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Tension between Whitehall and SCC mounts as it claims FoI response was ‘misleading’

The credibility of Suffolk County Council is in tatters as it claims that its own responses to a Freedom of Information Act request was “misleading”.

It took the Evening Star in Ipswich five months and four FoI requests to discover the council had paid £1,474.74 for photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The story was published on Friday and it soon became apparent that this was being followed-up by most national newspapers. The council’s communications team went into action and, according to the Sun started backtracking.

Yesterday the Evening Star reported a council spokesman saying:

It is true to say that the figure of £1,474.74p for photography supplied in a recent FoI request was assigned to the name of the chief executive.

Unfortunately and on reflection, that was misleading. The actual invoice supplied by the photographer shows that £1,474.74p was the total figure charged for two separate pieces of work on June 25 and July 3.

The work also included portraits of 14 councillors, the election of the chair and vice chair of the council and coverage of a community seminar.

It is entirely wrong to suggest that £1,474.74 was spent solely on photographs of Andrea Hill.

This came at the end of the week when frustration in Whitehall came to the surface, with local government minister Grant Shapps directly criticising Ms Hill.

Daily Telegraph columnist Alison Pearson wrote:

Eric Pickles [communities and local government secretary], that delectable love-child of Humpty Dumpty and Ena Sharples, may talk tough, but he is hamstrung by the Government’s strategy of devolved localism. Is it really such a good idea to give even more power to the regions when a sense of grandiose entitlement has spread like fungus through councils across the land? Suffolk is closing libraries, has sacked lollipop ladies and cancelled children’s travel cards. Meanwhile, Freedom of Information requests reveal that Andrea Hill, Suffolk’s chief executive, who is paid £218,592 a year, spent £14,188 of public money on a leadership adviser who gave her lessons in how to “liberate herself” to do her job better. For £525 an hour plus VAT, I’m sure we’d all be delighted to suggest how Mrs Hill might liberate herself. Slashing her own monster pay packet in half and distributing the excess to starving librarians would be a start.

That is the crux of the matter, Suffolk has become a damaging embarrassment to the Conservative-led government’s plans for localism and the big society. Insiders talk of “tension” between Whitehall and Endeavour House.

Monday, March 21: Robert Johns, the photographer, has now responded on his own blog under the heading The Truth Behind the Andrea Hill Portraits. It generally confrms that the county council FoI response to the Evening Star was “misleading”. But his attack on the Evening Star seems to be misguided, probably because he has only read the online version and did not have access to the full detail printed in the paper.

He also writes:

I have worked with Andrea before when she was the Chief Executive of Bedfordshire County Council. Under her leadership the Council went from no stars to 3 Stars in less than 3 years. I shot a very iconic picture, a portrait of the council to illustrate the journey upward. The picture was shortlisted in the British Press Photographers Awards 2006 for Business, Industry and Technology.

A Suffolk photographer was used prior to me being commissioned and he didn’t do a great job. I make no apology for the fact that I am good at what I do. I’m not a photographer who turns up and simply ’snaps’.

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  1. Andy says

    Mr Grant-Adamson, it is clear that Mr Johns offered the Evening Star evidence about the cost of the photos and the timing of payment. It appears that the Evening Star preferred to use inaccurate information arising from misunderstood communications between itself and the council.
    If that is the case, then Mr Johns’ observations can hardly be construed as a misguided attack, can they?

  2. Andrew Grant-Adamson says

    This sentence looks like an attack to me — “The story by the Evening Star is inaccurate and amounts to nothing more than a disgrace to journalism.”

    The Evening Star did report the coucil’s admission that its response to a FoI request was “misleading” in its next available issue. But in your blog post you made no mention of FoI requests which are central to the entire story.

  3. Robert Johns says

    You are wrong in saying that my attack on the Evening Star is misguided. For the record, I am not attacking anyone, I am simply presenting facts with evidence. It is a fact that the Evening Star failed to confirm details with me and it is a fact that the Evening Star refused to accept facts when I presented them to Josh Warwick, head of news when the story went live on Friday 18 March.

    I would appreciate it if you stopped putting your bias on what is reported in my blog.