FOI: The council and the private contractor who have created a circle of secrecy

Fireworks in Lambeth (Picture: Brixton Buzz)

More curious goings on for FOI requesters trying to get access to information when it involves a private contractor.

In Lambeth, the website Brixton Buzz has been trying to get to the bottom of how an annual local fireworks display, traditionally run by the council, will operate now they, with a private operator, are paying for access.

It asked for a copy of the ‘overlay plan’ which set out how the event would be managed.

Details of the plans had been circulated for consultation to local organisations and good journalism resulted in Brixton Buzz getting a copy, and then sharing it on their website.

Their aim was to get the views of the community. Bear in mind the fireworks used to be free to watch and involved the local council, paid for by the local community.

Then Whole Nine Yards, the private company involved in the fireworks, along with the council,contacted Brixton Buzz, say Brixton Buzz, threatening legal action if they didn’t take the documents – consultation documents – from the website.

Being a hyperlocal site without the luxury of legal support, they did as they were told – and submitted and FOI to the council instead. In fact, Brixton Buzz said Whole Nine Yards suggested that as a route to get the information.

Bear in mind this was a document the council had circulated for public consultation.

Brixton Buzz wrote:

“Whole Nine Yards actually suggested that we whack in an FoI if we wanted to share the document.

And so we did.

The reply came back from Lambeth Council, essentially calling our bluff:

“I can confirm that Information request holds the information you requested. However we are withholding that information since we consider that the following exemptions apply to it.

We consider that the absolute exemption set out in Section 21 (Information accessible by other means) applies to the information requested because the document you are asking for is already in your possession.”

So the reason the council uses for refusing to release the information is that Brixton Buzz has the information already – so it is available by other means.

But the council has been involved in the demands it not be published previously.

At best, this is an example of a council’s left hand struggling to talk to the council’s right hand – or even knowing the other exists. At worst, it’s, well, much worse than that.

So much for public accountability.

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