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
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.