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  • Keep Calm and Carry On

    Posted on August 13th, 2009 admin 1 comment
    Another average day for a FoI officer

    Another average day for a FoI officer

    The Information Commissioner has issued a plea to FoI officers: Stay calm, ignore confrontational tone and keep your objectivity.

    His statement comes in the wake of a decision notice against Brighton and Hove City Council where the authority was said to have been distracted by the accusations made against it in the applicant’s question.

    The issue centred on the vexed issue of parking in Brighton and the official wording on parking tickets.

    In his decision notice the Information Commissioner said the authority responded significantly outside the statutory time limits, and concentrated on rebutting the allegations rather than providing a comprehensive response to the request.

    The applicant had asked:

    • Given that Parliament saw fit to pass a statute that prescribed the wording of Penalty Charge notices, why did the Council not comply with that statute?

    • What benefits resulted as a consequence of the Council departing from the prescribed wording, and to whom do those benefits attach?

    • What has been the cost of the Council departing from the prescribed wording, including but not limited to – the additional legal costs resulting from the Glowzone case?

    • What effect will this cost have on (a) Council tax bills, and (b) the services provided by the Council?”

    The request was lodged on June 18, 2006 and after a lost e-mail and the intervention of the Commissioner a response was delivered on October 18, 2006 – but it was just a copy of a council press release. After another complaint the applicant received answers to his points which read: “The legislation does not prescribe the wording for a Penalty Charge Notice” to the first point of the question and ‘please see above’ to the others.

    Following another complaint to the Commissioner a slightly longer answer was provided to the applicant.

    In the decision notice the Commissioner notes that the information was eventually supplied to the applicant but ticks off the Council for three breaches of procedure in the Act.

    He said: “The Commissioner considers that in responding to the request, the Council focussed unduly on addressing the allegation of wrongdoing, rather than objectively identifying what information the complainant was asking for.

    “He considers that the complainant’s request clearly went beyond merely asking for confirmation of whether the PCNs were legally compliant.

    “If the Council took an objective approach and then became aware that several objective readings of the request were possible it could the have exercised the opportunity presented by section 1(3) to discuss re-focussing the request with the complainant.

    “He also draws attention to comments made by the Information Tribunal (Barber v the Information Commissioner, EA/2005/0004) advising that public authorities should ignore the tone and the precise wording of requests and focus upon the information which has been requested, if necessary seeking clarification from the applicant as to what information is wanted.”

    So although ‘manners cost nothing’ it doesn’t matter how rude or confrontational a question is asked it still has to be considered dispassionately.

    You can read the decision notice here [link] .

    If people could send me examples of the worst questions they have received (presuming they are somehow in the public domain on  a disclosure log) I’d be happy to post them up and share the pain.