20120718 Freedom of Information or Licence to Hide

As a result of the aggressive letter from four Councillors (two of whom subsequently withdrew their support) to which I replied, I raised a series of requests to Guildford Borough Council for information under the Freedom of Information Act, 2000.

I carefully crafted my request to ask for information that, based on the Chief Executive’s report to the Scrutiny Committee Meeting in April and the accusations made (which I am given to believe were assembled at a meeting involving senior officers and Councillors), should have been readily to hand.

Requests 1 to 4 can be seen here.

Request 5 can be seen here.

Request 6 can be seen here.

The first set of four requests was rejected on 28th May 2012 by letter from the Information Officer on the basis that it “is extremely wide in scope and would clearly involve an unreasonable amount of research for any officer to (a) establish whether all of the information [I] have requested is held, and (b) if so, to collate and extract the relevant information so that it is in a format that can be provided to [me].”

On 7th June I wrote summarising my thoughts on the likely time required to satisfy my request for information and this was passed to Sue Sturgeon (who, I believe, has 40 working days to respond before I refer it to the Information Commissioner – that is, she needs to reply on or before 2nd August).

In the meantime, I received a response to the second set of requests (Request Number 5 on the subject of Jim Miles).  Unsurprisingly it says very little and hides behind the Data Protection Act, 1998. This may seem appropriate since there are provisions in the Act to protect the individual’s data.  The Council has, however, by its mishandling of the public relations aspects of Mr Miles’s ‘retirement’, left a vacuum of rumour and gossip.  The inidvidual’s interests in this case are probably not best served by the concealment of even the slightest truth. In the meantime, however, the full weight of the Council is thrown against anyone (such as Honorary Alderman Gordon Bridger) who dares to report what he has heard of the matter and, without any formal comment on the matter, legal action is threatened.

Under these circumstances, the Council has made this a matter of public interest and, by failing to provide any responses to perfectly reasoned requests, the Council’s leadership (officer and/or member) shows itself to me at least to be morally and ethically bankrupt.

The response referred to above was dated 5th July, 32 working days after my request (in other words, 12 days outside the limit prescribed by the Freedom of Information Act 2000).

The final request is still outstanding 39 days after the original request of 21st May.

The nature of responses which appears to deny the existence of any records other than committee minutes (ie., no emails, no meeting notes, no memos to officers, etc.) I am tempted to make a further request to establish how many sheets of A4 the Council uses in any calendar year – they must get thrown away even before anything is printed on them; equally, a request for the amount of data held on the Council’s servers in gigabytes – the majority of which must be irrelevant since it does not seem to be retrievable when specific requests are made!

The Information Officer relies on a form of words: “The Council does not hold any information specifically relating to this element of your request, bearing in mind the possible wide interpretation of your question.”  This suggests that one can only ask for information one already has… in which case, why ask?

I have to conclude that it is the strategic direction of the Council to operate behind closed doors and to ensure that no-one can have any sight of what goes on within.  This is neither democratic nor defensible!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *