Nevertheless, she persisted

Marlowe Road Estate (credit Penny Dampier)
Michelle Edwards lives on Marlowe Road Estate in Walthamstow and has been trying to find out more information about Waltham Forest Council’s redevelopment scheme (credit Penny Dampier)

Michelle Edwards scores a victory in her quest for council transparency

As I bit into some delicious barbecue chicken wings at Bruce Burgers in Tottenham, I received a mobile alert for an email. Despite my (new) boyfriend’s objection, I couldn’t resist the urge to check, smearing sauce across the phone’s screen in the process.

A well-placed figure in governance thought I should see a July entry on the ‘FOI Man’ blog about the first practice recommendation to be issued to a local authority by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – essentially a telling off for not following ICO best practice on handling Freedom of Information (FOI) requests – in over a decade. It wasn’t until I reached the sixth paragraph containing an external link to the eleven-page recommendation that I realised the ICO had reprimanded, you guessed it, Waltham Forest Council. The trigger for this reprimand was described in the blog as “a single persistent individual” – referring to yours truly! At least it’s only taken the last 18 months of my life to force their hands.

On average, each application – essentially an appeal – that I’ve made to the ICO about a council FOI response has taken me more than two hours to compile, draft, proofread and submit. That doesn’t take account of supplementary hours spent responding to subsequent correspondence containing nonsensical arguments. I am not remunerated for any of this. As of July this year, 20 of my ICO applications (nearly half) have been upheld and 18 decision notices have been issued, all publicly available online.

As pointed out by the blog, practice recommendations are “basically a slap on the wrist”. That’s all that’s happened here. Irrespective of the wilful breaches by the council, the ICO refuse to take any meaningful legal action, yet frequently threaten to do so. The ICO has proved itself to be completely useless, but don’t just take my word for it; academics, charities, journalists and lawyers agree. Four months ago, the government joined a growing chorus of criticism and parachuted in a global management consultancy to run a major audit, following claims that the regulator does not have the clout to take on tech giants like Google and is not fit for purpose. Cue uncomfortable agreement with the Conservatives.

The ICO has a tendency to accept without question the word of alleged offenders and close live cases prematurely, shifting responsibility for effective adjudication to the complainant. For example, an April 2019 request to secure correspondence concerning myself in a subject access request (SAR) was refused twice by the council despite a clear ruling by the ICO that they had “incorrectly applied the ‘manifestly unfounded and excessive’ justification”. Case closed. Nobody raised a finger to enforce the law. Instead, I was advised to “seek independent legal advice regarding the matters raised in this particular case”.

In August 2019, the council falsely claimed to have provided me with SAR disclosures held by an external government department that I hadn’t even requested. When the ICO bothered to ask, the council couldn’t provide any evidence to support their claim. ICO senior management eventually arranged a meeting last month with the council’s chief executive Martin Esom to discuss the matter. The outcome? No bloody idea. All I managed to ascertain was some vague crap about a shared performance plan which they will be monitoring over the coming months.

The ICO is a functioning failure.