It shows that an unnamed councillor made a query of Surjit Tour before the Council meeting held on the 14th March 2016 as to whether the Girtrell Court motion should be debated at all.
Surjit Tour’s opinion (a copy of which is below) was that Standing Order 17 prevented it, but that councillors could choose to suspend Standing Order 17 and debate it anyway. A copy of his advice to councillors over the attempt at preventing a debate on Girtrell Court is below.
A query was received over whether the Notice of Motion (NOM) relating to Girtrell Court submitted by Cllr Blakeley (appearing in the Council Agenda published on 4 March) should be debated by Council at its meeting on Monday, 14 March given that it formed part of the Budget debate and final Council Budget Resolution on 3 March. The proposal/issues relating to Girtrell Court were debated at length by Council at Budget Council. Council has therefore had the opportunity to fully consider this matter. A point of order has been raised as to whether the NOM can therefore be debated within such a short period of time after Council having settled its view on the subject matter. The point of order is a legitimate one.
The relevant Standing Order to consider is:
Council Procedure Rules: Standing Order 17 – Rescission of preceding resolution (page 156 of the Constitution)
(1) No decision of the Council (including a decision taken by a committee or panel under delegated powers) may be reconsidered by the Council on a notice of motion within six months of the date of the earlier decision unless the notice of motion (under Standing Order 7) is signed by 17 members of the Council. If that motion is rejected by the Council neither it nor one to the same effect can be considered by the Council for six months.
(2) No resolution or recommendation (other than a procedural resolution) made by a committee or panel during the course of a meeting shall be rescinded or amended by the committee or panel during the same meeting or any adjournment of it unless there are reasonable grounds for believing that all of the material information was not available at the time that the resolution or recommendation was passed.
Unfortunately given the timetabling of Budget Council and Ordinary Council this month, it has meant that Notices of Motion for the 14 March Council meeting needed to be submitted by 5pm on Monday, 29 February. This was ahead of Budget Council and any final Budget decision being made by Council on Thursday (3 March).
It is important to establish the status of the NOM in this case. I am of the view that NOM received was valid. At the material time, namely the deadline for when NOMs needed to be submitted (Monday, 29 Feb), there was NO decision made by Council in respect of the subject matter detailed within the NOM in question. The outcome of Budget Council meeting could not be assumed – that included any approval of the position as outlined in the Cabinet Budget Proposal in respect of Girtrell Court.
All valid NOMs are considered by the Mayor who determines, with advice from me, which NOM should be debated or referred to Cabinet or a Policy and Performance Committee (or other committee). The Mayor prior to Budget Council agreed for this NOM be debated.
At Budget Council the issues and matters relating to Girtrell Court were debated fully and that included the subject matter appearing in the NOM presented by Cllr Blakeley.
Standing Order 17 seeks to limit Council having to debate(by way of a notice of motion) the same decision within six months of it being made (unless a NOM is signed by 17 members of the Council). Whilst it is accepted that the Notice of Motion in question is not seeking to reopen the entire Budget Resolution approved by Council, it does seek to revisit a key aspect of the Budget Resolution that has been settled within it. The Notice of Motion was correctly submitted and was valid at the time of submission but has in effect been superseded by the Budget Council debate and Budget Resolution that was subsequently passed.
At the time Standing Order 17 was drafted the prevailing circumstances before us were not envisaged; and in fairness would have been extremely difficult (if not impossible) to predict with any degree of reasonable certainty.
Upon considering the application of Standing Order 17 and the NOM proposed by Cllr Blakeley, I am of the opinion that Standing Order 17 in its current form does prevent the NOM being debated at Council on 14 March – despite the Council Summons stating otherwise. However, as the NOM was valid at the time of submission it was also correct for it to have been included in the Council Agenda, published on 4 March. The Agenda should however have stated that the NOM was not to be debated by virtue of Standing Order 17. It is appropriate that this clarification/correction is made at Council on 14 March – and I will duly do so.
It would be remiss of me not to also advise that because the NOM appears correctly on the Council Agenda, any Member can move a motion (properly seconded) and seek the suspension of Standing Order 17 and seek permission from Council for the NOM to be debated. The Council has discretion to overcome the constitutional restriction imposed by Standing Order 17. Council would therefore be the final arbiter of this issue.
I apologise for any confusion caused by the NOM being confirmed as one to be debated on the Council Agenda.
Should you have any queries regarding this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Surjit Tour Head of Legal & Member Services
and Monitoring Officer
Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council
Department of Transformation and Resources
Tel: 0151 691 8569
Fax: 0151 691 8482
Visit our website: www.wirral.gov.uk
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Frankly, after two years and ten months of arguing over this request I doubt (although this is just my opinion) that either Wirral Council will want to appeal the decision to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights). Although one can never quite tell with Wirral Council.
So the decision notice relates to minutes of a meeting of the Headteachers and Teachers Joint Consultative Committee, minutes of a meeting of the Members’ (Members’ means councillors) Training Steering Group and minutes of a meeting of the Members’ Equipment Steering Group.
All these committees met behind closed doors and had councillors appointed to them.
The information in the minutes of the meetings of the last two groups are about training of councillors, use of electronic equipment, developing the Council of the Future, spending, service delivery models and proposals for improvement and potential change.
Surjit Tour made the decisions that releasing this information would be "prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs". There’s a long bit of the decision notice that goes into ICO’s assessment of the public interest test. ICO disagrees with Surjit Tour with regards to two out of the three sets of minutes requested. ICO’s view is that the public interest test weighs in favour of disclosure of the minutes of the Members’ Training Steering Group and minutes of the meeting of the Members’ Equipment Steering Group.
They do however agree with Surjit Tour over the minutes of the Headteachers’ and Teacher’s Joint Consultative Committee, although I’ll point out I find their arguments over a "chilling effect" over what was said at a meeting three years ago rather strange!
Below I include a copy of the decision notice (above is a summary). Although it states I didn’t submit public interest arguments, I did in a document marked "reasons for appeal" (in fact I have an email from the case officer referring to it). However the reasons for appeal have seemingly either not been read or ignored by the person writing the decision notice.
The result of the decision notice is that Wirral Council (or I) can appeal the decision within 28 days of the decision notice to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) or if the decision is accepted they have to respond by providing the minutes relating to the meetings of the Members’ Training Steering Group and of the Members’ Equipment Steering Group within 35 days.
1. The complaint concerns a request for the minutes of three separate committee meetings. Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council (‘the Council’) has refused to release this information. The Council says it is exempt under section 36 of the FOIA (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) and that the public interest favours the information being withheld.
2. The Commissioner’s decision is that sections 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) have been correctly applied to the requested information and that the public interest favours withholding some of the information (item 15). However he finds that the public interest favours releasing the remainder of the information.
3. The Commissioner requires the public authority to take the following step to ensure compliance with the legislation:
4. The public authority must take this step within 35 calendar days of the date of this decision notice. Failure to comply may result in the Commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court.
5. The request that is the subject of this notice has been subject to two previous decision notices – FS50509081 and FS50569254. Of relevance to this notice, FS50569254 found that the Council had incorrectly applied section 14(1) (vexatious request) to four parts of the 26 part request. The Commissioner ordered the Council to disclose this information or issue a fresh refusal notice.
Request and response
6. On 29 March 2013, as part of the wider request referred to above, the complainant had written to the Council and requested information in the following terms:
“Please could you provide minutes of the previous meetings of the following committees…
… 15. Headteachers and Teachers JCC
18. Members’ Training Steering Group
19. Members’ Equipment Steering Group
26. Safeguarding Reference Group…”
7. As a result of the Commissioner’s decision in FS50569254, the Council provided the complainant with a new response on 3 September 2015. It said that these four parts were exempt from disclosure under section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) and that the public interest favours withholding the information. It said part 26 of the request was also exempt under section 40 (personal data).
8. Given the history of this request, the Council did not undertake an internal review and the matter was referred to the Commissioner. However, as part of the Commissioner’s investigation, the Council did review its response and reconsidered its response with regard to part 26 of the request. It withdrew its reliance on section 36 and section 40 and disclosed this particular information to the complainant on 11 January 2016.
Scope of the case
9. The complainant had contacted the Commissioner on 7 September 2015 to complain about the way the four parts of his original request for information had been handled.
10. The Council has now disclosed part 26 of the requested information to the complainant. The Commissioner has therefore focussed his investigation on the Council’s application of the exemption at section 36 to parts 15, 18 and 19 of the request and its public interest arguments.
Reasons for decision
Section 36 – prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs
11. Section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) of the FOIA says that information that is held by a public authority is exempt if, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person, disclosing it would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank provision of advice, and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.
12. Section 36 differs from all other prejudice exemptions in that the judgement about prejudice must be made by the legally authorised, qualified person for that public authority. The qualified person’s opinion must also be a “reasonable” opinion, and the Commissioner may decide that the section 36 exemption has not been properly applied if he finds that the opinion given is not reasonable.
13. Other than for information held by Parliament, section 36 is a qualified exemption. This means that even if the qualified person considers that disclosure would cause harm, or would be likely to cause harm, the public interest must still be considered.
14. In determining whether the Council correctly applied the exemption, the Commissioner is required to consider the qualified person’s opinion as well as the reasoning that informed the opinion. Therefore in order to establish that the exemption has been applied correctly the Commissioner must:
ascertain who was the qualified person or persons
establish that an opinion was given by the qualified person
ascertain when the opinion was given; and
consider whether the opinion was reasonable.
15. The information in question concerns the minutes of a Head Teachers and Teachers Joint Consultative Committee (JCC), action minutes of a Members’ Training Steering Group and actions from a Members’ Equipment Steering Group.
16. The Council has explained to the Commissioner that the qualified person in this case is the Council’s Head of Legal and Member Services who, under section 36(5)(o)(m), is authorised as the Monitoring Officer.
17. The Council showed the information in question to the qualified person on 27 October 2014, with an opinion on it sought under section 36(2)(b)(i) and 36(2)(b)(ii), as explained at paragraph 11. The Council says the qualified person met and discussed the information on several occasions with one of his solicitors and the Records and Information Manager. The opinion was given on 31 October 2014. The Council explained to the Commissioner that the request for information was originally submitted in March 2013 and confirmed that the qualified person’s opinion was sought in October 2014.
18. The qualified person upheld the view submitted to him that disclosing the information held in items 15, 18 and 19 would inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.
19. With regard to item 15 — the Head Teachers and Teachers JCC – the qualified person considers that the information contained within these minutes concerns important matters which require consideration and deliberation. These matters include: comprehensive and fundamental reviews associated with the education sector; the current structure and service delivery models of education; budgetary options and proposals for improvement and potential change. The qualified person says that deliberating all these matters needs a “safe space” and, in his opinion, disclosing the requested information would be likely to have a “chilling effect”. This would inhibit the free and frank provision of advice and exchange of views between Members, officers and other representatives.
20. The qualified person additionally considers that any disclosure would be likely to undermine the ability of this group, and those advising this group, to express themselves in a frank and open manner. This would then lead to poorer decision making. The qualified person considers that it is crucial that this group is able to exchange views in an open and frank manner for the reasons set out above.
21. With regard to items 18 and 19 — the Members’ Training Steering Group action minutes and actions from Members’ Equipment Steering Group — the qualified person says that the information contained within these
sets of minutes relates to important matters affecting elected Members, which requires consideration and deliberation. Matters debated include: elected Members’ training; use of electronic equipment; developing the Council of the Future; spending; service delivery models and proposals for improvement and potential change.
22. The qualified person says that this level of debate also needs a “safe space” to effectively engage the participants. In his opinion disclosing this information would be likely to have a “chilling effect” that would inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views between elected Members and officers. Furthermore, disclosure is likely to undermine the ability of these steering groups’, and those advising these groups, to express themselves in a free and frank manner. This would then lead to poorer decision making.
23. The Commissioner first notes that the Trust has sought the opinion of its Monitoring Officer. He is satisfied that the Monitoring Officer is a suitably qualified person. This is because the Monitoring Officer post within a local authority has the specific duty to ensure that the council, its officers and its elected members maintain the highest standard of conduct in all they do. It is one of three posts that local authorities have a legal duty to have, the other two being the Chief Executive and
the Director of Finance.
24. In order to determine whether the exemption is engaged the Commissioner must then go on to decide whether the qualified person’s opinion in this case is reasonable. This involves considering:
Whether the prejudice claimed relates to the specific subsection of section 36(2) on which the Council is relying
The nature of the information and the timing of the request; and
The qualified person’s knowledge or involvement in the issue.
25. The Commissioner has also issued guidance on section 36 of the FOIA. With regard to what can be considered a ‘reasonable opinion’ it says the following:
“The most relevant deﬁnition of ‘reasonable’ in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is ‘In accordance with reason; not irrational or absurd’. If the opinion is in accordance with reason and not irrational or absurd — in short, if it is an opinion that a reasonable person could hold — then it is reasonable.”
26. It is important to note that when considering whether the exemption is engaged, the Commissioner is making a decision not on whether he agrees with the opinion of the qualified person, but whether it was reasonable for him or her to reach that opinion. The test of
reasonableness is not meant to be a high hurdle and if the Commissioner accepts that the opinion is one that a reasonable person could hold he must find that the exemption is engaged.
27. The Council is relying on subsections (b)(i) and b(ii) of section 36(2), namely that disclosing the withheld information would, or would be likely to inhibit the free and frank provision of advice, and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation. The qualified person in this case has said that prejudice, namely a “chilling effect” on the provision of advice and exchange of views that would lead to poorer decision making, would be likely to occur if the information were to be disclosed (rather than would occur).
28. The Commissioner accepts that it is important that the Council’s meetings are conducted openly with participants able to contribute candidly and to discuss issues freely. The Council and the public can then be confident that decisions made at these meetings are likely to be robust. He therefore accepts that the prejudice the Council is claiming does relate to section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii).
29. The Commissioner has referred to the information requested at parts 15, 18 and 19 of the wider request. The information concerns meetings that took place in February and March 2013, shortly before the complainant submitted his request. In his view, the meetings are unconnected to each other or to one wider matter.
30. The Commissioner notes that the qualified person has had several discussions with a solicitor and the Records and Information Manager about the matter. He considers that, although the qualified person did not participate in the meetings in question, the qualified person would understand the nature of the meetings and have a good knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the request.
31. Having undertaken the above review of the qualified person’s opinion, the Commissioner is satisfied that, in the circumstances, it is a reasonable opinion ie it is not irrational or absurd. Therefore, the exemption at section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) is engaged with regard to items 15, 18 and 19.
Public interest test
32. In most cases, even when the qualified person has given their opinion that section 36(2)(b) is engaged, the public authority must still carry out a public interest test. The qualified person’s opinion will affect the weight of the argument for withholding the information. If the qualified person has decided that disclosure would prejudice, this will carry a greater weight than if they said
disclosure would be likely to prejudice.
33. The qualified person’s opinion brings weight to the arguments for withholding the information; the significance of this weight will vary from case to case. When considering a complaint regarding section 36, if the Commissioner finds that the opinion was reasonable, he will consider the weight of that opinion in the public interest test. This means that he accepts that a reasonable opinion has been expressed that prejudice would, or would be likely to occur, but he will go on to consider the severity, extent and frequency of that prejudice in forming his own assessment of whether the public interest test dictates disclosure.
34. In his guidance on section 36, the Commissioner says that it should always be possible for the public authority to review the public interest arguments. The Commissioner gave the Council the opportunity to do this during the course of his investigation. The Council confirmed on 14 January 2016 that it continues to rely on its arguments from October 2014.
Public interest arguments in favour of disclosure
35. With regard to item 15, the qualified person says that disclosing these minutes would give the public insight into the processes involved within the Council for decision making on important issues of the day. Disclosing these minutes would also demonstrate transparency with regard to internal processes and with regard to the exchange of views and advice.
36. With regard to items 18 and 19, the qualified person says that disclosure of these action minutes would give an insight into how the Council analyses and reviews information with a view to shaping and
developing for the future. These action minutes would also allow the public to see proposals that the Council is considering.
37. The complainant did not submit any public interest arguments.
Public interest arguments in favour of maintaining the exemption
38. The qualified person considers that the public interest favours maintaining the exemption with respect to these three items of information because disclosing the information would restrict the free and frank exchange of views, would inhibit the giving of advice and guidance and would potentially have a detrimental effect on the work of these groups and those taking part in their discussions. He says that the Council relies on the ability to have a “safe space” to enable it to
make the most appropriate decisions for elected Members, officers and the people of Wirral.
Balance of the public interest
39. The Commissioner first of all notes that the qualified person has said that releasing the information would be likely to inhibit free and frank advice and exchange of views. This potentially brings less weight to the argument for withholding the information than would inhibit.
40. In his published guidance on section 36, the Commissioner notes at paragraph 45 that 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) are about the processes that may be inhibited, rather than what is in the information. The issue is whether disclosure would inhibit the processes of providing advice or exchanging views. In order to engage the exemption, the information requested does not necessarily have to contain views and advice that are in themselves notably free and frank.
41. On the other hand, if the information only consists of relatively neutral statements, then it may not be reasonable to think that its disclosure could inhibit the provision of advice or the exchange of views.
42. Paragraph 46 of the Commissioner’s guidance discusses the terminology used in the exemption, as follows:
‘Inhibit’ means to restrain, decrease or suppress the freedom with which opinions or options are expressed.
Examples of ‘advice’ include recommendations made by more junior staff to more senior staff, professional advice tendered by professionally qualiﬁed employees, advice received from external sources, or advice supplied to external sources. However, an exchange of data or purely factual information would not in itself constitute the provision of advice or, for that matter, the exchange of views.
The ‘exchange of views’ must be as part of a process of deliberation.
‘Deliberation’ refers to the public authority’s evaluation of competing arguments or considerations in order to make a decision.
43. As in this case, arguments under section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) are usually based on the concept of a ‘chilling effect’. The chilling effect argument is that disclosure of discussions would inhibit free and frank discussions in the future, and that the loss of frankness and candour would damage
the quality of advice and deliberation and lead to poorer decision making.
44. Public officials are expected to be impartial and robust when giving advice, and not easily deterred from expressing their views by the possibility of future disclosure. It is also possible that the threat of future disclosure could actually lead to better quality advice. Nonetheless, chilling effect arguments cannot be dismissed out of hand.
45. Chilling effect arguments operate at various levels. If the issue in question is still live, arguments about a chilling effect on those ongoing discussions are likely to be most convincing. Arguments about the effect on closely related live issues may also be relevant. However, once the decision in question is finalised, chilling effect arguments become more and more speculative as time passes. It will be more difficult to make reasonable arguments about a generalised chilling effect on all future discussions.
46. Whether it is reasonable to think that a chilling effect would occur will depend on the circumstances of each case, including the timing of the request, whether the issue is still live, and the actual content and sensitivity of the information in question.
47. The Commissioner has reviewed the information in question. Items 15 and 19 are minutes/actions from meetings held February 2013, item 18 is the action minutes from a meeting that was held in March 2013. At the time of the complainant’s request therefore, the meetings in question were very recent and the subjects under discussion would still have been live at the time of the request.
48. Item 15 is the minutes of the Headteachers’ and Teachers’ Joint Consultative Committee meeting on 28 February 2013 and is described as such ie as ‘Minutes’. As such they summarise the discussion that occurred in the meeting. The content of the minutes is as described at paragraph 19. They include summaries of participants’ exchange of views and their evaluation of particular proposals in order to reach a decision. The Commissioner considers that this Committee would have needed a safe space in which to freely and frankly deliberate on important and potentially sensitive matters such as fundamental reviews associated with the education sector; the current structure and service delivery models of education; budgetary options and proposals for improvement and potential change.
49. Given the closeness between the meeting in February 2013 and the original request for its minutes in March 2013, the Commissioner is persuaded that releasing these minutes may have been likely to have a chilling effect on subsequent meetings of this Committee. He agrees
with the Council that the public interest favours this particular information being withheld in order to protect the Committee’s ability to make decisions based on full and frank discussions.
50. The Commissioner has next considered items 18 and 19. Item 18 — the Member Steering Group – is described as ‘Action Minutes’. For the most part, only the agreed actions that resulted from the discussions are noted, with a brief summary of one or two points. Item 19 — the Members’ Equipment Steering Group’ — is described as ‘Actions’ and only agreed actions that resulted from the discussions are noted.
51. The Commissioner recognises that the meetings took place shortly before the request was submitted and that the matters under discussion were still live at that time, to some degree. However, he does not consider that the matters under discussion — elected Members’ training and equipment needs — is of sufficient sensitivity that disclosing the information would have a chilling effect on subsequent meetings of these two groups, and inhibit the process of providing advice or exchanging views. In addition, the overwhelming majority of the information held in these two documents is agreed actions, very briefly summarised, and not summaries of broader discussion and deliberation on these two matters. The Council has said that releasing this information would be likely to inhibit free and frank advice and exchange of views but its evidence for this is somewhat generic and consequently not strong. As a result, the Commissioner considers that the public interest favours releasing items 18 and 19 in the interests of transparency.
Right of appeal
52. Either party has the right to appeal against this decision notice to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights). Information about the appeals process may be obtained from:
What was Liverpool City Council’s incredible 6 page response to the FOI consultation?
You can tell a lot about the culture at a public body by its response and reaction to issues such as FOI and filming of public meetings.
I had better declare an interest as a FOI request I made to Liverpool City Council is currently being considered by ICO for a decision notice.
Considering there were over 30,000 responses to the recent consultation on changes to FOI legislation it’s something that attracts a lot of strong feeling.
I’m going to start first with Liverpool City Council’s response to the consultation. Those who know Liverpool City Council may say that their response sums up their attitude. From the tone of their response they don’t like openness and transparency and recommend that the goalposts are moved to prevent having to respond to so many FOI requests (whilst displaying a lack of awareness as to why they receive so many FOI requests in the first place). I think that responses like this are often like a window on an organisation’s soul.
It gives some telling insights on the internal review process of FOI requests at Liverpool City Council with comment such as “that an Internal Review is unlikely to reach a different conclusion”, therefore they propose abolishing internal reviews.
They also want advance notice of decision notices so that they can for want of a better word nobble ICO to change what they don’t like as in LCC’s world decision notices are described as “inappropriate”.
Liverpool City Council
Rt. Hon. Lord Burns
Chair – Commission on Freedom of Information Cabinet Office
102 Petty France London
Evidence Submission on review of Freedom of Information Legislation
I write further to my letter of 12 October and with regard to the Call for Evidence document issued by the Commission on Freedom of Information on 9 October, enclosing for the attention of the Commission the formal evidence submission of Liverpool City Council.
I would appreciate it if you would acknowledge receipt of this submission and would again take the opportunity to affirm our willingness to continue to engage constructively with the Commission during the course of its review.
I look forward to hearing from you in due course. Yours
These matters all have a starting point and undergo a number of iterations before coming forward as formal options. It is essential that this process should not be undermined by requests being made for copies of any emails or communications which formed part of the iterative process of decision making. Ultimately the governance framework ensures any decisions taken are informed and legal. This is a cornerstone of any effective public authority – from Central Government to local authorities – and it is essential that this ability to develop policy, proposals and explore options is maintained otherwise it would impair the quality and ability of public authorities to make informed decisions.
The application of this Exemption requires a person qualified under the Act to give their reasonable opinion, and guidance has been issued by the ICO as to the acceptable format of this. It is clear from the consultation document as well as practical experience that there is a need for such Exemption otherwise the quality of both record-keeping and decision-making by public authorities would be impaired.
Current guidance issued by the ICO (“the evidence required by the ICO would be to assess the quality of the Qualified Persons reasoning process and assist in their determination as to whether a substantive opinion could be considered reasonable…”) would appear to indicate that once the Qualified Person has reached and recorded their reasonable opinion then the ICO may only require the production of such a record but may not compel the disclosure of the information to which the Reasonable Opinion relates.
The key issue is that the Qualified Person’s opinion and record of reasoning which includes the public interest test is recorded. The ICO have produced a template for this purpose. The Information Commissioners Guidance also indicates that the potential prejudice claimed arising from any such disclosures must be at least or exceed a 50% chance of occurring.
How long after should that remain sensitive?
An additional key aspect of the decision-making process of public authorities is the duration of how long information which falls under the Exemption may be withheld from disclosure on the basis of the opinion of the Qualified Person. Information relating to ‘internal deliberations’ should remain capable of being withheld from disclosure for as long as the public authority considers necessary. Whether the information held continued to be subject to non-disclosure would of necessity be a matter for the relevant public authority to determine. It would be inappropriate to set any form of definitive time limit after which information could be deemed to no longer be sensitive if published. The sensitivity of any specific piece of information directly relates to the subject of the information itself as opposed to the date when this was created. There should be no limitation as to the period which a Qualified Person may determine that such information should not be disclosed if the subject of a formal request.
The City Council would also consider that opinions issued by Qualified Persons should not be subject to overturn if reached on a reasonable basis and in a manner consistent with ICO guidance and using their standard template. An alternative and more appropriate mechanism would be for any such opinions to be published on the website of the respective public authority and referenced accordingly within the publication scheme of that public authority. This would satisfy the accessibility and transparency requirements for such declarations and for the purposes of Liverpool City Council it is the Monitoring Officer.
An anomaly which the City Council would bring to the attention of the Commission is that of how the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) allow an exception (as opposed to the term ‘exemption as used under FOIA) for internal communications under Regulation 12(4) (d) and yet no parallel exemption is extant under FOIA.
Recommendations from Liverpool City Council –
(i) Qualified Person Opinion & Publication – that the Section 36 Exemption be revised to state that the reasonable opinion of the Qualified Person, once drafted and recorded on the relevant ICO template and published to the website of the public authority and referenced within the Publication Scheme, that this may not then be the subject of further review by the ICO.
Questions 2 – this question relates purely to matters within the legislation which are applicable only to Central Government and as such no response is proposed to be made.
Questions 3 & 4 see response to question 6 below.
Question 5 – What is the appropriate enforcement and appeal system for Freedom of Information Requests? What is the appropriate enforcement and appeal system for Freedom of Information Requests?
Appeals & Internal Review
Current legislation includes provision whereby public authorities must provide an internal review process whereby requestors may ask the Public Authority to review the original decision of the Public Authority on their specific request.
The burden placed on public authorities in preparing responses to initial requests is further exacerbated by the requirement to undertake an Internal Review to assess the validity of its response, when in the first instance such responses are issued following careful consideration of information held in the context of FOIA legislation. In terms of the figures set out in this response below, in 2014 of 2,139 requests a total of 49 requestors sought an Internal Review. Of these, only 5 appeals were the subject of Decision Notices from the ICO with only 1 of which requiring any form of action from the City Council – approximately 0.00047% of all requests processed by the City Council.
It is our position that our approach to an FOI request is robust and thorough from the outset, and that the legislation is applied by trained experienced staff so that an Internal Review is unlikely to reach a different conclusion as evidenced by these statistics.
Essentially public authorities are being asked to repeat an assessment when undertaking an Internal Review and to undertake work twice when conducting reviews, which is inefficient and places an excessive burden on local authorities.
We would draw attention to the process which the ICO then undertakes when seeking information from public authorities in such instances when informing their own decision-making. Frequently the level of information sought by the ICO goes beyond that of verifying the information held or application of the exemption concerned and indeed the subject matter of the original request. This process can be both resource intensive and give additional uncertainty in those circumstances where the ICO seeks information or reasoning beyond that which could reasonably be expected on a specific case. We would seek greater clarity as to the remit of the ICO in such circumstances and of the extent to which they may undertake a review.
Additionally, in concluding reviews, the ICO will then issue a Notice (Decision or Enforcement Notice) setting out their decision on the request concerned. We would suggest that this process be reviewed and aligned more closely to that used by the Local Government Ombudsman whereby any Notices proposed to be issued should firstly be sent to the public authority concerned for response. This would provide a fair and reasonable opportunity for public authorities and the ICO to address any clear factual inaccuracies, assist in maximising the value of any recommendations contained within the final Notice issued and possibly prevent a costly First Tier Tribunal being convened. The timescale for responses by the Public Authority to any Decision Notice to be 10 working days. The inclusion of unsubstantiated and factually inaccurate statements within ICO Notices, issued without opportunity to the public authority of correction or rebuttal, is inappropriate and requires addressing.
Applications to First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights)
The final opportunity for requestors – if unsatisfied with the outcome of a review undertaken by the ICO – is to submit an Appeal to the First Tier Tribunal. There is no threshold to be met before such applications are made and, in seeking to respond, public authorities are required to expend significant resources in responding. Only on the most fundamental principles of information law should this facility be available or otherwise a cost mechanism for such applications should be introduced in the same manner adopted for applications for Judicial Review.
Recommendations from Liverpool City Council –
(ii) Internal Review – that this mechanism be withdrawn on the basis that this offers no practical benefit for requestors and merely requires the duplication of effort by public authorities.
(iii) ICO drafting of Decision Notices – a requirement be introduced whereby the ICO in drafting a Decision Notice and prior to publication, be required to formally consult the subject public authority and allowing not less than ten working days for issues to be raised by the public authority. Such issues if not accepted by the ICO must be recorded as having been raised by the public authority.
(iv) Applications to First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) – a threshold or application fee be introduced for applications to the First Tier Tribunal, in a similar manner to that used for applications for Judicial Review.
Question 6 – Burden imposed under the Act and whether justified by the public interest in the public’s right to know
Public authorities are subject to detailed requirements set out in the Local Government Acts to date requiring the publication of information and prescribing how this is to be made available to the public. In addition, the introduction of the Local Government Transparency Code as statutory guidance introduced additional publication requirements on public authorities regarding openness and transparency in local government, which represents additional obligations beyond that already seen. Combined these elements demonstrate the breadth of requirements already inherent on public authorities to make information publicly available.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (and parallel Environmental Information Regulations 2004) place additional substantial burdens on public authorities. In terms of the resources public authorities are required to commit to dealing with Freedom of Information requests, there are a number of key points to be made.
Burden on Public Authorities
Under Section 16 FOIA and Section 45 Code of Practice, all public authorities are already under an obligation to give advice and assistance to requestors both in terms of framing requests as well as giving advice to bring such requests within the cost ceiling as laid down within the legislation. The current ceiling set out in the legislation is 18 hours, which is high in terms of resource and cost implications.
Firstly, by way of example of the experience of Liverpool City Council, the number of requests received in 2010 (1,217 requests) to the number of requests received in 2014 (2,139) shows an increase of 922 or in percentages of approximately 76%, and an increase in costs of approximately £150K per annum. This increase can be set against a context whereby the City Council has seen the funding it receives from Central Government reduced by 58% during the same period, placing substantial pressures on the viability of the delivery of essential services for its residents.
In real terms and using the figure for the average costs incurred in responding to an FOI request as set out in the Consultation Document issued by the Independent Commission, of £164 per request, the cost of responding to FOI requests based solely on this is £350K per annum to Liverpool City Council alone.
This does not take into account more complex, technical and detailed requests which have to be dealt with and which cost substantially more. The Council’s response rate within 20 working days was 88% in 2014.
The City Council would draw to the Commission’s attention the fact that that the average cost per request it has included within its consultation document is based on calculations undertaken in 2008.
It is highly probable that a similar calculation conducted today would reach a substantially higher ‘cost per request’ figure.
Table 1. Number of request received by Liverpool City Council in 2010 and 2014 and associated costs
£164 per request
£164 per request
The City Council welcomes the revised ICO guidance. However there needs to be additional clear guidance within that around the real public interest rather than the private interests of unelected individuals or concerted campaigns which are a drain on public resources. This type of requestor continues to rise in terms of complexity and their impact on available resources.
Based on the experience of Liverpool City Council and using the average cost idicated above, a small number of “frequent requesters” are costing a disproportionate amount of time and resources responding to their requests, of up to £7,000 per individual. This needs to be reflected and addressed within a substantive manner within any Guidance issued by the ICO.
There are also resource implications even associated with dealing with frivolous requests such as “what is the total number of red pens bought by the Council in the past year”. Even though this is classed as vexatious a formal response to that effect is still required to be issued, effectively occupying valuable resources.
A further burden associated with FOIA is that of the limited charging mechanisms available under the legislation, specifically, under FOIA public authorities may only charge where the time to deal with the request exceeds 18 hours in total.
The current 18 hours threshold (Section 12) is itself a significant demand on Council resources in that a request can take up to anything just below that timescale and no charge can be made. This in effect is up to and two and half days work . This threshold should be reviewed in the light of some of the research undertaken to date i.e. the average time taken to respond to an FOI request by public authorities of 6 hours and 10 minutes with a lower threshold being established.
In terms of the current charging regime associated with Freedom of Information legislation, again the experience of Liverpool City Council in responding to requests is that the art of redacting specific documents can be very time consuming and should be included within the costs permitted when determining whether complying with a request may exceed 18 hours.
In terms of charging the approach set out in the Environmental Impact Regulations 2004 (EIR) assumes information will be available to inspect ‘for free’ but if information is asked to be supplied in a different format a ‘reasonable’ charge may be made for that supply. Specifically, this charge may extend to the time spent by Officers in responding to the EIR request and supplying the information. This differs to the approach adopted in FOIA and should be made consistent.
The City Council would also draw attention to the difficulties caused by the two disclosure regimes operable in the form of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR). There is considerable overlap between requests which may be received under FOI but which, by virtue of the wide definition under EIR should be considered under that regime. The City Council would seek to encourage greater consistency between both regimes, through either a single consolidating Act or through amendments to both existing regimes to provide for a single common charging mechanism and consistency of the requirements for exemptions and exceptions.
An additional technical issue which we would seek to highlight is that of an Exemption (Section 21 absolute, class based) which is applied in those instances where information is either already in the public domain or accessible by alternative means. The legislation still requires this to be issued with a supporting Section 17 Refusal Notice. The City Council considers that the application of this Exemption should not require the issue of a Refusal Notice as no information is being withheld given it is either already in the public domain or accessible by other means to which the requestor is then directed. The use of a Refusal Notice in such instances can give rise to an Internal Review which of its nature would only generate additional unnecessary burdens for public authorities.
Recommendations from Liverpool City Council –
(v) 18 Hour Rule – that a review of the 18 hour limit beyond which charging or refusal is permitted be undertaken and consideration given to reducing this threshold to either 6 or 7 hours.
(vi) Charging/Reasonable recovery of costs – public authorities be given greater opportunity to levy charges for compliance with requests to ensure the recovery of reasonable costs associated with fulfilling requests which would include the time taken to redact any documents. To align the charging policies for EIR and FOI.
(vii) Vexatious Requests –that Guidance issued by the ICO in relation to dealing with Vexatious requests be further reviewed and strengthened in respect of frequent and persistent requesters
(viii) FOIA and EIR Alignment of Regimes – that a concurrent review be undertaken of the FOIA and EIR to ensure greater alignment of both pieces of legislation or one consolidating Act.
(ix) Refusal Notices – the requirements for issue of Refusal Notices be reviewed to remove requirements to issue these in such instances where a Section 21 (information in public domain or reasonably accessible by other means) Exemption is applicable.
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Wirral Council U-turns on refusal of FOI request for values and culture presentation
Wirral Council U-turns on refusal of FOI request for values and culture presentation
Over a year ago (3rd July 2014) I made a Freedom of Information Act request to Wirral Council using the excellent whatdotheyknow.com website for an email (and an attached Powerpoint presentation to the email) sent by Surjit Tour on Thursday 24th April 2014 with the subject of L&MS – Values and Culture Presentation. L&MS stands for Legal and Member Services (Member meaning councillor in local government jargon).
On the last day of July (31st July 2014) I got a reply. Mr Tour had considered the FOI request and refused it. His response referred to section 36 (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs) of the Freedom of Information 2000. For those familiar with this part of the Freedom of Information Act this is one of the parts that is subject to a public interest test.
Mr. Tour (who made the first decision on this request) claimed in refusing the request that releasing his email (and attachment) would:
(b) inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views;
or (c) otherwise prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.
Further detail was given about why this request was refused “The information requested was used as an integral part of a management meeting where a corporative initiative was openly discussed and debated” and “The Council has held/is holding a series of management meetings where there must be a safe space to share corporate initiatives and openly discuss and debate any issues arising in these meetings. It is also my reasonable opinion that if the requested information were to be disclosed, it would likely have a “chilling effect” that would inhibit the free and frank discussion and debate on matters of importance to the Council and its workforce. Any disclosure is likely to undermine the ability of officers to express themselves in a frank and open manner.”
It was further claimed that “disclosure would restrict the free and frank exchanges of views”, “disclosure would stifle debate at such meetings and could lead to poorer decision making” and “disclosure would have a potential detrimental effect on future management meetings” although “transparency in disclosure of the content of the management meeting” was given as a factor in favour of disclosure. Also stated in the response was “I consider it is crucial that officers are able to engage in discussion and exchange views in an open and frank manner.”
The new Chief Executive Eric Robinson on the 21st April 2015 agreed with Mr. Tour.
His responses were as follows, first to my point about whether it was a conflict of interest for Mr. Tour to decide on whether to release his own email:
“I do not agree that Mr. Tour would have been conflicted when he gave careful consideration to and applied the Section 36 exemption.”
In response to the point that the email and attachment was sent before the meeting, didn’t detail what was debated at the meeting therefore how could it “stifle debate at such meetings”?
“The contents of the attachments still remain current and topical to the Council. Officers who took part in this management meeting and those who will be present at further meetings, must be afforded a safe space in which they can openly discuss and debate these corporate initiatives.”
Finally responding to my point “well surely if Wirral Council is “open and transparent” then being “open and transparent” here about a very important aspect of the organisation (values and culture) would demonstrate to the public that Wirral Council has changed?” he replied:
“The Council is committed to openness and transparency and communicates this to the public in many ways. As well as the consultation exercises the Council has been involved in with members of the public; we also publish information and communications via our web pages.”
He included various links to the Council’s website to the Corporate Plan, a page on the Transparency Code and a page on the Freedom of Information Act 2000 & the Data Protection 1998.
Finally he stated:
“To summarise, as the Reviewing Officer, I have carefully considered the original response provided by the Monitoring Officer and my reasonable opinion is that I fully concur with his initial response. I am of the opinion that the exemption contained within Section 36 of The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has been correctly and appropriately applied. As the Reviewing Officer, I believe I have considered all relevant and material factors and issues.”
“After taking all factors into account, it is my reasonable and considered opinion that the reasons and rationale provided by Mr. Tour are valid and robust in nature. I do not consider I need to add anything more in this regard and I am satisfied that the public interest test in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest for disclosure.”
So on the 19th May 2015 I appealed this decision to the Information Commissioner’s Office. On the 11th August 2015 Wirral Council supplied the attached Powerpoint presentation but stated that the email had since been deleted.
Shortly after I received an email from the Information Commissioner’s Office stating that the case was now closed, although I have emailed them this morning asking them to clear up that the Chief Executive at internal review stated “The contents of the attachments still remain current and topical to the Council.” which would suggest more than one attachment to the email, yet only one attachment was supplied.
Ironically (considering what I’ve just written above) slide 10 on integrity states
“We communicate & are open and honest in what we do.”
However that point aside, the slides are about “organisational vision”, “values” and “culture”.
Slide 7 states that Wirral Council’s vision is:
“Wirral should be a place where the vulnerable are safe and protected, where employers want to invest and local businesses thrive and an excellent quality of life is within the reach of everyone who lives here.”
Slide 9 introduces Wirral Council’s values which are:
“integrity, efficiency, confidence and ambition”.
Slides 10 to 13 define each of these values.
We treat everyone with respect
We are accountable and take responsibility for our actions & decisions
We communicate & are open and honest in what we do
We seek innovative & creative solutions
We work effectively together to make the most of our resources
We proactively look for ways to improve
We fully use the skills, talents & assets of our partners, communities and organisation
We take decisions and deliver
We learn from & share knowledge and expertise with others
We deliver with energy and pace
We are risk aware, not risk averse
We have pride in our place and our people striving to be the best we can for Wirral”
The last slide refers to “support & change agents to be allocated”. If anyone would like to explain to me what a “support & change agent” is please leave a comment!
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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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.”
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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