Another FoI wheeze? The two-for-one response

THESE pages have often reminisced about the first year of the Freedom of Information Act when we needed a wheelbarrow to take away documents from the Town Hall unlocked by requests for information. I remember literally staggering down Eversholt Street with a trolley full of paperwork that the council had given me after one application about a closed down community centre. Maybe that was a little bit much, but with each passing year it gets tougher to use the Act to prise any meaningful information out of publicly-funded institutions. I’m not really interested in how much loo roll Camden Council uses and journalists do need to exercise some responsibility over what they ask for, but sometimes it feels that’s the only kind of info you can access through the system.

The latest blocking tool seems to be the amalgamating of requests regardless of whether they are related in nature and then telling the applicant that it is too expensive and time consuming to process. An example: I asked for info on 1) the number of investigations into potentially fraudulent school place applications in Camden and 2) the number of pupils who transfer between secondary schools in Camden. They were two separate requests for two separate pieces of work for the paper. Both in the public interest. The latter might sound cryptic but it was designed to reveal whether bullying was driving pupils from one school to another.

The council reacted by binding the two requests together as one and warned me that the joint application could run over the fees limit laid down in the Act. It’s a logic, which if extended, could limit a journalist to making one FoI request to an institution every 60 working days. If you have a brief to cover a particular institution – say the council, or a hospital, like many local paper reporters do – then this immediately makes the Act a far weaker tool for good, honest journalism.


10 Comments on Another FoI wheeze? The two-for-one response

  1. Sounds like the sort of stunt that Barnet Council would like. A year or so ago a number of my requests to find out what was being purchased from a number of unrelated suppliers was refused because, wait for it, they all appeared in the list of payments over £500 made by the council!

    I suggested they should aggregate all of my requests because they did indeed have a common theme, Barnet Council!

    We have moved on from those days. Now, nearly all of my requests seem to be vexatious unless I make them in a false name when they get answered!

  2. Ruairi McAleese // April 15, 2013 at 7:56 pm //

    The fees regulations don’t say that. They are here and the relevant regulation is regulation is regulation 5. They can only aggregate requests if they are for “the same or similar information”. Cmden seem to be applying the wrong test.

  3. Camden are correct. Similar requests can be amalgamated and whether you’re a journalist or not is irrelevant as this would apply to any request made by any person. It may be useful to see the full request and response as opposed to extracts?

    • Richard Osley // April 20, 2013 at 6:50 pm //

      I’m not suggesting journalists should get a different experience from anybody else, not at all. In my view the two requests I made are not similar. They are to the same department, but not on the same topic.

      • Ruairi McAleese // April 21, 2013 at 9:57 am //

        Gareth, much as I admire your appreciation of the council, you don’t quite explain why their approach is “legislatively correct”. As I’ve already said, requests can only be aggregated if they are for the same or similar information. Richard’s aren’t and I am confident he would win any appeal to the ICO. The trouble is that, as he says, nobody has the time to do that.

        • I take Richard’s point, but the authority may have actually answered the question or questions correcttly. Plus, an authroity should have a complaint mechanism in place as per Section 45 and I have successfully used this method when challenging responses I have received from other authorities.

  4. You were given the right to complain or appeal were you not? Surely this is the correct approach before attacking a local authority because you didn’t agree with a legislatively accurate response? However, two seperate requests from one person on the same day, or close, can be treated as one request. Lazy journalism strikes again…

    • Richard Osley // April 20, 2013 at 6:48 pm //

      Gareth’s comment is one of my favourite ever posted on this site. Thank you.

    • Richard Osley // April 20, 2013 at 6:52 pm //

      ps Gareth, we could spend lots of hours of officer time appealing every one that comes back as a ‘no, you can’t have it’. Not sure you’d appreciate that.

  5. My point is that when I’ve received responses from authorities I didn’t agree with I’ve used the complaints mechanism which authorites should have in place to deal with this. I’ve been successful more often than not. Granted its not worth it all the time – but on occasion it is worth pursuing.

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