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Posted by: John Brace | 18th July 2015

Why after 2 years, 3 months and 19 days have Wirral Council U-turned on refusing a FOI request for minutes of a public meeting that they claimed was vexatious?

Why after 2 years, 3 months and 19 days have Wirral Council U-turned on refusing a FOI request for minutes of a public meeting that they claimed was vexatious?

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo

ICO Information Commissioner’s Office logo

Wirral Council have over the years discussed the issue of Freedom of Information at many public meetings. I wanted to write about my experience of one request where it took 2 years and 3 and a half months for Wirral Council to release some of the information I requested.

Way back on the 29th March 2013 I made a FOI request to Wirral Council for minutes of various panels, statutory committees, advisory committees and working parties that councillors are on.

I asked merely for the minutes of the meeting held before making the request. One of these (numbered 5 on my list) was the minutes of the Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education (SACRE).

This is what happened next.

20 working days went past and Wirral Council didn’t respond to the request, so on the 29th April 2013 I requested an internal review of Wirral Council’s lack of response.

On the 30th April 2013 Wirral Council replied refusing the request based on section 12 and claimed it would take longer than the 18.5 hours allowed to respond to the request.

I clarified what appeared to be a misunderstanding in the way I had phrased the original request and requested an internal review of this decision disputing that it would take over the 18.5 hour limit.

The internal review came back on the 30th July 2013, it changed the decision from refusing this part of the request on cost grounds (section 12) to refusing it on section 14 grounds (vexatious or repeated requests).

On the 14th August 2013 I appealed this decision to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

On the 19th June 2014 Wirral Council amended its response. It still refused this part of the request but now decided to amend its reason for withholding the information. It was no longer withheld relying on section 14 (vexatious or repeated requests) but back to section 12 (exemption where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit). The parts of the request that could be described as environmental information were refused using Regulation 12(4)(b) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 as being “manifestly unreasonable”. This is the EIR equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act’s vexatious exemption.

On the 8th September 2014 the Information Commissioner’s Office issued a decision notice for this request (FS50509081).

The 9 page decision notice said that Wirral Council had breached section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and regulation 5(2) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 by not responding to this request within the first 20 working days of making it.

In addition to this it had breached s.16(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and regulation 9(1) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 which require Wirral Council to provide advice and assistance to those making requests.

Finally the decision notice required Wirral Council to issue a fresh response to this request within 35 calendar days of the 8th September 2014 that did not rely upon the exemption in section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (cost grounds) or Regulation 12(4)(b) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (that the environmental part of the request was “manifestly unreasonable”.

On the 4th November 2014 Wirral Council released redacted minutes of the Special Advisory Committee on Religious Education’s meeting of the 7th February 2013. Apart from the councillors on the committee anybody else on the committee had their name replaced by “name redacted”.

The minutes now looked like this:

Name redacted was proposed by Councillor Clements and seconded by Name redacted. By a unanimous show of hands Name redacted was duly elected to the post of Vice Chair.

Name redacted nominated Name redacted for the post of Vice Chair and this was seconded by Name redacted. By a unanimous show of hands Name redacted was duly elected to the post of Vice Chair.

Their response stated why the names had been removed, relying on a section 40 exemption for personal information.

I consider that part of the requested information is exempt information under Section 40 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in that the Complainant is asking for information which is personal data, in respect of which he is not the data subject. I consider that the disclosure of the requested information would contravene the second data protection principle that personal data shall be obtained only for one or more specified and lawful purposes and shall not be further processed in any manner incompatible with that purpose or those purposes. Certain individuals named in the Minutes dated 7 February 2013 (not including Councillors) would have a legitimate expectation that their personal data would not be further processed in a manner incompatible with the specified and lawful purposes of the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education. I consider that the Complainant’s request for information can be met by giving him a redacted copy of the minutes dated 7 February 2013, which redacts the names of certain individuals and these are attached.

On the 12th November 2014 I requested an internal review of this (also challenging other information they had withheld). This is what I stated about this part of the request:

“5. Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education (SACRE)

This relates to the minutes of the meeting held on 7th February 2013.

By statute this meeting meets in public. Another part of statute allows me to request the names and personal addresses of those on the committee. Other local authorities routinely publish the minutes of these SACRE public meetings. They do not redact the information you have.

My internal review on the redactions is then on the basis that:

a) the minutes relate to a meeting held in public
b) because of the above there is no legitimate expectation of privacy

You state “would have a legitimate expectation that their personal data would not be further processed in a manner incompatible with the specified and lawful purposes of the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education.”

I will give more detail as to the lawful purposes of the SACRE referred to in relation to meeting minutes.

Regulation 7 of The Religious Education (Meetings of Local Conferences and Councils) Regulations 1994

“7. (1) After a meeting the following documents shall be available for inspection by members of the public at the offices of the authority until the expiration of six years beginning with the date of the meeting, namely,—

(a) a copy of the agenda for the meeting;
(b) a copy of so much of any report for the meeting as relates to any item during which the meeting was open to members of the public; and
(c) a copy of so much of the minutes of the meeting as relates to any such item.”

The minutes of the meeting have been held in the last 6 years. Therefore I have an existing right of inspection to a copy of the minutes in unredacted form. Therefore the names of people in the minutes cannot have the private and personal nature that you ascribe to this information.

Secondly in addition to the names, the Group (ranging from A to C) of the individuals present has also been removed. Unless there’s only one representative from that group, merely the group letter
cannot be used to identify an individual.

Therefore I am asking for an internal review based of the information that has been withheld not being provided.”

No response was received in response to the internal review request, so I complained to ICO again.

On the 30th April 2015 (nearly 6 months after the internal review request that are supposed to take a maximum of 40 days) Wirral Council responded.

They stated it would take 32 hours to do a proper internal review, so just classed the request for an internal review as “vexatious” (see section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000).

Understandably I complained to ICO again.

Today (over 8 months since the last internal review request that they claimed was “vexatious”) Wirral Council got back in touch.

They now want to “amend their response”. Apparently the bit about the SACRE meeting minutes was not vexatious. They no longer seek to rely on the exemption contained in section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The minutes of the SACRE meeting of the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education held on the 7th February 2013 were provided including names.

So for a request made on the 29th March 2013, the information was finally given out on the 17th July 2015 whereas FOI requests are required to be answered within 20 working days.

However, this change of heart of Wirral Council wasn’t just about the part of the request for a meeting of the Special Advisory Council on Religious Education. Their response to the part of the request for minutes of a meeting of the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee was modified as follows:

Environmental Information Regulations 2004

Part 21

Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee

I enclose an extract from an email provided to the Information Management Team which was as follows:-

“There are no minutes from 2013 the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee as the present Committee was formed in March 2014.”

This is the reason that the council responded to your original request that it did not hold any information

I asked a councillor on Twitter about whether the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee existed prior to 2014.

Two councillors were kind enough to reply to my question. Cllr Chris Carubia stated “From the discussions today I know it has been in existence for over 5 years at least”.

Cllr Pat Williams replied, “Yes I was a proud member for a number of years.”

I include copies of the tweets below.

Personally I believe the two Lib Dem councillors (one of whom was on the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee) rather than Wirral Council’s officially stated position and I think I should draw to the attention of the Information Commissioner’s Office how their view differs from what Wirral Council states.

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Responses

  1. If WBC have broken or breached the FOI Act what sanctions are going to be made,will the person who orchestrated the deceits be brought to book.assuming they haven’t left and ‘trousered’ a pay out?

    • ICO issuing a decision notice (FS50509081) is the only sanction that has happened so far.

      As to the other points you make that’s up to senior managers to decide how to deal with. Unless the disciplinary matters relates to Chief Officers, councillors aren’t involved. This change to the constitution was made about 2 years ago at the request of Graham Burgess.

      Ultimately the Chief Executive of Wirral Council Eric Robinson is the Head of Paid Service so has ultimate responsibility for HR matters.

  2. Mr Brace, I note with continuing interest your ICO Blogs. I am in a position to tell you that they get Officers some Senior and some Junior to dictate a Response to the lady who’s name for the time being I will keep to myself. She then answers according to what they tell her.
    If she gets Frightened by the response in return, she Threatens you and tells you they will take Action against you. I have yet to have a Response from another Agency who is also frightened of what action I might take.
    You will find in some cases, they do not just breach the Data Protection Act, they go beyond that and ” Pervert the Course of Justice ” through knowing what they have done and having to cover up after.

    I must admit, it is becoming boring trying to get them to get me to Court.

    Call in the Police and Administration !!!!!!!!

    • Before they respond to my FOI requests it also goes to the press office at Wirral Council too.

      Nobody’s ever threatened me in relation to a FOI request I’ve made to Wirral Council.

      On your last points, I refer to the time limt on the decision notice in this matter. The decision notice was dated 8th September 2014. Wirral Council had 35 calendar days to reply (as they didn’t appeal) and not doing so within that timescale is classed as contempt of court.

      35 days after the 8th September 2014 was the 13th October 2014 but Wirral Council didn’t respond to the decision notice until about three weeks later than that deadline (4th November 2014).

      On the issue of police. From August 2014 a criminal offence was created of refusing a request for documents concerned with public meetings.

      Wirral Council’s response on 8th November 2014 withheld many of the names in the minutes of the Special Advisory Committee on Religious Education meeting (which is a public meeting).

      However if they’re willing to risk their reputation in committing contempt of court in taking too long to respond to the decision notice, how eager do you think the police would be to take them to task over an alleged breach of Regulation 10 of the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014?

  3. G’day John

    I feel so terribly terribly sad and sorry for “Sir Git”.

    Fancy being laden with all their lies, deceit and bad form.

    The poor barstard must not be able to sleep at night.

    He must wake up in cold sweats dreaming of the goings on at the “Open Golf” house they rented.

    And do you know what John it serves him right what a low life

    I can’t remember ever meeting a lower life form.

    Can’t wait to see the fat, lazy looking prig with his cheap plastic pen and expensive barrister in the court rooms, were Wirral “Funny”Bizz made goats of themselves against “Highbrow”, over Stella and Kevin’s Stagnant Wirral Waters soon I hope.

    Talking of Stella and Kevin…they were made for each other, poor old Basnett she must be so jealous after doing everything Kev told her.

    Ooroo

    James

    How come Kev “The Football Shit” has not been laughed out of town…..I presume he doesn’t live darn the North End with “Ankles”.

    What was the name of that street “Ankles” with the body in it?

    Ps Did Uncle Joe take the mickey out of “Phil the Dill” yesterday and put him in his place John?.

    • There were too streets in the joke, Buccleuch Street and Avon Street.

      You can watch the meeting for yourself James and make your own determination on that (see below).

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KdjpWveVbA

      • G’day John

        I am very concerned for “Phil the Dill’s” blood pressure.

        You should have called an ambulance.

        John is he always that pink or had he just played golf at his new resort.

        The one in his imagination.

        Probably just shitting himself because Uncle Joe was there.

        I suppose most normal people that knew the lies and deceit and crud he must know about would have massive blood pressure.

        “Ankles” really gave him a cross to bear and nothing has improved despite their bullshit award.

        The trophy is up there with the juvenile “Football Shirt”.

        I think he probably needs to see about his hypertension.

        It might help if he talked to someone about Wiiralgate and Wirral “Funny” Bizz and got it all off his chest before he explodes.

        I suggest he sees Ecca and the “The Pretend Friend”, wink, wink, nod, smile, they will help him and cheer him up and tell him some fairy tales to relax him about him beating Jack on his own course, or, is that up his own beanstalk.

        They are all in it together now that “Spotty Dog” has joined the GANG of naysayers.

        He’s very pink too but that is for another day.

        Ooroo

        James

        Hope he sees someone before he explodes John have you ever seen a dill in a blender.

        • If it’s the LCRCA meeting on Friday you’re referring to, I requested Youtube autofix the colour/lighting in the video. So it may have had the effect you’re referring to.

          Last time my blood pressure was measured it was higher than normal but less than high.

  4. MIMAH

    M ost
    I mproved
    M y
    A rse
    H ole

    • Well over this course of this FOI request, Wirral Council may have “improved” but their position on releasing information has only shifted slightly.

      The difference between what they state about the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee (official line was it only set up in 2014 so we don’t have minutes for years before that) versus what councillors state (it’s been going for at least 5 years) is very worrying.

      I’m half wondering if considering what a political hot potato fracking (or underground coal gasification) was in the River Dee area in Wirral West in the leadup to the 2015 General Election, whether if the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee meeting I requested discussed this matter whether this is the reason why they’re pretending the minutes don’t exist?

      • G’day John

        They tell so many lies every time they say more than five words they fall over themselves.

        “The Shyster” must have a warehouse full of “secret” public reports and lies and I presume that is how he keeps his job because he is the most unimpressive legal person I have ever come across and that includes the hopeless woman that “The Pretend Friend” put “Highbrow” on to that was useless.

        Ooroo

        James

        Ps John I have a complaint about your site as I have only just noticed a few years in that my little man alongside my name is the purple headed buffoon that is “Ankles” or “The Shyster” or “Crabapple” or “Clowncillor Doughnut” or The Abbot” or “Phil the Dill” or “The Football Shirt”.

        • The little character next to your name is called an avatar.

          You can create your own see here for how to do so.

          The setting I have the blog set to is for users without a custom avatar of their own, I can either display a generic logo or a generated one based on their e-mail address.

          I chose MonsterID which automatically generates a MonsterID based on your email address. I could’ve chosen an Identicon, Wavatar, Retro or MonsterID.

          I’ve switched it to Retro which makes your avatar look like something out of a 1980s video game. Let me know if it’s an improvement, or as mentioned you can upload your own picture to Gravatar and it should automatically use that instead.

  5. […] So far I’ve written three blog posts about this one FOI request, which in chronological order are ICO issues decision notice stating Wirral Council breached 4 laws in how it handled a FOI request (9th September 2014), Wirral Council take nearly 20 months to respond to a FOI request for SACRE meeting minutes that should only take 20 days (10th November 2014) and Why after 2 years, 3 months and 19 days have Wirral Council U-turned on refusing a FOI request for m…. […]


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