The committee then moved to item 5 which prompted a lively debate about Freedom of Information Act requests.
Jane Corrin said Wirral Council got “quite a lot of FOIA requests”. There had been 617 between January and September of last year and Wirral Council was getting 70-80 per a month. The requests tended to reflect headline news and matters local to Wirral. Currently there were a lot of FOIA requests about potholes ranging from the number, budget and quickness of repair. There were also FOIA requests about the costs of EVR, EVR processes and procedures especially social care and education. There was another asking how many staff had left. This may be linked to the leader of Wirral Council publicising the EVR details.
There were also requests about the wearing of uniforms, park uniforms, badges and requests that were predicated.
Cllr McLaughlin asked why would some constitute FOI requests? If a person asked the closure time of Wallasey Town Hall. Jane answered that business as usual requests would be answered but for example if a person asked 10 questions about potholes it would be referred to her, then onto transport to be answered. She said the way the legislation was defined there was no discretion that could be used.
Cllr Williams asked about the drop in repeated/vexatious claims. Jane Corrin answered that they always strove to always answer an enquiry. However the legislation did allow them to turn down requests that were designed to waste officers time. For example a request had been made about the colour of sand on West Kirby beach and why tarmac was a certain colour. Jane continued that the reason why the tarmac was a colour is that new tarmac had been laid.
Cllr Jones said it was extremely valuable for academic research in which it was sometimes the only way to get information. It was also useful for industrial relations and where there was a genuine public interest. However he referred to the “cranks” and “hobbyists” out to cause mischief. He referred to a FOI request about himself, which he would’ve answered over the phone and thought silly. He said some requests must struggle to be met within 20 days and that the press use it a lot.
Jane Corrin said she was thorough at chasing up replies and polite. She said that 97% of requests were answered within 20 working days.
Cllr Wilkins brought up the issue of anonymous requests. Jane Corrin replied that even if they recognised the name, they had to not let this influence them. 90-95% of requests were made by email. Sometimes the name was made up eg a “Mr I Request”. She pointed out that they can’t ask the requester why they want the information.
Cllr Wilkins asked if the breakdown of requests through the What Do They Know website was the same as the other requests? Jane Corrin answered that they were on every subject matter. Although they sometimes give their location she would estimate 60-70% were from Wirral residents with a big chunk from outside.
Cllr Bridson asked how much overall was each request costing, either one or the whole lot. Jane Corrin answered that Liverpool City council had estimated £80 per a request, but as the hourly rate varied of the council employee asked to answer that the amount varied from request to request. It was hard to put a figure on it.
Cllr Mountney said there must be a better or faster way to provide answers. Could a letter be written with the answer? Jane Corrin replied that there was a key duty on Wirral Council to confirm or deny holding the information and that they were hung by the legislation. There were hundreds of questions not asked because of the council’s website or that were answered by the call centre or over the phone.
Cllr Mountney asked if because of the figures of requests did it mean that Wirral Council was doing something wrong? Jane Corrin answered that the ageing population and demographics of Wirral led to more requests.
Cllr Blakeley asked about comparisons with other Merseyside authorities. Jane answered that in Sefton the FOIA Manager was also in charge of information security. Sefton got less than Wirral but she couldn’t give an accurate figure as it was recorded differently.
Cllr Blakeley pointed out the differences in populations of the comparator authorities. He asked for the % of people requesting as a % of total population. For example the population of Liverpool was far greater. He said he wasn’t trying to make work. Jane Corrin replied it wasn’t necessarily linked to population but could be to the number of people on the FOIA team or total employees. Cllr Blakeley suggested the fire and police joint boards were asked for information.
Cllr McLaughlin said there was nothing we could do, Cllr Blakeley asked for a measure against other authorities for 2010.
A member of the committee asked if we charge for FOIA requests. Jane Corrin asked that as much as possible was free. In order to charge it would have to be information there was an existing charging mechanism for. If the request took longer than 18.5 hours they can charge a flat fee of £450 + £25/hour. However only one person since 2005 had done this regarding geographical information, the fee came to £1200. Cheshire West do make a £10 fee for a Data Protection Act Request, however it was costing the authority £25.50 to process a £10 cheque.
Therefore it wasn’t worth it to take a £10 fee. Cllr Blakeley said that they should immediately abolish all payments under £25. A council officer answer that currently it cost around £10 to process a cheque which included bank charges and staff time. To handle small amounts of cash cost more than £5. It cost pence to process transactions by card or over the internet. Direct debits cost 2 or 3 pence. Card payments cost 30-35p. Wirral Council was pushing people away from the use of cheques and trying to get people to open bank accounts.
Cllr Blakeley asked if a FOIA request can be about a person. The answer given was that personal information was exempt. Cllr Blakeley asked if he could be notified if there was a request. Jane Corrin answered that if third parties were involved (eg Biffa) they would always consult third parties. Cllr Blakeley asked about future requests about Cllr Jones. Jane Corrin said she would let Cllr Jones know. Cllr Blakeley said he wanted the recommendation changed to thank Jane Corrin for her hard work and onerous and challenging task.