22nd Feb, 2020

Public's Freedom of Information requests buried by Coventry council officers - 'to help free up their time'

John Carlon 16th Jan, 2020 Updated: 16th Jan, 2020

UNELECTED Coventry council officers are privately choosing which Freedom of Information (FoI) responses not to publish on its website to help ‘free up their time’ – with hundreds hidden from public view.

The number of published responses to requests made by members of the public to Coventry City Council under the Freedom of Information Act has fallen by 79 per cent since its leader George Duggins took over in 2016, according to new research.

It claims the council website’s FoI disclosure log also shows a reduction of almost three quarters in meaningful responses in that time – as opposed to responses where the council simply informs the requester it is blocking the release of the information requested, using exemption clauses in the law.

By contrast, other councils say they publish all FoI responses they send to members of the public, including Birmingham.

Coventry is lagging well behind other comparable local authorities too, according to the new research and graphs by campaigner Richard Heneghan published on his @KovBlog Twitter account.

Mr Heneghan’s research claims that, between October and December last year, Coventry published 62 FoI responses, Nottingham, 314, Leicester, 220 and Warwickshire, 250.

There were 20 releases published in January last year, compared to 90 in January 2016.

From October 2012 to July 2016, the average number of responses published was 296 per quarter. That figure fell to just 63 per quarter for the period from August 2016 to the end of 2019.

The Coventry Observer last year reported how the council had completely stopped publishing all FoI responses for about a year.

Days after our story was published, it reneged and started belatedly publishing the backlog of responses sent to requesters.

Responding to our latest questions, a council spokesperson said: “While the council is not required to publish its FoI responses, we are committed to being open and transparent.

“We do not publish every response as some contain information already published and others involve information that we do not hold or cannot disclose.

“Preparing the documents for publication can be a lengthy process, and the decision to publish FoIs in this way was an officer decision taken almost four years ago to help free up valuable officer time and ensure limited resources were focused on priority areas.

“The council’s web page for FoI informs readers that the disclosure log includes the requests which we feel are of wider public interest.”

The council has not responded to our further questions about how officers decide whether requests are published or not – and which officers are involved.

We have asked if the strategic decisions should be taken by the council’s political leadership, rather than unelected officers.

We have also raised concerns that unelected officers making decisions about how the council’s FoI scheme will work appears to be against the spirit of ‘transparency’ enshrined in the FoI legislation, made under a Labour government in the year 2000.

The Coventry Observer has also asked the council to confirm or deny if press officers in its communications office – in chief executive Martin Reeves’ department – still sign off or even amend FoI responses before they are released, as has previously been reported.

In 2017 Birmingham City Council pledged to publish every Freedom of Information request made via its disclosure log.

Mr Heneghan said: “We should question who it is at Coventry City Council that gets to decide what should and shouldn’t be published – surely that is against the very spirit of the Freedom of Information Act?

“Isn’t it financially detrimental to the taxpayer, as it means the same data requests are very likely to be made by different people due to not publishing the original response?

“Processing the same questions costs money. The public and the media should be able to read the original published response instead of putting more Freedom of Information requests in.”

Freedom of Information requests must be responded to within 20 days. The Act gives residents the right to request any recorded information held by a public authority.

Material that is exempt from public disclosure – including private data – can be redacted from published documents.

On its website, Coventry City Council claims it publishes all requests “which we feel are of wider public interest since October 2012 under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.”

We await responses to our further questions.

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