Qualifications are everything. We go to school to achieve qualifications. Our work, our careers depend on them. What we earn depends on them.
Qualifications take pride of place on our CV. So much so that people have been known to overstate them, with embarrassing consequences (and worse) when they are found out.
Every interview commences with a review of one’s academic achievements.
So we should not be shy about our academic achievements, however few –
That is, unless you work for Preston City Council. The former Chief Executive, Lorraine Norris was happy to have her degree and post-graduate qualification stated in her LinkedIn profile. But apparently not others.
The Council employs specialists and experts of a wide range. Shouldn’t we as residents be entitled to know what qualifications a specialist or expert has?
This website focusses on the Fulwood Conservation Area. One of the features of the Conservation Area is the plethora of trees. All trees in the Conservation Area are protected as if they have the benefit of a Tree Preservation Order.
The permission of the Council is required before any work can be carried out to a tree, whether it be pruning or its removal. It is a criminal offence to cause “damage to a tree protected by a Tree Preservation Order or within a Conservation Area” (PCC Local Enforcement Plan, August 2015).
The Council employs an Arborist called David Atkinson. He provides specialist advice to planning officers dealing with planning applications involving trees. WIPCUT will examine elsewhere on this site the practical effect his judgement and advice to planning officers has had upon the tree population within the Conservation Area. Suffice to say that WIPCUT is alarmed at the destruction that has been permitted.
This page deals with the attempt by WIPCUT to ascertain the professional qualifications held by Mr Atkinson.
WIPCUT asked the Council for Mr Atkinson’s professional qualifications. The Council refused to provide that information. So WIPCUT made a Freedom of Information Act request. That request had, of necessity, to be framed in more general terms. It asked:-
- The number of employees of Preston City Council who hold membership of the Arboricultural Association
- The number of employees who hold a recognised arboricultural qualification
- In respect of each employee who holds a recognised arboricultural qualification, state that qualification.
The Council ‘s Governance Officer, Patricia (Trish) Ashcroft, refused to answer.WIPCUT asked for a review of that decision by the Council’s solicitor, Caron Parmenter. WIPCUT wrote to Mrs Parmenter:-
“The response I received from Mrs T Ashcroft (her ref. LAS/TA/4494) is that the Request is refused on the grounds that the information requested is personal information and it is not in the public interest to disclose it.
“I do not agree with this decision. I am a mere resident, with no particular knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act but from a brief look on the internet, it seems to me that the exemption is wrongly claimed since the information sought does not relate to an identifiable living person. But even if it did, it would still be appropriate to provide the information. The ICO document “Personal Information” is clear on this. Far from it not being in the public interest, it is entirely in the public interest. At paragraph 81 of the ICO document it is stated:
“Examples of a legitimate public interest in disclosure include the general public interest in transparency, public interest in the issue the information relates to and any public interest in disclosing the specific information. There may for example be occasions when the requirement to demonstrate accountability and transparency in the spending of public funds will outweigh the rights of the individuals.
“So far as privacy is concerned, paragraph 70 states:
“The expectations of an individual will be influenced by the distinction between his or her public and private life. This means that it is more likely to be fair to release information that relates to the professional life of the individual.
“Further, paragraph 71 states:
“Factors to take into account when considering the fairness of disclosure in this context will include:
- the seniority of the role
- whether the role is public facing, in the sense that the individual has responsibility for explaining the policies or actions of their organisation to the outside world;
- whether the position involves responsibility for making decisions on how public money is spent.
“The foregoing I give to you now as an indication as to why I believe that, in any event, the Council is required to provide the information sought and if it is not forthcoming from the Council, I will pursue the matter with the ICO. But at this stage, my primary point is that the exemption does not apply to my Request.”
Mrs Parmenter replied:-
“Unfortunately, I do not agree with your suggestion that professional qualifications are a matter of public record. I think that post holder(s) would have a clear expectation that details of qualifications would not be disclosed given that they were provided to the Council on the understanding that they would be treated confidentially. I think that disclosure of the requested information would be unfair, and that there is not a compelling public interest in disclosure of the requested information”
So it is the Council’s position that it would be “unfair” if an officer’s professional qualification became public knowledge. But presumably “fair” for the officer to be paid for his or her particular skill, evidenced by that qualification?
In view of Mrs Parmenter’s refusal, WIPCUT asked the Information Commissioner to investigate. WIPCUT wrote to the Information Commissioner:-
“Having looked at a number of applications, I am concerned with (i) the alacrity with which PCC permits the removal of trees and (ii) the lack of any enforcement action taken when, without authorisation, a tree has been destroyed. The Enforcement Officer relies upon the advice of colleagues from the Parks department, at least one of whom describes himself in these reports as an “arborist”. The use of this word means that the officer is holding himself out as having a particular expertise in relation to trees. I would like to be assured that the officers who provide advice about trees to the Enforcement Officer have qualifications which justify the use of the description of “arborist”.
“I find it ironic that Mrs Parmenter, as a solicitor, can write that professional qualifications are not a matter of public record when information about her own qualification as a solicitor is freely available to all on the Law Society website. Up until the time that I made this Request, Mrs Ashcroft herself signed her letters “Mrs. P. Ashcroft, A.C.I.S” and even the Chief Executive, Lorraine Norris, is quite happy to give her qualifications on LinkedIn.
“Mrs Parmenter’s belief that officers of PCC would expect their qualifications to be treated as confidential, as it would be “unfair” to them if the information is disclosed, is most surprising. Qualifications matter. People seek and gain employment based on their qualifications and readily include them in CVs. They are published in national newspapers. They are not a secret.
“My submission to you is that I am not asking for personal information and that even if provided with the information I seek I would still not necessarily be able to identify the qualifications of a specific officer. So I find PCC’s attitude odd, particularly in the light of its self-proclaimed desire to be “open and accountable” and for there to be “fairness at the heart of decision making”.
The Information Commissioner agreed with WIPCUT and ordered the Council to provide the information.
The answers given to the first two question informed WIPCUT that no employees of the Council belong to the Aboricultural Association but that two employees of the Council hold a recognised arboricultural qualification, qualifications which, in answer to the third question, it then stated, in respect of each employee. But the limitation in what one is entitled to ask under the Freedom of Information Act means that it is not possible to know whether David Atkinson is one of the two, or, of the two, what qualifications he holds. Theoretically, he could have no qualifications that would entitle him to describe himself as an “Arborist”.
WHAT IS PRESTON COUNCIL UP TO?
Being secretive and obstructive, wasting money in trying to resist a perfectly reasonable request. Making a mockery of its public pronouncement of what it will deliver and how it will deliver it.