Information Commissioner launches probe into National Landlords Alliance

In a post on the landlords’ website Property 118, National Landlords’ Alliance CEO Larry Sweeney has confirmed that his organisation is under investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office in relation to a “Rogue Tenants Database” that’s referred to on his website.

There’s absolutely no information about this database on the Alliance’s website. For non-members the site just displays a message saying the information is available to members only.

It’s a matter of legitimate public concern (and of particular concern to tenants) how this database operates:

  • Where does the information on the database come from?
  • On what grounds is a tenant added to a list? How is “rogue tenant” defined?
  • How does the Alliance ensure it’s correct?
  • How does the Alliance ensure it’s up-to-date?
  • On what grounds under the GDPR is the Alliance keeping the database at all?
  • Who has access to the database, and how is it being kept secure?
  • How can a tenant tell if they’ve been added to the database, and how can they challenge any incorrect information?
  • Generally, what arrangements have the Alliance made to comply with the GDPR?

So it’s entirely appropriate for the ICO to enquire into this database, particularly given the limited information available on the Alliance’s website. Incorrect information might seriously affect someone’s ability to get access to housing.

Rather than engage sensibly with the investigation, Sweeney has doubled down and claimed that the ICO are targeting him because he’s repeatedly called for the resignation of Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham over what he claims is a cover-up of mass breaches of the GDPR by local authorities:

So, is there any truth in his claims that local councils are committing mass breaches of the regulations, aided by the ICO? Sweeney has been less than forthcoming about the breaches he claims are occurring, but in another post on Property118 he gave us a clue.

On its landlord application this authority demands addresses of properties owned by the landlord applicant in other boroughs. If the Council wanted to check with other authorities with respect to a landlords conduct, perhaps this might be acceptable. but it is an abuse to demand addresses of landlords properties licensed elsewhere.

Sefton quote HMO regs as a justification for obtaining this information. Irrespective of that this is a clear GDPR breach demanding excessive information. If readers are not convinced yet, then look at what follows. The authority as per GDPR has a duty to maintain the data held as current and up to date. If a landlord disposes of his holdings outside of Sefton or purchases a property in Devon or London, the Council will not have the relevant data on file, unless the landlord decides to become involved in assisting Sefton remain GDPR compliant by updating them every time he purchases or sells a property. There is no legal obligation on him to do so.


So a landlord (in an area where selective licensing is in force) applies for a licence from his local authority. As part of that application he has to give the details of the properties he owns outside that authority’s area. Sweeney says this might be acceptable if the authority wanted to check the landlord’s conduct elsewhere. I agree. One of the problems that has been identified with licensing schemes is that rogue landlords are able to operate elsewhere with impunity – there’s not enough co-ordination between authorities. It’s unclear why he then goes on to say that it’s an abuse to ask for details of landlord’s properties licensed elsewhere.

Sweeney’s real complaint seems to be that, having obtained that information, the authority don’t keep it up to date – “The authority as per GDPR has a duty to maintain the data held as current and up to date” – and this seems to be the principal ground for his claims about mass GDPR breaches. If so, he’s profoundly misunderstood the requirements of the regulation. It’s true that Article 5 refers to information being kept up-to-date, but this isn’t an absolute requirement: it must be kept current only when necessary.

A landlord makes an application for a licence, and provides the information necessary for the authority to determine that application. The application is an event – once it’s been determined, there’s no need to keep collecting information. Indeed, given the requirement that data should be “adequate, relevant and limited to what is necessary in relation to the purposes for which they are processed” it’s hard to see why that information could lawfully be collected. Sweeney is barking up an imaginary tree.

Look at an analogous situation: a tenant wants to rent a house from a landlord. He gives a lot of (let’s face it, pretty intrusive) information about his financial, family and employment status to his potential landlord. If Sweeney’s position that information of that kind has to be kept current is correct, every landlord who’s obtained that information has committed an actionable breach of the GDPR if he hasn’t kept that information current. No tenant would agree to give his landlord a running commentary of that kind.

No, Sweeney’s complaints are futile, and if the ICO hasn’t mounted an investigation it’s because he hasn’t identified a clear breach of the GDPR. He’s spent weeks demanding the ICO investigate others, and now it’s time for him to co-operate fully into their investigation into him.


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The National Landlords’ Alliance – keeping it in the family

I had not intended to return to the so-called National Landlords’ Alliance, not least because they’ve been well covered elsewhere.However, a curious incident on Twitter has brought to light a potential further issue with this organisation.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a number of replies on Twitter from someone called “Steff.” Steff seems a little obsessed with me and, specifically, what I do for a living. Over the past few months all of her tweets have been at or about me, and my employment has been a particular theme:


For the avoidance of doubt I’ve never claimed to be qualified to assist anyone: I’ve been open that I’m a layman, anyone who needs advice should see a solicitor or properly-qualified advisor. What I do for a living isn’t relevant to what I write about, I’m not going to go into it because I’ve agreed with my employers that I won’t discuss their business on social media.

But of course, this has caused me to look at who “Steff” might be. From the little information we can find in her Twitter profile, Steff appears to be from Merseyside: almost everyone she follows is from there. The National Landlords Alliance is registered to an address on Merseyside, its self-appointed CEO, and sole shareholder and Director also gives an address in Merseyside, and has written on the Property 118 website about his dealings with Liverpool and Sefton Councils.

And so it was that I looked again at who is involved in the Alliance. We’ve seen Sweeney, and also John Allan, former National Chair of the Federation of Small Business, who is their policy consultant and to whom press enquiries are directed.

However, in his article seeking members for the Alliance, Sweeney referred to another, unnamed member of staff:

Great! She sounds perfect – I wonder who this person might be? Well, here’s a likely candidate. Stephanie Sweeney (presumably a relation) has
experience in the industry (she currently works at an estate agent, and lists previous work experience at “Sweeney properties”), a journalism degree (from Liverpool John Moores University, and she did “Work Experiance” [sic] at the Liverpool Echo, where presumably she didn’t experience having to spell correctly), and lobbying experience (shadowing the Press and Parliamentary officer at the Federation of Small Business during her month as an intern, which seems to have coincided with “policy consultant” John Allan’s tenure as Chairman). All boxes checked.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with employing your family: there are plenty of family businesses. But the so-called Alliance isn’t an ordinary business, or it claims not to be: it purports to be a membership organisation funded by donations (I’m not going to call them subscriptions, because as we’ve seen before donors don’t get the benefits of membership in return). Previously I’ve asked what members of the Alliance got in return for their money, and now we know: Sweeney is paying his family out of it, or planning to.

I have no idea whether the Steff who’s been demanding to know what I do for a living is Stephanie Sweeney, but I do know this: Alliance members should ask Larry Sweeney where exactly their money is going.

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More on the National Landlords Alliance: they don’t like it up ’em.

 

Well, I seem to have ruffled a few feathers with my previous post about the National Landlords Alliance.

First, there was this helpful post on the Property118 landlords’ forum:

upem1

Thanks for all the extra traffic, guys. Let’s be clear, though, asking questions of one landlord organisation doesn’t make me an “anti landlord spin Doctor.”

Then there was this charming suggestion that landlords should, apparently, blacklist me:

upem2

Cheers “Monty”, at least I have the balls to post under my own name. The idea that landlords should police the social media postings of prospective tenants for signs of ideological impurity isn’t at all creepy.

However, the Alliance (or at least it’s self-appointed CEO Larry Sweeney because, let’s face it, it’s just him) seems to think I’m using a fake name:

No, I’m not conducting a ‘hatefest’ and I am posting under my own name. Oh, and for the avoidance of doubt:

upem3

What is instructive, however, is that Sweeney then blocked me, for having referred to the membership status of the Alliance. So allow me to set it out clearly here.

The National Landlords Alliance Ltd is a company limited by shares. As a matter of law, the members of a company with shares are the shareholders. It doesn’t appear that Sweeney is selling shares in the company, so whatever people are paying for, it isn’t membership in the legal sense.

At the very best, all that ‘members’ are getting is some kind of associate status. Members are not getting the rights of members as they would be understood in any other organisation. They do not own the Alliance. They have no control over it. They do not set its policy. They have no influence over what happens to their money once they have paid it. Sweeney can post whatever he likes in their name on the Alliance’s twitter feed or website and there is nothing they can do about it at all.

I would be genuinely interested in what members of the Alliance have actually received in return for your membership fee. Of course, ‘members’ get the warm feeling of having contributed their money for a cause they believe in. But if you’re giving your money on that basis, you’re not becoming a member, you’re making a donation. There’s nothing wrong with that – most people like to donate to causes that are important to them from time to time – but if you’re soliciting donations then you should make it clear that’s what you’re doing. If you like my blogging you can buy me a coffee but it would be wrong for me to pretend you’re doing anything except making a donation.

Meanwhile Sweeney continues to use the Alliance’s twitter account prinicipally to conduct a campaign – one might almost call it a hatefest – against Shelter.

Let’s be crystal clear. Shelter are an organisation which provides advice and guidance, and which undertakes campaigning. Like all charities, it has to be open about its accounts and it publishes an admirably clear Annual Report setting out where it gets its money from, and where it goes. Don’t take my word for any of this; read it for yourself. The idea that Shelter isn’t open about what it does is just plain wrong. And like all charities, it’s not free to spend its money however it likes (still less like Larry Sweeney likes), it is required to spend all of its money to further its objects. And the funding it has received for specific purposes – its restricted funds – it must spend only for those purposes. People donating to Shelter do so with the full knowledge of what their money is going to be spent on.

This really isn’t a difficult idea to understand: in a free society people are free to donate their money to an advice and campaigning organisation if they want to, and it’s not up to Sweeney to tell them they can’t.

Having previously called for Shelter to be abolished and its assets seized (you’d think that landlords would show a bit more respect for private property and would oppose the Stalinist expropriation of that property, but it’s a funny old world I suppose), Sweeney’s latest wheeze is to demand that Shelter should spend all its money on acting as guarantors for tenants on benefits. Over the past few days he’s tweeted the same demand around thirty times:

Now, rent guarantee schemes are a good idea, several charities and local authorities offer them. Because Shelter are full of helpful advice and guidance, you can read more about them on their website. But Sweeney’s idea is transparent nonsense, because that’s not what Shelter’s money is for, because so long as they obey the law it’s up to Shelter and their funders what they spend their money on, but mostly because it’s complete balls to say that Shelter has a “cash pile” of £60m or anything like it: it’s their entire annual income. It’s no more correct to call it a cash pile than it would be to say I can spend the whole of my annual salary in one go. It would mean Shelter’s abolition, since they’d have no money for anything else.

Sweeney spent most of Saturday involved in a bizarre Twitter spat with Labour MP Karen Buck, claiming that Buck supported his plan:

Which, naturally, she strongly denied:

All of this seems to be because he thinks that Buck liked one of his tweets, which she denies (you can look at her likes yourself and see if it’s true, it doesn’t appear to be) but in any event liking one tweet doesn’t signify complete and unconditional acceptance of your programme.

Now, anyone sensible would let the matter drop at this point. There’s no point in saying someone agrees with you when they deny it, it just makes you look stupid or dishonest or both. Sweeney, however, is less sensible and now claims that Buck really did support his plan, but for some reason has been “intimidated” into silence by Shelter:

There appears to be no evidence to support this at all. There is no reason to suppose that Buck supports Sweeney’s plan, and every reason to suppose she doesn’t: it is completely at odds with her other work and beliefs, including her work with Shelter on the Homes (Fitness of Human Habitation) Bill. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that Shelter have intimidated anyone.

Again, all of this is merely because Sweeney and similar landlords find it personally inconvenient that tenants should have access to decent advice. You can respectfully disagree with Shelter without descending into the kinds of abuse that Sweeney has employed in his Twitter feed in recent days.

But if you are a landlord who has joined the Alliance: all of this is being done in your name, and there is nothing you can do about it.

On the curious case of the National Landlords Alliance

It appears that Fergus Wilson isn’t the only landlord with a rather overinflated sense of his own importance. Friends, we now have a new favourite example of Landlord Derangement Syndrome: allow me to introduce you to the National Landlords Alliance and its CEO, Larry Sweeney.

Sweeney announced plans for his Alliance in a post on the landlords’ website Property118 in which he asked his fellow landlords to pledge £100 for membership. He had, he told readers, been thinking of setting up the Alliance for 18 months, but had finally decided to take the plunge. You might be forgiven for thinking that £100 – a tidy sum by most people’s standards – you would be acquiring all the normal rights of membership. The right to vote for the leadership of the organisation, for example, and through them the ability to set the organisation’s policy and control its assets. Membership organisations of this type might typically be expected to be companies limited by guarantee or unincorporated associations. If you thought that about the Alliance, you would be mistaken. The National Landlords Alliance Ltd is, according to Companies House, a company limited by shares, incorporated in 2015 – considerably longer than 18 months ago – of which the sole shareholder and Director is Larry Sweeney. He owns it outright. He controls it completely. It is really not possible for anyone else to become a member in any meaningful sense. It is not clear what “members” are getting for their money. What will happen to all those membership fees? If the company makes a profit, Sweeney would appear to be able to pay it to himself as a dividend. So what do we know of the Alliance, and what it wants? Fortunately on their website they post a six point plan for the private rented sector. Here it is, in its entirety:
Yes folks, their six point plan only has five points. Perhaps the sixth point was repossessed. Section 24 is, for the uninitiated, a gradual withdrawal of a tax relief that landlords have enjoyed on some of their finance costs: a relief that homeowners don’t enjoy. It’s not a tax as such. Landlords have been fighting a rearguard action against it since George Osborne announced it in the 2015 Budget – including a court action involving Cherie Blair – but seem to have given up as the government has shown no signs of backing down. Frankly, the Chancellor isn’t going to leave a hole in the public finances no matter how much special pleading there is from landlords. And since research has shown that private tenants were among the key groups moving towards Labour at the 2017 election, he won’t be doing anything that favours landlords over any other group. The more landlords bleat about paying their taxes, the more convinced he will be that his policy is working. Both the Alliance’s website and twitter feed display an interest with Shelter which borders on the obsessional. Point 3 of their six five point plan is to
withdraw funding from Shelter the Housing charity, which does not provide housing. Redirect the £60 Million Shelter budget to provide accommodation for the needy.
Elsewhere they say:
We will campaign for the abolition of Shelter and the redirection of their £60 million budget.
According to the Alliance, their objection to Shelter is that they don’t use their income to directly house anyone. They claim, Shelter’s £60m budget ought to be used to do this and it is wrong that they don’t. This is, and let’s not beat about the bush here, completely batshit. Shelter don’t provide housing because that’s not what they’re for. They provide other services, like advice, advocacy and research. £60m is a fair sum, but even if it were all used to buy houses for people, it would help a few dozen families at best. Shelter assist thousands of people with their work. And it’s not wrong for them to spend their money the way they do; donors to Shelter do so in the full knowledge of what their money will be used for: some of it is grant funding that is given to them to deliver specific services. They couldn’t use it in any other way even if they wanted to. Yet more is income from their own shops, which is theirs to do with as they wish as long as they do so within their objects. Like every charity, Shelter are legally obliged to spend their money only within their objects, and what is really disgusting is that someone who plainly has no idea how charities work should be making a public comment so ill-informed aimed at undermining the reputation of Shelter. No, it is pretty obvious what the Alliance’s real objection to Shelter is. They don’t think that tenants ought to have access to decent advice that might enable them to stand up to their landlords. Hence their complaint that Shelter’s advisors “continually attempt to frustrate the eviction of delinquent tenants.” Sweeney is not the only person involved in running the Alliance. He has the benefit of a “policy consultant” – John Allan, a former national chairman of the Federation of Small Business. He is a former chairman, however, because in 2016 he was suspended by the FSB and subsequently replaced after allegations that he had helped a young mother to find work as a prostitute. Oh.

Fellow Remainers: Hands off the BBC

Remainers indulging in conspiracy theories about the BBC should be careful what they wish for.

Recently, it’s become fashionable in Remainer circles to attack the BBC for the apparent bias in its coverage of Brexit.

In recent days, for example, Lord Adonis’s Twitter feed has been an orgy of attacking the BBC’s impartiality, sometimes bordering on conspiracy theorising, and often using the vaguely sinister hashtag #BrexitBroadcastingCorporation :

Meanwhile Henry Porter has devoted a column in the Guardian to claiming that the BBC is abdicating its responsibilities in reporting Brexit.

Some of this, it appears, follows on from a decision by the BBC not to cover a march against Brexit, while reporting on Farage and Rees-Mogg’s publicity stunt in dumping fish into the Thames. Now, you may think that is right or wrong, but the fact remains that the BBC has to make those kinds of judgment calls all the time. I yield to no-one in my desire to see the UK remain in the EU, but as things stand we will leave next year, and the BBC has to report the news on that basis. The process of the negotiations is newsworthy and people are entitled to be informed on them and the effect they are having on British politics.

Frankly there are marches all the time and the BBC is right to be sceptical about how newsworthy they are. They are never going to be able to cover them all, and every time they don’t, people are going to complain about it. The only way they are all going to be reported is if the BBC adopts a weekly slot on the Saturday evening news to cover that week’s march. March of the Day: look away now if you don’t want to know how many people were on it.

Similarly, there’s been conspiracy theorising about the appointment of Robbie Gibb as Downing Street Director of Communications:

Really? There’s always been a crossover between journalism and political communications. Former BBC political journalist Lance Price was an adviser to Tony Blair during Lord Adonis’s time there, and went on to become the Labour Party’s Director of Communications. There’s not necessarily anything sinister about it.

Over recent years there has been a catastrophic collapse in trust in institutions: often well-deserved but insidious nonetheless. There is a reason why Farage, and Trump, and all the others want to destroy trust in the BBC and in impartial journalism, and we shouldn’t be assisting them with it.

If Britain is to remain in the EU, then it will be because there has been a firm shift in public opinion towards remain, of the kind that the Government cannot ignore. If the electorate are going to change their minds they’re not going to take it from Remainers that it’s the right thing to do: they need trusted, impartial sources of information to help them make up their minds. Undermining those sources is self-defeating.

Those indulging in conspiracy theorising against the BBC, and undermining trust in it, have fallen for the nirvana fallacy: they are comparing the real BBC with an unrealistic, idealised version of how it might be. The BBC is never going to be perfect, because it’s a fallible, man-made institution. The choice is between it as it stands, and no BBC at all. Make common cause with those who would destroy the BBC, and it will disappear and take public service broadcasting with it.

The alternatives to the BBC’s standards of journalism are the likes of Swawkbox, the Canary and Breitbart. Be careful what you wish for.

Fergus Wilson – no charges brought

Last year I reported on prospective Police and Crime Commissioner Candidate Fergus Wilson, and alleged that he was disqualified from standing due to his 2014 conviction for common assault. Subsequently, after Mr Wilson submitted nomination papers, I reported him to Kent Police for making a false declaration in his nomination papers.

Last week I was told by Kent Police that their investigation into Mr Wilson has been completed. I’m informed that Mr Wilson was interviewed as part of that investigation, and that a file has been presented to the CPS, but that no charges are to be brought against him. To bring charges, the CPS must be convinced both that there is a realistic prospect of conviction, and that it’s in the public interest to prosecute.

I was quite happy to let the matter drop there. Mr Wilson’s candidature is at an end, the election is long over and done with, and most importantly he’d promised to “ride off into the sunset” after the failure of his election campaign. He’s not a professional politician and it was over.

However, I see that the following story appears in the Medway Messenger:


fergus nocharges

I’m the complainant. I can confirm that I’ve not been spoken to by the Police in relation to this matter. I stand by my reporting I believed then, and I believe now, that my reporting was accurate and in the public interest. If the Police speak to me, I’ll defend myself vigorously.

Perhaps I’m lucky. A few days ago Mr Wilson was offering to fight a journalist who’d been unkind about his racehorse.

Fergus, it was punching someone that got you into this trouble in the first place.

On leaving Labour.

cardI’ve left the Labour Party today, the Party I first joined in 1989 and I’ve supported ever since. When Jeremy was elected Leader last year, I thought the right thing to do was to stay and fight for the kind of Party I wanted: open, moderate, internationalist, pro-EU. I’ve nothing but respect for those of my colleagues who’ve decided to stay in the Party this time, too: but for me, the end of the road has been reached.

This isn’t the Party I joined. We were always on the right side of British politics, and we always knew we wanted to make the world a better place. Labour was a family I was proud to belong to. I was proud, once, to be a Labour Councillor and Group Leader (though when it was obvious my time as Leader wasn’t a success, at least I had the decency to resign).

Labour isn’t that Party any more. It’s intolerant, it’s authoritarian, it’s a toxic place where the worst kinds of abuse are at best tolerated by the leadership. That leadership regards Hamas and Hezbollah – anti-semites, misogynists and terrorists – as friends, and Jeremy Corbyn himself has appeared on the state propaganda channel of a regime that executes homosexuals. And that’s without mentioning SinnFein/IRA…

Jeremy handed Brexit to the Tories on a plate, and the morning after the referendum result he called for the immediate triggering of Article 50. It’s as plain as anything that he rejects our membership of Nato – an international organisation that Labour helped found.

It’s not just about electoral success – though it’s plain that Jeremy can never win a General Election – but it’s become more and more obvious that the toxic mix of people who now constitute the Party’s leadership don’t care about winning. They’re more interested in sixth form debating, on building an organisation which is ideologically pure. That’s a betrayal of everyone who depends on the kind of moderate, centrist politics which this country needs. It gives safe space to the Tories to do their worst.

All of this is a repudiation of the kind of Labour Party I joined.

I don’t believe Jeremy should be Prime Minister. My continued membership of the Labour Party gives him moral and financial support. My conscience won’t allow that. And that’s why, with a heavy heart, I’ve left Labour.