Peterborough City Council rapped for breaching Freedom of Information Act

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Peterborough City Council has been rapped for breaching the Freedom of Information Act.

The council’s inability to adequately answer a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from the Peterborough Telegraph, despite being challenged several times, led to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) finding it in breach of the law.

The PT had requested to see all emails and documents relating to Eye Primary’s annulled 2017 exam papers.

By law, a public body is required to reveal if it holds the information requested and release it within 20 working delays unless it uses a valid exemption. However, it took nine months before the council met its legal requirement.

As our timeline shows, the council not only missed the 20 working day deadline to answer the PT’s FOI request, it twice failed to disclose all the emails it held and failed to give adequate exemptions as to why it was keeping further items redacted. It took four challenges - two by the PT and two from the ICO - before it finally delivered a response to the PT’s FOI request which was judged to be acceptable to the ICO.

On one occasion the council’s legal team sent the PT a long defence of its FOI response, only for the ICO to tell the authority that it needed to “go back to the beginning and consider the request afresh” as it was still not acceptable.

The council’s attempts to keep information hidden even saw it fail to release any emails it had received from Eye Primary about its annulled exam papers, despite the fact it maintains the school and was in contact with it about how to respond to the PT when we broke the story of the annulled papers a year ago.

Instead, the council told the PT to ask the school directly for those emails, forcing the school to spend its own time and resource dealing with the matter.

When the school did eventually release its emails it became clear from comparing them with the council’s that many were still missing.

Leader of the council’s Lib Dem group Cllr Nick Sandford said: “Both the findings revealed in the letter and the reluctance of those involved to publish the information are very worrying.

“We need to see more openness and transparency at the city council.”

Labour group leader Cllr Shaz Nawaz said: “It’s very concerning that there have been delays with the provision of information. It’s even worse to finally discover that maladministration has taken place in relation to exam papers.

“I’m disappointed with the speed of response from the council in relation to the Freedom of Information request. I know officers work hard and they are usually very good with providing timely information and responses. Clearly something has gone amiss and I will speak to the management team to get to the bottom of this.”

City council leader Cllr John Holdich, who was previously cabinet member for education, admitted the authority should have done better responding to the PT, and that its external legal advice was “wanting to say the least”.

But he added: “I genuinely do believe we are one of the most transparent authorities around. We’ve learnt a lesson from this and so has the school. I genuinely believe both of us were trying to protect the kids.”

Asked for his thoughts on the maladministration at the primary school, he said: “I have been in education for probably 40 years and have never known anything like this.”

The PT asked council chief executive Gillian Beasley if she believes the authority can call itself transparent. A spokeswoman replied: “We always release information when it is requested unless we believe there is a good reason not to. However, as it can be seen in this case, guidance on FOIs can be interpreted differently which can lead to disagreement. In this instance we refused access to some information because we did not consider it to be ours to disclose, such as the closure report and letter of the STA.

“The ICO agreed with our decision not to release one of these documents but disagreed on the other. We have noted their comments throughout the process and will use these going forward.

“We will continue to release information when requested unless we believe there is a sound justification for not doing so. Every year the council responds to over 1,200 FOI requests and in 86 per cent of those we have responded within 20 working days.”

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