Council has never met freedom of information targets, report reveals

Hove Town Hall

A report into delayed responses to freedom of information requests has revealed the council has never hit the national target.

Just two-thirds of freedom of information (FOI) requests made to Brighton, and Hove City Council were completed within the required 20 days in the last year.

The Information Commissioner’s Office sets a target of 90 per cent, which the city council has never achieved.

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Conservative councillor Anne Meadows called for the report to the Audit and Standards Committee after hearing from residents and campaign groups how they were left waiting for responses.

When she asked for the report in June, she raised concerns from campaigners for domestic abuse charity RISE.

Campaigners were frustrated they could not get a timely response from the council as they asked for information about the decision-making process when RISE lost its council contracts for refuge and support services.

The ICO upheld four complaints in May and June because the city council failed to provide a “substantive response” to requests submitted in September, October and November 2020 and February 2021.

The report that went before the committee on Tuesday 28 September said from April 2020 to March 2021, there were 1,508 FOI requests, which is the lowest level since 2015-16.

As of 3 September, there are 168 overdue requests, of which 150 are more than 40 days overdue.

Since August, the response rate has improved, with 92 per cent of requests completed within 20 days.

The department for economy, environment and culture has the most lengthy overdue requests out of any council department.

Councillor Meadows said: “So many residents have contacted me saying the council were not responding within the 20 days, that is the approved guidelines.

“I’ve been inundated since I asked for this report.”

She was concerned about the poor information management processes listed in the report and the lack of staff.

Head of strategy and engagement IT and digital, the department currently responsible for managing FOIs, Dan Snowdon, said FOIs are “passed around” as emails to the relevant services and some are missed or not actioned as quickly as they should be.

The council is in the process of introducing a new case management system to allow all departments to track FOI requests.

FOI requests are listed as a key performance indicator that goes before the council’s Policy and Resources Committee.

Green councillor Sue Shanks asked for details of the type of request the council received as she was surprised the largest proportion of requests, 33 per cent come from commercial organisations.

The next most significant proportion was 27 per cent of FOIs of unknown origin, then 11 per cent from media, 11 per cent from charities and campaign groups and nine per cent from residents.

She also asked if the council had to answer requests.

Mr Snowden said: “In IT, the requests would be from suppliers looking for information around IT strategy, what systems are coming up for renewal and when they can see an opportunity for bidding for contracts.

“By law, we have to respond to every request whether it’s someone seeking work or a journalist seeking information, or a resident seeking information about the status of a case within that service.”

Councillor Shanks said: “Maybe we need some action nationally rather than locally.

“I am sure the sort of request you just outlined on commercial stuff was not what the first Blair government had in mind with open government and open information.

“That doesn’t sound a good use of our time.”

Executive lead officer for Strategy, Governance and Law Abraham Ghebre-Ghiorghis said on leaving office former Prime Minister Tony Blair said one of his biggest regrets was the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Ghebre-Ghiorghis said: “The intended user was the public, but we look at the statistics alone, and half of the users are commercial organisations.

“We’ve got lobbying groups, academics, people that want to do marketing and a lot of local groups such as taxpayers. Some of the requests are also vexatious.

“However, the legislation is person blind. You’re not allowed to look behind for the reason and purpose they’re going to use it.”

He said Brighton and Hove is not in a unique position regarding FOIs delays, but it is not something that the council can turn around quickly.

  1. Rostrum Reply

    ‘Freedom’, truth, justice and service are words of no use to this cities council…..

    • Christopher Hawtree Reply

      The article makes it clear that the system is being used overwhelmingly by commercial organisations, which has an effect upon other requests. This needs to be addressed as a national matter.

      • Peter Challis Reply

        Are you suggesting that councils elected to represent residents, and especially those run by Greens, should be able to hide details of what they do when they decide otherwise?

  2. roy pennington Reply

    whatever the proportion (and it does not matter), the fact is the FoI dept. and the Council are not fit for any purpose whatsoever on these figures.

  3. Greens Out Reply

    Anyone surprised?

  4. Richard Everest Reply

    Two years waiting following foi request for documents and other communications between the Planning Office and a partnered contractor with regards anomalies in consents granted, contrary to conditions imposed by planning appeal adjudicator. During that period, the development has been completed. Too late for redress, very convenient being swept under the carpet? The planning office are a law unto themselves without requisit for acknowledgement of culpability or penalty thereof.

  5. fed-up with brighton politics Reply

    I often don’t agree with Christopher, but he is absolutely right, in that this needs to be addressed as a national matter. Commercial concerns can do their own research, but choose to use FOI instead, because it costs nothing. So, has the useless CEO of B&H Council sent a strong letter to the Government – I very much doubt it.

    Meanwhile, hugely concerned local groups (not commercial concerns, just groups of normal residents), such as AGHAST and the Brighton Society, have very genuine questions and worries about the council’s behaviour and interaction with the prospective greedy developers of the Brighton Gasworks site – to name just one or two of the actually still-unanswered requests. The Information Commissioner has issued ‘final warnings’ to the council about replying and no replies seem to have been received. And it just drifts on. It is notable that, on the IOC website, I can’t seem to see any determinations about non-replies from B&H re commercial enquiries. The commercials are just trying their arm and don’t seem to submit a complaint about non-answers, so perhaps the Council should concentrate on requests where the IOC has actually threatened them with the High Court.

    Some of these requests are very time-sensitive, as with Rise and the Gasworks. In the latter case, the developers now think they will put in a planning application in October/November and still we have no answers at all from the Council to the FOI requests, which is critical.

    What this article does reveal all too clearly is that, whatever ‘system’ the Council has in place for dealing with FOI requests, it is totally amateur, dysfunctional and not fit for any purpose at all. We might be better off with exercise books and biros rather than the IT which has mucked up parking permits and so on. And this is not new.

    Quite a few years ago, the Council was re-placing a lamp-post in my street, which wasn’t all that interesting. You would think that this just involved some electrics, digging out the existing post, sticking the new one in and re-connecting. Not at all. There were quite a lot of men involved in this, most just standing around doing nothing, several vans, including an external contractor, but eventually the new post got installed. I could not believe how many people and entities were involved in this and put in an FOI request to ask what this seemingly simple job had cost. When I did get an answer, they said the cost was some very small amount and denied that the idle external contractors I had seen with my own eyes were even there. This must have been lies and defensiveness, or incompetence, or all of those.

    Many, perhaps nearly all, of the problems with this council in their interaction and delivery with their taxpayers lie with a denial culture, plus general incompetence, all presided over by overpaid and ineffectual directors and, of course, the ditto CEO.

    It doesn’t matter who gets in politically at the next Local Elections, because they will have no control over the rubbish bureaucracy that is B&H Council, but there does need to be a firm and positive commitment from candidates to sort out (preferably sack without compensation) the CEO, directors and officials.

    • Some Guy Reply

      “whatever ‘system’ the Council has in place for dealing with FOI requests, it is totally amateur, dysfunctional and not fit for any purpose at all”
      If it’s anywhere like where I’ve worked in the past, there is no system. You can’t make an arbitrary system for requests that could span any kind of information, over any range of time, in any format or scope imaginable.
      There are two options.
      A) You hire a team of internal researchers whose only job is to go ferreting about in other departments’ records and compile reports for FOI. This is expensive and likely to cause disruption.
      B) You forward the request to the member of staff whose job is most similar to the subject of the request and add it to their workload. They (having a job of work to do and potentially not being the sort of person who can do a longitudinal study of project costs over a historical period) promptly don’t do it, return half of it, or pass the buck. This costs nothing but achieves nearly nothing.
      If we abandoned “the IT” the whole thing would be impossible on paper, instead of in practice.

  6. Mike Beasley Reply

    BHCC were particularly slow when responding to the OSR cycle lane usage figures FOI. They were eventually forced to by the governing body. I can’t , for the life of me , imagine why theytook so long …

  7. Lisa Barrett Reply

    If you think they’re slow on FoI requests you should ask them for their figures in Subject Access Requests.

    • Serena Evans Reply

      Top tip!

  8. Serena Evans Reply

    So the council is currently recruiting climate change/travel jobs, which none of us asked them to do with a combined wage bill of £250,000 and not boosting their FOI team resources?
    Their first duty is to their taxpayers. In fact it’s a statutory duty!

    • Some Guy Reply

      A quick search revealed the following vacancies:
      Business Development Manager
      Transport and Highway Development Manager
      Strategic Transport Development Officer
      Team Administrator
      Principal Highway Agreements Engineer
      Principal Transport Development Officer

      Given the absolute furore in this paper and others about Brighton’s transport arrangements, I’m not surprised they’re having a shake-up. In fact, several commenters here called for it.
      Whether their duty to try and fix the roads is more or less important than answering questions for NIMBYs like Richard below is up to you.

      • Chaz. Reply

        Residents would rather they cleaned up the city, stopped inviting undesirables here and made the city fit for living, let alone tourism.
        You might want to play in a Green sandbox, we want bins emptied, graffiti cleaned and drunks and druggies cleared away.
        No end to the arrogance and ignorance of the Greens.

        • Some Guy Reply

          Given that you openly want to “clear away” “undesirables” don’t you think it’s hypocritical to accuse others of arrogance? If you want to live in a hard authoritarian nightmare, I would suggest you move.

      • fed-up with brighton politics Reply

        Do you, or anyone else on this thread, know if these vacancies are new jobs or replacements for people who have left?

  9. Richard Everest Reply

    I’ve waited 2 years for a response to a Foi request submitted to Brighton & Hove Council with regards to a planning issue where the planning department granted consents to a partnered developer for changes to a sensitive development by ignoring conditions imposed by the planning inspectorate adjudication at an appeal hearing.
    The Planning department acts with impunity as a law unto its own with 3 stage complaints system investigated and overseen by its own officers. Our democratically elected councilors, who make up the planning committee, frequently lack planning expertise to contradict or question planning officers’ recommendations which can be misleading by omitting the opinions of the public and even competent and leading independent experts.
    In this particular case, the development has been completed and occupied before the Foi request has been answered. What redress is now available?

    • Chaz. Reply

      Admire your perseverance with the Greens hiding away.
      The final resort is to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
      As you have already complained to the council and it is beyond any time line suggest you do that. Link here

  10. Rachel Downie Reply

    Brighton and Hove City Council also need to publish the questions and answers of their FOI requests on their website,
    Many other councils and organisations do.
    What is our council’s excuse for failing to?
    They are lawfully accountable to us and obliged to provide transparency. End of.

  11. fed-up with brighton politics Reply

    Agree with most of the above. It may well be that the FOI legislation is flawed and needs scrutiny and change at government level, but don’t hold your breath – so why doesn’t someone senior at council level, like the CEO, make strong representations to government on the subject. But why is it, do we think, that B&H Council has so many FOI requests, many of which are legitimate, urgent … and unanswered. In my view, it’s because many of their decisions/initiatives – or whatever they like to call them – are unfathomable to the ordinary resident and believable explanations are never given. Stripping out the opportunist commercial clowns who make FOI requests, much of what the council does (officials, that is) is shrouded in secrecy. There is supposed to be a bin strike starting early next week, but nobody at the council has said anything publicly to the residents about what they are doing to try to resolve it and whether or not it is going ahead. This matters greatly to the likes of me who has to struggle to a very badly-sited communal bin in violent wind and rain and who relies on neighbours to help out with the job.

    Returning to FOI, the legal requirements have to be dealt with as they are currently and it is not an excuse for the IT head honcho to tell councillors that, oh dear, it’s all a bit of a headache/shambles and we’re trying to sort it out, but haven’t and probably never will. It’s not rocket science to identify which department or official has made a particular decision and, in a proper organisation, the person in charge of that department or official produces an answer and, if they don’t, they are chased up and called to account by someone more senior. As this doesn’t seem to happen, I suppose it’s all down to the lax ‘culture’ created by the invisible and silent Geoff Raw, as usual.

    If it is true that the council is recruiting people for climate and travel jobs, as Serena says, then this is beyond disgraceful. Firstly, a council should deal with its existing legal responsibilities properly and not ignore them in pursuit of expensive ideological projects.

  12. Some Guy Reply

    “There is supposed to be a bin strike starting early next week, but nobody at the council has said anything publicly to the residents about what they are doing to try to resolve it and whether or not it is going ahead.”
    It’s almost like strike discussions have an element of brinksmanship and tipping one’s hand weakens one’s bargaining position.
    “in a proper organisation, the person in charge of that department or official produces an answer”
    I can assure you that the responsibility will not fall on the person in charge, but their administrative staff. I can also assure you that it takes a lot of work to produce a suitable report, and that it directly impinges on the department’s ability to complete their actual function.

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