FOI: When revealing there’s nothing to reveal is the most revealing thing of all

You know that feeling you get when an FOI request comes back and it says that there isn’t anything to reveal? Sometimes, that can be the best result of all.

The Fitzrovia News, a hyperlocal community news group covering the Fitzrovia area of central London, has been doing some digging into plans at Camden Council to create a Business Improvement District in the area, by the Fitzrovia Partnership.

BIDs will be familiar to many journalists – if enough people support them locally, the partnership can up  taxes (or put a levy on businesses, depending on your view of the jargon) on the grounds the additional revenue will be pumped back into improving that particular area. How that money is spent had the potential to change a district entirely – which is why you’d assume that involving the public would be a given.

The Fitrovia News appears to have uncovered evidence that that isn’t obvious at all. It should go without saying that to take part in a ballot on the proposal, you need to be well informed, and the sentiment among many in Fitzrovia is that consultation had been distinctly lacking.

The council denied this in July, but then in August confirmed it should have done more to make sure people were aware of what was going on – by making sure that local councillors knew what was going on.

What prompted the change of heart? Well, it appears it was a well-timed FOI which, on the face of it, seemed to reveal very little documentation. But in this case, that rather proved the point:

In July Fitzrovia News submitted two freedom of information (FOI) requests to the council asking about the decision-making process leading up to allowing The Fitzrovia Partnership to hold a ballot for the BID. We asked what information was provided by The Fitzrovia Partnership and which elected members of the council were consulted.

There was very little actually recorded about the decision-making process with meetings not being minuted and so the information trail is not very clear. But the FOI response did reveal that the leader of Camden Council Sarah Hayward (who was a cabinet member at the time) was consulted about creating a new commercial district in Fitzrovia. This information she did not pass on to local councillors. Instead she asked The Fitzrovia Partnership to do so, but after the process to create the BID was under way.

What residents and small businesses were unaware of was that in 2011 The Fitzrovia Partnership published a “business engagement” brochure. In this brochure which we obtained via a FOI request from Camden it states: “Elected officials and community groups will be included in the engagement programme designed to inform the evolution of the Partnership”. The brochure outlined plans for the creation of a business improvement district and a likely timetable for its creation.

Yet this brochure was only distributed to 229 of the largest businesses in the neighbourhood. Fitzrovia News had never seen it before and neither had small business owners, residents or our local councillors.

The rest of the post can be read here. The council is now pushing the Fitzrovia Partnership to include the community in decision making.  Which is good, but should it take an FOI from a community news organisation to ensure that the council takes the initiative to ensure that the public at large are kept informed? I would argue not.

It’s a complicated FOI but one which proves the point that when you ask the right questions, getting a ‘not much held here’ reply isn’t always bad news.

One comment

  1. Below is the FSA reply we received today relating to our FOI request which of course was declined.

    However, the FSA below makes some shocking statements.

    Freedom of Information freoinf@fsa.gov.uk
    Oct 25, 2012

    to me
    Our ref: FOI2723

    Dear Mr Rea & Mr de Caluwe Hemelrijk

    Freedom of Information: Right to know request

    Thank you for your request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the Act) for the following information..

    “Copies of all complaints filed against RBS and or RBS employees from 2010 – 2012.”

    For your information, the FSA as an organisation does not deal with consumer complaints and any such enquirer that expresses dissatisfaction is referred to the Financial Ombudsman Service. You may find it helpful to visit the FOS website (http://www.financial-ombudsman.org.uk/) for more information. It is therefore possible that we may hold a record of such enquiries.

    Your request has now been considered. I am sorry to inform you that we estimate that to comply with your request in full would exceed the 18 hour time limit. This is because the information requested is likely to be spread across a number of files and the information is not indexed in such a way to identify whether it is a complaint or an enquiry about the firm and we would need to review and assess all of the files that we hold to extract the information relevant to your request, and therefore the following exemption applies.

    Section 12 (Costs of compliance exceeds appropriate limit)

    In order to extract the information we would need to consider and review all the records that we hold in our Contact Centre for Royal Bank of Scotland (“RBS”) for the period quoted (2010 to 8 October 2012 – the date of receipt of your request) to establish whether they are complaints. This is because we are not able to readily identify those items that may be a complaint or an enquiry without reviewing the individual correspondence. .

    You should also note that under the document retention policy for the Contact Centre copies of electronic documents are held for 7 years and hard copy documents for twelve months. We would also need to contact other areas of the FSA that may hold information relevant to your request.

    For the period from 1 January 2010 to 8 October 2012 (the date of receipt of your request) we hold approximately 4,000 electronic and papers records in our Contact Centre in relation to RBS. We would need to review each of these records to establish whether or not they fall within the scope of your request. In this context, we conservatively estimate that it would take well in excess of 18 hours to undertake this exercise and exceed the £450 limit. Since our policy is not to divert our resources from our regulatory functions in order to meet requests under the Act in excess of the cost limit, we will not be able to carry out this exercise.

    In reaching the conclusion that your request exceeds the appropriate cost limit we have not considered whether any other exemptions apply. However, you should be aware that any information that the FSA has received from or about a firm is likely to be prohibited from disclosure under section 348 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 as it would be confidential information received for the purposes of carrying out our regulatory functions and supervision of those firms and individuals. Such information is therefore likely to be exempt from the Act by virtue of section 44 (prohibitions on disclosure) of the Act. Other exemptions under the Act may also apply to that material.

    When we refuse a request because the appropriate limit has been exceeded, it is our general policy to provide advice and assistance to the applicant to indicate how the request could be refined or limited to come within the cost limit. In this case, as explained above, due to the volume of information that we hold across the FSA, we are unable to assist you with providing a way in which to refine your request in order to obtain the information you are interested in. Any refinement that we suggest is likely to exceed the statutory time limit.

    If you have any queries or are unhappy with the decision made in relation to your request you have the right to request an internal review. If you wish to exercise this right, you should contact us within three months of the date of this letter.

    If you are not content with the outcome of the internal review, you also have a right of appeal to the Information Commissioner at:

    Information Commissioner’s Office

    Wycliffe House

    Water Lane

    Wilmslow

    Cheshire

    SK9 5AF

    Telephone: 01625 545 700

    Website: http://www.ico.gov.uk

    Yours sincerely

    Sandra Collins | Associate – Information Access Team | Finance and Operations Division
    Financial Services Authority, 25 The North Colonnade, Canary Wharf, London E14 5HS

    Tel: 020 7066 7120

    http://www.fsa.gov.uk

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