CARL SHILTON on the latest blunder in efforts to block public accountability at the LibDem-controlled council
A blatant attempt by a south London council to shut down transparency and close off a well-respected and well-used online tool for putting Freedom of Information requests to local authorities has back-fired on Sutton Council.
Liberal Democrat-controlled Sutton last week began sending out notices stating that they had closed down their email inbox which handled FoIs, effectively cutting off information requests sent using the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website.
The move was seen by parents of some of the borough’s most vulnerable children as a cynical attempt by the council to block their persistent and detailed questioning of Sutton’s failed and failing service for youngsters with SEND – special educational needs and disabilities.
But alerted to the closure of the Sutton FoI inbox, the ingenious teccie types at WhatDoTheyKnow have come up with an impressive quick fix – they are re-directing all the FoI requests that they receive for Sutton Council to the email address for the person ultimately responsible, Helen Bailey, the borough’s chief executive.
According to sources who work with local government, Sutton is the first local authority in the country to switch off emails submitted through WhatDoTheyKnow.
While Sutton’s action is not illegal, it is seen by many as a blatant attempt to duck FoI requests and make the process of questioning the council just that bit more difficult.
Sutton’s SEND service failed its inspection by Ofsted last year and has been in turmoil ever since, with questions asked in the House of Commons (before the Tories closed down Parliament) and a campaign group established by parents who have been denied statutory services through what appears to be a blanket refusal of Education and Health Care Plans, or EHCPs.
It is estimated that more than 800 families in the borough have been denied EHCPs over the past couple of years, and Sutton and its arms-length delivery company, Cognus, continues to refuse to reconsider the majority of the refused applications.
One father, Alan Courtney, who won an appeal against the council’s treatment of his family, has used FoIs to conduct extensive research into Sutton’s SEND provision and support his case. All of Courtney’s FoIs were submitted through WDTK.com.
He is convinced that the attempt to block information requests submitted through WDTK is Sutton’s latest bright idea to avoid scrutiny. “They have been ignoring my requests and stating that they are above the £450 limit,” he said. Local authorities are entitled under the Freedom of Information Act to refuse some more complex requests on grounds of cost, though there is no real mechanism for the public to challenge their costing estimates.
Last month, Tracey Burley was sacked as the CEO of Cognus, as the council sought to fix the issues of its non-provision of services by scapegoating employees. This prompted Courtney to ask further questions of Sutton. “One request was complex relating to staffing (and they would hate to have to answer it),” Courtney said, “but another was as simple was Tracey Burley given a golden goodbye, how much and did she sign a non-disclosure agreement, an NDA.
“Nothing complex about that. But obviously they don’t want it in the public domain!”
According to WhatDoTheyKnow, Sutton has received fewer than 1,000 FoIs through its portal over the course of almost four years. Just 80 FoI requests have been submitted to Sutton via WDTK so far in 2019.
Sutton resident Adrian Short is a specialist in the design, regulation and implications of digital tech.
He was one of the first to notice that Sutton had shut off its email link from WDTK, what he described as, “Another backwards step for transparency and accountability at the council.”
FoI requests submitted to Sutton last week via WDTK received an automatically generated response: “Dear Requester, This inbox is no longer monitored for Freedom of Information Request’s [sic], if you wish to make an FoI request, please follow the link…”.
The council wasn’t refusing to answer FoIs – they can’t, it would be illegal – but they were trying to make it more difficult, using their own online form system which, probably significantly, would hide away all the nasty and embarrassing details from broader public access.
Short told Inside Croydon: “Councils shouldn’t be making it harder for people to make FoI requests or to learn how the process works.
“They should be supporting projects like WDTK that help people to make clear and specific requests for information that the council holds and is not exempt from disclosure.
“WDTK creates a structured workflow so that people who are new to FoI can learn the process as they do it.
“Effectively blocking access to WhatDoTheyKnow is a self-defeating move by the council. WDTK doesn’t just let people send FoI requests. It helps people send better requests.
“By being able to view requests by other people and the responses to them, people can avoid duplicating requests that have already been made. They can learn from how other people phrase their requests and manage the resulting correspondence. And any user can assist others with their request, providing advice and annotation that is visible publicly.”
And as Short notes, “there’s nothing technically stopping Sutton routing the FoI mailbox which still exists (because it is auto-responding) straight into their CRM – their customer relationship management system. That would be what we call ‘fixing the problem’.”
Inside Croydon approached WDTK, and a spokesperson told us, “We have noticed Sutton Borough Council saying it has ceased monitoring the email address it, until recently, asked people to use to make Freedom of Information requests.
“We have updated WhatDoTheyKnow.com to use a new email address for the council and have resent the two requests which were sent to the old address and received the ‘this inbox is no longer monitored…’ response.
“A Freedom of Information request is valid whoever it is sent to at a public body, so if one contact address ceases to work we find another.
“We are keen to work with public bodies and are generally happy to send our users’ requests to whichever email address a public body prefers.
“Public bodies cannot just decide not to accept requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow. The Information Commissioner has explicitly confirmed that requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com are valid, there’s a section titled: ‘Requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow.com or Social Media’ in their current guidance on recognising a valid request for information which states:
‘Requests made through the whatdotheyknow.com website will be valid, provided the requester supplies their real name and describes the information concerned’.
‘With respect to the address for correspondence, we consider the @whatdotheyknow.com email address provided to authorities when requests are made through the site to be a valid contact address for the purposes of Section 8(1)(b)‘.”
Confronted with the cutting off of the FoI inbox, the alternative email address which WhatDoTheyKnow.com found for Sutton Council was Bailey’s, the £150,000-plus per year CEO.
With a salary like that, answering a few emails from the public should be the least that Bailey can do.
But it is not only FoIs where Sutton has tightened up public access.
Having been overwhelmed with complaints, ranging from #SuttonBinShame through to the SEND families, with the public making effective use of online petitioning to seize control of council discussion, Sutton is now insisting that if you even just to sign a petition on the council website, you have to create an account and register with the council, something you didn’t have to do before.
Clearly putting in an extra step asking for details prevents some people from engaging so much.
Yet another example of how Sutton’s LibDems are seeking to stifle transparency and democracy.
- If you want to find out more about WhatDoTheyKnow.com, or to make use of its platform for submitting Freedom of Information requests, visit the site by clicking here
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