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Feb 28 2013

Harrow Council Moans and Bitches about the Freedom of Information Act

Information1-150x150In a question to Cabinet on February 14, 2013, Cllr Paul Osborn (Conservative, Pinner) asked the Great Leader: “Would you not agree that the Council has a duty to provide bloggers and journalists with information requested via the Freedom of Information Act?”

We’re making the bold assumption that this was triggered by our article about how the Council has started ignoring requests from iharrow.com for information, and how it is struggling – still – to cope with complying with FOI legislation in responding to requests within the statutory 20 day deadline.

In response to the question, Great Leader Idaikkadar replied:

The Council takes its responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act extremely seriously. You are quite
right, we do have a duty to deal with all requests under the Freedom of Information Act, but there is a balance to
be had. We get over 1,000 FoI requests every year and research shows that each request costs an average of £293 each. That’s just under £300,000 per year.

The Council has a limited budget and is facing unprecedented financial challenge and answering FoI requests diverts money from vital frontline services. I would call on bloggers and journalists and others seeking information from the Council to act responsibly when making requests and pick and choose their requests rather then bombarding the Council with requests.

One blogger sent in 49 requests between January and December last year, costing the Council almost £15,000.
He has put in a further 12 requests since the beginning of this year which would have cost the Council £3,500.
A more balanced approach would be welcomed.

Firstly,his figure of “over 1,000 requests every year” is at odds with the data provided by Harrow Council itself. For the 2011/12 year, they received 872 requests; and the 2012/13 year isn’t complete yet, although our rough extrapolation would be just over 1,000. We’d be surprised to the extreme if previous years number exceeded 1000.

If we look at response times, in 2011/12 27% responses exceeded the statutory 20 day response time; for the following year, this rose to 29%. Slow, shabby and getting worse, you might think.

The Council is on record as saying that the requests from iharrow.com serve no serious purpose or value. To date, we’ve got the Council to admit:

  • The number of faulty computers in Harrow’s libraries – made on two occasions, some six months apart. This shows that Harrow’s public-facing services are in deterioration  especially compared with neighbouring boroughs. When the Council is on a campaign to move to web-based services, availability of library computers is essential.
  • The cost of the Mayor’s vehicle – we established that it costs three times more for the Mayor to use his car than it would cost for him to get a minicab.
  • The Council responded to a query about the electric car charging point at the Civic Centre, and the internal promotion of it.
  • It was interesting to find out how much is spent on operating public toilets – especially since the Council is considering removal of at least two of the facilities from the borough’s streets.

Each of these has a serious purpose and value: residents are entitled to hold the council to account and find out where their money is being spent. To argue that these requests have no serious purpose or value is a poor argument.

Hugh Peart, the Council’s Head Lawyer, said, in a interview with The Lawyer  on 07.02.2011, that, “I want us to move away from the defensive position of keeping everything to ­ourselves. I want to say that everything’s public except for a few obvious areas.” He continued “Harrow Council is an ­exciting example of a public authority showing what you can do when you think of the FOI as an opportunity, not a burden…”

We would urge residents to submit their own FOI requests and share the answers.

We invite Great Leader to stick to his word, and have asked for the following 12 requests to be processed and for us to be given the information asked for:

161608 – Innovations by the Council, currently awaiting an Internal Review
173699 – Separation Package for Director of Placeshaping
Ignored – Funding for Harrow in Europe, submitted 26.01.2013
Ignored – Chief Exec Job Description and Objectives, submitted 23.01.2013
180900 – Cost of hotel accommodation for Council management
180999 – Claims for pothole damages
172814 – Library Book Stock in Harrow, currently awaiting clarification
175504 – Unofficial usage of the Mayor’s vehicle
172908 – Library Book Addition/Deletions
173705 – Staff Suspensions
173701 – Use of ex-employees as Consultants
173700 – Cost of Interim Director of Finance

The outcome of this will determine just how “seriously” the Council takes its responsibilities, and whether FOI truly is an “opportunity, not a burden.” On the other hand, it is completely understandable why the Council would want to hide information from the tax-paying residents they purport to serve – especially when you realise that they blew £4,000,000 on consultants recently.

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3 comments

  1. MouthAlmighty

    Does the council not face any penalties for not complying with the FOI requets? If not, then why not? I am intrigued to know why your request for the CEO’s job description and objectives has been ignored. Couldit be that he doesnt have one and has just been slotted in as a favour from one of his “old boy” networks? Given his poor management of our finances I would wager that one of his objectives would have been to show competence in the use of a calculator! Not sure what else he does because any attempts to meet with the man are declined. It has already been suggested that he should have a surgery once a month and meet with his “paymasters” to answer our concerns, but it appears his social skills aren’t up to it! Having briefly seen him at a recent meeting, I was shocked to learn that he is the CEO. Struck me as being a bit of a wet fish if I am honest.

  2. In theory, there is an appeal route to the Information Commissioner’s Office, but that can take upward of three months. I’ve not managed to get even an email out of the Chief Exec – everything is always responded to by his PA (who seems much more switched on than her boss!).

    It seems that I’m not the only person having problems getting the Council to respond to requests – another requests, on http://www.whatdotheyknow.com is being stalled by the Council, which asks exactly the same thing: what the heck does the Chief Exec do: http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/chief_executive_attendance

    Still, Leader Idiakkadar has said that he thinks FOI is important: let’s see how he feels now that I’ve called his his bluff. Hopefully, I’ll be proved wrong, and they’ll hand over the data which I’ve asked for.

  3. Morepowertothepeople

    The FOI dept at Harrow Council is an utter farce. Having put a handful of requests in myself, some were only half answered, some contained false information, some refused, and some sent for internal review only to be refused again. Because I unearthed a number of huge failings within the Council, I was vilified, lied about, and even had Hugh Peart get involved. I was even banned from speaking to officers in the Council! Hugh Peart is there for one reason only, damage limitation, and to bury anything that can harm the councils’ reputation. Hugh Pearts assertion above that he wants to move away from a defensive position is laughable, a complete lie on his part, and he is not a nice individual. If the Council did not continuously hide things, have more answers on their website, and were more transparent, we would not have to put in so many FOI requests! Be careful though, you push too hard and they will try and destroy you like they did with me! Liars yes, transparent no!

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