies to correspondence between councillors and their constituents. So ……………. #CONFUSED!

Anyway I’ve sent back the following response;

 

Many thanks for the response *********,

Some of the information below is really helpful, however there are a few points that I’d like to have clarified if possible, in order to assist my understanding of the way this request has been dealt with. Also it appears that some of the information I requested has been missed from the response.

• Why has my request for release of information been dealt with under Environmental Information (Scotland Regulations) 2004 and not under FOI (Scotland) Act 2002?

• Are there objections to any of the other disabled bay applications in OLI currently out for TRO?

• Is it usual for internal communications between officers and elected members to be refused under the terms of an FOI request?

• You’ll also see that I asked for a copy of the Council policy that the attached procedure relates to, however I note that this hasn’t been included. Would it be possible to have a copy of this Policy sent to me also please, along with the date that it was written, along with details of the committee where it was agreed by the Council?

• Can I also ask when the attached procedure was written and by whom and why it doesn’t include any timescales?

• Lastly would it be possible for me to be provided with a copy of the annual report to the Scottish Government, detailing all of the Council’s actions in relation to this Act, as mentioned in the procedure document.

Many thanks for your anticipated assistance with this,

Kind regards

Julie

It will be interesting to see what comes back and how long it takes ………

 

 

 

The Mysterious Case of the Invisible Disabled Bay

Not all my ward cases are straightforward or easy to solve. Some are more frustrating than others; that’s just something that you come to expect as a Councillor. I’ve been working on a case for an elderly disabled constituent for over a year now, that at face value, you’d think should have been fairly simple to sort out. The case has driven both myself and the family involved to absolute distraction.

In September 2016 I was asked by a constituent to take a look at an application that she’d made to the Council for the installation of a disabled bay on the street outside her house. Council officers had been out to have a look already and had determined that, because she has a driveway, she wouldn’t be deemed eligible for a bay.

This had all taken many months already and my constituent was visibly stressed by the process. When I visited it was obvious that the very steep gradient and narrow width of the lady’s driveway hadn’t been taken into account. Due to the nature of the lady’s disability this made it impossible for her to park safely. So I told her that I’d ask officers to take another look, as I felt her unique circumstances fitted the criteria for being assessed as a “special case”.

At this point in this convoluted tale it’s definitely worth noting that;

“Local Authorities have a duty to provide, maintain and regulate disabled parking bays in accordance with the Disabled Persons’ Parking Places (Scotland) Act 2009.

On the 1st of October 2009, The Scottish Government introduced the Disabled Persons’ Parking Places (Scotland) Act 2009. The Act now makes it a requirement that all current disabled parking bays become legally enforceable.

The aim of the Act is to provide improved access for disabled drivers and penalise inconsiderate drivers who abuse the current advisory system”

So the elderly, disabled lady’s case was duly raised by me and within a few weeks I’d been advised by a senior officer that, provided my constituent submitted a duplicate application and had it confirmed by a GP or Occupational Therapist, that her driveway was not suitable for her use due to her disability, then a discretionary bay could be installed. It was pointed out that this bay would not be legally enforceable and instead would rely on the goodwill of neighbours and others to respect the disabled parking right.

This is when it starts to get interesting…..

We are now in the month of December and finally after many emails and phone calls from both myself and my constituent’s family there was still no discretionary bay installed. The lining squad – the guys who complete this work for the council, had been spotted putting cones on the road to mark out the bay, and then spotted again coming back to paint the lines. However the lining squad didn’t get to complete the work, as we now know that they were ordered off the job by a local Councillor.

Now, any Councillor knows that it’s a cardinal sin to get involved in operational matters of the Council or to direct staff. I told you this was interesting!

Around this time I was advised that two of the other ward Councillors have also been interfering and actively putting spanners in the works of this case. Staff told me that it had become political and that’s why it was not progressing. I was truly horrified! I really appreciated the staff being so candid with me and the only reason that I haven’t submitted complaints about the Councillors involved to the Standards Commission, is to protect the anonymity of those staff.

By now my disabled constituent was extremely distressed and despondent. It is often impossible for her to find a parking space on the road outside her house so her enjoyment of her car and her freedom have been seriously curtailed; her family were quite rightly furious and still are.

At this stage I escalated the case to the most senior officers in the council and also reported that a local Councillor had directly intervened in operational matters to stop the bay being painted on the road. It was now mid December 2016.

Fast forward to the 3rd of March 2017 and again following many emails from both myself and my constituent and her family, the discretionary bay was finally installed and we were advised that the formal process of Traffic Regulation Order will be progressed in a couple of months.

The elderly disabled lady was tremendously relieved to reach this stage in the process and began to use the new bay for parking her car. Sadly this isn’t the end of the saga. Often other people park in the bay, people who do not have a disabled badge, even though the bay is now clearly marked. The disabled bay must be invisible to some, or perhaps a local Councillor has told some people that it’s not legally enforceable, who knows?

Often when my disabled constituent’s car is parked in the bay, other residents block in her car so that she is unable to drive anywhere. She is distraught; as are her family. We refused to give up.

I asked the Council Officers to begin the process of making the bay legal, which means anyone who parks in it without a blue badge will be booked. Now my constituent is asked to jump through more hoops by the Council. Although she’s already submitted an application and also had a letter from her GP, this is deemed unsuitable; she is told that she now needs a letter from the Occupational Therapist and a fresh application. This is duly done and on the 20th of April I received an email to tell me that the Traffic Regulation Orders for all advisory disabled bays in the Oban Lorn and the Isles area would be progressed in the near future and the consultation stage would run for six weeks from the start of July.

At the end of August the public consultation part of the process began. It’s due to close today and has taken much longer than anticipated due to objections.

We are aware that there are at least 22 letters of support from neighbours for this disabled bay and also that there are a much smaller number of objections. I have to say that I personally struggle with the fact that anyone could bring themselves to object to the installation of a disabled bay that will give an elderly lady, with poor health, her freedom back. While Councillors are always quite rightly expected to take a balanced an unbiased view, for me, based on all the facts and evidence to date, there is no question that my disabled, elderly constituent deserves my support.

The latest information that we have on the process, is that due to objections the decision on whether or not the legal bay will be granted, will now come before the Oban Lorn and the Isles Area Committee; The local committee, which seldom anymore decides much of consequence, on which I and the other seven councillors from this area sit.

I’ve already made my position on this issue quite clear, as has at least one other aforementioned Councillor, by stopping the work on the discretionary bay in the first place. I’d imagine that we both may have to declare an interest on this issue and this may preclude us from taking part in any vote. As to whether the other ward Councillors can declare impartiality, I have my doubts.

Over the course of the last 14 months I have written countless emails to many senior officers and spent many hours working on this case. My constituent and her family have done the same. I’ve been appalled and seriously disheartened by the procedure and the behaviour of some elected members.

I simply cannot believe that we as a Council have put an elderly and vulnerable member of our community though a debacle like this. As a direct result I’ve asked to see Council policy and procedure in relation to disabled bays. I’m still waiting. I’ve also asked for a review of procedure. Again, I’m still waiting to hear back about this.

Due to the serious lack of answers, on the 18th of October I was left with no alternative and submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Council, in which I asked for all email correspondence between Councillors and Officers in relation to the installation of this bay. I have also asked for a copy of the current policy and procedure. The Council have 20 working days in which to provide me with this information.

To date I have received nothing. Time for response runs out tomorrow.

The family involved in this case have given me permission to share these facts and importantly they wish for their anonymity to be protected. I therefore ask that anyone reading this who may be familiar with the case, respect their wishes and not publicly reveal their names.

I will keep you updated as to the outcome…………………

 

 

 

Making my position clear – an open letter to my fellow Councillors in Argyll & Bute.

Dear Colleagues

Following the responses to my letter of the 01/11/17 from both the Chief Executive and the Council Leader I wish to make my position abundantly clear to all of you in this open letter.

I raised the issue of sexual harassment within the Council because I’d hoped that it would serve as a catalyst and starting point for some open dialogue at a strategic level around the issues that we face in the Council and also currently see highlighted at a national level. There is, without any doubt in my mind, a seismic shift required within the current culture that we find ourselves part of.

Unfortunately the latest internal developments mean that I now find myself forced into a position of having to assert my position and clarify a number of points.

1. At no time when highlighting this broad issue did I instigate a complaint against any other elected member of this Council. In fact my initial correspondence quite clearly stated, “This letter is not designed to be a witch-hunt or an exercise in pointing the finger at anyone”. So to be very clear, despite what you’ve been advised by the Chief Executive, I will NOT be pursuing any complaints against any other elected member in reference to this issue.

2. It therefore came as a complete shock to me after being asked by the Chief Executive if I was available, for what I wrongly assumed to be a brief informal call to discuss the issues raised, what I actually received was an official conference call yesterday evening from the Chief Executive and the Monitoring Officer. I am deeply concerned by both the content and tone of this call. I was given no warning that this was to be a formal call in which I’d be pressurised into invoking disciplinary procedure. During the call I quite clearly stated that I did not want to pursue a complaints process, however my wishes were completely disregarded. The call lasted 18 minutes and during this time I felt intimidated, threatened and effectively silenced. The only way I was able to speak was through interruption. After reading the content of the email sent out to all of you and senior officers by the Chief Executive shortly after the call finished, the content of which is almost identical to the officer’s dialogue in the actual phone call, it’s clear to me that all of this was contrived and prepared beforehand. Had I known this was going to be the route taken by our most senior officials, I would have absolutely not have taken this call alone.

3. During the call The Chief Executive made clear his disappointment with me over the route that I have taken in raising this issue. He was quite clear in his disapproval of my use of open letter and social media and suggested that “because of the good relationship that I share with him, I should have taken this to him quietly or given him a heads up about what I was about to do”. I find it incredibly ironic that I found myself having to explain to the most senior male in our Council, why I, as a female Councillor would have felt incredibly uncomfortable having quiet conversations with male officers, or indeed male Councillors about this issue. It is unacceptable that any woman should ever be placed in this position. It is completely up to me, as it should be with any other woman, to decide how I wish to speak out on this issue and for any man to criticise that and attempt to silence me in this way is inherently wrong.

4. The officious approach and lack of empathy shown by our most senior male officers in their attempt to deal with me simply serves to highlight the very issue that I am attempting to shine a light on. This episode is symptomatic of the whole culture within the Council that I despise and wish to see change. If I do as I’m told and pursue the complaints process as instructed, I have no doubt of the outcome – A number of complaints against elected members will be investigated internally, behind closed doors, by the book and it will become a case of my word against a collective of male administration councillors and ex councillors (as some of this is historic). They will close ranks against me and I will be scapegoated and victimised and that is the last anyone would hear of this. How can I be so sure? Because recently I took forward a complaint internally about the behaviour of a male councillor and it was investigated by the Monitoring Officer. The outcome was that the Councillor involved wrote to me saying he was “sorry that I took any offence” to his behaviour. Pause and think about that for a second; instead of apologising for the fact that he’d made me feel intimidated; he put the onus for how his behaviour affected me, directly onto me! It was then a case of trivialisation, drop this now Julie, move on, nothing to see here. You simply couldn’t make this stuff up!

5. I would like to make it clear that I have treated the testimony of the Council staff that contacted me in the strictest confidence and with the utmost respect and will continue to do so. On this there will be absolutely no compromise.

6. I have to say that amid the gut wrenching feelings I’m experiencing right now, there is one positive at present, which is I sincerely hope is a light at the end of this tunnel;

I am extremely heartened by the response of our Council Leader to this issue. Cllr Aileen Morton has sent me a comprehensive email in which she states “we need men to step up and take ownership of these issues; it’s not acceptable to put the burden for solutions on women”. This is a stance that I wholeheartedly welcome and fully support. Already Cllr Morton has put wheels in motion to address the issues raised via the political groupings within the Council and for this approach I absolutely applaud her efforts and look forward to working with her and all of you so that we can move this issue forward in a proactive and hopefully collegiate cross chamber manner.

Whilst it is now clear to me that we as a Council do have policy in place to support workplace harassment in all its forms; it’s also very clear that if this policy worked effectively we wouldn’t find ourselves at this point now. I’m in no way convinced that the support and signposting required by those of us who wish to bring these issues forward actually exists for staff or Councillors. I was told recently by a member of staff that “I have now crossed the Rubicon” and I after my experience last night I totally understand what that meant. This hasn’t been an easy one to stick my head above the parapet on. There has been much soul searching and advice sought. However that’s the whole point. This is not an easy subject matter. It makes everyone uncomfortable. There is a whole spectrum of harassment and yes my experiences are at the lower end of that spectrum. That is not the issue.

The bigger issue is the culture and that is what needs to be addressed here. For far too long in an attempt to deviate from the real issue, the political establishment has got away with making the whistle-blower the focus. I steadfastly refuse to be press-ganged into making complaints so that attention is turned on me rather than focused on the bigger picture. I also refuse to be threatened, bullied or silenced on this issue. Yes I’m challenging the Council and again I make no apology for that. Challenge is an enormous part of my job; it is what the people of Oban North and Lorn and indeed Argyll and Bute expect of me as an elected member of this Council.

I hope that this is line in the sand time for all of us. We have a choice. We can do what we always do as a Council and take the usual bunker style defensive approach or we can be brave and bold; positioning ourselves at the forefront of this issue in order to seek ground breaking ways to address it. With that in mind I appeal to all of you as my colleagues and as leaders of your own communities to support me in calling for a review of Argyll and Bute Council policy and procedure on sexual harassment in the workplace, for both staff and Councillors as a matter of urgency.

Together we are in a unique position to challenge the very real issues that face us. It’s my hope that by doing this together; taking party politics out of the equation, we can ultimately play our part in changing the endemic culture of entitlement and misogyny that prevails throughout our local authorities.

Kind regards

Julie

Julie McKenzie
SNP Councillor – Oban North and Lorn

Open Letter to the Leader & CEO of Argyll and Bute Council on Workplace Sexual Harassment Policy & Procedure

Dear Aileen and Cleland

I am writing to you both in the form of an open letter on the topical issue of work place sexual harassment.

It is my belief, based on my own experiences and the experiences of others, that we as a Council have much work to do in this area and that the most appropriate way to address the challenges that we face in relation to this important issue, is to be as open and transparent as possible. With that in mind you will see that I have also copied in all of Argyll and Bute’s elected members, including our MSP and MP.

From the start I would like you both to know that I have not found this letter easy to compose. I have thought many times in recent months about writing it. I suppose, like many other women, I have felt that by raising this, my voice would perhaps be a lone one and that it may have drawn unwelcome attention to my own experiences of low level sexual harassment since being elected. This hasn’t been something that I have been comfortable in doing until now. However, over the last week or so, amid the media hype surrounding this issue, I like so many others have found strength from the courage and testimony of other women who have added their voices to the call for change.

This letter is not designed to be a witch-hunt or an exercise in pointing the finger at anyone. It’s a plea for some collective responsibility, in not just talking about bringing about a cultural shift at Argyll and Bute Council but actually making it happen.

Since joining the Council I have been incredibly disturbed, disappointed and often offended by the culture I find myself immersed in. A culture where some male elected members appear to think nothing of making inappropriate comments to me as a female Councillor and also to female members of staff. I can give many examples of the comments I have been subjected to; from being told by a male Councillor that he “finds me a distraction in the Council Chamber” to being called a “hot blonde” and being told that “I should be kept on a leash”. Whilst all at the lower end of the harassment spectrum these comments are offensive and the excuses for them are like nothing I’ve heard in any other workplace. It’s almost as though it’s accepted by some as an integral part of working in a political environment. I’ve also had it explained to me as a “generational thing” which whilst that may be true it doesn’t make it any less unacceptable. I find it horrifying that I have actually now reached a point where I fully expect sexually motivated comments from some male Councillors.

I’ve also witnessed inappropriate comments from male Councillors to female members of staff, either being made directly to them or in conversation with other male elected members after staff members have left a room. The comments are always based around how female members of staff are dressed, their physicality or their looks. This is totally unacceptable. Not only does it place staff in an impossible position but it also upsets, completely undermines and demoralises them. How do I know how female staff feel? I know because some of them have had the courage to speak to me in confidence about it. They have also told me about incidents of inappropriate touching by male Councillors and that many staff are fearful of speaking out for all the usual reasons woman don’t come forward, but also worryingly because there is a perception within the Council that elected members can do what they want with no repercussions.

In a modern and forward thinking Argyll and Bute Council this unhealthy culture and disturbing perception simply must change.

Whilst I feel like I’m just skirting the tip of the iceberg with this, it has prompted me to have a look for our policies on workplace harassment and in particular sexual harassment. It concerns me greatly that I cannot find policy or procedure for taking forward a complaint. Whilst it may well exist, it should be easy for anyone to find. It should also be given to and clearly explained to all members of staff and importantly to elected members as soon as they join the Council. Something else that I’ve come across in my research is that it appears that as current policy stands a Councillor involved in an inappropriate relationship with a staff member would not face reprisals, whilst a staff member would be disciplined and possibly face dismissal. The power imbalance in this just doesn’t sit right with me.

I’m well aware that this all makes for very uncomfortable reading for many people and for that I do not apologise. The time has come for us to put formal, robust and structured policy in place to address this issue. Sweeping it under the carpet or worst still being accepting of it is no longer an option. Women at Argyll and Bute Council deserve to be treated with dignity and total respect. Staff and Councillors require a safe, confidential environment in order to speak out on these issues without fear of reprisal.

So I’m appealing to both of you to take the lead in ensuring that my plea is not ignored. I offer to assist you in any way that I can and I’d hope that many of our colleagues will support me in doing likewise.

Kind regards

Julie

Julie McKenzie
SNP Councillor – Oban North and Lorn

Speaking your truth

I’ve been thinking about setting up a site like this for some time. I don’t usually have a problem with speaking out but in this case something has stopped me from doing it sooner. Procrastination or possibly fear of the repercussions of what I may be about to say perhaps? I’m honestly not sure but here goes……

Since being elected as a SNP Councillor to Argyll and Bute Council in 2016,  I’ve often found that there are things that I want to document for myself and more importantly tell all of you about in much more detail than my usual social media platforms of choice are designed for. This blog will be truthful and forthright; at times you may not agree with me on some of the topics I cover, but that’s as it should be. I also absolutely welcome your feedback. I’ll endeavour to use it as a means of exploring some of the things that are close to my heart; the things that drive me to get up in the morning to undertake and juggle this enormously rewarding but often challenging and sometimes incredibly frustrating, privileged role.

I have named this blog  “The Edge of the Parapet” because over the last few years many people have made comments to me about sticking my head above the parapet and how they see it as a courageous thing to do, but then go on to say that they couldn’t do it themselves. I totally get that because I once thought exactly the same myself.

My first truly defining moment of change came during the referendum campaign, which grabbed me by the heart and mind and has never let go. The next moment hit me full force when I was motivated by a group of amazing local ladies who asked me to get involved in their campaign to save the jobs of the staff who supported their children with additional support needs. After that there was no way back.

I had been deeply troubled and frustrated by the way that I saw many Argyll and Bute Councillors behave during this time. The way that some elected members treated these parents with non communication, half truths and complete disrespect was truly appalling and something that they and I will never forget.

Something powerful that I still cannot quite explain drove me to stand for election. By selecting me as their by-election candidate in 2016, the SNP gave me the opportunity to actually get to the heart of what I wanted to change; for that I am immensely proud and incredibly grateful.

This role is like no other that I have ever done. Often it feels to me like everything I have learnt in the past, the roads that I’ve walked and the lessons that I’ve learnt have led me here and provided me with the tools and rhino like constitution that I require to cope with the challenge. We all bring along different skills on our journey. Each Councillor is unique and none of us do the job in quite the same way. I think that fabulous diversity should be welcomed and embraced. There is no definitive way to be a “good” or “bad” Councillor – you are rightly judged by your constituents at the ballot box.

In my early days in this role an incredibly senior male elected member of Argyll & Bute Council suggested that I “needed to be kept on the leash”, I took that as the insult it was intended to be and have been doing my level best to roam free since……..