Thursday, 21 February 2013

Freedom of Information Act: Decision notice against #QuackCWaC Council


Reference: FS50467979
Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)
Decision notice
Date: 20 February 2013

Public Authority: Cheshire West and Chester Council

Decision (including any steps ordered)

1. The complainant has requested information relating to any individuals paid via a company set up for tax purposes. The Commissioner has decided that Cheshire West and Chester Council (the Council) breached section 10(1) of FOIA by failing to issue a response within the statutory time limit of 20 working days. No further action is required to be taken as a result of this notice.

Request and response

2. On 25 May 2012 the complainant wrote to the Council and requested information in the following terms:

1) The total number of people who hold/have held a management position, for any given period within the last 3 years who are/were paid via a specifically formed company for tax purposes.

2) The names of the individuals, the positions they held and the name of the company the council paid for their services.

3. The Council acknowledged receipt of the request on 29 May 2012.

4. In the absence of a substantive response, the complainant wrote to the Council again on 27 June 2012 and asked it to carry out a review of its  handling of his requests. The Council subsequently completed a review, the findings of which were provided to the complainant on 23 July 2012.
Among other things, the review found that the Council had breached section 10(1) of FOIA due to the delay in responding and required the Council to deal with the request within the next 15 working days.

5. The Council’s response to the requests was provided on 1 October 2012.  This said that the Council did not hold the information asked for by the complainant.

Scope of the case

6. The complainant contacted the Commissioner on 9 October 2012 to complain about the delay associated with the Council’s handling of his requests.

Reasons for decision

Section 10 – time for compliance

7. Section 10(1) of FOIA states that on receipt of a request for information   a public authority should respond to the applicant within 20 working days.

8. It has come to the Commissioner’s attention that the Council did not  respond to the requests within the statutory time limit. He has therefore found that the Council breached section 10(1) of FOIA.

Right of appeal

9. Either party has the right to appeal against this decision notice to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights). Information about the appeals process may be obtained from:

First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights)
GRC & GRP Tribunals,
PO Box 9300,
LEICESTER,
LE1 8DJ
Tel: 0300 1234504
Fax: 0116 249 4253

10. If you wish to appeal against a decision notice, you can obtain information on how to appeal along with the relevant forms from the Information Tribunal website.

11. Any Notice of Appeal should be served on the Tribunal within 28 (calendar) days of the date on which this decision notice is sent.

Group Manager
Information Commissioner’s Office

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Is #QuackCWaC Council's Solutions Team fit for purpose?

Many years ago, driven by managers returning from management courses, at least those having been subject to such in-vogue mantras as 'think outside the box', 'blue sky thinking', 'it's not a problem it's an opportunity' and 'let's concentrate on solutions not complaints'  and all the other popular management speak bollocks of the time, it became quite fashionable on their return to rename many traditional departments within their organisation.

Such thinking appears to be behind the choice of the name for Cheshire West and Chester 'Solutions Team'.

The Solutions Team

The Solutions Team, among other things, deals with Freedom of Information requests and Complaints and it it these two aspects of their work I am concentrating on in this post.

Freedom of Information

If there is one thing the Solutions Team deal with really badly it's freedom of information requests.

Over the last few years a substantial number of people have not received a Freedom of Information Act complaint response within the 20 working day legal deadline. This forces many requesters to submit a completely unnecessary and time wasting request for an internal review.

A review typically end up with the following admission
  • The Council failed to inform the requester whether it held the information requested. 
  • The Council failed to provide the information requested. 
  • The Council failed to comply with the request for information in accordance with the statutory time limit of twenty working days, starting with the day following the receipt of the request. 
  • The Council therefore breached sections 1(1)(a) and (b) of FOIA , as  the Council had a duty to confirm or deny that the information existed and to provide the information not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt of the request ( unless it considered an exemption applied), and failed to do so. In respect of its failure to comply with sections 1(1)(a) and (b) the Council also breached section 10(1) of the FOIA in respect of both sub sections in section 1(1).  
And the then lists the steps to be taken, by the council, to remedy the situation which typically include the following
  • The Council is required to provide the information requested for the period  within X working days of the date of the Review. 
The council is typically reminded of the following
  • it must reply to a request under the FOIA in accordance with the statutory time requirement, being twenty working days, starting on the day following receipt of the request, 
  • and that it must confirm or deny the existence of the information and if no exemption is claimed, provide the information requested
  • and that if an exemption applies the Council is still required to respond to the request by issuing a refusal notice within the statutory deadline of twenty working days following receipt of the request giving the requester the information as explained above,
  • and additional time for considering a request is only permitted if an exemption involving the public interest applies, and the Council requires extra time to consider the public interest test.  
However the council never learn their lesson because time and time again the Solutions Team has to repeat a similar review outcome to other requesters. One only has to read some of the requests made to Cheshire and Chester Council via the on-line What Do They Know service to realise just how many times the Council breaks the law regarding FOI requests. 

Neither is this a new phenomenon, here is an early post of mine highlighting that fact last summer. 

In a response to the FOI request linked to above the PA to Steve Robinson, Chief Executive stated on 13 August 2009, "the organisation has now put in place an appropriate process to make sure all requests are captured, recorded, assigned and dealt with under the terms of Freedom of Information legislation. In addition the new organisation recognises the importance of making sure requests are dealt with within relevant timescales."

I can only conclude that the PA was referring to the introduction of the Solutions Team but if that's the case then they have utterly failed to improve the situation. Therefore, if it was bad in 2009 and it's no better today, I can only conclude that the Solution Team has failed and accordingly not fit for the purpose intended.

Having said that they are not the only ones to blame, the council monitoring officer is supposed to ensure the council doesn't break the law, so one can only assume that they were also sleeping on the job over the last few years. Let's hope things improve now we have a new monitoring officer.

Complaints

Another thing the Solutions Team deal with is complaints.

#QuackCWaC Comments, Compliments and Complaints: "We will deal promptly with any complaints about the services we provide. Compliments are passed on to the people concerned and we use your comments to help us improve what we do."

A complaint can be defined as a statement that something is unsatisfactory or unacceptable, however, the Council don't appear to agree. For example, they have been known, when someone contacts them about an unsatisfactory or unacceptable situation to deal with the issue as a request for a service and not as a complaint.

For example, if you tell them about something which is unsatisfactory or unacceptable and ask them to put matters rights, is it a complaint or a request for a service? Clearly it's both because a request for them to put matters right only came about because of an unsatisfactory or unacceptable situation in the first place.

Unfortunately, unless you specifically use the word complaint in you correspondence the Solutions Team may not deal with the matter as a complaint, even if you have implicitly complained about something being amiss and asked them to put it right.

Accordingly I would advise anyone who wants to complain about a service failure to head their correspondence COMPLAINT so it is logged as such and not passed off by the Solutions Team as just a simple service request.

In addition, in spite of the council's policy which implies that all contacts will be acknowledged the Solution Team often only reply if you expressly state you want one.

So restating the original question 'Is the Solution Team fit for purpose?'

Based on the above I for one think not.

Coming soon - Is #QuackCWaC's standards regime fit for purpose?