FOI: Would a Catholic priest be distressed by attending a meal in the Pope’s honour?

IF you were invited to a meal paid for by the local council, would you consider it unreasonable for the council to release details of your attendance?

I’d like to think not – but Birmingham City Council clearly thinks differently, if a story appearing in today’s Birmingham Mail is anything to go by.

The Mail requested details of who attended a city council-funded meal held the night before the Pope visited Cofton Park in Birmingham. The city council was very keen to publicise the Pope’s arrival the next day, and indeed the presence of tens of thousands of people for the visit.

But it has chosen to hide behind the Data Protection Act when asked to name the 200 Catholic dignitaries from around the world who attended the city council banquet the night before.

To quote Paul Dale’s story in the Mail:

A Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Mail was only partly answered by the council, which picked up the bill for the Papal dinner.

Sonya Cerutti, Information Governance Manager at the council, said the Data Protection Act over-rode a newspaper’s right to be given information.

She quoted the Freedom of Information Act, which says information can be withheld if publication might cause “damage or distress” to individuals.

Alan Rudge, the Birmingham cabinet member overseeing the Papal visit, said: “We are not trying to be awkward, but people who were invited don’t expect to be identified in the press, unless of course they are celebrities.”

Will those members of the Catholic church who attended be damaged or distressed if their presence at a free meal held by the council was revealed? What exactly went on at this meal to make it something which could distress those who attended?

Given that it is common practice for registers of gifts and hospitality enjoyed by councillors and officers at the expense of third parties to be made available, it seems bizarre that Birmingham City Council doesn’t believe the same applies when it is footing the bill.

For the record, the meal cost around £9,000 and included a drinks reception followed by a four-course meal, which included crab, beef and apple and coconut crumble.

Birmingham City Council was recently criticised by the Information Commissioner’s Office for not answering FOI requests quickly enough. At the time, I felt a little sorry for BCC. As a large authority, it naturally will receive more requests than other authorities, and perhaps is one of the few authorities to understandably have misjudged the volume of requests. Certainly, others on the list, such as the North West Strategic Health Authority, have much weaker grounds to justify being slow at replying.

But perhaps the city council could improve if it spent less time coming up with tenuous reasons for refusal and operated in within the spirit of transparency and openness which the coalition government is advocating.

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