Wirral Council take nearly 20 months to respond to a FOI request for SACRE meeting minutes that should only take 20 days
I wanted to write this piece to show how hard it is to get information out of Wirral Council, that is routinely published elsewhere.
On the 29th March 2013, I made this Freedom of Information Act request for the minutes of the previous meeting of Wirral Council’s Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education (SACRE).
Just as a bit of background as to what the Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education is. The Education Act 1996 c.56 has s.390 to s.397 on these committees and there are also regulations called the The Religious Education (Meetings of Local Conferences and Councils) Regulations 1994 which have the following regulations relevant to this:
Regulation 3 determines that the Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education meets in public. Unusually the regulations also states that they can’t exclude the public or press except for disorderly conduct.
The public have a right to inspect a copy of the minutes of its meetings for up to 6 years after they’ve happened (also agendas and reports).
Wirral Council even has to give three days advance notice of SACRE meetings.
This document on Brent Council’s website on page 14 states “The main meetings of SACRE are public and open to all. Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 all SACRE documents are required to be available for public scrutiny.”
Under Wirral Council’s internal rules this committee is not however administered by Legal and Member Services, but instead serviced by officers from the Children and Young People’s Department. It doesn’t for example appear in the list of public meetings on Wirral Council’s website.
So this is what happened when I tried to request the minutes of one meeting of SACRE.
29th March 2013 FOI request made using excellent whatdotheyknow website.
29th April 2013 Wirral Council exceeds 20 day limit for responding to request and is sent a reminder
30th April 2013 Request refused on s. 12(1) cost grounds (require >18.5 hours of work) due to:
“a great deal of Personal Data and Sensitive Data, which would have to be reviewed and redacted were applicable.”
30th April 2013 Internal review of decision of 30th April 2013 requested. It is pointed out to Wirral Council that redacting documents does not count towards the 18.5 hour limit.
30th July 2013 Internal review decision also refuses request, not on s.12(1) cost grounds but on s.14 (vexatious or repeated request) grounds.
14th August 2013 Internal review decision appealed to Information Commissioners Office
8th September 2014 ICO issue decision notice FS50509081
Decision notice states (in relation to this part of the FOI request) Wirral Council breached s.10 and incorrectly applied s.12 and s.16:
s.10 (time for compliance with request) due to failure to respond to FOI request within 20 working days
s.12 (exemption where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit) (failed to provide evidence)
s.16 (duty to provide advice and assistance) (breached requirement)
ICO require Wirral Council to take the following steps within 35 calendar days (deadline 13th October 2014) or alternatively appeal the decision notice within 28 days of the 8th September 2014:
Issue a response to the complainant’s request that does not rely upon section 12(1) of the FOIA or regulation 12(4)(b) of the EIR.
Provide advice and assistance to the complainant about which of the requested information is held by the council, and therefore falls under the terms of the FOIA or EIR.
14th October 2014 (36th calendar day after decision notice) no response received from Wirral Council (after which time it is considered contempt of court) so I tell ICO.
4th November 2014 Wirral Council supply the minutes of the SACRE meeting held on 7th February 2013 but remove all names (apart from councillors) on the basis of s.40 (personal information) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
So the minutes supplied (this is an extract of the first three agenda items) look like this (I’ve added annotations in italics with an asterisk):
MINUTES OF THE MEETING OF THE STANDING ADVISORY COUNCIL FOR RELIGIOUS EDUCATION HELD ON 7 FEBRUARY 2013
* Groups A to D are as follows (who makes up SACRE is determined by s.390 of the Education Act 1996:
Group A “a group of persons to represent such Christian denominations and other religions and denominations of such religions as, in the opinion of the authority, will appropriately reflect the principal religious traditions in the area;”
Group B “except in the case of an area in Wales, a group of persons to represent the Church of England;”
Group C “a group of persons to represent such associations representing teachers as, in the opinion of the authority, ought to be represented, having regard to the circumstances of the area;”
Group D “a group of persons to represent the authority.” (see below)
Councillor W Clements
Councillor W Smith
Councillor P Kearney
Councillor B Mooney
In Attendance: Names redacted
Name redacted in the Chair
Name redacted formally welcomed everyone to the meeting and introduced the first item on the agenda – the Election of a Wirral SACRE Chair for the year 2013/14. .
ELECTION OF POSTS
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.
SACRE Business Matters
Apologies for absence were received from Names redacted, Councillor T Smith, Name redacted.
So advice anyone, should I request an internal review of the decision to redact the names? As these are public meetings, how are the public or press supposed to find out when they meet? If I requested further SACRE meeting minutes do you think they’d take 20 months (rather than the 20 days required under FOI) to supply them?
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