Council blocks Leveller® investigation

On 5 May we submitted a Freedom of Information request to South Somerset District Council (SSDC). They acknowledged receipt. They told us they would get back to us within the statutory timeframe (20 working days). They did mention that they might not be able to do this because of COVID 19 duties. The Leveller® noted that as we understood it, no members of the FoI team were actually on COVID 19 duties. The FoI team did not contradict us.

We sent reminders on 3 June and 16 June. Each time we asked when we might receive a response to our FoI. We have had no reply. That is to the FoI or to the emails.

At this point it is probably worth mentioning the information we were trying to obtain. We asked for all email communications between SSDC’s CEO and the FoI team (but only for a short period – a matter of weeks).Partly because in the past the CEO has used his official SSDC account to impugn our journalism and standards. Partly because some of the information we have received from the FoI team has been inaccurate.

It should be an easy request to comply with. You would hardly expect the CEO to spend much of his time micro managing the Foi team.

But time is running out. The current CEO, Alex Parmley leaves for New Zealand on 11 July. We suspect that SSDC are blocking us because they intend to wipe all the evidence once the CEO leaves. That is pure speculation on our part. But it is speculation fuelled by the fact that SSDC refuse to respond to us.

With that in mind we sent an email to both Council Leader Val Keitch and the council’s legal officer Jill Byron on 18 June. We put them on notice that they should not destroy the email account of the CEO after he left, as that would be wilful obstruction of the Freedom of Information Act.

It will not surprise you to learn that neither Cllr Keitch nor Jill Byron have acknowledged receipt. As a result we are now putting this whole issue into the public domain. This is a council that claims to be open and accountable. If you read the above you will see how far this is from the truth.

The public at large need to know what is going on and how the council are abusing the Freedom of Information Act. To what end, we repeat, we can only speculate. However if it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck and smells like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

Note: we did pass this article to the Communications team of the council before publishing it, but you can probably guess what the response was.

16 comments

  • Andrew, send both of them the same warning to their home addresses and to the council offices using recorded delivery. Ask the MPs who cover the SSDC local authority area to do the same. Also serve the request on departing CEO
    as heading off to New Zealand does not exempt him from historic FOI responsibilities.

  • 2. Email their legal officer (as there should be a qualified lawyer who acts for them) notifying him/her of your concern that documents and messages have requested may be destroyed/deleted; as him/her to act by putting a protection order in place. He/she then has a legal responsibility to act to ensure SSDC fully complies with the law and risks being struck off if does not so act.

    • Now this we have done already, we did mention it in the text but we have specifically emailed both the legal officer and council leader for the very reasons you suggest.

  • 3. If you believe that the information you have already put an FOI request in for, or may now wish to request, mentions you or any other journalist by name you should make a Subject Access Request as well; this has a faster timeline and you will be able to make an officiai complaint to the Information Commissioners Office sooner if your request is not met. Send this to the official SSDC email address, the SSDC CEO’s official email address and to the Legal Officer for SDDC as well. Good Luck.

    • Believe they have to comply with a SAR within 40 days and deleting emails etc is not a way out of responding to a SAR (they would have to go through their back- ups, recover documents etc as making responding to an SAR more difficult for themselves would not be a legitimate excuse)

  • The leveller really seems to really have it in for SSDC at the moment, is there a personal reason behind this as I don’t see any other Somerset councils being targeted? It is a shame to see such a biased approach from the leveller, this article smacks of paranoia and sloppy journalism.

    • There is nothing personal about it at all. Nor do we “have it in” for SSDC. All other councils answer our requests for information with courtesy and in a timely fashion. No other council give us factually inaccurate information.
      And SSDC have now chosen to block communication with us.
      What you make of that is of course up to you.
      But no we are not paranoid.
      You may disagree with the content, but the article is factually accurate.

  • South Somerset District Council

    We are aware that, as an authority, our performance in responding to Freedom of Information requests can be improved and we apologise for the delays anyone has experienced.. We receive a large volume of requests every week and we are working as hard as we can be to comply with required deadlines. We are in contact with the Information Commissioner’s Office which has already stated that there may be understandable delays when making information rights requests during the pandemic due to pressures on all services across councils as we provide vital support for our communities. However, we accept that any missed deadline is unacceptable and, as an authority which always strives to be open and transparent, we will be making every effort to increase the pace at which we can gather and release information.

  • “All it will take for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing”.

    I feel compelled to respond, yet another ‘expose’ of local governance crass ‘maladministration’ within the ‘shadow’ of Covid – 19 ‘lock-down’ to put it politely. As sometime Chairman, Mendip District Council’s, Administration & Finance Committee, in those early quadrennial, pace 1974 LG Reform, we witness the emergent ‘doctrinaire’ politician. Wasn’t always so, those early ‘members’ wholly ‘community’ motivated; no ‘secret’ caucus meetings to ‘fix’ the agenda; more subsequently, consequent on ‘forensic’ reporting in the recent Leveller publications.

    The once ‘proud’ Bristol, Western Daily Press, an escutcheon ‘let light e’re shine on power, less that power corrupts’. (many a ‘culled’/retiree ‘Journalist amongst us)

    “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise”:

    https://app.inews.co.uk/full_page_image/page-45-831/content.html

  • As a District Councillor for Wincanton I have had 3 FOI questions blanked by SSDC, it appears there is a lot they want to hide. It seems breaking the law comes easily to this Council.

    • Reading Nick’s post I find myself asking “will SSDC turn out to be in the same financial state as Croydon Council”?
      As a council tax payer in the Mendip District Council area, the Stronger Somerset unitary authority proposal to combine Mendip DC with South Somerset DC gives me cause for great concern.
      That a South Somerset councillor is still waiting for 3 Freedom Of Information requests from South Somerset DC has now added to that concern.
      On 21 June, in an article titled “South Somerset accounts” thé Leveller put a spot light on South Somerset’s finances.
      This afternoon I came across an article online by a Croydon Councillor, Robert Ward, titled “The three tests to see if your council is on the path to becoming another Croydon”.
      In that article Test 1 is “the Freedom of Information Test” which SSDC would appear to be failing; Test 2 is “The Complaints Process Test” and 3 is “the Show-me Test”.
      I am hoping that SSDC does not fail all three tests as that article ends with “If your Council fails all three tests, my recommendation is that if you are in opposition start voting against the administration; if you are in power, start losing sleep”.

      • Melissa Whittaker

        Speaking as an individual, they have failed step 1 and 2 which you refer to.
        I never received a response to my complaint submitted via their website about a lack of process, which means I am close to the point of referring SSDC to the LGO.

  • If you suspect that they intend to wipe all the evidence once the CEO leaves, then report all this NOW to the Information Commissioner’s Office. It’s a serious offence contravening Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act. A warning shot may preserve the information.

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