National regulator says it is ‘deeply disappointed’ with Croydon, which has broken the Freedom of Information laws at least 227 times in the past year and now faces possible High Court action. By STEVEN DOWNES
Cash-strapped Croydon Council could face legal sanctions from the Information Commissioner’s Office if it fails to abide by the law and starts to respond to Freedom of Information Requests promptly within the 20-day limit permitted.
The ICO slapped an enforcement notice on Croydon Council today for “repeated, systemic” failures on information law.
The public body issued Croydon Council with a warning last year, but has seen “no discernible improvement” in performance. In fact, the council’s response times to FoIs have got worse this year, despite promising to put an “improvement plan” in place.
“They are failing their residents, and we are now compelling them to do better,” a senior official at the ICO said today.
The consequence of failing to comply with an ICO enforcement notice is that the Commissioner may take the matter to the High Court, using Section 54 of Freedom of Information Act. “Upon consideration and inquiry by the High Court, the council may be dealt with as if it had committed a contempt of court,” the ICO said today.
Croydon Council has been a long-term offender in respect of delaying, failing and refusing to answer quite legitimate requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.
For at least two years, they used the covid lockdown as a routine excuse for failing to respond within the 20 days laid down by the law.
The reality now, however, is that council staffing has been cut back so deeply that there is often not the time nor the expertise to provide proper answers for FoIs. Which suggests that Croydon Council might struggle to meet the strict demands laid down by the ICO today.
In its enforcement notice delivered to Croydon Council’s chief executive, Katherine Kerswell, and the elected Mayor, piss-poor Jason Perry, the ICO found that the council has been sitting on 35 unanswered FoI requests for more than a year. In total, Croydon Council has failed to provide responses within one month for 227 FoI requests.
And it is not as if Kerswell and Perry had not been warned.
The Information Commissioner directed Croydon Council to improve its compliance with the FoI Act in September last year.
Today, the ICO said, “The Commissioner received an update from the council in June 2023. This showed that the council’s progress had not been maintained, with its performance having actually declined.
“The Commissioner was deeply disappointed that having highlighted the high volume of decision notices…”, ICO warnings, “…issued to the council prior to issuing the practice recommendation, there appears to have been no discernible improvement from the Council in this regard.”
The ICO has relied on information provided to it by the council, which may not be entirely reliable.
But according to the council’s own figures, in 2020-2021, only 74per cent of FoI requests received a response within 20 days.
By the following year, 2021-2022, that was down to 59per cent.
In January 2023, the council claimed that it was answering 77per cent of FoI requests within the time limit, promising the ICO what it called a “big push” to arrive at a more acceptable 90per cent – ie. only breaking the law in 1-in-10 cases – by Easter this year.
The Information Commissioner decided to wait until that Easter checkpoint before considering what further action, if any, to take.
From the ICO enforcement notice, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that it is not only members of the public that Croydon Council keeps waiting for answers. Easter 2023 was on April 9.
It appears that Croydon took nearly two months to give the Information Commissioner the performance figures they were expecting.
“Having chased for finalised data regarding its FOIA compliance,” the enforcement notice states, “the Commissioner received an update from the council in June 2023.
“This showed that the council’s progress had not been maintained, with its performance having actually declined.
“Having responded to 72.41per cent of requests on-time for Q3 (October-December) of the financial year 2022-2023, it was only able to respond to 63.64per cent of requests on-time
for Q4 (Jan-March 2023).
“Of further concern, the council also explained that it had a number of open requests which were significantly over the 20 working day time limit for compliance.
“The Commissioner is also deeply disappointed that having highlighted the high volume of decision notices issued to the council prior to issuing the practice recommendation, there appears to have been no discernible improvement from the council in this regard.”
The ICO had issued a further 21 warnings to Croydon Council between September 2022 and April this year.
The enforcement notice issued today requires Croydon to respond to all the 227 outstanding requests no later than six months from the date of the notice. Kerswell’s council has a month to come up with an improvement plan that will work.
Phillip Angell, the head of FOI casework at the ICO, said: “People have a legal right to be able to ask their council about its actions and receive an answer promptly. What we have seen with Croydon Council is repeated, systemic failures at complying with transparency legislation.
“They are failing their residents, and we are now compelling them to do better.
“Any public authority with poor Freedom of Information compliance levels may be subject to enforcement or practice recommendations as part of the ICO’s commitment to promoting openness, transparency and accountability.” Which would be nice.
The Croydon enforcement notice comes as part of the ICO’s new “no more Mr Nice Guy” approach to recalcitrant, foot-dragging public bodies announced last year.
- Read the ICO’s enforcement notice against Croydon Council in full here (you won’t find it published anywhere on the council website)
- Have you had problems getting answers from Croydon Council through FoI requests? To report a concern to the ICO, telephone their helpline on 0303 123 1113, or go to ico.org.uk/concerns.
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