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.
The internal review came back on the 30th July 2013, it changed the decision from refusing this part of the request on cost grounds (section 12) to refusing it on section 14 grounds (vexatious or repeated requests).
On the 14th August 2013 I appealed this decision to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).
On the 19th June 2014 Wirral Council amended its response. It still refused this part of the request but now decided to amend its reason for withholding the information. It was no longer withheld relying on section 14 (vexatious or repeated requests) but back to section 12 (exemption where cost of compliance exceeds appropriate limit). The parts of the request that could be described as environmental information were refused using Regulation 12(4)(b) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 as being “manifestly unreasonable”. This is the EIR equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act’s vexatious exemption.
On the 8th September 2014 the Information Commissioner’s Office issued a decision notice for this request (FS50509081).
The 9 page decision notice said that Wirral Council had breached section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and regulation 5(2) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 by not responding to this request within the first 20 working days of making it.
In addition to this it had breached s.16(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and regulation 9(1) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 which require Wirral Council to provide advice and assistance to those making requests.
Finally the decision notice required Wirral Council to issue a fresh response to this request within 35 calendar days of the 8th September 2014 that did not rely upon the exemption in section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (cost grounds) or Regulation 12(4)(b) of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (that the environmental part of the request was “manifestly unreasonable”.
On the 4th November 2014 Wirral Council released redacted minutes of the Special Advisory Committee on Religious Education’s meeting of the 7th February 2013. Apart from the councillors on the committee anybody else on the committee had their name replaced by “name redacted”.
The minutes now looked like this:
Name redacted nominated Name redacted for the post of Vice Chair and this was seconded by Name redacted. By a unanimous show of hands Name redacted was duly elected to the post of Vice Chair.
Their response stated why the names had been removed, relying on a section 40 exemption for personal information.
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:
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.”
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.
Understandably I complained to ICO again.
Today (over 8 months since the last internal review request that they claimed was “vexatious”) Wirral Council got back in touch.
They now want to “amend their response”. Apparently the bit about the SACRE meeting minutes was not vexatious. They no longer seek to rely on the exemption contained in section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The minutes of the SACRE meeting of the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education held on the 7th February 2013 were provided including names.
So for a request made on the 29th March 2013, the information was finally given out on the 17th July 2015 whereas FOI requests are required to be answered within 20 working days.
However, this change of heart of Wirral Council wasn’t just about the part of the request for a meeting of the Special Advisory Council on Religious Education. Their response to the part of the request for minutes of a meeting of the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee was modified as follows:
Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee
I enclose an extract from an email provided to the Information Management Team which was as follows:-
“There are no minutes from 2013 the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee as the present Committee was formed in March 2014.”
This is the reason that the council responded to your original request that it did not hold any information
I asked a councillor on Twitter about whether the Hilbre Island Nature Reserve Management Committee existed prior to 2014.
Two councillors were kind enough to reply to my question. Cllr Chris Carubia stated “From the discussions today I know it has been in existence for over 5 years at least”.
Cllr Pat Williams replied, “Yes I was a proud member for a number of years.”
I include copies of the tweets below.
— Patricia Williams (@mrspatwilliams) July 17, 2015
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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