The report presented by EDDC Monitoring Officer/ Principle Solicitor/ Henry Gordon-Lennox, to the Cabinet meeting at Knowle this week prompted the following speeches at public question time, by Jeremy Woodward and by Paul Freeman respectively. Both speakers had made Freedom Of Information requests, which the Information Commissioner considered not properly dealt with by EDDC. (SOS Chair, Richard Thurlow, represented Jeremy Woodward at the First Tier Tribunal in Exeter. EDDC lost their Appeal to withhold certain documents regarding the Knowle sale https://saveoursidmouth.com/2015/05/05/sos-press-release-on-tribunal-decision/).
These are the two speeches:
J.Woodward, SPEECH TO CABINET – Weds 15th July 2015
‘Four years ago, the new Leader made ‘a promise of greater transparency.’ Unfortunately, this report to Cabinet does not follow up on that promise.
The Monitoring Officer/Principle Solicitor does indeed remind us that, under the FOI Act, ‘there is a stated presumption in favour of releasing information’. However, this is immediately undermined with the proviso that ‘clearly in appropriate cases, withholding information for legitimate reasons is still acceptable’.
Well, the obvious question is: How exactly will this ‘withholding of information’ be determined?
The Chief Executive has stated that it should be Members who should decide what gets published. Well, actually, that’s not right: It is the provisions of the FOI Act which insist on the ‘presumption in favour of releasing information’. The FOI process is definitely not a matter of Council Officers making excuses to Cabinet and Members about the withholding of information.
Which leads to another question: If the Council is confident about its ability to make decisions, then why the paranoia when it comes to the sharing of information? Why this default position of secret meetings, secret forums and secret reports?
What demonstrates this complete lack of understanding of the spirit of the FOI Act is the language of ‘them and us’. When it does consider the principle of transparency, this report admits that the Council feels that ‘there is sometimes a difficult tension between trying to act in the Council’s best interests, and providing the public with information’. And yet this report refuses to deal with this fundamental impasse.
I must ask, therefore: How is the Council going to live up to its ‘promise of greater transparency.’
Beyond the Council’s adherence to the Transparency Code, which covers the publishing of very specific financial information, this report simply focusses on how the Council will deal with future FOI requests – and not on how it will reduce the number of requests by actually releasing more information as a matter of course.
And why has the Council faced more FOI requests than any other authority in the County? Not because of a band of interfering busy-bodies, but because making an FOI request is actually the last resort when dealing with a Council that consistently refuses to countenance disclosure.
How, then, does the Council intend to deal with its stated desire to ‘comply with its obligations and duties’?
In its conclusion, the report states that ‘there are clearly lessons to be learnt’ – and yet it has chosen to interpret these lessons within the narrowest of remits and has refused to take on board most of the Tribunal’s criticisms, other than offering a few inadequate palliatives.
Will the Council please address the more fundamental question of how it will make good its ‘promise of greater transparency’?’
P. Freeman, SPEECH TO CABINET, 15th July 2015
‘I would like to ask this Cabinet a few pointed questions about today’s agenda items on FoI:
Question 1: Why does the Chief Executive think that there is no conflict of interest inherent in nominating the person who is both the Head of the Legal Department and the Monitoring Officer to review judgements that criticise the submission of legal evidence to a court and the lack of Internal Reviews undertaken by the Monitoring Officer?
Question 2: We have two judgements in short succession, both of which have damning additional comments made about the councils attitude, yet this review seeks to trivialise these judgements, explaining them away as a mis-understanding. Will this council take these judgements with the seriousness they deserve and undertake a broader review of its FoI processes?
Question 3: In a radio interview Cllr Diviani attempted to explain away the “obstructiveness” to the tribunal as being a single misguided individual, with whom he had a quiet word. Given that the judgement brought this council into serious disrepute, will this council identify whether the individual who brought it into disrepute was a councillor a senior officer or a less senior officer? And will the council justify its decision not to take the individual concerned through a formal disciplinary procedure?
Question 4: The Decision Notice for my FoI request criticised this council on most of the constituent parts of the FoI process. Will this council now commission an independent review of its approach to openness and transparency, including the specifics of its handling of the Tribunal?
Question 5: When this council says on its web page that further Knowle Relocation reports are imminent, what sort of time-scales does this indicate? Next week, next month, next year? Why weren’t they published with the other documents already released and why not tomorrow?
Question 6: Having read the documents now published, there appears to be very little information to have justified Part-B status at the time – even the very small number of redactions that remain in two or three of these documents don’t seem to be justified, as reasonable guesses can be made about their contents. Will this council now explain to the public why it wasted time and money attempting to keep secret documents that have no secrets to be kept?
Question 7: Finally, as an indicator of whether there are more serious issues with the council’s FoI processes, I ask the Monitoring Officer how many other complaints are currently in process with the ICO, and why his report says nothing about them?’
Mr Gordon-Lennox’s report can be found on East Devon District Council’s website.
FOI requests to EDDC, including those by Richard Thurlow (note one FOI re. Knowle flagged as ‘Long Overdue’ ), and by J. Woodward, and P. Freeman, and others, can be read at http://www.whatdotheyknow.com.