Liverpool’s Terrible Record for Freedom of Information Requests

LpoolTH

Liverpool City Council makes MI6 look open and transparent!

I have been struck recently by just how bad Liverpool is at answering Freedom of Information requests. This was particularly brought home to me by the problems that Audrey O’Keefe had in dragging out from the council the admission that the taxpayers of Liverpool had paid Joe Anderson’s Industrial Tribunal bill. A further FOI revealed the e-mails between officers about this issue and how one officer in particular was trying to get other officers to provide necessary information but was obviously facing resistance.
I put in and enquiry which was not an FOI and eventually (after two reminders) I got this response.

Richard,

XXXXXXXX has mentioned to me that you had raised an issue in respect of performance on FOIs and late responses. The Information team endeavour to answer requests within the 20 day deadline and our performance stats are upper 80%.
We have seen an increase in the number of actual requests coming forward in the last 3 months and many of these have just been below the threshold of (18hours) which means they can be quite complicated and time consuming.
In terms of the number of requests Liverpool get we are at probably one of the highest numbers over 2,000 a year. Just over a year ago it was 1,000 so that indicates how this work is growing. We report to Audit and Governance Committee on performance around FOI and DPA as part of its work programme.

Clearly this is not good enough. An 80% level of achieving the response targets is not satisfactory. Many of the replies that are produced are perfunctory and clearly at one point at the back of 2013 the council clearly did not understand part of its role in dealing with FOI responses and what should or should not be revealed. I understand there was a meeting with senior staff of the Information Commissioner’s Office to clear this up.
But I don’t blame officers for this problem. They have a tiny group of people dealing with what is now a huge number of requests which is over and above those for any other equivalent authority that I have been able to check. No the fault quite clearly lies with the political leadership of the council for the furtive, shifty way they do business.
As I pointed out in a blog recently there is no place or meeting at which councillors can ask questions of the Elected Mayor. Of course, he doesn’t venture out to meetings with the local residents who pay his wages and has so far failed to respond to my generous offer to provide him with an opportunity to debate green space issues in public!!
Perhaps the Labour councillors hold him to account at their group meetings?! I don’t hold my breath. The accounts of their groups meeting is that they get the same tongue lashing that I get in council.
Our Select Committees which are supposed to hold the ‘Executive’ to account are useless at this task. They do have some value for the work that do but in terms of their real purpose they add little or no value. Of course they operate outside the terms of the Law which set up the scrutiny role. It has been clear since the Labour Chief Whip circulated all Labour members in 2012 that their positions (many of the Labour Group get paid) depend on the Mayor. You can only ask questions of the Mayor if you get his permission first. There’s independence for you!
So members of the public, many of whom have been blocked on Twitter from following the Mayor, put in FOIs. And not only members of the public. I too have had to resort to FOIs even though I am an elected member. Our council is a by-word for obfuscation and keeping things secret.
Let me give you one example of this. The Mayor has clearly decided to sell off the Harthill Estate part of Calderstones Park. This is no secret – he admitted it to the Echo. Fair enough – he currently has the power to do it but:
1. He has no mandate to do it. At no time has he ever put the sale of this and other parkland into a manifesto on which he can be judged.
2. This decision was taken and almost £1,000,000 spent on the acquisition of Beechley House entirely in secret. Officers proceeded by using their delegated powers with no public report on or authority for the spending of such a large amount of money.
But this is not the only example. What is going on between Everton and Walton Hall Park? What is happening at Sefton Park 12 months after the planning application for the desecration of the Meadowlands?
No wonder that so many of us resort to FOIs!
A pledge that a Lib Dem Mayor will make is that the number of FOIs will decrease because they are no longer required. A Lib Dem Mayor will regularly go out and meet people in their communities. A Lib Dem council will introduce effective scrutiny of performance so that people can see if they get value for money.
Roll on May next year!

Follow Up

It has been some time coming but I have now officially complained to the Information Commissioner about Liverpool City Council’s poor record in responding to FOI complaints. I am asking him to undertake a full review about how FOI issues are dealt with inside the council.

My letter is here:

Christopher Graham Esq.,

Information Commissioner,
Information Commissioner’s Office,
Wycliffe House Water Lane,
Wilmslow
Cheshire
SK9 5AF
10th November 2015

Dear Commissioner,

Re: Liverpool Council and FOIs

I am writing to you to suggest that you should undertake a review into the way that Liverpool City Council deals with FOI complaints.

I enclose two documents. The first is from a senior officer of the council complaining about my blog on FOIs which is the second document attached.

You will see that the officer makes no specific complaints although they are threatening unspecified actions against me. This is hardly surprising as it was this officer’s department that supplied me with the information on which I based my conclusions.

Frankly I have no idea how the Council is behaving and delivering compared with other councils or parts of the public sector. I am however, convinced that the council is behaving poorly and that it deals with the letter and not the spirit of the FOI laws. The fact is, as admitted by the council, that it only gets responses to FOIs in 80%+ of the questions raised with it.

You will note also the rise in FOIs which has corresponded to the reduction in proper questioning and debate through other parts of what is an abnormal democratic process.

I am asking you to review the actions of the council as a whole in this matter. Should you do so I can assure you that there are a plethora of Liverpool citizens who would be prepared to tell you how difficult it has been to get answers from the council and how poor some of those answers have been.

I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,
Cllr Richard Kemp CBE
Leader, Liverpool Liberal Democrats

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About richardkemp

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool. UK representative on UCLG Finance Committee, Executive Bureau and World Council. Deputy Chair and Lib Dem Spokesperon on the LGA Community Wellbeing Board. Married to the lovely Cllr Erica Kemp CBE with three children and three grandchildren.
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4 Responses to Liverpool’s Terrible Record for Freedom of Information Requests

  1. joedd says:

    POWER VIA THE BALLOT BOX – Mayor Anderson used £89.500 of public money to pay private legal fees re Anderson v Chesterfield High School ……… a case of ”I’m alright Jack”…….

  2. paul traynor says:

    The problem.richard is the other labour Councillors won’t challenge him they are a disgrace. I want the £ 89,000 pounds put back in.the public purse

  3. Catherine says:

    Unfortunately, the meeting in 2013 with the Information Commissioner’s people didn’t clear anything up, if their comments in August about the handling of Julian’s request about the KPMG report on LDL (which took 9 months to get) are anything to go by. Here’s what they said (and for the ICO, it is astonishingly blunt:

    “24. Whilst they do not form part of the Code itself, the forward to the Code recommends that authorities should:
    “….ensure that proper training is provided in this regard. Larger authorities should ensure that they have a central core of staff with particular expertise in Freedom of Information who can provide expert advice to other members of staff as needed.”
    25. The Commissioner echoes these recommendations. On the basis of its handling of this request, specifically the inadequate arguments applied in invoking an exemption, he has concerns that the council might not have provided its staff with adequate training.”.

    They appear to have met with the wrong people. The inadequate arguments continue with my follow-up request for the full report (which only Joe Anderson and a few senior officers have seen, and every single one of them has a conflict of interest, not least because the report itself is certain to make them all look totally incompetent if not a lot worse). On 8 September they described the set of documents I am seeking, but didn’t say whether or not they would release them. After repeated requests for clarification, they yesterday provided 5 pages of total gobbledegook denying the existence of these documents and alleging that there had only been an exchange of emails, which of course they then refused to disclose on grounds even more spurious than usual.

    My LDL fixation apart, a big part of the reason there are so many FOI requests is the very poor compliance of the Council with the Local Transparency Code, which sets out what they are supposed to publish monthly, quarterly and yearly. These are not just recommendations, but a legal requirement. The Code has been in force since May 2014. But here, they do not appear to have taken a blind bit of notice. For example, the figures on expenditure over £500, which are supposed to be published within 30 days of the end of the month, are always late – e.g. the most recent on the Council website are for June 2015, and as usual full of unwarranted redactions (wrongly protecting the privacy of various consultants); the Contracts Register, which again is meant to be updated at least quarterly, was last published last January, and appears to have been out of date and incomplete even then; Key Decisions have little if any supporting documentation, and no Officer Decisions have been published for years, etc etc.

    All this, and yet in April 2014 Joe Anderson (taking a leaf out of Orwell?) had the gall to tell the Sunday Times “My style has been about openness and transparency”. Except that it hadn’t been and still isn’t. All rather Orwellian, like creating green space (while selling off parks etc.) and promoting investment (which is borrowing to spend on vanity projects not encouraging inward investment).

  4. John Brace says:

    Hi Richard,

    As I’m sure you know I don’t live in Liverpool, but I do think it’s a good idea to comment on Liverpool City Council’s FOI record.

    In the last few years from memory I have made two FOI requests to Liverpool City Council so it is possible to compare and contrast the two responses.

    In 2012 I made a request for the Independent Report on Members Allowances.

    Within a month I was sent the information, I’m not sure off the top of my head whether this is within the 20 day timescale as August has a bank holiday in it.

    If LCC still responded to FOI requests that way then nobody would be grumbling much.

    On the 14th May 2015 I made this request.

    It’s for information that Liverpool City Council is under a legal duty to publish (but doesn’t). I did get some further information on this during the 2014/15 audit until I was blocked with a “these are local invoices for local people and it’d be too expensive to provide them to the likes of you” argument.

    That FOI request has gone to internal review and is currently awaiting a decision notice with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    However as some of it is for information Liverpool City Council has a legal duty to publish (but doesn’t) why should I have to make a FOI request for this information in the first place?

    Sorry to go on, but as you’ve been asking for questions for the next Council meeting (as I think if I tried to submit a question considering the insular attitude of LCC expressed above I’d probably be told sorry these are local questions for local people) here’s a question.

    Q. Regulation 2 of The Local Government (Transparency Requirements) (England) Regulations 2015 see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2015/480/regulation/2/made#text%3D%22local%20government%20transparency%20code%22 requires Liverpool City Council to publish the information
    specified in Part 2 of the Code (with the Code referring to the Local Government Transparency Code 2015).

    The Code specifically states The Data Protection Act 1998 also does not automatically prohibit
    information being published naming the suppliers with whom the authority has contracts, including sole traders, because of the public interest in accountability and transparency in the spending
    of public money.

    However in the lists of payments over £500 published on Liverpool City Council, the names of suppliers are routinely redacted from the published information. For example where Liverpool City Council has received advice from barristers (who are sole traders) Liverpool City Council has redacted the name.

    Can Liverpool City Council explain why it is doing this, seemingly in breach of its legal duties and in breach of the Code? Despite the Code being clear that publishing the names (such as sold traders) of those it pays public money to is not a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998, why is LCC giving this as its reason when a FOI request is made for the information that it it should’ve already published?

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