1 October 2013

Vexatious to vexing - stage 2

for supposedly warding off the evil eye
Now Mr Mustard comes to the next part of the journey. He asked the council questions, they refused to answer on the grounds of the vexatiousness of the questions, he asked for a review, the same decision was made 23 times (now down to 21 since 2 have been belatedly answered). Mr Mustard then sent them all off to the Information Commissioner and waited several months for them to reach the top of the pile. For 3 months or so he didn't bother asking questions as he expected them to be refused. He did send a few in once the council themselves got put on the ICO naughty step for their own answering lack of performance which does look to have improved.

The way the procedure then works is that the ICO asks the council to demonstrate why the questions were vexatious and then the ICO make a decision so it is made without Mr Mustard seeing any evidence of his alleged atrocities. If Mr Mustard read the whole decision with some other blogger's name in it, he wouldn't want to go for a pint with them. The whole decision can be read on this link (put the ref FS50480128 in the case reference box.). To save you wading through the whole thing, here are the highlights and lowlights and some added commentary:

The Council advised that the complainant (i.e. Mr Mustard) is a prolific blogger. (Don't suppose this was meant as a compliment but prolific is good) .

The council confirmed that the complainant has made a significant number of requests, identifying 476 individual requests made by him since April 2010, together with 44 requests for internal review (Mr Mustard can't be bothered to count them up but the number of questions looks about right. He has no idea about the number of internal reviews which might reflect, amongst other things, the secrecy of the council in redacting so much).

It explained that response and internal review outcomes have often resulted in follow-up requests and further email correspondence from the complainant ( This seems to be written as if its a negative thing. If the answer leads to new interesting information then why shouldn't a new question be asked? you can't ask questions about secrets you didn't know about until the FOI answer arrived. Follow-up emails are often to try and get a proper answer).

In an internal email acquired by making a subject access request ...the complainant was referred to as having been declared vexatious (it is of course the case that only a question can be declared as vexatious and not a person. This internal email shone a light onto the wrongheaded thinking of the officer concerned).

The term "vexatious" is not defined within FOIA. (That made it harder for any requestor to avoid their questions being so labelled).

The council argued that the complainant has sent in large numbers of letters and that it considers them to be a severe burden on resources.

The council submitted an email from a member of its parking team that sets out the disproportionate levels of disruption and distress caused by the time and resources needed to answer the complainant's requests. The statement also makes clear that the parking service is experiencing a significant burden in terms of officer times and diversion away from other work. (such as issuing 165,000 PCN per annum which rather makes Mr Mustard's requests look rather paltry).

To demonstrate that the complainant has caused distress to members of its staff the Council provided...73 pages of entries from the complainant's blog (which only proves what was written not that the posts caused distress).

The Council told the Commissioner that it has clear evidence of its staff experiencing distress when in the course of handling the complainant's requests...(which is a claim that was not tested in any way).

It is clear to the Commissioner that the complainant has googled some of the Council's staff, compiled information about them and then used it to tie in with their professional lives and, in some cases, subjected it to public ridicule via his blog. Staff members then have no way to refute or correct the position. (Of course people get googled, council employees have googled Mr Mustard's alter ego and their names show up in Linked-In when they look at his profile and sometimes you can see what search terms were used by them in other areas. If Mr Mustard has repeated content from the internet, including from staff's own blogs and it is wrong the first thing they should do is correct it at the source. To avoid being ridiculed, best not to write anything ridiculous. Mr Mustard does not like to be inaccurate. He has removed 2 entries entirely from his blog. The first when the former member of staff phoned Mr Mustard up on his work line, which is easily found if you google him!, and the other following an approach from another employee who simply asked for the post to be taken down as there was something Mr Mustard didn't know and couldn't be told. Until last month no senior council employee had the obvious idea of sitting down with Mr Mustard for a chat and buying him a cup of tea).

As a result the council has said that at least one of its employees have taken avoidance steps such as resetting all their preferences on social networking sites to a more secure option, opting out of the electoral role and making their telephone number ex-directory. (Mr Mustard is amazed by how much information people post on the internet without checking how visible it is or realising they might as well put it on a billboard on a busy road - actually it would be seen by fewer people there. You can sort of opt out of the electoral roll to stop your data being sold but don't think that makes you invisible as it doesn't. We are all on hundreds of databases. Mr Mustard doesn't go around phoning staff at home and only very rarely phones them at work. The last time was to get the clamp removed from a Motability car and that wasn't Mr Mustard being vexatious, now was it, but the council's bailiff. Oh, and 3 members of staff have asked him to appeal their Barnet Council parking tickets in the last month.)

The council stated that its intention is not to declare that all the complainant's requests lack serious purpose and value when looked at in isolation. (but somehow when all added together they do)

It is important to note that it is not the requestor who is 'vexatious' but his or her request(s). (we should all ask difficult questions of our council).

The Commissioner is satisfied that different requestors can make the same request and receive differing outcomes in terms of whether the request is vexatious, once the relevant context has been considered for each of those individuals (which makes the whole exercise pretty pointless as the obvious workaround is for others to ask Mr Mustard's questions for him).

So there you have the guts of the 11 pages of the Information Commissioner's decision. You can see that Barnet Council spent days putting their case together. No wonder the legal budget is overspent.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard


  1. I thought your most telling comment, and in some ways the saddest. is that:
      "Until last month no senior council employee had the obvious idea of sitting down with Mr Mustard for a chat and buying him a cup of tea".

    — Does anyone in Barnet Council use words & phrases like "public engagement"; "co-production"; "learning from service users" or similar?
    — Does anyone claim that Barnet is a learning organisation which wants to improve by listening to criticisms and suggestions from its customers?
    — Perhaps they do say and believe in all these things and many more. So is there any possibility that they were put off by the thought that they'd have to buy you a cup of tea? Worse still, in some café where they might encounter a local trader with the dea that parking charges and cashless machines put off customers/

    So I suggest you might want to consider :
     (1) Assuring them that you'll pay for your own tea.
     (2) That you will make no charge for any of the ideas they get from you. (Which in any case are probably somewhere in this blog.)
     (3) That Barnet Council's top brains meeting you need not fear anyone marching towards their table with a video camera.
     (4) That in fact, they can attend the tea and disagree ceremony entirely incognito. Dark glasses, false beards; code names - all that stuff. And speak freely - Chatham House Rule.

    That should set their minds at rest.

  2. Dear Alan

    Well to be fair to the council I was the 5th blogger to appear and start seriously lobbing criticism over the castle wall and I think the whole council went into bunker mentality.

    It turns out that the COO lives not far from, and is a customer of, Cafe Buzz, of all places, and that he could also have thought I was stalking him as if I park to the west of the cafe in the 2-3pm zone (I don't paybyphone but free) I was near his family home. If I park to the south of Cafe Buzz then a certain cash meter scrapping councillor is nearby and may think the same. Wherever I go within a borough of 3,000 and of 63 councillors, I am always going to be near one of them. (Aren't we always within 10m of a rat in London, or something like that?)

    So yes I did suggest meeting in Cafe Buzz one morning, and I would have bought the teas, but in the end I entered the bunker which is the North London Business Park (it is much nicer from the inside) because the COO had back-to-back meetings which was one of my criticisms of management that some of them do nothing but attend meetings and consequently achieve sod all.

    I probably confuse officers and councillors. I tell the Leader that he isn't one, that he should either stop his business and devote more time to being Leader or else pack in as Leader and then in the same breath invite him to come round the Greyhound now that the committee meeting is over. He hasn't come round yet but he will one day and I will gladly stand him a drink and then discuss policy. People may not like what I say and vice versa but you can wholeheartedly disagree without any animosity. It's all about policies & finance for me.

  3. Please add the word "staff" after 3,000 in the comment above

  4. So good to know that I'm not alone. Great work.

    I sincerely hope that the following link may help. It's a very recent ICO decision notice, and how I successfully refuted the first one of Wirral Council's three "vexatious" claims against me. One down, two to go.

    Tomorrow, I'm ringing the solicitor concerned to ask her to consider withdrawing the remaining ones. I don't know how many days she's spent on preparing these cases, but I'll put the case for 'conserving public funds' and hope that this touches a soft spot in her heart.



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