Commissioner orders council to answer FoI over libel threats

CROYDON IN CRISIS: A year-long struggle with the council has revealed the possibility that Jo Negrini was breaking the law when using the Queen’s solicitors in a failed attempt to have news reports removed from this website

Hands up: lawyers acting for Jo Negrini may have inadvertently revealed that she was breaking the law

The Information Commissioner has ordered Katherine Kerswell, Croydon’s interim chief executive, to review the local authority’s handling of a Freedom of Information request on behalf of this website. The FoI sought to discover whether Tony Newman and Jo Negrini were using council money or resources to pursue threats of legal action against Inside Croydon and its editor, Steven Downes.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has stepped in following a complaint made by Downes following a year-long battle with the council’s now former leaders, after Newman and Negrini tried – unsuccessfully – to get website news reports critical of their actions removed from the public domain.

In a formal notice sent to Kerswell this month, the ICO wrote that they require Croydon Council, “to revisit the way you have handled this matter and consider what further action you can now take to resolve this complaint.

“We expect organisations to deal with the data protection complaints they receive and to proactively work with their customers to provide an appropriate resolution.”

Newman had been the first council figure to threaten to take libel action against this website, when he engaged Harbottle and Lewis, Covent Garden-based solicitors who more often act on behalf of the Queen and the Royal Family.

The lawyers wrote to Inside Croydon on December 2, 2019, seeking the removal of an article which laid out how the council leader and White Ribbon supporter had failed to report a serious case of sexual assault on a young woman by one of his deputy cabinet members in September 2019.

So confident was Newman and his expensive solicitors of their case that they put at the top of their letter, “Not for publication or dissemination”.

Clearly, they didn’t want anyone to know what they were up to. Essential if you are conducting a cover-up.

Their complaint referred to two articles, Council leader delayed reporting violent incident to police, which we published on November 27 last year, and Fears that Newman cover-up could impact Jones’s election, published on November 30, just days before the General Election.

Newman’s lawyers wrote that, “the claims made in the Articles are untrue, and seriously defamatory of Councillor Newman. The Articles wrongly allege that when Councillor Newman became aware of an allegation of domestic violence involving Councillor Sirosena [sic], he spent 24 hours seeking to cover it up (the ‘Allegation’). Such Allegation [sic] is untrue and is seriously defamatory of our client, and indeed to allege that he would seek to ‘cover up’ an allegation of serious criminal misconduct is of the highest order.”

Niro Sirisena: the ex-councillor’s violent sexual assault on a young woman was never reported to the police by Newman

The fact is Newman never reported the assault by Niro Sirisena to the police.

His first actions on hearing about the incident were to deal with the potential political damage to his council administration and the Labour Party, by forcing Sirisena to resign as a councillor and from the Labour Party.

Newman’s lawyers demanded that the articles be removed from the website, that they should receive a written undertaking not to republish the allegation or any similar allegation, and for the website to publish a retraction and apology on terms to be agreed prior to publication. And they demanded that this all be done in a matter of a few hours.

We refused.

“It is considered that [your] demands were unreasonable and unrealistic. This may well reflect the nature of your client,” we replied.

We added, “It should be noted that you are receiving this response in less time than it took Newman and other councillors to report to the police a serious incident of domestic violence against a young woman that they learned may have been committed by one of their colleagues.

“It is also the case that a letter from a firm of lawyers demanding that news reports be immediately removed from the public domain might, to any reasonable member of the public, be seen to be an attempt to ‘cover-up’ the information contained in those reports.”

We asked, “How is your client funding his legal representation?”

And we put Harbottle and Lewis and Newman on warning that “in the interests of ‘openness and transparency’ (Croydon Labour Party manifesto, May 2014), that any or all correspondence received in this case may be used for publication, on InsideCroydon.com or in multiple other publications”.

Harbottle and Lewis refused to answer our (cheeky) question, which was based, of course, on the suspicion that Newman may not have been relying on his own resources to pay their extravagant fees.

Suspicion of an orchestrated campaign

On December 10 last year, we received the third and, so far, final letter from Harbottle and Lewis on behalf of Newman (estimated cost: at least £800 a pop), which repeated their demands, and said, “We are aware that you have published a number of false and misleading claims on your website about our client, as well as others, and we reserve our client’s right to rely upon such conduct as evidence of malice, and in support of a claim for aggravated damages in the event that legal proceedings are necessary.”

The threat of “malice” in any libel action ups the ante for the defendant considerably.

All our reports about the discredited Newman’s time as leader of Croydon Council remain in the public domain today.

What really stirred our suspicions about whether this may have been a co-ordinated campaign by the council’s leadership dropped into our email inbox on February 21 this year. The email began, “We write to you on behalf of Jo Negrini.”

It, too, came from the Savoy Court offices of Harbottle and Lewis.

How much of a coincidence could it be that the £220,000 a year council CEO and the council leader might both use the same high-powered firm of London solicitors for separate complaints to this website within a matter of weeks?

And if it was concerted action against this website, then was it being orchestrated by the council’s legal department? And how was it being paid?

Negrini had the right ‘ump with us because of an article published in January entitled, Negrini’s legacy on housing is also costing Newham millions.

Harbottle and Lewis again claimed that the article “is seriously defamatory of our client”.

That, of course, is utter nonsense.

Our report dealt substantively with the plight of Red Door Ventures, an arm’s length house-builder in the borough of Newham where, in council reports, the Labour-run local authority was struggling to make it work as they had hoped, delivering homes for local residents and profits to the council.

The parallels with Brick by Brick set up under Negrini in Croydon were many and obvious.

It had certainly been obvious to Inside Croydon for a couple of years that Negrini’s housing project in Croydon was costing the borough millions.

Brick by Brick’s ‘legacy’: Costs, interest and bills have continued to mount up

Red Door Ventures was established in 2014.

As we reported: “The 2014 date for the launch of Red Door Ventures in Croydon is significant, since that was the year that Jo Negrini first burst through the revolving doors of Fisher’s Folly, full of bright ‘new’ ideas for the regeneration of Croydon. For the four years before that, Negrini, who is now Croydon’s £220,000 chief executive, had been working as the director of ‘strategic regeneration, planning and Olympic legacy’ for the London Borough of… Newham.”

Our response to Harbottle and Lewis required “that you should make clear whether you are acting on behalf of Ms Negrini in a personal capacity, or in her position as chief executive of Croydon Council”.

A couple of days later, we got a £800-plus response which actually answered our question, albeit grudgingly.

“It is clear that making such serious allegations about our client who is the Chief Executive of the Council substantially aggravates the damage caused,” they bleated.

“Notwithstanding the above, and to the extent that it assists you, we write in our client’s capacity as Chief Executive of the Council.”

Which, according to Ebenezer Grabbit of Inside Croydon’s lawyers, Sue, Grabbit and Runne, is “Dynamite!”

Our esteemed legal eagle explained, “Council officers are not allowed to issue libel claims against the residents that pay their wages. And they are certainly never allowed to use council funds to pay for it.

“Here you have what appears to be a clear admission by lawyers acting for Negrini that she was breaking those laws.”

The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004, article 6 (3) states, “No indemnity may be provided under this Order in relation to the making by the member or officer indemnified of any claim in relation to an alleged defamation of that member or officer…”.

If our suspicions were well-founded, and Negrini and Newman were acting in concert over their Harbottle and Lewis campaign against this website, then it could also mean that the council leader will have at least known about, if not actively encouraged, the council chief executive in this act of breaking the law.

Tony Newman: did he know that Negrini may have been breaking the law?

It was at this point that Inside Croydon submitted a Freedom of Information request for the correspondence between the chief executive, the council leader and the head of legal services with Harbottle and Lewis between October 1, 2019 and February 25, 2020 (the date of the FoI request).

The council delayed responding, until in April they replied with a refusal to provide any of the correspondence. An internal review was requested (necessary to pursue any complaint), and amended to be treated as a subject access request, or SAR. The council continued to delay.

Then, on June 16, the council provided a much-overdue response to the internal review, citing legal privilege and personal information for its continued refusal to release the information requested. The council then missed its deadline for a response to the SAR, and said it would get a response by August 17. Nothing has ever been received.

And to think that Newman’s original libel threat was because we had characterised his actions as that of a cover-up.

It was now that the matter was referred to the Information Commissioner.

Downes wrote to the ICO, “It is clear to me that the council wishes to withhold this information, since it would be seriously compromising of the chief executive and council leader to be shown to be utilising a firm of private solicitors, through the council, to pursue their own, private interests.

“I would like to get access to all correspondence between the council and Harbottle and Lewis in relation to me or the website, as a matter of some urgency.”

Since then, Negrini quit Fisher’s Folly at the end of August after her lawyers negotiated a £440,000 pay-off, while in October Newman resigned as leader of the council he has helped to bankrupt.

He has not been subject to any disciplinary action by the Labour Party and remains a councillor.

The ICO’s letter was sent to Katherine Kerswell on December 3.

To date, Inside Croydon has still to receive a response from the council.

Read more: Pot-less council had £300,000 legal fund to battle blogger
Read more: Woman assaulted by Labour councillor: I want to reopen case
Read more: Newman’s £100m gamble with your money
Read more: Brick by Brick has paid nothing to council


About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
This entry was posted in Brick by Brick, Crime, Croydon Council, Jo Negrini, Katherine Kerswell, Niro Sirisena, Tony Newman and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Commissioner orders council to answer FoI over libel threats

  1. James F Sheridan says:

    Well done Steven. Top notch stuff.

    • Sylvie Williams says:

      Steven is a godsend ——please keep on chasing justice fir the people of Croydon—-you are doing brilliantly ….thank you!

  2. dracardweig says:

    Brilliant! Keep up the good work Mr Downes – and a Happy Christmas!

  3. Full marks Steve.

    If you’d have needed financial support I’ve have coughed up. Crowdfunding is an option and gets loads of publicity.

    Local authorities and their employees are exceeding their brief if they use public funds to defend their reputation, see here https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/governance/314-governance-a-risk-articles/26702-protecting-the-reputation-of-the-council.

    More interesting is: can Council Tax payers sue to recover Negrini’s shocking pay-off? Love to see her try and sue to defend her reputation!

    • Thanks Chris.

      Some readers might recall that we did crowdfund one little excursion into threats of libel action, when we set up the BoxparkBalls Fund. Our loyal readers rallied round in less than a day to pay for our legal fees that enabled us to tell Mr Boxpark to Pressdram v Arkell. Look it up. It’s hilarious.

      In this case, we were aware that Newman, as an elected councillor, might try to sue. He’d be entitled to do so, provided that he paid his own legal fees. In fact, I was rather hoping that he would, since his reputation even by the beginning of this year was worthless, and his conduct in the Sirisena case deserves as wide an audience as possible.

      It was when Negrini used the same solicitors as Newman that I became particularly suspicious that council resource may have been used, even in a modest way, involving advice to the council leader or chief exec and referrals to Harbottle and Lewis.

      We were also advised of this: The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004, article 6 (3), which basically bans Negrini from undertaking the action that she did. Your case references additionally helpful.

      And as to your final question: residents might only bring a Judicial Review to court which questioned the council over its decision to hand £440,000 to the chief executive who did so much to bankrupt the authority.

      • Ian Ross says:

        I’m sure all of us read this with incredulity. At what stage is this behaviour considered criminal and, if so, what action can and will be taken?
        Fantastic work and essential to expose wrongdoing and prevent (yet) more.

  4. I wonder if the Council’s own legal staff approved this course of action?

  5. Worthy of the Paul Foot Award for journalism, in my opinion.

    I don’t understand what it is about local government that makes some of those who enter it believe the highest standards in public office are not applicable to them?

  6. Grace Onions says:

    Thank you for continuing to hold them to account. Best wishes for 2021

  7. Lily Darsley says:

    Well done for standing up to the bully!

  8. paul huppert says:

    Best wishes for 2021, Inside Croydon. Journalism at its most capitivating.

  9. krautview says:

    Steven – I see that 8 readers have got there before me in congratulating you heartily on your investigative reporting. let me make it 9 – I suspect others will follow.

    You highlight the appearance of conspiracy or collaboration between Council leader and Chief Executive based on their joint use of Bluebottle and Hubris.

    It appears, however, that you share legal advisers with Lord Gnome and his deflated organ whose Rotten Boroughs award for your sleuthing you do not hide. i think we should be told.

  10. chris b says:

    Well done IC for lifting the stone on the murky goings on at the top levels of Croydon Council. London Borough of Culture..? More like London Borough of Sleaze.

  11. moyagordon says:

    Unbelievable. The audacity of people throwing taxpayers’ money around like confetti.

  12. Michael Hembest says:

    Well done Steve.
    Wake up every day and first thing is read your reports.

  13. Talat Mehmood says:

    I think residents of Croydon should threaten the council with legal action for all of the mishandling and ignoring of important emails sent to them. I myself sent 30+ emails to their parking/PCN complaints, Steve Iles and Anne Harman, they claim they never received any of my emails relating to Pcns.
    These people are totally vindictive and stuck up. Worst council in the country I think. I have even tried to contact my local Councillor for weeks, not a single response from her. No reply from the new leader of the Borough Hamida Ali neither. Very upsetting. As if they are all ganged togather. This is a slap in the face of democracy and public accountability. Why on earth do we keep paying them our taxes?

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