Town Hall slammed for ‘chronic failure’ in releasing data under Freedom of Information

Papered Over: Hackney’s FOI on-time response rate one of lowest in London. Photograph: Pixabay.

Hackney Council has one of the worst rates of all London councils at releasing data under Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, it has been revealed.

The Town Hall answered requests for data under the FOI Act 2000 within statutory time limits 66 per cent of the time since 2016, according to a March report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) which has assessed the rate of London councils failing to comply with the Act.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which enforces the Act, expects at least 90 per cent of requests to be responded to on time.

By comparison, Royal Greenwich answered 90 per cent on time, Tower Hamlets 96 per cent, and the City of London answered 97 per cent of requests on time in the same period.

CFOI director Maurice Frankel said: Public authorities face no real repercussions for ignoring FOI requests or even ignoring the ICO’s emails pressing them to respond.

“All that happens is that after six, nine or twelve months they are served with a notice requiring them either to provide the information or state grounds for refusing it, something they should have done months earlier.

“By that time it may be too late for the information to be used.

“The ICO has both informal and powerful formal tools for addressing persistent delays by public authorities, but is currently using neither.”

Graphic: Campaign for Freedom of Information.

CFOI also had to complain to the Commissioner about delays by Hackney in sourcing its figures on its response rate.

Specific inaccuracies have also been found in Hackney’s guidance for responding to requests which CFOI claim would have led to some requests being wrongly refused or delayed.

In its guidance, the council has stated that information does not have to be published if the Town Hall are considering publishing it in the future.

According to CFOI, this type of exemption applies only if the local authority has definitively decided to publish at a later date.

The FOI Act 2000 was introduced under Tony Blair’s government, who later wrote in his memoirs on the decision: “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.

“For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.”

A spokesperson for Hackney Council said: “We are committed to transparency and fulfilling our responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act.

“In recent years the council has seen a 14 per cent increase in the number of FOIs received year on year, and based on current figures we expect to receive more than 2,000 requests in the 2018/19 financial year.

“The council has sustained a consistent number of on-time responses in each of the past three years but we have not been able to keep pace with the rapidly growing demand. This has resulted in the overall percentage of on-time responses falling.

“This is in the context of substantial and well publicised cuts that central government have made to council resources throughout the prolonged period of austerity since 2010. These government cuts have put pressure on all of the services we provide to our residents.”

The Town Hall have made a further commitment to improving their response rate through technological solutions which it hopes will increase its efficiency, as well as cutting back on the amount of requests received by making it easier through open data and smart tech for researchers to find data that has already been public.

EDIT: This article was updated at 14:20 on 8 March to include a response from Hackney Council.



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