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Freedom of information dilemma for council
By Martin Shipton, Western Mail (Feb 17 2007)<TABLE class=headerTable cellSpacing=0 cellPadding=0 width=* border=0><TBODY><TR><TD colSpan=2>(Source: icwales.co.uk)
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A COUNCILLOR has been faced with a bizarre dilemma after trying to find out why a new bus station has been delayed: Pay us more than £1,500 and we'll tell you what you want to know, or promise to keep it secret, and we'll give you the information for nothing.
The bureaucratic poser confronting Kevin Etheridge is a strange consequence of Freedom of Information legislation.
Mr Etheridge, an Independent, who represents Blackwood on Caerphilly Council, said he has been concerned about delays in opening the town's bus station. But when he asked council officials for details of meetings and correspondence about the project, he was shocked at the response.
The letter, from the council's chief engineer Mark Rees-Williams, states, "Unfortunately the amount of time that would be required of us to find and sort the information in response to your request is considerable. We must ask you to pay a fee if you require us to undertake this work ... Our fees for supplying the information calculated in accordance with Regulation 6 of the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limits and Fees) Regulations 2004 will be £1,527.50."
The letter says it would take 37 staff hours to check 40 files held by a number of officials. At £25 an hour, that would cost Mr Etheridge £925. In addition, the cost of photocopying a minimum of 4,500 sheets of paper at 10p a sheet would be £450. Photocopies of contract drawings would add a further £62.50 to the total, with postage costing £90. The cost of photocopying and postage would be excluded if the councillor simply wanted to inspect the material.
The letter continues, "In addition, as an elected member you may be entitled to see this information free of charge using your 'need to know right' ... Please note however that should you receive this information under your 'need to know right', then the information must remain confidential and must not be published in the public domain."
Mr Etheridge said, "This is outrageous.
"All I have been trying to do is find out why the new bus station has been delayed. It was supposed to be completed in December, but now it won't be open before March. This is in my own ward, and to seek to charge me more than £1,500 makes a mockery of the council's supposed commitment to openness and transparency.
"What makes the situation even more appalling is that if I agree to keep the information secret, I could get it for nothing in my capacity as a councillor. This is completely unacceptable."
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information pressure group, said, "Under the Freedom of Information Act, the council is allowed to make a charge if the cost of providing the information goes above £450.
"The councillor could try to narrow his questions down to bring the material within that limit. He could go in and inspect the documents instead of having them all sent out to him, and ask for important items to be photocopied later.
"Where the council appears to have gone over the top is in trying to put a blanket ban on him disclosing any material disclosed to him as a councillor. Under the terms of the Act, that should only be information legitimately considered to be confidential."
A Caerphilly Council spokesman said, "The FOI request received from Councillor Etheridge sought a large amount of detail. This request represents nearly five months of correspondence spread amongst 16 individual officers and contractors, consultants and bus company representatives."
The spokesman outlined the different procedure relating to requests from councillors, where the chief executive in consultation with the council leader decides whether material can be released.
The spokesman said, "If he had information given to him in this way it can involve both public information, and information that is confidential and not for public disclosure. On an FOI request there is no guarantee that having paid the fee that an individual will have all the information, because what is being sought may be exempted from disclosure under FOI."
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