As Brick by Brick makes it into Private Eye again, a report from the Campaign for Freedom of Information shows that Croydon Council is anything but open and transparent, as WALTER CRONXITE reports
Croydon Council has been criticised as one of the worst boroughs in London at fulfilling its legal duties and responding to Freedom of Information requests.
But according to the latest edition of Private Eye magazine, it is not only the Council Tax-payers whom council officials treat with contempt and fail to answer their questions.
Croydon’s £220,000 per year chief executive, Jo Negrini, has made it into the pages of the satirical fortnightly’s Rotten Boroughs column yet again, this time because she has ignored questions from one of the borough’s MPs over the cut-price sale of council property to the in-house house-builders, Brick by Brick.
As was first reported by Inside Croydon, the council conducted two dozen sweetheart deals with Brick by Brick in 2018 and early 2019, selling off plots of land, in some cases for as little a £1 a time. The secret subsidies to the council-owned developer amount to tens of millions of pounds.
Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, raised the matter in the House of Commons, and received a written answer that confirmed that if a local authority wants to knock out public property on the cheap, it first has to obtain permission from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It was in April that Philp wrote to Negrini to ask whether any such permission had been obtained. “Answer there came none,” as the Eye puts it portentiously.
There are various possibilities for this failure to respond to correspondence on important issues: sheer bloody ignorance on Negrini’s behalf, complete contempt for the people she is supposed to be answerable to, or part of a council-wide culture of secrecy.
Given the findings in a recent report from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, it would appear that the latter is at least part of the explanation.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information found that London’s councils fail to respond in time in 40 per cent of all FoI requests that they receive. The Freedom of Information Act demands that public authorities respond to information requests within 20 working days.
There is a growing perception among organisations seeking information from local authorities that the delays in reponding are often deliberate, delaying tactics, employed by the councils to avoid proper public scrutiny.
The Information Commissioner, who is supposed to enforce the FoI Act, expects authorities to answer at least 90 per cent of requests on time, but the Campaign’s investigation found that Croydon and 24 other London councils failed to meet this target in 2017-2018.
“The scale of this problem had previously been obscured by the fact that many of the underperforming councils publish no statistics on their handling of requests,” the Campaign’s report authors note. Croydon is one of the councils which withholds information on its own FoI performance.
The report – FoI Good Practice: A survey of London local authorities – confirms that some councils have “special procedures” for handling requests likely to attract unwelcome publicity, and identifies errors in some councils’ internal guidance which could lead to requests being wrongly refused.
The report’s authors also say that local authorities such as Croydon appear to be increasingly immune from any sanction or fear of sanction.
“The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has failed to keep up pressure for improvements on authorities which persistently breach legal deadlines,” the report states.
“It has also failed to use its power to issue enforcement notices, which could require an authority to deal with all overdue requests by a set deadline. The ICO has both informal and powerful formal tools for addressing persistent delays by public authorities, but is currently using neither.”
The report lists Croydon as the sixth worst of London’s 34 local authorities at responding to FoI requests in a timely manner. Croydon answered 69 per cent within the 20-day limit in 2017-2018. Hounslow is the worst borough, answering only 60 per cent of requests on time. In 2016-2017, Croydon had managed to answer more than 76 per cent of FoI requests within 20 days, the report shows.
FoI requests to Croydon Council in 2017-2018 were up, to 1,783 in the year (from 1,704 the previous year), though this is far from being among the heaviest FoI workload faced by London boroughs.
The excuses offered by Croydon for some of its longest delays were right down there with “the dog ate my homework”.
According to the report, “Two requests to Croydon for information about planning applications were outstanding after 104 and 64 working days respectively. The council later explained that it had changed its FoI email address but that its old mailbox, which was no longer being checked, had continued to accept correspondence without always generating an automated response.”
Of course, some FoI requests can be time critical, for instance if a resident is seeking to oppose a planning application.
Where questioners are unhappy about delays in the handling of their FoI requests, they may ask the council for an internal review. An internal review – conducted by the council itself – has to be undertaken before any complaint can be considered by the Information Commissioner.
But some councils – including Croydon – appear to be employing internal review processes as a deliberate means of adding further delays to providing the information requested. “Croydon took 67 working days to respond to one request with the subsequent internal review still outstanding after a further 79 working days.”
It is worth remembering that these are “working days”, so they do not include weekends or bank holidays. In the case cited above, the 67 + 79 days for a FoI request and its subsequent review will have amounted to more than 28 weeks, or more than seven months, for a process which was intended under the Act to take no more than a month.
And it is not just the public, councillors and local MPs to whom Croydon Council officials behave with barely concealed contempt.
The report’s authors cite a case in which Croydon effectively stuck up two fingers to Elizabeth Denham, the government-appointed Information Commissioner (or IC), too.
“Some councils have been slow to respond to the IC’s requests to reply to requesters or have ignored the IC altogether. The same has sometimes been true of her requests for information needed for an ongoing investigation. On occasions, the IC has had to issue or threaten to issue a formal Information Notice, compelling councils to provide her with information.”
Given the feeble email excuse offered to explain some of Croydon’s delays, the matter of the council’s competence – or lack of it – is also a growing issue, as the report’s authors write: “The IC cited Croydon’s ‘poor engagement’ with her office during a 2018 case, noting that, ‘It took the London Borough two months and the potential of an Information Notice to provide a substantive response to her initial investigation. When the London Borough did respond, it disclosed the wrong information and provided arguments in relation to that incorrect information’.” Those are our italics.
The ICO, though, is increasingly seen as a toothless watchdog. Croydon Council last had its FoI performance monitored in 2010. These days, it seems, the ICO barely bothers.
“The ICO used to publicly name and monitor under-performing bodies. In 2010 it monitored a total of 33 authorities, including seven London councils. But in 2016 and 2017 it monitored only two authorities each year across the whole country. Not a single authority was monitored in 2018.”
The Campaign for Freedom of Information makes a series of recommendations for more open and transparent operation of local authorities, including that “authorities should publish quarterly statistics on their FoI performance in accordance with the statutory guidance in the July 2018 Freedom of Information code of practice”.
It will come as no surprise to Inside Croydon’s loyal reader that our council has so far failed to follow the statutory guidance code of practice and publish data on its performance – just as it consistently fails to publish the findings of the Local Government Ombudsman when it finds against the council in matters such as planning, adult social care and children’s services.
Croydon’s lack of competence extends even to the upkeep of its own records of FoI requests.
The report authors suggest that “councils publish comprehensive disclosure logs… which provide (i) all or most of the requests themselves (ii) the letters of response (iii) any disclosed information (iv) are searchable by date and keyword, and (v) are kept up to date”.
Some of London’s councils were found to carry out this form of best practice, where much of the work is conducted for them by a simple software package called iCasework. Croydon was not among those demonstrating best practice.
Indeed, the report states, “As of December 2018 Croydon had not added anything to its disclosure log for 17 months.”
And as the Campaign’s researchers discovered, often when they finally get around to answering questions, the information which Croydon Council provides cannot be relied upon for its accuracy.
The report states: “Croydon supplied figures to us showing that it had answered 69 per cent of requests in 20 working days in 2017-2018. However, an earlier report to Cabinet, published on its website, stated that it answered only 60.8 per cent of requests within 20 working days in that year.”
We were going to put in an FoI to Jo Negrini asking for her to explain such a disparity. Or how she is getting along delivering council leader Tony Newman’s 2014 manifesto commitment to make Croydon “the most open and transparent” council in its history.
But the thing is, it should be the task of the borough’s elected representatives to hold the professional staff to account, something which Newman clearly has no intention of doing.
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