Apparently the U of East Anglia paid the Muir Russell inquiry nearly £300,000. David Holland has requested information on the contractual basis of these payments. Situation normal – the UEA has refused to provide the information and it looks like another appeal to the ICO.
David Holland’s correspondence on the file is online here. His original request (Dec 22, 2010) was simple enough:
Please provide me copies of the Correspondence between the University and Sir Muir Russell that, in the view of the University, comprises the contractual basis under which Sir Muir and his team operated and under which the University was contractually obliged to pay the sums that you have disclosed of what, I assume, is taxpayers money.
Please advise me as to how the disbursements were made. For instance, were the fees of the legal advisors paid directly by the University? If not who paid and how were they reimbursed.
Rather than answer the question in a straightforward way, the UEA refused. In previous FOI cases, the institutions have often caused more damage to their credibility with implausible excuses and this appears to be one more example. In this case, the UEA denied that there was a “contractual relationship” between UEA and Muir Russell (despite some correspondence otherwise), thus claiming to possess no relevant information to the “contractual relationship”:
The University does not consider that there was a contractual relationship with Sir Muir Russell or the inquiry team; it was by way of a public appointment (as is commonplace in these circumstances). Nonetheless, it may be helpful to you in understanding the terms on which the appointment was made if we refer you to the agreed terms of reference (see: http://www.ccereview.org/pdf/FINAL%20REPORT.pdf, p.22) and certain email correspondence between Professor Acton and Sir Muir. (see attached .pdf file).
The attached file contained a summary of the agreement between Acton and Muir Russell, including a suggestion from Acton that Russell’s fee be “a bit higher, £40,000. Plus travel, accommodation and administrative support…”
Holland was understandably perplexed at the UEA’s claim that there was no “contractual relationship” between the university and Muir Russell, particularly when the attached email set out what clearly appear to be terms of an agreement. Holland reverted to UEA as follows:
I am perplexed that the University does not consider that there was
a contractual relationship between it and Sir Muir Russell, as you
very kindly attached an email exchange which, though I am not
lawyer, I am confident is proof positive that there was a contract,
(a) There is the unqualified acceptance by Sir Muir – “I am happy to sign up on this basis”.
(b) There is a specified “service” – “the Independent Review”, the terms of which were proposed in the attachment sent by the University and agreed by Sir Muir.
(c) There is a “consideration” offered by the University – £40,000 plus expenses and an unqualified undertaking to cover “fees” charged for the additional expertise required by Sir Muir.
(d) You have in response to another request revealed that the total cost to the University of the Independent Review was nearly £300,000.
Please supply the draft announcement sent to Sir Muir and which he was happy to sign up to as this rather than what was published appears to be the basis of the agreement.
Please confirm that the University now accepts that Sir Muir Russell carried out his Independent Review on behalf of the the University and under contract to it.
Please supply without redactions point 3 of Professor Acton’s email to Sir Muir which is clearly part of the contract or it would not have been written.
Please supply the earlier email from Professor Acton to Sir Muir referred to in the paragraph following point 5.
Please supply any contemporaneous note Professor Acton took of the the “taxi” conversation referred to.
Please carefully search for any earlier or later information which might amount to variations in the contract terms, for instance there must have been some discussions, invoices and documentation to support the substantial cost beyond the £40k fee to Sir Muir.
In particular I wish to see any document that instructs or permits Sir Muir to “centralise” or “consolidate” elsewhere all the information pertaining to the Review originally “held” by public authorities subject to FoIA/EIR and to then delete it from the original authority’s records.
I note that you have not assigned an EIR reference to this request and would ask that you carefully reconsider the classification of it. I think this week’s Report of the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology leaves no room to dispute that my requests are integral to a full understanding by the public of the most important “environmental matter” this country faces.
The Ballooning Cost of the Muir Russell Inquiry
When one re-reads the original email from Acton to Muir Russell, it sure looks like Acton thought that the budget for the inquiry was going to be in the range of £40,000 plus some incidentals and would be completed by middle February. It is not clear from the email that the university expected to pay Muir Russell £40,000 personally or that the report would eventually cost them £300,000. Perhaps this is what they contemplated all along – this would no doubt be clear from the agreement between the parties.
One also wonders whether the university understood that Muir Russell wouldn’t even bother attending the only interviews with Jones and Briffa where evidence was taken (the March 4 and April 9 interviews). Trevor Davies was unaware that Muir Russell hadn’t attended these interviews in July 2010 (at the Guardian public meeting, he embarrassingly had to ask me for information about this). It seems entirely reasonable to inquire into the UEA’s “contractual basis” with Muir Russell – see Holyrood for a prior example of Muir Russell failure to manage costs.
One also wonders from time to time whether prevaricating institutions consider the implications of their excuses or just make up the first excuse that comes into their head.
“Public appointments” in the UK do not give the university carte blanche to do whatever they want or to avoid FOI requests. Quite the contrary. “Public appointments” in the UK are highly regulated and institutions making “public appointments” must comply with a Code of Practice.
2.02 Every individual who is involved in the running of a public appointments process to which this Code applies must comply with the Code Principles.
This Code sets out Seven Principles”, including the Principle of Independent Scrutiny, described as follows:
No appointment must take place without first being scrutinised by an independent panel or by a group including membership independent of the department filling the post.
One wonders how the UEA carried out these obligations in its “public appointment” of Muir Russell. One wonders how the “independent assessors” approved Geoffrey Boulton’s appointment, given the criteria that the appointees not have prior connections to the UEA or stated positions on the issues at hand.
In addition, the Code of Practice for public appointments requires something in short supply – “openness and transparency”:
The principles of open government must be applied to the appointments process, its working must be transparent and information provided about the appointments made.
They also require careful documentation of the appointment:
all stages of the public appointments process, including relevant conversations and decisions, must be documented by departments and those acting on their behalf and the information made readily available for audit or other investigation;
the Data Protection Act 1998 and Freedom of Information Act 2000 and any related legislation or guidance must be considered and applied in relation to all relevant data obtained or held in relation to a public appointments process.
If a public appointment is to be made without compliance with the Code of Practice, the appointing body has an obligation to get permission from the Commissioner:
1.15 Any proposal to proceed other than in compliance with this Code must be agreed with the Commissioner in advance and the outcome (whether or not agreement has been reached) recorded in writing. All breaches of the Code, knowingly committed, or deviations from the procedures set out in this Code must be fully recorded at the same time for the purpose of subsequent public or other scrutiny. No individual other than the Commissioner (such as an Independent Public Appointments Assessor) has authority to agree any proposal to proceed in a manner which does not comply with this Code.
I don’t entirely understood why the University of East Anglia has taken the position that Muir Russell was a “public appointment” rather than a mere contract, as it seems to me that the obligations of the University for due diligence and transparency are significantly greater with a “public appointment” than a mere contract.
In any event, now that the university has adopted this legal position, no doubt we’ll see where it leads.