Too many FOI requests? We’ll just cancel Christmas. That’ll teach ’em

Freedom of Information requesters have been getting an increasing amount of stick in recent times. Many authorities simply don’t like the Freedom of Information Act and have never bought into the spirit of the Act, and now that spending cuts are starting to bite, we’re beginning to feel the kick back.

Wolverhampton City Council has been issuing the ‘standard cost’ of FOI requests in some of its replies – although FOI officers I’ve spoken to say such a figure will never be anything other than a finger-in-the-air guess because it won’t take account of added-on staff costs, lighting, heating, phone bills and so on.

Until now, Cheshire West and Chester Council had perhaps had the most strident attitude towards FOI – trying to launch a charging policy for dealing with requests, which it began to publicise via the local press before being told by the Information Commissioner it couldn’t actually introduce a charging policy.

Then I heard about Walberswick Parish Council, in Suffolk, which has responded to a deluge of FOI requests from local residents by refusing to put up the annual Christmas Tree and doubling its council tax precept.

The council has also decided not to hold any more meetings until April and won’t be making any donations to local good causes. All of this is because it has started receiving lots of FOI requests.

According to the East Anglian Daily Times, hundreds of applications have been made under the FOI Act to the parish council, which, like most parish councils, is run on a shoe-string with just one parish clerk, in this case a woman called Jane Gomm, holding things together.

Ms Gomm, the most recent parish council meeting was told, had worked an extra 72 hours to deal with the FOI requests, and subsequent complaints which had fallen out of dealing with the requests.

Until this point, it’s possible to have some sympathy with the parish council. Generally, parish councillors are well-meaning volunteers who can find themselves sucked into village politics quite easily.

But parish councils aren’t big organisations. Answering questions shouldn’t be that hard. It’s not as if they have multiple databases, archives and systems to wade through, as you might expect an FOI officer working at borough, council or city council to have to contend with.

Any sympathy for the council evaporates when you find out what triggered the FOI requests in the first place.

To quote the EADT:

Among those gathered in the village hall was John McCarthy, who confirmed himself a member of the small group of persistent applicants.

He claimed at the meeting the council had wilfully held back information he was entitled to.

Following the meeting he said the council had ignored repeated requests for details of discussions made during a closed session of a council meeting last September, adding: “I made a request for information on what that session was about and what legal advice the council had taken but it was refused.

“Another closed meeting was held which I was barred from attending.

“I requested a review, and a report was written for which I made a request but was told some information was unavailable.”

Mr McCarthy said the dispute began last May when his complaint that insufficient notice had been given of a previous council meeting was ignored.

Parish council chairman David Webb contests part of that view, but admits they made a mistake in not informing about people the meeting in advance.

To me, the problem isn’t so much about FOI but the failure of a council to be more open from the start. And this principle applies from parish councils right up city councils. There’s no point about complaining about the cost of FOI if you’re not being as open as you possible can be in the first place.

It’s a lot harder for larger authorities to be open by default – although that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try – but at a grassroots politics level, it really shouldn’t be that hard. Parish councillors, in theory, live in the communities they serve.

How many of the FOI questions could have been answered during a chat in the pub? Especially when the parish clerk admits to not being able to fully understand what is being asked of the council in the FOIs.

Rather than seeking to stigmatise the requesters – and effectively blaming them for a rise in the council tax precept and cancelling Christmas – surely the parish council would be better off working to resolve the concerns of the complaining residents.

As it is, it seems the parish council can’t even decide the impact of the FOI dispute. One parish councillor, Alvin Hunt, told the latest parish council meeting: “This is tearing the community apart for no reason whatsoever.”

However, David Webb, chairman of the council, told the BBC: “I’m not saying it has torn the village apart but it has certainly created a lot of unpleasantness.”

To quote a well-know telecommunications advert, it’s good to talk – especially if the alternative is cancelling Christmas, sticking up council tax and cancelling future meetings.

3 comments

  1. Cheshire West and Chester Council and Brent Council have also successfully ‘banned’ ex-employees (one was a whistleblower – me) from making Freedom of Information and Data Protection requests into the future. This was achieved within a compromise agreement. In total, the ‘ban’ lasted for a period of 20 months between October 2009 and June 2011. It took the intervention of Hugh Tomlinson QC to make them think again.

    However, the council leader and monitoring officer have been in touch to tell me that they feel the measure is ‘lawful’ and they intend to use it again in the future as and when the circumstances arise. The problem is all professionals I’ve spoken to (except one) in the Data and Information field regard its use as regressive and unlawful, furthermore I don’t believe it’s ever received democratic scrutiny before any of their committees, which makes sitting councillors all seem rather redundant where data / info / transparency / openness is concerned.

    Speaking of ‘redundant’, the Council’s Data Protection Officer informed me that he wasn’t made aware of the tactic either, although sadly he was unable to condone or condemn it, and couldn’t find it in himself to be supportive, remaining firmly ‘on the fence’ – which I personally found extremely disappointing.

    The problem here is that the Information Commissioner’s Office is unable to police such behaviour, because the Freedom of Information Act is not breached until a ‘banned’ person breaks their gagging clause by lodging an FOI query or a DPA subject access request. When the council uses the gag as justification to withhold information – something which I never did – the ICO can act. The particular measure which deters people from doing this is a ‘large club over their head’ in the shape of a threat by the Council to pursue them through the courts should they breach the clause, for the return of any settlement money paid during the process of full and final settlement.

    The upshot of all this is that, because the superior legal advice I received was I did the right thing not to breach the clause, the tactic works, and cleverly exploits a loophole. The council’s motivation for pulling out all the stops to use it is that it succeeds in concealing and protecting the reputation of the Council. Any immoral, unlawful or compromising behaviour indulged in during a dispute remains safely under wraps. It’s not nice and I imagine there are many members and officers who would not want to be associated with such sordid and unwholesome behaviour, regardless of the fact that it may have saved some money in going to tribunal – the reason usually trotted out when justifying the cover up of deplorable conduct.

    Another problem is that the position of ‘monitoring officer’ is a powerful one. Such officers enjoy special privileges along with heads of paid service and finance, which make them very difficult to discipline or remove, however in the case of Cheshire West and Chester’s Simon Goacher, I feel that any extended powers he has may have been misused or even abused in this case. After all, they don’t give him the freedom to drive a coach and horses through his internal FoI and DP policies, let alone the FOI Act.

    Because there’s nothing in place to stop it, councils are strapped for cash and because some people in public life can behave crookedly, there’s now a danger that this sort of thing could mushroom out of control. Although I don’t like the word ‘banned’, with all its negative connotations, I hope one day to update your blog with the welcome news that this sort of behaviour, which would not look out of place in Burma or North Korea, has finally been outlawed.

    There’s more info on this here:
    http://www.easyvirtualassistance.co.uk/page4.html

    And an article on gagging clauses and compromise agreements here (page 6 and 7):
    http://www.actnow.org.uk/media/newsletters/October_2011.pdf

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