What was the government’s response to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information report?
I will start this by declaring some interests in the area of freedom of information. I am the appellant in case EA/2016/0033 (which is a case with the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) involving decision notice FS50596346). A further case involving an appeal to the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) involving decision notice FER0592270 was put in the post on Monday, but is yet to be received by the Tribunal. There are also numerous ICO decision notices that have been issued about FOI requests I have made.
Introducing new fees for FOI requests (above those that can be already charged) has been ruled out partly because this would lead to a reduction in FOI requests from the media and others.
The ministerial statement also refers to updated codes of practice published. Interestingly one of the requirements of this new code of practice will be for public authorities with a hundred or more full-time equivalent employees to publish detailed statistics on how they deal with FOI/EIR requests.
As the ministerial statement states “The publication of such data not only provides accountability to the public, but allows the Information Commissioner to identify and target poorly performing public authorities more effectively.”
Certainly once the new code of practice is published, a new requirement on local government bodies to publish this detailed information will provide an insight into how FOI/EIR requests are dealt with.
There is also going to be revised guidance on the application of section 14(1) (vexatious or repeated requests). The ministerial statement states that they expect this only to be used in “rare cases” and that “the ‘vexatious’ designation is not an excuse to save public officials embarrassment from poor decisions or inappropriate spending of taxpayers’ money”.
There is also going to be consideration by the government of whether to include a requirement to publish expenses and benefits in kind received by senior public sector executives. It seems FOI requests have been made for these, but turned down on data protection grounds.
As I’m the Appellant in the Tribunal case EA/2016/0033 (which isn’t classed as “active” yet (as “active” in such cases is defined as from the point when a hearing date is set), I can reveal that the only major development in that case is that Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council has been added as a party to the appeal as second respondent (originally the case was just between myself and the Information Commissioner).
I’m still awaiting the Information Commissioner’s response (due by the 17th March 2016) and Wirral Council’s response is due not more than 21 days after they receive the Information Commissioner’s response.
Once the Information Commissioner responds and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council responds to the Information Commissioner’s response, I have up to 14 days to respond to their responses.
The Tribunal have asked all parties to notify them of any dates they are not available between 6th June 2016 and 29th July 2016, so I presume a hearing date will be set on some day between those two dates.
I’m sure there are those that could comment better than me about a practice direction that leads to hearings discussing the secret information while one of the parties to the appeal is excluded (secret hearings) and a guide to keeping information secret from one of the parties to the case.
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A previous post on this blog deals with the first five minutes of the Improvement Board meeting. Since then over roughly a week since the video of the Improvement Board meeting was uploaded to Youtube, the first part of the meeting has been viewed nearly two hundred times at the time of writing! As there was such interest in it, I thought I’d continue with a transcript of the meeting, carrying on where I left off which was five minutes and twenty-four seconds in.
Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): We’re going to move on in terms of making sure we get through the questions. John Brace, are you present, yeah?
John Brace: As there are quite a lot of questions and they’re in here already, I’m quite happy with you reading them out if that would be speeding things up a bit.
Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): I think that’s really helpful of you and thank you for submitting it in advance, because people have the script in front of them and because it’s long, I won’t actually read it out as we did in one of the other sessions if that’s alright, but we will let you come back when we’ve given the answer, unlike the other sessions, in terms of if there are supplementary questions or points that you feel we didn’t cover from your email, ok? Thank you. Graham do you want to go?
Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Just in response to the first question which relates to a whole series of appendices to the AKA report, our view is that err all the appendices actually contain very sensitive personal information and to release those appendices would be in breach of data protection and also the duty we have to individuals who gave us information in confidence, or in relation to their own personal medical or financial circumstances. Therefore it’s our view that it would be inappropriate to release those documents as they contain a whole host of sensitive information. Clearly these matters can be tested, if you wish to test our view, via FOIs and the Information Commissioner, but so far our position has been and has not been challenged in respect of those appendices. It’s our view as you can see from some of them anyway, clearly showing they do contain very sensitive personal information.
Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): I think that was recognised within the question, certainly in terms of one of the appendices, thank you.
Cllr Jeff Green (Leader, Conservative Group): Yeah, can I just check when the Chief Executive said ‘we decided’ who the we were?
Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Well it’s the Council, I clearly represent the Council.
John Brace: Sorry, as I’m entitled to a supplementary on that. In relation to that list, I know that there were councillors present at that one and that was used as a justification that councillors had signed off on the special charging policy, so if you released it with the other names blacked out, wouldn’t that mean people could have at least a bit of accountability as to who the people were who agreed to that?
Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Can I also say Chair that with your agreement it would be the intention of the Council to print all these questions, place all these questions on our website and all the answers to them as well so it can be available for people who couldn’t make it at this meeting so they can see what we’re saying.
In respect of that, obviously this is a question that only came in at five o’clock last night which was reasonable and obviously your supplementary has just been asked now so I’d need to probably go away and take advice on that point and we’ll give you the answer both to you John personally and put the answer on the website for everybody to see and certainly Joyce and the Improvement Board will take that into account when they write the final report.
Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): So thank you, for that particular question, it’s really helpful. Do you want to keep on going in terms of the series of questions because we’ve got them in front of us?
Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): The next question I think refers to the Martin Smith report and again our position is the Martin Smith report was redacted as it contained personal information and the Council has a legal obligation with regards to public disclosure of that information to the individuals mentioned in that report.
The Council’s responsibility extends not only to the public, but to any person or body to which the information relates, the Council considers every case on its merits and maintains its position that disclosure is not appropriate in these circumstances. Once again there are ways of challenging the Council, via the Information Commissioner another way if you think the Council is being unreasonable and the Council has and will always respond to the Information Commissioner’s ruling.
I would say however that perhaps the most important part of that report particularly is the recommendations around our whistle blowing, grievances and bullying policies, all of which have been progressed in line with that report and all of which is referred in response to critical incidents report that’s also considered by the Audit Committee last night.
Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): Thank you, is there anything further as you’re present that you want to ask? Move onto the councillors point which is in the next question.
Graham Burgess: Thank you, I’ll just stay standing up, shall I?
Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): Yeah, I think you should, you could keep your jacket off.
Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Again it’s a similar point that the Council does have responsibilities to the individuals named in these reports and this must be considered in relation to disclosure and redaction. Full disclosure of the Martin Smith report would in the Council’s opinion contravene its legal obligations under the Data Protection Act, with regards to upper management’s control of information in its possession.
Once again there are ways of challenging the Council independently if people have a different view and I would encourage people if they don’t agree with the Council’s position to challenge us and we will state our case to the Information Commissioner or any other relevant body. We believe as well as obligations to the public as a whole, we have obligations to individual members of staff, public, service users to protect their interests and that’s why we’re acting in this way.
If however, people think we’re wrong, then it’s worth challenging our position and we welcome people challenging our position. Thank you.
Member of public heckling: You’re wrong, you welcome challenges, you’re wrong. You’re far from being open and transparent and that’s ridiculous. I apologise to you all for that.
Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Can I just say?
Joyce Redfearn (Chair, Improvement Board): That’s your view, so I, what we will do is allow further questions and comments at the end and I understand that was a heartfelt, but we’ll go through the series if that’s ok with you.
Member of public who previously heckled: Apologies about the time you take on this decision.
Graham Burgess (Chief Executive, Wirral Council): Can I just say clearly if people think we are wrong, that’s perfectly right to challenge us and there are ways of processing those and it can be challenged independently and we welcome those challenges and if we are wrong of course we will publish the documents.
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The Chief Executives statement on the whistleblowing motion of the Conservatives (Wirral Council) from 15th July 2013
In what was a stormy evening at Wirral Council and Cllr Mitchell’s first full length Council meeting in the Chair as Mayor, the Chief Executive Graham Burgess issued a written statement to councillors and the public about the Conservative’s notice of motion on whistleblowing. His statement is reproduced below.
Statement from the Chief Executive
I would like to firstly advise a note of caution to all Elected Members when it comes to discussing individual cases. The Council in this instance has been requested to deal directly with Mr. Morton’s solicitor to seek a resolution to the outstanding issues. We are keen to reach a resolution at the earliest opportunity and have corresponded with Mr. Morton’s Solicitor to that effect.
I must also draw Council’s attention to the recent judgement by Mr. Justice Hughes in the first-tier tribunal between the Apellant [sic] and the Information Commissioner. Judge Hughes upheld the Information Commissioners decision to uphold this Council’s refusal of personal information relating to the Officers alluded to in this question. This followed his appraisal of the AKA report and all relevant information provided.
In particular it is important that Members note the following conclusions:
The information which the complainant has asked for is detailed information on personnel matters relating to the individuals concerned. This goes much further than a request to detail of any severance payments made to the individuals. It is also about the terms under which they left the authority. The public interest in knowing whether appropriate policies and procedures were followed or whether the council acted inappropriately in terms of the events outlined in the report has been served by the disclosure of the report.
The individuals identified with in the report had not been convicted of any crime. Public accountability for failing is within the Council’s practices and rests with the Council as a whole rather than with individual officers.
He concluded by finding that while there was a legitimate public interest in understanding how the Council had reacted to the report; this information would not help with that process and a balance had to be struck with respect to the rights of the individuals concerned. He found that:-
Any pressing social need for greater transparency on the Council’s reaction to the report would not be met by a disclosure of this information. He therefore considers that it would be unfair (and given the implied confidentiality of the employer/employee information, unlawful ) for the purposes of the first data protection principle for that information to be disclosed.
In the light of the above judgement we do not consider that it would be lawful or practical to allow a further investigation into the circumstances surrounding the departure of the two Officers in question.