Sunday, 1 July 2012

Confidential Reports.

When reports are presented to council committees they are either presented in the open part of the meeting where the press and public are allowed to attend and proceedings are open and transparent; or secondly they are presented in a closed session where only elected members and officers are privy to the information.

Most of the time reports in Part II of meetings are confidential for a very good reason, for example they discuss staffing issues or commercially sensitive issues. There are other reports that are put in part II  where the reasons are less clear and ambigious with the perception that some administrations will use Part II for political purposes and to avoid public scrutiny. The only process to challenge whether a report should be in Part II at the time is a vote but since the governing majority will have agreed for the report to go into Part II in the first place they are unlikely to vote for it to be taken out so a challenge is unlikely to succeed.

This was the position I found myself in recently at the Exceutive Board when I challenged a Part II report regarding a decrepid building that the previous administartion with officers support had decided was surplus to requirement and should be demolished. The new administration decided they wanted to retain the building (against officer's wishes) for a unknown purpose funded from an unknown revenue or capital source and the only part of this report that could justify it being in Part II were the demolition costs which were not necessary for a decision to be made on retention of the building!

Any attempt to have this matter discussed in open forum would have resulted in a breach of member's code of conduct on my part and a complaint to the ombudsman, so what was I to do? There was one tactic that I hadn't considered previously and it wasn't one I resort to often to get information from my own authority as it isn't normally necessary. On this occasion however I decided to test the basis to include this report in Part II by making a Freedom of Information request for this Part II report but the request was made for the report with the parts considered confidential redacted. Having removed any grounds for refusal Wrecsam County Borough Council had no choice but to provide this report in its entirety with only two figures redacted.

Can I suggest that anyone who want to see public bodies being more open and transparent should adopt similar tactics.


Cneifiwr said...

Certainly worth a try. I did once manage to extract a redacted report out of Carms, but the redacting might as well have been done with a chainsaw. Great swathes of text were blacked out (this was a report which is now public under the LDP anyway), and sentences from different parts of the report were welded together which made no sense at all.

It took over a year to get this useless document after a request and an appeal had been refused.

I think the only reason they relented and agreed to a redacted version was to stop me from going to the Information Commissioner.

I have to admit that I gave up at that point because an appeal to the Commissioner would have dragged the whole process out to well beyond the planning decision I was interested in.

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

The worst public bodies for FOIA always use that delaying tactic hoping that you will give up. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could get a Decision Notice against Carms CC that they are not complying with FOIA.

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

If there is so much redacting that the report is indecipherable then I would have reated that as a refusal.