Friday 3 May 2013

A vexatious request...?

Update 7th May
The ICO have informed me that I have no other option other than to go through the complaint procedure yet again, so I have asked the council to review their response that my request is a vexatious. If, when the review is complete, I still find their response unsatisfactory, I will then make a further complaint to the ICO.

My request for an internal review is here, (you'll have to scroll down the page, it is near the end of the thread).

Further to my blog post in March, 'Complaint to Information Commissioner upheld', The council have now issued a fresh response to my request.

My request, which was originally made in June 2012, was for correspondence between the Council and the Towy Community Church concerning the Excel bowling alley/church project.

The council refused the original request under the cost/time limits, claiming it would exceed 18 hours to retrieve the information.

The Information Commissioner (ICO) eventually decided that it could in fact be answered within the time limit and ordered the council to issue a fresh response within 35 days. The full ICO decision notice can be read here

The fresh response from the Council is another refusal under Section 14 (1), Vexatious Requests. The full response and thread of the request can be seen here but here is the relevant extract;

“Issue a fresh response under the FOIA that does not rely on Section 12 (1).”

In light of the ICO’s findings, we have therefore reconsidered your request. We find that there are other grounds for refusing to comply with the request, which are set out below.

Under Section 14 (1) of the FOIA, a public authority is not obliged to comply with a request which is vexatious.

Having referred to the ICO’s guidance (version 5, June 2012) and relevant case law (Information Commissioner v. Devon CC & Dransfield [2012] UKUT 440 (AAC)) we are of the view that the request is indeed vexatious.

We feel that it would impose a significant burden on the Council, as documented in the ICO’s decision notice (reference FS50461626).

Furthermore, we are of the opinion that the request does not in fact have any serious purpose or value in terms of the objective public interest in the information sought.

Section 14 (1) has the effect of an absolute exemption in such circumstances.

Please therefore consider this email to be a formal notice of refusal, in accordance with Section 17 of the Act.

For the time being, I shall have to assume that the council are being sincere in stating that it is the request which is vexatious, and not the requestor. However, given that I am aware that the council consider the number of requests I have made as 'high', I am not certain the refusal relates solely to the request. The request itself concerns a controversial topic.

I also find it puzzling that the request was not classed as vexatious in the council's original refusal notice, why now and not then?

The 'points' of vexatiousness ( "manifestly unjustified, inappropriate or improper use of" the FOIA procedures) used by the council in this refusal are that it will still pose a burden on the authority to supply the information, and, whether there was a 'serious reason' behind the the motive of the request.

To take the first point, I believed from the start that the request should not have involved the degree of retrieval the council made out, however I recognise that I will probably not be able to prove my 'mountain out of a molehill' argument. For the record, I have always been aware of the correct use of FoI and have tried to keep my requests focussed and reasonable.

The second point turns on the motive and the public interest in disclosure of the information requested. I believe the public interest argument is clearly made out and therefore the motive should not come into the equation. Indeed, there was no 'other' motive.

I am not going to go over all the numerous issues which have arisen concerning this 'partnership' between the council and the Towy Community Church, they can be found by searching this blog, or Cneifiwr's, or for a comprehensive summary see my guest post on Secular Wales from last November. There have also been several critical press stories including the BBC Wales Dragon's Eye programme, Private Eye and Wales on Sunday.

There is also a continuing public interest in the growth of evangelical organisations delivering council services, food banks and debt counselling. Community spirited organisations should be commended but there is an underlying concern that evangelical groups are taking advantage of the increasingly vulnerable sectors of society to proselytise and 'spread the faith' and this is being embraced by central and local government through the 'Big Society' agenda.

To put it simply, the public interest in disclosing the correspondence between the organisations was clearly to shed some light how the 'partnership' was formed, how grants from the council met criteria, the issue of equalities, the 'flexible' planning permission and how the council came to bestow £1.4m on this organisation and announce that it was going to ease the burden on the Social Care budget.


Pat Dodd Racher said...

I think the information should be disclosed, and would therefore add my name to your request, if that can be done. I feel it is in the public interest for the decision-making process to be transparent.

caebrwyn said...

Thank you Pat. I believe I would now have to go back to square one and request an internal review of this latest response, and then make a fresh complaint to the ICO.
If I do this, I will be sure to add your name.

caebrwyn said...

To anon who left a comment at around 7pm yesterday (Sat) evening, and another anon who commented just after 12, many thanks for taking the time and trouble to do so. Unfortunately I am unable to publish these at the moment, but I assure you that your comments have been noted.

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

See my comment on Cneifiwr's blog, the IC should be following this up now, write to the IC referring CCC refusal back and make ANOTHER complaint that CCC are guilty of abuse of process in the use f Sec 14(1). Demand that the IC completes their job.

caebrwyn said...

@Plaid Gwersyllt
Thanks. Yes, I agree and have decided to follow this up. I'll be contacting the ICO.

Tessa said...

Damn right its in the public interest! Vexatious - my arse. What the hell are they playing at? Just give her the goddamn info.!

Anonymous said...

Although I have no problem with churches or other organisations delivering contracts in principle, the council need to except that the issuing of contracts is going to be challenged, to ensure correct process has been followed.
Any council contract should have standard clauses for DPA & FOI. As the council can't ask why you require the information it would be difficult for them to say it's vexatious (having no serious purpose) Yes challenge them. I have been doing FOI since 2005, I've had over 2000 requests non vexatiuos, but plenty annoying ones, but that is very different.

caebrwyn said...

I'd be very grateful if the commenter who described him/herself as a 'former church member' could kindly get in touch with me via the email link on the blog?

Also, to the commenter who left a comment the same evening, thanks for your further message;.... :-)

Both comments were left on Saturday evening, the first at about midnight and the second at around 7pm.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

The barefaced cheek of it!As I commented on Cyneifiwr,they make it up as they go along.Perhaps they think we are all plebs!Of course it is in the public interest.When can we expect some sort of intervention in CCC that will give transparency on important issues such as how and where decisions about our money are made?

Anonymous said...

Interesting - informants from inside the church me thinks !