FOI: Why it pays to keep asking, and why councils should think before saying no

Kirklees Council in Huddersfield has been widely praised for streaming its meetings online. However, when it comes to interrogating the information given at those meetings, it’s a different story – and one which demonstrates why journalists shouldn’t take no for an answer.

On February 23, Kirklees Council – the authority whose leader likes to sign off FOI requests personally – held a council meeting to decide how £3million of cuts would be made.

Private security guards prevented protestors from entering the building to watch [they could have watched it online, however] what was a public meeting.

A stand-off ensued, the police were called – and council leader Mehboob Khan told the meeting that a female member of staff had been punched by a protestor and four other employees attacked by an organisation called ‘Kirklees Save Our Services.’

Quite understandably, those at the council meeting were shocked, and the Huddersfield Examiner saw a story.

Oddly, however, Kirklees Council wasn’t very keen to elaborate on the incident, which the campaigners insisted didn’t occur the way Cllr Khan said.

Local government reporter Barry Gibson asked the press office for more information and subsequently resorted to the Freedom of Information Act, asking for copies of the incident report forms which were filled in relating to the incident.

Kirklees Council refused the request, citing a the data protection exemption and claiming that the officers who filled in the reports did so on the understanding that the information would remain confidential.

I don’t know if this was one of the FOI requests which Cllr Khan signed off for release.

Given that Cllr Khan had given a second-hand account of events already seemed neither here nor there, and it is seems quite remarkable that filling in an incident report would have been conditional on anonymity.

The council also claimed that publishing the reports with names removed would lead to the individuals involved being identified. Quite how, I’m not sure – given they had been all but identified already in the meeting.

Barry asked for a review on the matter – and finally reported the answers last week. He got the incident reports after his appeal was reviewed by the council.

They revealed the incident was nothing like the account given by Cllr Khan. Nobody was punched, and certainly four officers weren’t attacked.

Writing in his column, Barry said:

The council’s own incident reports of the stand-off claim one member of staff was kicked in the shin by a protestor. Another employee was slightly hurt in a collision – possibly accidental – with a protestor.

Either way, Cllr Khan’s account of a punch-up in the town hall foyer has proved inaccurate.

But there is no need to castigate the council leader for getting his facts wrong on the night. Cllr Khan was relying on second-hand accounts of the incident when he spoke in the council chamber.

As it turns out, he got it wrong – and he would have been well advised to have admitted his innocent error.

Too right. It’s hard to understand why the council clammed up like it did after Cllr Khan’s initial statement on the issue, on the night.

It creates an uneasy feeling that they were trying to hide something – the fact that a council leader had, inadvertently, got something wrong.

As Barry added:

It has taken four months to get Kirklees to acknowledge what it must have known back in February – that the stand-off was not as violent as Cllr Khan alleged.

Had the council just admitted this, it would have endured one day’s bad publicity. By refusing to accept it was wrong, Kirklees has had to put up with this lingering bad news story for four months.

Well, Kirklees succeeded. If there were people in Huddersfield that day that planned to disrupt the council’s business, they never got the chance.

Was it worth the bad publicity that followed? That’s for Kirklees to decide.

It’s an irony that Kirklees Council has been praised extensively in local government circles for streaming video of its meetings. It has also been praised by the Local Government Information Unit for notching up 14,000 streams in a year.

According to Kirklees Council’s website, it had planned to stream the budget meeting at which the cuts were decided.

It seems ironic that it would seek to stream a meeting online for people to watch but refuse admission to the meeting in person – and they go so very quiet on what went on outside after  the council leader had given his second-hand account.

There’s a lesson here for both journalists and local government officers. For journalists, it’s not to give up if the press office direct you to FOI and your FOI is rejected. For local government officers, this example is surely proof that trying to cover a story just ends up making things worse.

One comment

  1. I have seen this councillor on the news Last year he appeared with supporters of a Free School to be set up in the area; he was against the Free School. I have sympathy with him but, how does he expect support if he behaves like this ?

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