Croydon Council has back-tracked over releasing documents, despite a direction from the Information Commissioner, but not before some vital details were made public.
By STEVEN DOWNES, Editor of Inside Croydon
Jo Negrini, Croydon’s controversial former chief exec, had legal staff from the cash-strapped council spending their valuable time monitoring this website’s reports for at least six months before her ill-advised, and failed, threats of libel action, all part of a co-ordinated attempt to close down this website.
According to council correspondence seen by Inside Croydon, senior members of their legal team expressed concern that this website’s articles “appear at the least to be… undermining of the CEO”. Poor dear.
We have been unable to find any record of the offence of “undermining” ever being on the statute book of English law.
After a year-long battle to obtain the correspondence between council officials and London solicitors Harbottle and Lewis, some documents were eventually, grudgingly, released under a Freedom of Information request.
Despite the council’s legal department’s strenuous efforts to block the FoI request, enough material was released to show clearly that Negrini and Tony Newman, the discredited former leader of the council, had their threats of libel action facilitated and paid for by the council – despite the law specifically forbidding public money being used to try to defend the reputations of councillors and council staff.
Inside Croydon reported last week that Croydon Council paid £25,000 to the Queen’s solicitors, Harbottle and Lewis, after they had sent letters threatening dire consequences over this website’s coverage of Newman and Negrini in late 2019 and early 2020.
Inside Croydon completely rejected all claims made on behalf of the council chief executive and leader, which we characterised at the time as a clearly co-ordinated effort to try to shut down the only independent news site in the borough.
But other documents obtained by this website show that council officials under Negrini were conducting a trawl through the website’s archives going back for at least two years, with an email to Harbottle and Lewis from September 2019 highlighting those articles which might have “undermined” the CEO.
All the articles mentioned in the solicitors’ complaints which were sent on behalf of Newman and Negrini remain published, unaltered, on this website.
In the case of our reporting of Newman’s failure to go to the police over a violent sexual assault against a young woman by one of his councillor colleagues, this website had a public interest defence prepared and was ready to give evidence in the High Court.
The council’s legal work was carried out under the direction of Jacqueline Harris-Baker, then the council’s most senior in-house lawyer, and Sean Murphy, effectively her deputy.
In using the council’s legal department’s time and resources, and by hiring Harbottle and Lewis, it seems very likely that Harris-Baker and Murphy, together with Newman and Negrini, were all acting in contravention of The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004, article 6 (3).
Yet documents released to iC under the FoI show that Negrini’s staff were under direction to monitor this website’s output for months before the first Harbottle and Lewis letter was despatched.
One email, dated September 30, 2019, was sent to Harbottle and Lewis under the subject heading “Confidential – Enquiry regarding new instruction”.
The email as released under the FoI is, like most of the documents provided by the “open and transparent” council, heavily redacted,with large sections blocked out.
It refers to four attachments, which the council failed to provide. And it included what appeared to be a list, which the council also decided to withhold.
But when pressed, Nicola Thoday, the council solicitor handling the FoI request, later provided the list of articles which Harbottle and Lewis had been tasked with checking.
Inside Croydon has always taken great care over the accuracy of our reporting, and also sought to expose the frequently questionable actions of senior council figures.
Take a look at the list of articles provided to Harbottle and Lewis two years ago and consider why Negrini and her senior colleagues might have felt uncomfortable about the information within them being in the public domain:
The Godfather: Croydon official hired friend on £787 per dayCouncil CEO confirms ‘The Godfather’ paid chum £787 per day
Private Eye makes a 999 police call over ‘The Godfather’Negrini ‘misinformed’ over data security says whistle-blowerAnd Muslims excluded from Croydon’s Remembrance serviceSome might consider it odd that the council lawyers didn’t ask Harbottle and Lewis for their expert opinion on an additional article…Suffice to say, Inside Croydon has never been contacted by Harbottle and Lewis about any of the above articles which, thanks to council whistleblowers, unearthed a massive scandal within Negrini’s operation. Negrini’s council’s immediate response was to try to track down the whistleblowers, rather than to take disciplinary action against Cadle and his two mates who profited hugely at the Council Tax-payer’s expense.
The documents only became publicly available following a direction from the Information Commissioner to release all correspondence between Harris-Baker, Murphy, Newman, Negrini and Harbottle and Lewis.
In an email from solicitor Nicola Thoday, dated February 11 this year, it was admitted that the council had been over-zealous in deliberately withholding – and redacting – information that properly should be released as part of our Subject Access Request.
“Although sometimes this information could be privileged, in this case, given the age of the email and articles, the public interest in release outweighs the public interest in applying the exemption.
“A key consideration when analysing this situation is that I (on behalf of Croydon Council) am keen to show that the council should be transparent and accountable in all matters, especially in the current financial and political climate,” Thoday wrote at the time.
“To date, the council has made mistakes when handling your requests and I hope that this Subject Access Review will be a step in rebuilding a positive relationship with you.”
Two weeks later, Thoday wrote again, promising to provide a third batch of emails and documents that had been compiled and prepared ready for release.
Those documents were never sent.
Instead, Thoday was ordered to conduct a “review”, and six months later she would advise that no more documents will be released. So much for “rebuilding a positive relationship”.
Today, Thoday maintained that she has decided that all the requested documents are now “exempt” from release under FoI, under client privilege.
That’s the very same excuse for non-disclosure which was used when Sean Murphy was overseeing our Freedom of Information request – for documents which would expose that Murphy and his boss, Jacqueline Harris-Baker, had advised Negrini, the council CEO, to act in contravention of the law by getting the Council Tax-payers to foot the bill for their expensive libel lawyers.
Negrini, of course, left Croydon Council in August 2020 with a £440,000 pay-off, another Inside Croydon exclusive that the self-described “regeneration practitioner” probably regarded as being “undermining” of her.
Newman was forced to stand down as leader of the council he helped to bankrupt in October last year, ultimately resigning as a councillor, too.
Harris-Baker quit her job this year, and Murphy, too, has sought alternative employment.
None of them have ever been subject to any disciplinary action, whether for the roles that they played in the council’s financial crash, nor for their part in potentially abusing their power and positions to in contravention of the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2004.
Indeed, despite their departures, it seems that the same closed and secretive culture of cover-up remains at Croydon Council.
In explaining the about-face over the release of documents, Thoday, the council lawyer who six months ago had claimed that she was “keen to show that the council should be transparent and accountable in all matters”, is now responding with what might be seen by some to be a veiled threat.
“The council must reserve its position regarding any future action it may wish to take,” Thoday wrote.
Inside Croydon, meanwhile, continues to welcome insights and tip-offs, documents and leads on all matters relating to the running of Croydon Council and the spending of Council Tax-payers’ money.
Read more: Council paid £25,000 for legal threats against Inside Croydon
Read more: Council forced to pay (Sandwell) blogger’s £50,000 legal costs
Read more: Commissioner orders council to answer FoI over libel threats
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