Saturday 18 May 2013

'Public statements' - a vexatious action under FoI?

Further to A vexatious request? (May 3rd), and just in case anyone is still following the lengthy saga of my Freedom of Information request for correspondence between Carmarthenshire Council and the Towy Community Church, the very latest instalment is now available. I asked for this information back in June 2012.

As predicted, the council's second 'internal review' has upheld the fresh decision, (issued after the ICO upheld my complaint), that the request, (or the requestor, I'm not sure which, given their reasoning), is vexatious. It all seems to coincide with new guidance published by the ICO on Thursday which whilst clarifying that only the request itself can be deemed vexatious, the council can incorporate a multitude of other factors including motive, as well as their own perception of the requestor, to add strength to their argument.

Clearly the council have embraced every possible interpretation, and have even included 'public statements' I have made (though they haven't specified exactly what they're referring to) as a reason to refuse on this basis. It must follow then that should a newspaper write a critical report following an FoI response, further requests could be refused on the basis of their 'public statements'.

This latest, full response from the legal department, which includes the council's application of the Information Commissioner v Devon CC and Dransfield [2012] UKUT 440 (AAC), can be read HERE.
(The full history of the request is here)

Given the highly controversial £1.4m financial commitment made by the council to the organisation and the bowling alley project, the information is still very much in the public interest, and as phase two of the project gets underway, all the more reason for the information to be made public.

I now have the option of going back yet again to the Information Commissioner.

Also in the public interest is the subject of my most recent request which is for minutes of meetings of the Business Management Group. As I have previously mentioned (please use the search box on the right), the group is made up of party elite and senior officers and it's remit is, apparently, to 'advise' the Executive Board.

Although not technically a decision making body, it's advice and recommendations have never been known to be rejected.

The meetings are not published and the group does not feature anywhere in either the Management nor Political Structure of the council. They do, however, appear to produce Minutes. The publication of these minutes will perhaps go some way to open up the decision making process and show the level and content of discussion prior to the recommendations which are, without any known exception, approved.

Another interesting aspect to this group is that any small groups or unaffiliated/truly independent councillors are not included. The 'Independent' group is included of course as it has all the hallmarks of a political party, believe it or not.

A couple of years ago Cllr Sian Caiach challenged the lack of representation of small groups within the BMG. The Acting Head of Legal dismissed concerns that "human rights" (she used inverted commas) were being infringed and it was just (to paraphrase) tough luck that if you didn't have a large enough group, you weren't represented.

Cllr Caiach responded and reminded the officer that the group not only used public funds but it's membership was discriminatory against small groups and individuals who actually represented thousands of constituents. She also wondered at what point did a group have to be large enough for the legal department to recognise it had human rights. As far as I know there was no response.

Anyway, the twenty days has now passed for the council to issue a response to my request for the minutes. Apparently they will be in a position to do so by the end of next week. I'll wait and see their response.
The request can be read here.


Anonymous said...

The bmg is very similar to the principles of Ye privy council, as in the uk parliament version. It's there for politicians to have private conversations and for them to organise the business that will be discussed on the chamber. There is no legislature in the world that doesn't have a version this, and local government has developed a mirror system. If the minutes are published, then political leaders will still Have to have an off the record meeting, so they can be honest with each other without the need to grandstand; this is even more important now that the actual council meetings are now webcast, and sensible council chamber discussions will now definetly never happen. In essence, be careful what you wish for, because there has to be a forum for all parties to consult each other, or government doesn't function.

caebrwyn said...

@Anon 23.15
Interesting comment. To a certain extent I agree and no matter how 'open' a public body is, major decisions, strategy and of course matters of commercial sensitivity and personal data will always be discussed on an informal basis. The Business Management Group is, I believe, slightly different in that it is less an informal get-together and more an official stage in the decision making process.

In my view, webcasting should make no difference to the level or quality of discussion in the Chamber, these are local representatives of local people. Meetings have always been open to those who wished to attend, including the press. In my view, and in Carmarthenshire anyway, the blocking of sensible debate has been through various amendments to procedures and the concentration of control into the hands of a very small minority of unelected officers.
One good example was an important notice of motion put forward that the council respect the freedom of the local press. This came after the revelation that the council had withdrawn advertising from a local paper after a mildly negative story. This was a good opportunity to air concerns and restore faith, but the decision was made that this was inappropriate to be discussed in public or by full council so a private meeting was held attended by the press manager and three others. Naturally, it was decided that all was well.
This is a little like the argument that the Freedom of Information Act stopped government writing things down, an email between colleagues, for instance, had the potential to be published to the world at large. But, like controversy over elements of the human rights act, or even elf 'n' safety, we couldn't, and wouldn't want to, imagine a world without it.
The presumption, and pressure, has to always be for as much transparency as possible, or we end up with situations like Caerphilly reflected on a national scale as recently reported by the Independent