Transparency watchers are all too well aware that Nottingham City Council is the only local authority in England refusing to publish all spending over £500. What is less well known is the accountability-dodging council’s repeated flouting of Freedom of Information legislation (FOI), and the role the council’s leadership plays in blocking FOI responses.
Nottingham City fails to answer an astonishing 40 percent of FOI requests within the statutory deadline of 20 working days. These figures were revealed by an FOI request which, ironically enough, took the council 36 working days to respond to, and only then when the requester had asked for the case to go to internal review.
Of the 623 cases that were responded to late, a ‘clerical error’ was listed as a factor in eighteen of them. What then of the other 605 cases? A brief glance over Nottingham City’s FOI responses on the What do they know? website reveals the following introductory passage appearing with alarming regularity:
‘Initially, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for the delay in responding to your request. This is due to us encountering problems obtaining the information from the relevant department(s).’
One can sense the frustration among NCC’s FOI officers in this little paragraph. Trying to extract information from their City Hall colleagues is clearly like pulling teeth; the fact that the council is legally obliged to provide requested information does not seem to count for much. Publically placing blame on another department in your organisation is generally considered a cardinal sin in the public sector. If Nottingham City’s information officers are forced to publicly reveal the difficulties they have in getting other departments in the council to hand over information, you can be sure the problem is endemic.
In fact, evidence is beginning to grow that the council’s leadership is blocking the work of its own information officers. It has emerged that in December last year council leader Jon Collins refused to let Information Governance staff carry out an automated search of his e-mail account to answer an FOI request from a Liberal Democrat councillor. The council’s head of communications Stephen Barker also blocked the publication of council publicity plans alleged to show publicly-funded publicity for the council and the Labour party in the run-up to the 2007 elections. The spin chief denied the council held such plans, then handed them over once the legal deadline to respond to the FOI had passed. An angry information officer emailed the council’s head of legal services, pointing out that the council was in danger of committing a criminal offence:
‘I found the actions of communications colleagues particularly unhelpful on this matter, with Stephen's actions potentially placing him as the individual, or the council, at risk of committing a criminal offence by asserting information isn't held and then subsequently disclosing it.’
Collins himself has made no secret of his disdain for FOI, recently tweeting, ‘£500,000 a year on FOIs – could save a lot of services with that.’ It would be interesting to know how much of this supposed cost is self-inflicted by the council’s persistent attempts to block the FOI process. The time wasted by information officers having to repeatedly chase up officials who do not provide information; the large number of cases that go to internal review and the Information Commissioner because the council has refused to answer them; lawyers’ time spent concocting dubious uses of exemptions to avoid releasing information... these must be significant costs.
One instance of the latter tactic is the council’s attempt to silence a local blogger, Andy Platt, who uses FOI to scrutinise the council’s leadership and spending. When Platt asked for copies of internal reports on the housing allocations scandal in the council (which Notts Police controversially agreed to let the council investigate for itself), the council invoked Section 14 of the Act, accusing Platt of making ‘vexatious’ requests. The basis for the ‘vexatious’ claim was that Platt had made twenty FOI requests in a year (which it classed as ‘obsessive’, despite the fact that they were on unrelated subjects), and that he often publishes findings from his requests on his satirical blog mocking NCC’s leadership (by some mysterious tenuous link his requests are thereby said to be ‘harassing the Authority and distressing its colleagues’).
This contradicts FOI guidance, which clearly states that it must be the requests themselves which are vexatious, not the requester and not any use to which the information may be put. Unfortunately for the council, no sooner had it brushed off Platt than another – presumably less vexatious – requester asked for copies of the same internal reports. The council reverted to its default tactic for dealing with FOIs. It simply ignored the request.
Nottingham City’s repeated flouting of FOI legislation has caught the attention of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which placed the council under a period of special monitoring that came to an end on 30 June (at least it had company – 11 other councils were also on the monitoring list). The council, however, is as contemptuous of the ICO as it is of the general public. On numerous occasions the ICO has ordered NCC to release requested information, and on numerous occasions NCC has simply ignored those orders. Given the repeated and systemic violations of FOI legislation at Nottingham City Council, it will be interesting to find out just how sharp the ICO’s teeth really are and what action it will take against the council. We will certainly keep you posted.