I received an email on the dot of 5.30 this afternoon from Tony McArdle, Lincs County Council Chief Executive, attempting to put me in my place for having dared to say unkind things about his council and their competency. The letter also states various inaccurate things about the responses I have so far received and the obstruction of this complaint, and reprimands me for being disrespectful towards them on this blog.
I’m not entirely sure how I have been particularly disrespectful. By highlighting the council’s incompetency on home education matters? By being sarcastic about their disgraceful inability to even quote the correct pieces of law? By pointing out – correctly, as it turns out – that the CE himself will not get involved? By being cross about the rudeness and prejudice of one of their councillors? By complaining about the lack of courtesy shown to me by various staff members and the totally unnecessary delays? By being justifiably furious at their legal department’s attempt to categorise home educators as guilty until proven innocent? By making it public in the first place? Goodness, what sensitive souls. There are far, far worse things said to frightened, vulnerable children in the playgrounds of their oh, so wonderful schools, on a daily basis, than anything I have said or even could say here about any grown, supposedly professional adult.
It will be interesting to see how far this gets twisted into me being the nasty, unkind, unreasonable (and disrespectful, of course) parent, harassing the poor well-meaning council staff who are only trying to protect my daughter from me. Unbelievable.
Mr McArdle’s letter can be seen here: McArdle Reply 18th May – there is so much wrong with the letter it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll correct some of the inaccuracies here, for future reference. I did briefly ponder, for a whole three minutes, not posting anything else about this issue on this blog, since Lincs CC obviously have enough spare time to be reading it – and then I thought, why should I have to hide what I think about this authority and its actions purely because they might find my remarks not to their taste? How ridiculous is that? I’ve never hidden my identity online, or hidden behind anonymous blogs/postings, and nor have I ever said anything here or elsewhere that I’m not prepared to stand by – so I’m not about to start hiding or self-censoring now.
“Thank you for your letter……your complaint regarding the legality of the council’s actions in writing to you requesting information about your daughter’s home education.”
Nice try at trivialising the issue. Highly disingenuous. As (I hope, surely to goodness?!) Mr McArdle is aware, my complaint is not over the council writing to me to ask about my daughter’s education. Firstly, they didn’t – they wrote to me (and everyone else) announcing a policy. Secondly, it is the policy I disagree with. Thirdly, it is not the writing to parents to ask for information which is a concern – they can write all they like, and letters can be binned, of course – it is the clear implication in the policy and in their standard letters, that parents are legally obliged to supply the “evidence” they’re asking for, and that if they do not, dark things will follow. Which is, as every home educator knows, as a leading barrister knows, as the Chairman of the Education Select Committee knows and as goodness knows how many other professionals know, absolute tosh.
“…complains that, by asking you to deal with the council in accordance with our complaints policy, that the council was obstructing your complaint.”
Leaving aside the poor grammar, which is a common theme in letters from this local authority – at no point was I sent any information about the council’s complaints procedure. The only information I had on that came from their website. In fact, the complaints procedure described on Lincs County Council’s website here says “After Stage 2, if you are not satisfied then you can refer the complaint to the Chief Executive. The Chief Executive may then instigate an independent investigation by an officer of the Council not previously involved in the complaint, and will respond to you directly.” Note the phrasing – refer the complaint to the CE, and the CE may *then* instigate an investigation by someone else, but in any event the CE will respond to you directly. Now, given the grammatical errors all over the place on Lincs CC’s website, that might not be what was meant by that statement, but it is what it says. So Mr McArdle doesn’t even know his own complaints procedure? Or they decided to change their complaints procedure but not bother to let the public know? Either way, given what it says on the website, I think any reasonable person can see why, as far as I was concerned, the next stage after Debbie Barnes was Mr McArdle himself – and the failure to provide contact details for him, despite me asking *three times*, was indeed obstructive. So no, sorry Lincs CC, but you can’t paint me as unreasonable for doing what the council tells people to do on its own website.
Regarding the whole of the next paragraph and the pretence that I asked for the complaint to be escalated on my behalf – er, no. In my letter to Debbie Barnes on the 28th April I said “Please therefore provide the contact information for Lincs County Council’s Chief Executive, so that I may move the complaint to the next stage; please also confirm a timescale during which I should expect to hear back from the CE after I have made contact“. When that information wasn’t forthcoming, I emailed Debbie Barnes’ PA on the 10th May, saying “Thank you for forwarding Debbie Barnes’ response. Unfortunately, I have not received the information I asked for about progressing this complaint to the Chief Executive. I would be grateful, therefore, if you would promptly supply the name and email address of the CE, and confirm for me how long I should expect to wait for a response having contacted him/her.” Again, no contact details provided, but a letter arrived stating the complaint had been escalated to David O’Connor – remember, according to their own policy, that is not what was supposed to happen. So another email from me, to his PA: “Thank you for the attached letter – however, there seems to have been a misunderstanding. I didn’t ask Ms Prodger to escalate the complaint on my behalf, I merely asked for the email address of the Chief Executive so that I could further the complaint myself. […] Would you be kind enough to pass that information to David O’Connor, please, and provide me with the email address of the Chief Executive so that I can progress the matter without further delay?”
All three emails seem pretty clear to me, and none of them remotely suggests anything other than my intention to contact the CE myself – as their published complaints procedure tells me to.
“…you have received emails from our officers in the evening and at weekends.”
Eh? When? I’ve just been back through the emails to check, and unless I’ve missed something, this statement is an exaggeration to say the least. I once received a one line email from Debbie Barnes on a Sunday, when I chased her for an acknowledgment of the original complaint. That was it. And one note, from David O’Connor’s PA, was sent at 17:46 on a Friday – am I supposed to count that as an evening or even a weekend? For heaven’s sake! Mind you, there is Mr McArdle’s letter itself, which was sent at 5.30 on this drizzly Friday evening. Should I count that as an evening/weekend and be terribly thankful? I have no idea why it was sent at such a time, and far be it for me to ponder the inner workings of the CE’s office. It would obviously be disrespectful of me to suggest that perhaps contentious letters are sent last thing on a Friday so that the sender doesn’t have to spoil their weekend by reading an unwanted reply. Nooo, that’s not how it works at all – although that is how it used to work for one particular boss back in my PA days. But I digress. This line of the letter implies some sort of massive effort by Lincs County Council to respond to me quickly. I really don’t think so.
“Whilst I accept that there was some delay in providing you with my contact details and you researched them from another source, the complaint was escalated as you said you wished to.”
Again. As above. And note the lack of apology or explanation for why I might need to ask three times for the CE’s contact details, beginning on the 28th April, yet by the 16th May I still had not been provided with them. Let’s gloss over that bit, shall we?
“… I see absolutely no evidence that the council has sought to obstruct or delay your complaint.”
Well, I do. The lack of an explanation for the non-provided contact details, for a start. However, clearly Mr McArdle’s opinion on this is the last word and that’s that. There you go. They didn’t obstruct the complaint and it was mean and nasty of me to suggest that they did. If they occasionally bothered to provide up to date information on the website, or to make clear their complaints procedure, then perhaps the impression given to a complainant wouldn’t be quite so dire. As it stands, it’s apparently perfectly OK for them to make up a complaints procedure as they go along (so it must appear to the public, who only have their website to go by), and for anyone complaining about that to be shot down. Good-oh.
“It is for Mr O’Connor to determine the appropriate investigation at stage 3…”
I see. I assume this is a slap-down to me pointing out that it’s outrageous to have a member of the legal team investigating incompetence by and bias from the legal team, which is what Mr O’Connor told me was going to happen. Well, I’m not so sure that the Local Government Ombudsman would agree with either Mr McArdle or Mr O’Connor on that one.
“…some of your blog postings on this matter are well below the standard of respect I would expect from the County Council and believe we should be able to expect from yourself.”
I genuinely had to read that a few times before it sunk in – and not only because of grammar issues again. It appears that Mr McArdle believes that a local authority is automatically due respect from the citizens it is supposed to serve. Not in my world. In my world, respect is earned, not given blindly.
Mr McArdle should note that my initial contacts with his authority were entirely courteous, if forthright, and that indeed my written contacts with them have remained coolly polite. However, when faced with increasingly ridiculous responses, misrepresentation of the law, prejudice and obstruction, of course I’m going to become angrier and angrier. This is a personal blog. It’s where I express my opinions. It’s open to the world because I have nothing to hide – although I’m willing to bet that if Lincs County Council’s water-cooler conversations were open to the world, there would be court cases flying in every direction.
Let’s see now: I’ve effectively been told by a scrutiny committee chairman that I’m one step from a child abuser, have been told by the county’s legal department that I’m guilty until proven innocent, and have been treated like an absolute idiot by a Director of Children’s Services who appears to know less about the law than my own – so they believe they have the right to assume – poorly educated and at risk thirteen year old daughter; a Director who seems to think that misquoting the law or using entirely irrelevant case law is going to make me go away. This being a Director, by the way, who has been forced to apologise to other members of the public in the past for other incidents of outstanding competence. Meanwhile, I’ve been painted as unreasonable for trying to follow the complaints procedure published on their website, and I’m now being reprimanded by the Chief Executive for expressing my opinions on my personal blog. I’m clearly being set up for a “she’s completely unreasonable” response to the complaint as a whole. The basic facts about who contacted whom, when and what was said are incorrect in the CE’s reply, which does not bode well. Automatic respect for this county council and it’s officers? After this fiasco? No. And if that offends anyone from Lincs County Council, I suggest they stop reading.