Editor claims the FoI Act is 'full of excuses and let-outs'

By Sarah Lagan

Newark Advertiser editor Harry Whitehouse has branded the Freedom of
Information Act “feeble” after numerous attempts to get information
from different authorities were foiled.

Most recently his paper submitted a complaint against
Nottinghamshire County Council after it failed to respond fully to an
FoI request about senior councillors making private calls on office
phones.

County Hall will release information about the length,
cost and international zones of the calls, but says the Data Protection
Act prohibits it from specifying the numbers called.

The
Advertiser says the bills are available for inspection during the
statutory period of access before the annual audit, meaning any such
exemption should be ruled out.

Last year the paper revealed that
senior councillor Colin Bromfield made numerous calls to Siberia
running up a bill of £463 in three months.

Bromfield later
resigned from the cabinet and is being investigated by the Standards
Board for England. At the time the council said it did not make checks
on council office calls as it trusted its councillors.

As for the
most recent request, Whitehouse said: “They didn’t give us the phone
numbers although we had obtained numbers through the audit provision a
year before. The Act says exemptions can’t be made on information that
can be gained throughother means. They have wrongly withheld the info
and so we are complaining and if they continue to withhold it we will
complain to the Information Commissioner. “The Freedom of Information
Act is feeble and pathetic and provides authorities with so many
excuses and let-outs. To allow a local authority to act as an arbiter
is absurd. The system is weighted against disclosure.”

The
council says staff have not been trained how to check calls on a new
telephone system installed three months ago, so no information can be
obtained until after the May elections.

A spokesperson from the
Information Commissioner’s Office defended the Act, saying: “We have
been encouraged by how much new material is being released under FoI
every day. The diversity of information released is impressive.

“Where
people are unsuccessful in getting information that they feel should be
in the public domain, they can complain to us. Our role is to decide
whether the exemptions claimed by a public authority for withholding
information have been correctly applied, and if so, whether the public
interest in each exemption is greater than the public interest in
disclosure.

“It is important to remember that the Act has a
presumption in favour of disclosure and even where many of the
exemptions apply, the information must still be released if there is a
greater public interest in its disclosure.”

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