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'Secretive' Barking & Dagenham Council is slammed in Freedom of Information survey

PUBLISHED: 17:00 06 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:37 06 March 2019

Barking Town Hall... accused of 'secrecy' over Freedom of Information requests

Barking Town Hall... accused of 'secrecy' over Freedom of Information requests

Archant

Town Hall officials have been slammed for being secretive about a request by campaigners wanting to know how they handle information to the public.

Tory Andrew Boff... Tory Andrew Boff... "The council's record on 'freedom of information' is a joke!" Picture: London Assembly

It follows a denial by Barking and Dagenham Council that details existed about procedures for Freedom of Information requests—which later proved to be false.

The condemnation comes in a report by the Freedom of Information Campaign which claims some local authorities are failing to comply with the law by not responding to many requests within 21 working days and wrongly refusing requests in a few cases.

Some councils took up to 10 months to respond and often only answered after intervention from the Information Commissioner who enforces the law on transparency.

Barking & Dagenham said it didn’t hold documents that were actually on its own website requested by the freedom campaigners.

Freedom of Information's director Maurice Frankel... Freedom of Information's director Maurice Frankel... "Local authorities face no real repercussions for ignoring requests." Picture: Angus Young

The authority claimed for nearly a year that there were no such documents, then finally handed them over when the Commissioner investigated.

It had taken 55 days to reply, well over the legally-required 21 days.

“Its FoI record is a joke,” London Assembly Tory member Andrew Boff told the Barking & Dagernham Post. “Time and time again the council tries to hide information about its inner workings.

“The council, for example, has hidden information about which members have ‘freeby’ parking permits, about processing a councillor’s Landlord registration and information on commercial leases where a councillor has an interest.”

Mr Boff, who lives in Barking, accuses the Labour-run authority of becoming “this secretive organisation”.

A Decision Notice was served on the council by the Information Commissioner in 2017, over the year-long delay releasing the requested documents.

But the authority insists it’s now out of the woods. A town hall spokesman said: “The case referred to was more than three years ago and we apologised at the time. The Information Commissioner decided to take no further action.”

The Freedom of Information campaign also blames the Commissioner’s Office itself for failing to keep up pressure on town halls that persistently breach legal deadlines.

Campaign director Maurice Frankel said: “Local authorities face no real repercussions for ignoring public requests. They even ignore the Commission pressing them to respond.

“All that happens is that they are served with a notice after six, nine or 12 months requiring them to provide information or the grounds for refusing it.”

Barking & Dagenham received 1,594 requests for information last year, with 93pc being responded to in time. Neighbouring Newham had 1,858 requests, Redbridge 1,682, Havering 1,877 and Tower Hamlets 2,319.

Local authorities should publish quarterly the number of requests going unanswered in time and setting out why they’ve been delayed, the campaign report recommends.

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Freedom of Information Campaign: www.cfoi.org.uk

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