Posted by: John Brace | 26th September 2016

What was the decision in First-tier Tribunal case EA/2016/0054?

What was the decision in First-tier Tribunal case EA/2016/0054?

                                                

Liverpool Civil & Family Court, Vernon Street, Liverpool, L2 2BX (the venue for First-Tier Tribunal case EA/2016/0054)

Liverpool Civil & Family Court, Vernon Street, Liverpool, L2 2BX (the venue for First-Tier Tribunal case EA/2016/0054)

I’ll declare at the start I was the Appellant in this First-tier Tribunal case.

As the costs issue has yet to be decided (that is it is still sub judice), unfortunately I’m turning off comments on this blog post to prevent any comments about an issue that is still sub judice.

This decision was received on Friday 23rd September 2016 and is based on the hearing that happened on Wednesday morning (21st September 2016). In my opinion there is an error in the 2nd Respondent’s name which should read Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (not Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service). I’ve advised the GRC about this, but have yet to receive a revised decision.


In the First – Tier Tribunal (information Rights)

Appeal No. EA/2016/0054

BETWEEN

John Michael Brace

Appellant

and

The Information Commissioner

First Respondent

and

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service

Second Respondent


 


Consent Order


 


By consent of all parties, the requested information having been provided to the Appellant by the Second Respondent, this appeal is withdrawn.


The Second Respondent’s application for costs pursuant to Rule 10(2) of the 2009 Rules is adjourned for a date and a procedure to be fixed.


David Farrer Q.C.


Tribunal Judge


22nd. September 2016



Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority end 15 month information request over Greasby and Saughall Massie fire stations by supplying the information, but ask First-tier Tribunal for costs award in their favour against Mr Brace

                                         

Liverpool Civil & Family Court, Vernon Street, Liverpool

Liverpool Civil & Family Court, Vernon Street, Liverpool

This is a report of a hearing held today of the First-tier Tribunal held in Tribunal Room 3, 3rd Floor (Tribunals Service), Liverpool Civil and Family Court, 35 Vernon Street, Liverpool, Merseyside, L2 2BX

At the hearing I was the Appellant and Janet Henshaw represented Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority. ICO did not attend. The case number was EA/2016/0054.

The decision at the hearing was to end the matter by consent order.

The Tribunal consisted of First-tier Tribunal Judge Mr. David Farrer QC, First-tier Tribunal Member Mr. Michael Hake and First-tier Tribunal Member Dr. Malcolm Clarke.

Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority explained that they had not provided the information covered by decision notice FER0592270, because they had changed it during the course of the EIR request to remove both “Not for publication” and the reason or reasons why under the Local Government Act 1972 it had initially been classed by them as exempt information (although this is a position they reversed during the course of the appeal).

Despite the Appellant informing them by letter in response to what they had sent him on Monday 19th September 2016 (which are the reports below), are not the version he asked for, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority saw it unreasonable to have a hearing today on the withheld information.

During the course of the hearing MFRA supplied extra information to the Appellant Mr. Brace both in written form and verbally.

MFRA asked the Tribunal to make a costs award against Mr Brace, the Appellant.

The Appellant was asked to explain his point of view. He explained that the law stated information that should’ve been in what was supplied, therefore he knew it was the wrong version and he had informed MFRA, the Tribunal and ICO of this by letter.

He had not yet received a response to this letter from MFRA.

MFRA argued that the hearing was pointless, because from their perspective even if the information supplied was two A4 pages shorter than the case management note had required them to supply, in their view, the extra pages contained no information relating to the request in it and referred them to Mr Brace’s letter describing the extra pages.

MFRA were asked during the course of the hearing to supply the version in existence at the time of request to the Appellant Mr Brace.

Janet Henshaw of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority explained that she hadn’t brought it with her to the hearing.

Due to the explanation provided by MFRA as to the withheld pages of information, the Appellant agreed to end the matter by consent order.

Janet Henshaw of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority argued that the Appellant was being unreasonable in bringing the proceedings to a hearing.

The Appellant was given a chance to make representations.

The Tribunal did not agree to make an award of costs at the hearing, but directed Janet Henshaw of MFRA to make a formal application for costs and to serve it on the Appellant and Tribunal by a specified date.

The the Appellant would have a chance to make representations and as he is an individual, supply the Tribunal (and MFRA) with details of financial means (which would have to be considered) when the Tribunal makes a decision.

The First-Tier Tribunal Judge explained that the Tribunal’s rules on costs were different to that of the court.

One of those present also seemed upset at the trees that had been cut down to produce the bundle and the First-Tier Tribunal Judge referred to the cost to the public purse.

Any decision by the Tribunal on costs can be appealed to the County Court.

The information in the two reports relates to MFRA plans for a fire station at Greasby, then Saughall Massie.

The supplied information for Greasby is an Exempt report capital costs Greasby fire station (although this is missing the blank page) and Appendix F Capital Costs Saughall Massie.

Both reports (which were not made public during the two twelve week consultations) show indicative values for selling Upton Fire Station (£350,000) and selling West Kirby fire station (£200,000).

The land value assigned for the abandoned Greasby plans is £300,000 and the notional value assigned for the land at Saughall Massie is £300,000.

The Appellant awaits MFRA’s costs application with interest as at least one of the questions directed towards Chief Fire Officer Dan Stephens (pictured below) during one of the two consultation was why this information wasn’t in the public domain.

Dan Stephens (Chief Fire Officer) answers questions at a public consultation meeting in Saughall Massie to discuss proposals for a new fire station (20th April 2015)

Dan Stephens (Chief Fire Officer) answers questions at a public consultation meeting in Saughall Massie to discuss proposals for a new fire station (20th April 2015)

The First-tier Tribunal Judge stated during the hearing that the reasons given in ICO’s decision notice no longer applied for withholding the information.

MFRA (in line with councillors stating that people should be charged for FOI or EIR requests) despite agreeing to end this by consent order feel that is unfair to pay MFRA’s costs in providing the information, even though the First-Tier Tribunal Judge told them that the reasons for withholding the information in the decision notice didn’t apply.

Janet Henshaw was the person that also refused the information at the internal review stage as she is a senior manager employed by Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service.

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Wirral Council’s Children’s Services branded “inadequate” by OFSTED

                              

Cabinet 17th December 2014 voting to close Lyndale School L to R Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Education), Cllr George Davies, Cllr Ann McLachlan

Cabinet 17th December 2014 vote on Lyndale School closure L to R Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services), Cllr George Davies, Cllr Ann McLachlan

I’ll declare at the outset that I was the Appellant in the First-Tier Tribunal case referred to later.

I’ve just read the 44 page inspection report by OFSTED into services for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers which you can read on OFSTED’s website.

The inspection was carried out in July 2016 and the headlines (these are quoted from the report) are:

“1. Children who need help and protection
Inadequate

2. Children looked after and achieving permanence
Requires improvement

2.1 Adoption Performance
Requires improvement

2.2 Experiences and progress of care leavers
Inadequate

1. Leadership, management and governance
Inadequate

The report then goes on to explain the many reasons why and starts with the sentence, “There are widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children who need help and protection in Wirral.” and perhaps even more telling makes this point about senior management and councillors, “Almost all of the deficits identified in this inspection were known by senior leaders.

And in response to a certain senior manager at Wirral Council who repeatedly states the Council acts in the best interests of children, “Plans to restructure services to respond better to children’s needs were delayed for a year due to competing council priorities.

However I don’t want you to think I’m cherry-picking negative criticism from the report. If you read the report you’ll find it has very little to state that is positive.

After all this sentence, “Performance management data is widely scrutinised by managers and elected members, but is not yet leading to improvement and is not always focused on the right things.” sums it up. People (whether that be councillors or managers) know about the problems, but seemingly don’t know (or if I’m being more charitable are thwarted from) fixing them.

The infamous report into Wirral Council by Anna Klonowski Associates explained how in years gone by Wirral Council received independent reports similar to these but just carried on (whereas in other councils it would’ve raised red flags and led to major alarm bells ringing).

Of course it remains to be seen what Wirral Council’s response to this is. An Improvement Board has been mentioned (but if it meets in private as the one before did) the public won’t know about the changes Wirral Council is making in response and to be able to hold their political leaders to account.

And let’s face it, a Council that is prepared to go to a Tribunal to make sure some of the views of senior councillors, union representatives and senior managers at a meeting held in secret about education are kept out of the public domain in response to a FOI request, is that a Council acting in an “open and transparent” way or one that knows about its problems but wants to keep them out of the public domain?

The OFSTED inspection report is due to be discussed by councillors on Wirral Council’s Children Sub-Committee at a public meeting this Thursday evening (22nd September 2016) in Committee Room 2 in Wallasey Town Hall starting at 6.00pm.

Oh and just to quell any rumours, no I don’t have any children but Wirral Council’s external auditor Grant Thornton are reviewing the impact of the OFSTED report on their Value for Money conclusion which goes to be considered at a public meeting of Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Committee on Monday 26th September starting at 6.00pm in Committee Room 1 at Wallasey Town Hall.

As I wish to end on a positive note Committee Rooms 1, 2 (and I’m told also Committee Room 3) on the ground floor at Wallasey Town Hall are now able to be better accessed by those in wheelchairs or those with reduced mobility due to changes recently made to the doors to these rooms at this listed building.

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What do a car crash, road safety, A-boards, Wirral Council and the Merseyside OPCC have in common?

                                        

Councillor Michael Sullivan (Chair, Wirral Council's Business and Overview Scrutiny Committee) at a public meeting held on the 13th September 2016. His microphone is now... on!

Councillor Michael Sullivan (Chair, Wirral Council’s Business and Overview Scrutiny Committee) at a public meeting held on the 13th September 2016. His microphone is now… on!

Yesterday evening’s meeting of Wirral Council’s Business and Overview Scrutiny Committee was for once quite literally car crash TV.

Business Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Wirral Council) 14th September 2016 (Agenda item 4 Road Safety – Reducing Pedestrian Casualties starts at 2m:21s) Part 1 of 5

However, the first main item at the public meeting was about reducing pedestrian casualties and road safety. You can read the reports for this agenda item that are linked to from this page on Wirral Council’s website.

Cllr Warren Ward reminded those present at the start of his declaration of interest by saying,

“Chair, I’ve got a declaration of interest.

In the report it mentions a quote from the Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner.

In 2014, I was employed as a private secretary to errm the Police and Crime Commissioner Panel.”

 

I am of course welcome that Cllr Warren Ward brought this up, as Wirral’s criminal justice system caught up with Merseyside’s former Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner on the subject of road safety (although the embarrassing incident below wasn’t mentioned at last night’s meeting). At the time of the offence she was Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner.

Cllr Ann O’Byrne (who for the purposes of clarity and avoidance of doubt is a completely different councillor to the current Merseyside Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner Cllr Sue Murphy) according to a report in the Liverpool Echo pled guilty at Wirral Magistrates’ Court to two driving offences which were

driving “without due care and attention”

and

failing to stop after a road accident

 

after crashing into an orange BMW Mini. She pled guilty, was fined and had to pay prosecution costs of £565.

Of course there will be many regular readers who will see parallels between this behaviour and that of some politicians.

In the past some councillors have been accused of failing to stop going on after political accidents (such as the library closure programme only halted by a government ordered public inquiry), of generally being politicians behaving “without due care and attention” and also in the process of being more interested in scoring petty party political points and damaging the peoples’ trust in democratic systems in the process.

But then I shouldn’t be too critical as there are plenty of good politicians too that unfortunately get tarred by the same brush by association!

Certainly there is a lot of car crash TV I have filmed at public meetings over the years!

Moving swiftly back to the subject of the current Police and Crime Commissioner Jane Kennedy. She was asking questions on Monday afternoon about the effect on jobs of a joint Merseyside Police and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service project (involving consultants Deloittes are doing) at an eleven minute public meeting of the Police and Fire Collaboration Committee (see video of the meeting below). You can read the agenda and reports to do with that on Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority’s website.

As this is a committee of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority, I had better declare an interest as an Appellant in a First-tier Tribunal case in which Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority are Second Respondent (case reference EA⁄2016⁄0054).

Police and Fire Collaboration Committee (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority) Monday 12th September 2016

On the subject of legal action, at the meeting of last night’s meeting of Wirral Council’s Business Overview and Scrutiny Committee, the subject of A-boards and pedestrian safety was raised with respect to a display outside a fruit and vegetable shop in Moreton which was previously covered by this blog in 2012 (including a photo of the shop display in question).

David Rees (a road safety manager at Wirral Council) made it clear at the meeting that Wirral Council hadn’t received any legal claims for compensation from pedestrians arising from A-boards on the footway.

Conservative councillor Gerry Ellis stated that the person who had raised the issue with Wirral Council about the A-board outside a Moreton shop had been threatened with legal action by Wirral Council and asked a senior manager at Wirral Council (the Head of Environment and Regulation Mark Smith) to explain why.

However the Labour Chair of the Business Overview and Scrutiny Committee Councillor Michael Sullivan intervened before Mark Smith had a chance to answer. I will also point out that from my recollection at least one Labour councillor expressed the view at the meeting that Wirral Council employees should not be criticised by Wirral Council councillors.

The Chair decided unilaterally that in his view the report was purely about pedestrian casualties and that as he knew of no recorded accidents known to Wirral Council involving A-boards, Cllr Sullivan told Cllr Ellis that Wirral Council’s Business Overview and Scrutiny Committee wasn’t the forum for discussing such matters and ended any debate on the matter.

Finally, the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner have been in touch with me.

During the 30 working day inspection period this year (which finished mid-August 2016) I requested some invoices. However I challenged whether some of the blacked out bits were done properly in accordance with the legislation. Technically not providing the information inside the 30 working day inspection period is unlawful (although it’s a civil law matter).

So I challenged it and around a month later got back three invoices from the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside with less redaction.

Can the citizens of Merseyside expect the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside to understand the law? Would that be expecting too much considering these invoices are to their “legal services department”? Or was this a genuine mistake? Or am I too robust in press scrutiny of the local public sector?

As it’s a related topic to the issue of police appeal tribunals I’ll point out that Cllr Mary Rasmussen is proposing at a meeting of Liverpool City Council tonight at the time of writing (14th September 2016 if you’re not reading this on the day it is published) a boycott by vendors and retailers selling the Sun newspaper in Liverpool over its reporting of matters involving the police Hillsborough. The three invoices are for the following:

1) An invoice from Drystone Chambers (based in London) for the services of Mr Gregory Perrins (a barrister) at a Police Appeals Tribunal held on the 4th December 2015 for £1,632.

2) An invoice from Mishcon de Reya (a London-based firm of solicitors) was for £6,000 for supply of legal services in the matter “Royal Mail – VAT Invoices for Postage Services”)

3) An invoice from Slater and Gordon UK LLP for £2,221.92 (a Manchester based firm of solicitors) for professional charges involving criminal defence and disbursements.

 

Each invoice is an A4 page and all 3 invoices involving the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for legal services 2015-2016 financial year are provided here.

I am of course grateful to the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for resolving these issues so quickly in a month, rather than the over three years it takes Wirral Council to properly consider the redactions on an information request (request made 29th March 2013, information provided in redacted form 19th May 2016)! In the interests of openness and transparency I had better declare I was Appellant in that case where Wirral Council was Second Respondent.

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What was the First-tier Tribunal decision (EA/2016/0033) on whether Wirral Council should have withheld some of the minutes of the Headteachers’ and Teachers’ Joint Consultative Committee meeting held on the 29th March 2013 in response to a Freedom of Information request?

                            

Liverpool Civil & Family Court, Vernon Street, Liverpool, L2 2BX (the venue for First-Tier Tribunal case EA#47;2016#47;0033)

Tribunal Room 5, 3rd Floor, Liverpool Civil & Family Court, Vernon Street, Liverpool, L2 2BX (the venue for First-Tier Tribunal case EA⁄2016⁄0033 held as a whole day hearing on the 23rd June 2016)

I will start by making a declaration of interest as I was the Appellant in this case heard in June 2016 over in Liverpool.

I finally received a copy of the First-tier Tribunal’s decision in the case involving Wirral Council (EA/2016/0033).

Part of it is dated the 14th July 2016, but for some reason it’s taken nearly two months to send out (presumably because of the summer holidays).

I’ve linked from the decision to the original ICO decision notice FS50596346 published on ICO’s website as it makes more sense in reading both the decision in the First-tier Tribunal case and the ICO decision notice that it’s an appeal from at the same time. I’ve also linked to the edited version of the minutes released by Wirral Council around 3 years after the FOI request was first made (these minutes have been previously published on this blog).

I’ve included in this version the extra line, “On the subject of Acre Lane, David Armstrong is leading an assets review, which includes identifying a new location for the services currently provided at Acre Lane.” which was disclosed during the hearing itself and was part of the redacted part of the minutes.

At the time of writing this decision is not yet published on the First-tier Tribunal’s website but should be in the near future. There may be some minor formatting changes between the version below and the printed version (due to the differences between HTML and the printed page) although the text remains the same.

Missing from the version below is the Royal Coat of Arms on the first page (which I don’t have permission to reproduce).

The below decision (and reasons for it) were received from the First-tier Tribunal by email as I was an Appellant in the case. The other parties were the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) (First Respondent) and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council (2nd Respondent).


ON APPEAL FROM:
The Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice No:
FS50596346

Dated: 25th. January, 2016

Appeal No. EA/2016/0033

Appellant:                 John Michael Brace (“JMB”)
First Respondent:     The Information Commissioner (“the ICO”)
Second Respondent: Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council (“WMBC”)

Before

David Farrer Q.C.

Judge

and

Michael Hake
and
Malcolm Clarke

Tribunal Members

Date of Decision: 7th. Sept, 2016

The appellant appeared in person
The ICO did not attend but made written submissions
Robin Hopkins appeared on behalf of WMBC

Subject matter:

FOIA S. 36(1)(b) and 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii)

Whether the public interest in withholding the requested information outweighed the public interest in its disclosure.

DECISION OF THE FIRST-TIER TRIBUNAL

All parties having agreed that the exemption is engaged, the Tribunal finds that the public interest in withholding such of the requested information as remained in dispute at the hearing outweighs the public interest in its disclosure.

The appeal is therefore dismissed.

Dated this 14th. day of July, 2016
David Farrer Q.C.
Judge [Signed on original]

Relevant Statutory Provisions

FOIA  S.36(1) This section applies to –
 
 
. . . . . .
 
(b) information which is held by (a local authority)
 
 
(2) Information to which this section applies is exempt information if, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosure of the information under this Act –
 
. . . . . .
 
(b) Would, or would be likely to, inhibit
 
(i) the free and frank provision of advice, or
(ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purpose of deliberation . . . . .
 

Abbreviations

In addition to those indicated above, the following abbreviations are used in this ruling –

The DN           The Decision Notice of the ICO.

The EIR          The Environmental Information Regulations 2004

The JCC          The Headteachers and Teachers Joint Consultative Committee.

REASONS FOR DECISION

The Background

  1. WMBC is a Metropolitan Borough Council responsible for the education provided by a large number of primary and secondary schools. Like many other local authorities, it is permanently involved in inevitably controversial debates and decisions on educational issues, which arouse the concerns of elected members, teachers and head teachers, parents and the wider general public.
  2. Elected members exercise the extensive powers conferred on public authorities such as WMBC in the field of local education. Public consultation with the different interest groups identified in §1 is, however, essential to the successful functioning of any education authority. For that purpose, WMBC holds a Schools Forum at which the views of all those groups can be aired publicly. It also convenes, once per school term, the JCC, at which elected members discuss with representatives of head teachers’ and teachers’, trades unions matters of current concern. WMBC officers attend. The JCC sits in private and its minutes are circulated only to JCC members.
  3. The request

  4. JMB is a local resident and elector with a keen interest in the governance and the efficient running of WMBC which he pursues using the Hash tag “Scarlet Pimpernel”. On 29th. March, 2013 he issued a request to WMBC for the minutes of previous meetings of twenty – six panels and committees, including “15. Headteachers and Teachers JCC”. It was refused, first by reference to FOIA s.12 (cost of compliance exceeding appropriate limit) and later s.14 (vexatious requests), varied to EIR 12(4)(b).
  5. The ICO’s decision, dated 8th. September, 2014, so far as material to this appeal, was that these exemptions or exceptions could not be relied on and that WMBC must either provide the requested information or issue a response which did not rely on the rejected grounds for refusal.
  6. As regards items 15, 18, 19 and 26, WMBC again refused in a response dated 3rd. September, 2015, citing, as to 15, 18 and 19, the exemption enacted in s.36(2)(b)(i) and (ii). The qualified person whose opinion was obtained was Mr. Surjit Tour, WMBC’s principal legal officer and Monitoring Officer, who was consulted as to 15, 18 and 19 on a number of occasions during August and September, 2014 and whose opinion is dated 31st. October, 2014. The details of that process are immaterial, since JMB now accepts that s.36(2)(b) is engaged.
  7. Section 36 provides a qualified exemption, so that, where it is engaged, the question to be determined is whether the public interest in withholding the information is shown to be greater than the public interest in disclosure.
  8. The DN

  9. Item 26 was disclosed during the ICO’s investigation. He ordered disclosure of items 18 and 19. Disagreements as to the redaction of names on those documents were very sensibly resolved before the hearing of this appeal. As to item 15, the minutes of a JCC meeting on 13th. February, 2013, the ICO upheld WMBC’s reliance on s.36(2)(b) and ruled that the public interest favoured maintaining that exemption. JMB appealed to the Tribunal.
  10. The Appeal

  11. Whilst WMBC’s assessment of these requests may have been initially flawed, Mr. Tour conducted a review of the public interest resulting in disclosure to JMB, on 19th. May, 2016, of an edited version of the relevant JCC minutes of the meeting on 28th. February, 2013, which was just a month before the request. Those minutes were still in draft form at the date of the request. There was no evidence that their final substance differed from the draft in any material respect. Such disclosure was made without prejudice to the contention that a correct view of the balance of public interests had been taken. Disclosure went further at the hearing when the subject matter of the excised portions of the minutes was revealed.
  12. The welcome result of these developments is that the scope of this appeal was greatly narrowed. The Tribunal is concerned with the public interest in withholding or disclosing identified passages from a single set of minutes, whilst having regard to the broader issue whether there are general arguments of principle for either course.
  13. The evidence

  14. Mr. Tour and Mr. Andrew Roberts, a senior financial officer and representative of the Children and Young Persons Department on the JCC gave evidence on behalf of WMBC.
  15. Mr. Tour stated that WMBC’s principal concern was the inhibition of full and frank discussion in the JCC (s.36(2)(b)(ii)). The topics discussed were generally major contentious strategic educational issues on which members of the JCC, approaching them from very different positions, held strong diverging views. It was essential that all concerned, whether elected members or union representatives, should be assured of confidentiality. They participated with that expectation. The principal function of the JCC was to inform WMBC of current concerns among teachers and within their unions. It valued the blunt candour of many contributions, which was not replicated in the Schools Forum, where all participants knew that their words would or might be reported. The disputed extracts from the minutes in question contained robust and candid expressions of opinion, which might not emerge from a meeting known to be on the public record. Council members also expressed vigorous political opinions in the JCC.
  16. As to the modification of WMBC’s position on the minutes, Mr. Tour explained that, a further detailed examination of the minutes, over a period of time, enabled him to take a more liberal view of the public interest in withholding material. The passage of eighteen months was also a factor. However, the withheld passages contained emphatic expressions of opinion which deserved the maintenance of confidentiality.
  17. Mr. Roberts spoke from regular experience of JCC meetings. There was a shared understanding of confidentiality. The main input was generally from trades union representatives. He confirmed the circulation of the minutes, which did not go to Cabinet. He could not say whether they were circulated within the unions. He stated that they were not marked “confidential”.
  18. The topics in recent years have included such controversial issues as the Academy programme, teacher retention, funding of schools and teachers’ pay.
  19. JMB’s case

  20. The public interest in disclosure was plain. The promotion of high standards in maintained schools and decisions as to their conversion into academies were issues of fundamental importance to the community. Transparency was always a vital interest in the conduct of public affairs but nowhere more so than in education, one of the key functions of a local authority.
  21. Any representative of a teaching union should be accountable to his/her members for opinions expressed or demands made at the JCC, the meeting place for teachers and local administrators of education. Likewise, council members should be answerable to their constituents for what they said in this kind of forum. There was no justification for off – the – record exchanges on critical issues between teachers’ representatives and elected members or senior management paid by WMBC.
  22. The absence of any confidentiality marking on the minutes was significant.
  23. Other local authorities, said JMB, published such exchanges, which were evidence of good industrial relations.
  24. The public interest in confidentiality for these meetings was correspondingly slight or non – existent. If union members or councillors were really concerned at the prospect of disclosure of their contributions at the JCC, it was odd that no attempt had been made to adduce direct evidence from them. If there was, indeed, an expectation of confidentiality, it was unjustified and should be removed.
  25. There was no sound reason for members of the JCC to flinch from candour if they knew their words might be recorded in a published document.
  26. The case for WMBC

  27. Confidentiality is essential if the JCC is to function properly. Its value lies in the outspoken expression of views on important and sensitive topics, whether by teachers/ representatives or by elected members. The feedback to local and national government as to teachers’ concerns and sentiment, on an unattributable basis, is of considerable importance.
  28. The requested information may grow less sensitive with the passage of time – witness the revision of WMBC’s position on disclosure. The timing of this request was significant, however. It was made immediately after the relevant meeting and before the requested minutes had even been approved. The “safe space” argument is compelling in this case.
  29. The Reasons for our decision

  30. As indicated above, the sole issue for determination by the Tribunal is the balance of public interests, applying the test cited in §6 as related to this appeal in §9.
  31. It is accepted that the exemption provided by s.36(2)(b) is engaged. Having regard to all the evidence, we conclude that its engagement is dependent on (ii), we conclude that its engagement is dependent on      “the inhibition of the free and frank exchange of views for the purpose of deliberation”
       because, as indicated in §27, we do not think that the JCC is an advisory body.
  32. The public has an obvious interest in knowing how decisions are reached or what advice is given on matters affecting every stage of education, whatever the age of the student. An important issue in this appeal is, therefore, the purpose of the JCC.
  33. It is not a forum for general public debate on educational issues. That function is performed by the aptly named Schools Forum, where the expression of opinions receives appropriate publicity. We were told and we accept that contributions from teachers and councillors tend to be more cautious than in the JCC.
  34. More importantly, the JCC is not an advisory still less a decision – making body. Its function is to permit blunt and fearless exchanges of view, often controversial and sometimes unpredictable. Such exchanges may enable council officers present to warn Cabinet, or possibly the Department of Education, of tensions and strong feelings on important questions such as the role of Academies or the morale of the local teaching profession and to do so without reference to the particular contribution of a member of the JCC. To consult is not to seek advice. The WMBC witnesses stressed the importance to a local education authority of this channel of communication. The Tribunal agrees with their assessment.
  35. JMB argued that any expression of opinion by an elected member of an authority should be accessible to the electorate and that a similar principle applies to the relationship between a trades union representative and those whose interests he/she serves. That may be a reasonable proposition where the member or representative is participating in a decision or in the tendering of formal advice or recommendations intended to influence directly a specific decision. We find that different considerations apply to a consultative committee, whose function is to promote a debate without constraints.
  36. The absence of direct evidence from JCC members as to the expectation of confidentiality is a significant but not a decisive omission. We infer from the evidence of Mr. Roberts and Mr. Tour and from our own experience that such an expectation exists. It is a feature of many bodies in which potentially conflicting interests are convened for the purpose of clarifying their differences and identifying any common ground.
  37. The absence of confidentiality markings would be relevant to questions of the public interest if, but only if, it demonstrated that WMBC’s own practice was inconsistent with its claim that there was a strong public interest in the confidentiality of JCC proceedings. We are inclined to view this rather as an administrative oversight than a reflection of the true expectations of JCC members.
  38. The restricted circulation of minutes is consistent with confidentiality. Plainly, WMBC cannot control their disclosure by a member to fellow teachers but that does not indicate that it has no concerns over publicity.
  39. These are considerations which apply to JCC minutes generally and the Tribunal acknowledges that it must have particular regard to the specific information withheld from the set of minutes with which it is concerned.
  40. We have already observed that the request was made at a time when the minutes were still in unapproved draft form. Although WMBC did not appear to attach much weight to this fact, draft minutes are generally more sensitive than the final approved version. However, this is not a decisive factor in our decision.
  41. One redaction relates to the personal data of a WMBC employee. It is accepted that such data are properly withheld for reasons unrelated to s.36(2).
  42. The other redactions involve firm expressions of opinion and closely related responses on academies, advanced skills teachers, and teachers’ pay and two short references to future changes which would require consultation. In the Tribunal’s opinion, adopting the approach already discussed, they are properly withheld. We do not consider that a Closed Annex is required to deal with them further.
  43. Conclusion

  44. In summary, the Tribunal recognizes the particular importance of transparency in the process of policy – making, locally as much as nationally, in such a vital service as education.
  45. However, we do not regard the function of the JCC as a part of that process, save in the very indirect sense already indicated.
  46. On the other hand, we see a real public value in unconstrained consultation designed to get to the core concerns of teachers, parents and elected members. We accept that the price to be paid for such an airing of opinion is confidentiality.
  47. We acknowledge some public interest in disclosure of the discussions of even a consultative committee but judge that they are clearly outweighed by the interest in maintaining the function of such as the JCC. Absent confidentiality, we conclude that the JCC would either disappear or be reduced to a largely worthless role.
  48. This appeal is therefore dismissed.
  49. Our decision is unanimous.

David Farrer Q.C.
Tribunal Judge,
7th September, 2016



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