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Haringey response to Freedom of Information Requests - Can we trust it?

If you are a researcher, a campaigner, community activist, or a concerned individual - Freedom of Information Requests,(FOIs) have become a very useful tool indeed in helping us get to the bottom of things and in some cases as it happens it could even have far reaching outcomes, when challenging the release or refusal of information in the high court.

 

I am sure many would be aware of the http://www.whatdotheyknow.com website, if you have not, then I would like to encourage you to have a look, particularly if for whatever reason you plan to submit a FOI request to Haringey, or any other organization.

 

The benefit of using this site to submit a FOI request is that the answers you get are ARCHIVED, PUBLIC and SEARCHABLE and that is far more powerful tool when it comes to research of current issues and topics of concern.

 

When I mentioned the high court case above, I was referring to the Judicial Review mounted by the SAVE ALLY PALLY campaign, which ultimately stopped to flogging of the peoples' palace for peanuts. The whole basis for that legal challenge was the refusal of both Haringey and the Charity Commission to release information requested by the campaigners using a FOI request.

 

This was a clear-cut case of refusal to release the information. But what happens when a request is answered? Can we trust the answers we get? How can we know for sure that the information released is indeed the correct, complete and full as we have requested? Does anyone ever check it?

 

The simple and short answer is YES!!! I DID CHECK IT, and When it comes to Haringey Council: NO!!!! YOU CAN NOT TRUST THE ANSWERS YOU GET.

 

The only reason I am able to state this with confidence, is as a result of using http://www.whatdotheyknow.com In this case, I was not aiming to prove a point, it was more a case of stumbling on it. I didn't have to try very hard to find 2 very obvious examples, I hate to think what can be found if one was really looking...

 

I will be interested to know what do you think should be done about it?

Tags: FOI, crouch, crouchend, discussion, end, freedom, haringey, hornsey, information, london, More…n8, news, of, requests, views, whatdotheyknow.com

Views: 192

Replies to This Discussion

Hi GN8:

 

Can you supply any details of Haringey mismanaging the FOI cases which you found?

 

I think this is important because if the council are not held to account over FoI responses, then they may come to believe they can get away with it. I have some experience of Haringey conduct in this:

 

As you know, in December 2006, I asked for a copy of the Lease-to-Firoka in order to be able to make informed comment on the public consultation being run by the Charity Commission in connection with the sale of our Charity's asset, Alexandra Palace, to Firoka.

 

I signed a Witness Statement in this connection and it came up in the High Court case in October 2007. The judicial review of the [farcical] consultation led to the Judge quashing the Charity Commission's Order and that had the effect of stalling the sale.

 

I had not been given outright false information by Harigney Corporate Legal Services Department, but I was given information that was prevaricating, misleading, dissembling and served to stall my request for the crucial period of the consultation. Both the Charity Commission and the local council were castigated by the High Court over their conduct and sense of fairness.

 

Other requests in connection with our Charity, Alexandra Palace, have been subject to extraordinary delay with sometimes fantastic excuses offered. IMO, LBH do not take their FoI responsibilities seriously enough.

Clive, Thank you for asking, and giving me the opportunity to elaborate. As I said I found 2 clear cases and since publishing it, there is at least one more being noted.

Here is the full story:

Case number 1                                                                                                           

Last week I was contacted by one of Haringey Labour’s Councillors, alerting me to a freedom of information request submitted to Haringey regarding revenue from parking by a Mr Wright. He used the http://www.whatdotheyknow.com site, so both his request and Haringey reply was public. The Councillor was asking me to look into it and let him know what I thought. I had a busy week so I only got to it over the weekend when I had some free time...

When I looked at Haringey reply, I noticed that the information they provided was available in the already published Parking annual reports, which I am familiar with, (due to the research I did in Oct 2010 which is available on the GreenN8 website ever since). When I looked at the figures provided in the FOI it jumped at me that they do not match the data in the annual report. And I was right - Details and links to this case are published at the top part of the page here: http://www.greenn8.org/cpz/cpz-follow-the-money.html  

Case number 2
                                                                                                      

  
As I said before, I had a bit of time over the weekend and as I was there looking at things all Haringey, I thought; lets have a look at what other information people have been requesting from Haringey...  I went through the list of FOIs and opened those which picked my interest.

Those where not related, just random collections of topics. They included questions on; The cost of producing the ‘Haringey People Magazine’,  Child Protection,  Immigration Cap...

And then I found a question about ‘Common Purpose’. That definitely picked my interest... In case you are wondering what I am on about - Common purpose is a ‘semi secretive charity’ (an oxymoron in itself, but way beyond the remit of this discussion) which provides ‘leadership training’ in particularly, but not exclusively, to the public sector. Their role and secretive conduct have long been questioned by many researches and I was aware of it for quite some years by now. So when I saw this question asking - How much money Haringey spent on sending stuff and councillors of ALL POLITICAL PARTIES to do their training, of course I opened it to have a look.

Yep, Haringey did spent over £18,000 on ‘Common Purpose’ courses, or so they say!

At that point I wanted to see if there was any new information I could find on ‘Common Purpose’ so I left the http://www.whatdotheyknow.com  website behind, and went on to watch a TV interview with Brian Gerrish the researcher who exposed their activity to begin with.  here is a link in case anyone is interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1P1yD3eiGw&feature=related

My exploration then went into other avenues, which are of course of interest to me, but may not be relevant to this discussion.

All of this was over the weekend...

On Monday I get an email from Clive with a link to Andrew Gilligan article published by the Daily Telegraph which is all about Haringey cuts http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8365463/Death-by-a-thousan... I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t yet. Certainly deserve it’s own post...

Amongst other things the article raises ‘the self propaganda people’s pravda’ issue reading it I recalled seeing that FOI regarding the cost of producing it... I went back to http://www.whatdotheyknow.com to look for it again.

I could not find it... BUT while looking for it I found another FOI asking about ‘Common Purpose’ I thought this is interesting, Another one from a year earlier?

To my amazement I found it was IDENTICAL to the one I have seen before, ONLY HARINGEY RESPONSE COULD NOT HAVE BEEN MORE CONTRADICTORY.

The 2 FOI requests are one year a part, the officer giving the answer is one and the same - a Mr. Andrews Ian

  • Response to the 1st FOI was - Haringey never spent any money with ‘Common Purpose’  
  • Response to the 2nd FOI was - £18,682.50 was paid to `Common Purpose' in the period 5th November 1999 to 4th September 2002. (links and details are below in case anyone wish to confirm what I am saying)


So this is the second case where it emerges that when it comes to Haringey -
WE CAN NOT TRUST THE INFO WE GET!


Case number 3
                                                                                                        

 
Since publishing this info on Harringay on line, case no 3 is noted:
http://www.harringayonline.com/forum/topics/haringey-response-to-fr...

I can not confirm it though, as the person claiming it, did not do his request through the www.whatdotheyknow.com site. He writes:

“My only FOI response from parking did not look anything like the figures I saw that had been circulated internally. The final number was the same though. To me it looked like they had quickly knocked together a spreadsheet because I had been pestering them.”


So as you can see, I did not go looking to find those inconsistencies, I stumbled upon them.
I dread to think what we will find if we did go looking!

But as it already appears, Haringey answers CAN NOT BE TRUSTED TO BE TRUTHFUL OR ACCURATE.

The question is: WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT...

 

-----

 

FOI 1                                                                                                                           


On the 25 of June 2008 a Linda Greyson did a FOI regarding ‘Common purpose’
Requesting that:
     “you detail total expenditure (if any) by Haringey Borough Council
     on Common Purpose courses for each of the following years: 1997,
     1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008
     to date.
     
     Please also supply a copy of the invoice for each Common Purpose
     course paid for by Haringey Borough Council.
     
     By "Common Purpose", I mean the training organisation of that name:
     http://www.commonpurpose.org/home.aspx” u>http://www.commonpurpose.org/home.aspx”>  u>http://www.commonpurpose.org/home.aspx”>


http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/common_purpose_58#incoming-23522

Andrews Ian Haringey Borough Council replied on the 30 June 2008

“In respect of your recent request I can confirm that London Borough of
 Haringey has never procured service from the charity known as Common
 Purpose in any of the years quoted 1997 - date.

I trust this information fully answers your request.”

FOI 2                                                                                                                          
 

 

On 25 March 2009 S Davis request the same information
http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/common_purpose_58#incoming-23522

Please provide the following information:
     
     Charity "Common Purpose"; meaning the training organisation of that
     name:http://www.commonpurpose.org/home.aspx
    
     On a yearly basis from 2000 onwards , unless of course money was
     paid to Common Purpose from an earlier period, in which case please
     include information from the earlier period.
     
     1. Name all Elected Councillors who have attended a Common Purpose
     course?
     
     2. Name all employees who have attended a Common Purpose course?
     
     3. How much money has been paid to this organisation?
     
     4. Please provide copies of invoices/receipts.”

This time same Andrews Ian Haringey Borough Council replies on the 7th of  April 2009

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/9751/response/23106/attach/ht...

I write in response to your above referenced request regarding Payments to `Common Purpose'.
I have been able to confirm, from an archived database that £18,682.50 was paid to `Common Purpose' in the period 5th November 1999 to 4th September 2002. No payments have been made since that date. Unfortunately the actual documents are no longer available and have been destroyed, in line with the Councils document retention policy, however below is a schedule of payments made during that period.
Followed by details of invoice numbers and amounts paid. Which can be found here:
http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/9751/response/23106/attach/ht...

This seems odd. Can I suggest that you go to the council, pointing out the discrepancy and asking for an explanation? To me, the response denying payment to Common Purpose just looks like a mistake rather than an attempt to hide information, but an explanation seems warranted and it is still worrying that insufficiently checked information can be released. FoI requests are treated specially and the process is governed by it's own Act.

 

With Haringey, half the time its conspiracy and half the time its just cockup and this could be a case of the latter. If the "officers" can't or won't explain this, maybe you should ask a councillor to take it up.

Odd is not a word I would choose to use in this regard...

We could pontificate probable causes ad infinitum, still the facts remain!

Regardless of any offered explanation as to how this happened, still the facts remain!

Does it really matter how this will be excused by the council?

If there was a conspiracy will they admit it? I don't hold my breath... do you?

If it was incompetance will they admit it? More likely, but would that change anything? Unlikely!

At the end of the day whichever explanation they'll offer, still the facts remain!

Those facts are: There are 3 cases so far, 2 of each are undeniable!

Say we ask them nicely to explain, what are the chances for Lesson learned? Highly improbable...

If they can't learn any lessons when it is a question of life or death, as highlighted by the child protection failing twice, where do you think this issue is going to fall in their list of priorities of problems to fix?

here are the few lessons I take from it all :

1. When one request a FOI, it must be made public and open to scrutiny by using the http://www.whatdotheyknow.com site 

2. When a response is finally given, it will be unwise just to trust what you getting first time around

3. For that reason it is advisable to make few separate requests for the same infomation

4. Take Haringey to task every time they do not comply with the law!

5. I would like to see our local councillors justify their existence by taking this bull by the horns!

6. I would like to see our local press getting their teeth into it too.

any other suggestion would be welcome.

 

Ofer: the main fact that remains is that there is an unexplained discrepancy, not necessarily evidence of a conspiracy. Yes, I think it does matter how it might be excused by the council – there's a big difference between a mistake and a conspiracy theory. I suggest it has the appearance of an error, mainly because the different accounts are too easily noticed and compared. I am not attempting to minimize the (possible) error, only judge it in the absence of anyone being prepared to ask the council for an explanation.

You write: "There is no evidence of a conspiracy." As if I suggested there is - I didn't.

My main concern is not the past but the future. That next time we face a situation where a FOI request is critical again - that we are able to use it as intended and be able to TRUST the information we receive, to reflect true facts, full and accurate information. And not a botch job, regardless of the reasons for it, conspiracy or otherwise.

As it stands I lost confidence in Haringey ability to fulfil their duty.

 

On a more practical note -

1. Not sure if an official complaint can be lodged by a person other then the person who requested the information!

2. Do you know if there is a set time after the request was answered, in which one can complain.


 

Haringey does have an official complaints procedure. I've never used it and I don't think it is (yet) appropriate to use for this case. It is a good principle of complaints, and one that is embedded in the law relating to Info Commissioner Local govt. Ombudsman, that you first (and second) go back to the person or department with which you have an "issue" (or "focus area" as Microsoft re-branded problems).

In this case, you have identified what appears to be a discrepancy that is so glaring that I think any person could reasonably pose the question to LBH FoI. And LBH should reasonably be expected to offer an explanation and no time limit should be applicable.

I agree that whatever the reason, the evidence of this does not inspire confidence in FoI.

I have made a number of FoIs myself and have  reservations about them, but never their accuracy. My main beef is slowness and sometimes ridiculous excuses for not supplying information.

In respect of council's Lease-to-Firoka, I had to go to the Information Commissioner, whose office after one year ruled that LBH had wrongly "engaged" a commercial confidentiality exemption and directed LBH to release the Lease to me, only lightly redacted.

Sometimes the info LBH provides is misleading, but the council can be adept at exploiting any ambiguity in one's questions.

 

Freedom of Information Requests   for those interested in making an information request of the council, Haringey makes it pretty straightforward, via this council webpage. Or via this more public page: What do they know?

I made a couple of FoI requests regarding the LBH website about the time the cost of the LBH website made the Telegraph. They were not well crafted, and indeed one of them duplicated to some extent the work the DT had done, so I would reiterate Clive's advice to avoid ambiguity, and indeed to make sure you are asking the question you actually want answered. Perhaps have a critical friend read your draft question before submitting it. On this discussion page perhaps.

One thing I thought was interesting from the responses:

Has LBH assessed how much money has been saved by the website, as visitors use its facilities rather than council offices, for example? 

Response:        The Council is currently undertaking a review of cost savings that can be made through greater use of our Web facilities. As part of that we will be estimating indicative savings made to date and projecting the savings that could be made in the future. At this time there are no definitive numbers to be shared

Which I would paraphrase as "we have no idea nor are we ever likely to"

 

And my question "Has LBH assessed the non financial or intangible benefits of the site? Please tell me what these benefit are?"  was interpreted as benefits to the user of the site, where what I wanted was benefits to LBH and thereby me the taxpayer. So this is an example of an ambiguous question.


Haringey, like all councils, could probably save money in the long run by carefully implementing open source software in its operations (i.e. Linux, etc).

Currently, local authorities pay licensing fees to a large American multi-national for running our council's in-house computers and are locked into one company's operating system, one that has a number of "issues". The operating system used by the council is not UNIX-class.

There appears to be a vested interest by council staff in keeping this arrangement, due to the large maintenance requirement.

As a separate municipal computing issue, Haringey persists in producing pdfs that are scans of paper – inefficient from several points of view. They should as far as possible produce PDFs directly, which are searchable, high quality and have small file sizes ...

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