FOI: The council which asked for a birth certificate before processing an FOI request

Here's a photo I took in Liverpool years ago, and applied a cartoon filter too. By the end of this blog post, you'll find out why FOI requests from Mickey Mouse aren't welcome in Liverpool

Liverpool City Council hasn’t got the best track record for Freedom of Information requests. Earlier this year, it was forced to cough up to the fact it had actively doctored information which had been requested under the FOI Act. Indeed, as far back as 2007, the Information Commissioner was criticising the council for the way it handled FOI requests.

But despite that track record,  the city council appears to have set a new standard in awkwardness by asking an FOI requester to prove that they are who they say they are. Really.

Via whatdotheyknow.com, a Josephine Derby has been submitting a number of FOI requests about things you would suspect senior council officials and councillors might find a little awkward.

She has asked for information about Labour councillors’ expenses, the council leader’s expenses, information relating to the city solicitors and alleged arrests requests by social workers.

Clearly, her FOI requests have set the cat among the pigeons because a Kevin Symm, the senior information officer at the city council, has replied to a number of her requests demanding that she confirms her identity before they reply.

Mr Symm wrote:

Before I can begin to gather the information you have requested I need to be satisfied that the request is a properly made one under Section 8(1) of the Freedom of Information Act.
Section 8(1) requires requesters to use their real name when making a
request, for it to be a valid request.
Before I can commence your request I require you to confirm your real
name.
In the event that your real name is Josephine Derby I will need to see
your birth certificate or deed poll document or other document which
confirms that this is your name.
Please get back to me within 14 days of today’s date with this
confirmation. If we do not hear from you within this time frame, we will
assume you no longer wish to pursue your request or review, and your file will be closed.

 

Just deed poll or birth certificate then. But is he right say that Freedom of Information Act allows him to demand proof of who someone is?

According to the Information Commissioner – no. Guidance states:

Where a public authority knows that a pseudonym has been used, as a
matter of good practice it should still consider the request, for example
where identity is not relevant and it is content to disclose the
information requested, even though technically the request is invalid.

However, the Information Commissioner won’t consider an appeal if a pseudonym is used – although that does involve the Information Commissioner being aware of a pseudonym being used in the first place.

The Information Commissioner also states that the name of the applicant shouldn’t be a consideration when considering FOI requests unless it’s suspected a fake name is being used to put in multiple FOIs on the same issue, or if it is to disguise someone being vexatious. Neither issue appears to apply in the responses from Kevin Symm.

The Commissioner further advises:

Even when an obvious pseudonym has been used, as good practice a public authority should still consider the request even though technically it can be regarded as invalid. This approach could be adopted in cases where identity is not relevant to the request and, in view of the general principle within the  FOIA of disclosure to the world at large, where the authority is content to disclose the information.

 

Maybe that’s the heart of the problem – Liverpool City Council isn’t content to disclose the information. Either that or they saw Josephine Derby’s whatdotheyknow picture is of a cat – and suspected she wasn’t actually a cat.

Oddly, it appears Josephine Derby is the only person to have this request made of her. Someone called Katie M – so not even a surname there – got a response instantly.

Liverpool City Council retains its place on the FOI naughty step.

4 comments

  1. Nice one – I’m Audrey O’Keefe aka Josephine Derby – thanks for writing this piece….. and enlighting people to the bulling ways of Liverpool City Council Kevin Symms. I will be making a complaint to ICO.

  2. I’m Katie M. (aka Catherine Byrne). As the link to my request shows, the instant responses are just acknowledgements and refusals.
    It is clear from the refused requests on whatdotheyknow that LCC have a policy of refusing all “awkward” requests with the excuse that it will take too long – or, in the case of questions about LDL and money or performance, that the information is commercially confidential. Both rubbish, as appeals to the Information Commissioner have made clear.
    So LCC are playing the odds, because not everyone will complain to the IC. They also gain time, as complaints take a very long time to be dealt with – see Julian Todd’s request for the details of the LDL contracts etc. It took almost two years to get this information.
    And using the excuse that they can’t get information out of their IT system and have to actually physically examine files one by one is really stupid, because if its true then the system provided by LDL is not fit for purpose, and some other provider could surely do a better job with the tens of millions LDL get every year. And if it isn’t, then they’re lying.
    In the long term, this is what you could call a lose-lose situation for the Council.

  3. LCC have a disgraceful track record of bullying, dissembling and cloaking. What’s worse is that there’s a real scandal afoot there, and councillors of all parties are keeping silent on the subject.

    Most of the FOI requests discussed above deal with the managed service contract with BT. In theory this is a joint venture between the council and BT, and is called LDL. In practice, it involves the council paying BT £70 million pa for a service which is, apparently, hugely overpriced. The council paid an external consultancy to review this contract, and they said the council had been overcharged to the tune of £10 million pa.

    That isn’t the real scandal, though. The real scandal is that when the council needed an interim chief exec for 6 months, they didn’t go to an agency and hire somebody suitable, they handed the job to the chief exec of LDL! The timing was perfect, as this covered the very period when the council was renegotiating its contract with BT (they had an option to terminate or extend the contract).

    So BT retained a £70 million pa contract, the taxpayer is hugely disadvantaged and we’re not allowed to ask questions because the council has decided that it’s above the Freedom of Information Act. And elected councillors are hiding in the shadows, too frightened (of what??) to comment. Tragic.

  4. A further example of weird processing of FOI requests at Liverpool City Council:
    A couple of weeks ago, I asked for “a copy of your policy on the use and
    management of email in LCC”. In response, I received a document about how email and other media should and should not be used (no naughty words, etc.). When I explained that I was “seeking information on the management
    of emails – i.e. on their retention and disposal. So I wanted a copy of the “corporate email policy” referred to in the Retention and Disposal A simple misunderstanding, soon rectified, you would think. In response, I was informed that my original request makes “no reference to either the management of emails or a copy of the corporate email policy. Maybe plural emails are not the same as singular email.
    However, they also informed me that according to tjhe LCC intranet, LCC will be deleting all Outlook emails not in personal folders, from 1 December, and warning them to move stuff they want to keep. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone.
    LDL at its finest.

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