Bolton News is toasting victory in a three-year-long campaign to name two councillors' who failed to pay their council tax, which was uncovered by a Freedom of Information request.
Reporter Dale Haslam discovered via Fol two elected representatives in the Greater Manchester town had not paid the tax for two years in a row, only doing so when threatened with court action.
But Haslam’s request to Bolton Council for their names was rejected by the council in late 2012. An appeal to the authority was likewise rejected, as was an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). It cited still unexplained "mitigating circumstances" for withholding the names.
Even an appeal to the body which oversees decisions of the ICO was rejected, until the local newspaper finally won its case this week at an Upper Tier tribunal hearing, helped by lawyers Caroline Kean of solicitors Wiggin and Anya Proops QC of 11 KBW, who represented the paper for free in the matter.
The case has sparked considerable public interest in Bolton and even led to one of the two councillors turning up unannounced at the newspaper’s office to out himself. The Bolton News ran Conservative Mudasir Dean’s dramatic confession as a splash.
Following this week's ruling at the Upper Tier Tribunal byJudge K Markus QC, the paper's editor had strong words for the council on its three-year-obstruction.
Editor Ian Savage told Press Gazette: “The whole saga has been handled disgracefully by Bolton Council and if they appeal it will heap more ignominy upon them. It’s ridiculous the council has spent do much time, effort and public money trying to keep secret the identity of a councillor who hasn’t paid council tax. The public interest in this is wholly legitimate."
The identity of the second councillor in the affair, who represents Labour, remains secret pending possible further appeal from the council.
Town Hall elections take place in Bolton this May.
Newsquest's head of legal Simon Westrop said: “This is a victory for principle, but the public has lost out because these mitigating circumstances that were relevant three years ago are not relevant now.
“This confirms to us our experience as local news providers up and down the UK. Local government has not just failed to embrace openness and freedom of information as was intended, actually it does not understand the concept.
“This ruling must send a strong message to the independent commissioners who are at this moment are reviewing the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Government must learn to trust the public and so strengthen this Act.”
Bolton Council told Press Gazette no decision has been made on whether it shall appeal the ruling.
A spokesman said:“We are disappointed that the Upper Tribunal has not upheld previous decisions by the Information Commissioner and the First Tier Tribunal. These two independent bodies both supported the council’s original decision to withhold private information about an individual.”