Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Cunning Stunt

You might guess from the title that I'm not a particularly happy blogger. And if you'd guessed 'Freedom of Information' you'd be spot on but I don't think that deserves a prize.

This one goes back to the Radford Unity Complex affair. That's the one where a Nottingham Arts group were strangely offered a former school at around half its market value and the council's legal services forgot to take into account that there were a bunch of community groups based there who hadn't been consulted properly and hadn't been served a valid notice to quit. The arts group were represented by an agency called Artreach.

So, I thought it might be an idea to ask for details of all the negotiations between NCC and Artreach because it seemed a bit fishy that there should be such a rush to get this particular group into a former council property at the expense of a number of voluntary groups and at an apparent loss. And there was evidence of JoCo being involved too.

So, I made my request on 8 November 2010 and NCC acknowledged it the same day. Then silence until I requested an internal review on 8 December 2010. This was acknowledged the next day and that was the last time I heard from them until today.

In the meantime I sent numerous chase-ups, the ICO wrote on 9 March 2011 instructing NCC to reply within 10 days which was ignored. By that I mean that the ICO told me clearly that NCC did not respond to any of their letters and chase-ups. Despite this it took until 28 July for the ICO to issue a decision notice which, because NCC had not provided any response at all, could only be framed with reference to s.10 of the FoIA i.e. the time limits for a reply.

Now, give it 5 days and suddenly NCC provides a response. After over 8 months. Here is the reply they sent.

As you can see, they have refused to provide the information under s.43(2) FoIA i.e. that its release could damage the council's commercial interests. The effect of this is that I am back at square one with regards to challenging the refusal because the ICO decision notice couldn't deal with s.43(2) because they obviously had no idea NCC would rely on it. I thought I was cynical but I have to admit I didn't see that one coming.

Now I was recently accused by a commenter of being a 'conspiracy theorist' so if he's still around I suggest he sits up and pays attention. Because I am extremely suspicious of a public authority ignoring a FoI request for 8 months, 7 months longer than the time limit for a reply, then, 5 days after the decision notice arrives, issuing a refusal notice on the grounds of an exemption.

Now why would they do that? Surely it would have been sensible to issue the refusal notice a bit sooner, keep the ICO informed of what was going on and then any appeal I make to the ICO could have included arguments around the exemption relied on. The only 'good' answer to this is that it took Legal Services all this time to draw up the grounds for refusal which, bearing in mind how they dealt with the RUC issues, isn't totally unbelievable.

The thing is, there is no actual time limit in the legislation for dealing with internal reviews. Guidance says 20 working days (as does NCC's own procedure) but a quick leaf through website's NCC pages reveals that this is rarely complied with. So I have to sit and wait for NCC to do an internal review (which I have requested natch) and, presuming a refusal, go to the Information Commissioner again. Worse still, if NCC simply ignores my review request, the ICO is likely to simply 'instruct' NCC to provide a reply within 20 working days and it's a hell of a battle to get them to take such cases seriously. Essentially, we're probably looking at at least as long again before we get a result and that depends on the ICO finding in my favour which can't be relied on.

I'm sorry but is there anybody reading this who doesn't think this was deliberate? A particularly dishonest ruse to stop or seriously delay a matter that might embarrass JoCo and others reaching the public domain? All this delay being a mistake? Bollocks on stilts.

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