MOCK THE WEEK: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION LAMBETH-STYLE
Welcome to another edition of Mock the Week. The scene is the Lambeth council office dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests. Hugh Dennis plays the council officer showing the new recruit (played by a female comedian) the ropes.
Hugh Dennis: I’ll just give you a basic idea of how we work. Basically our job in dealing with Freedom of Information requests is not to give out any information.
Recruit: But I thought that was our job
Hugh Dennis: No. Our philosophy is that we have the freedom NOT to give out any information.
Recruit: Er – right. So what’s the first thing I need to know?
Hugh Dennis: Well, when a request first comes in we don’t respond to it for 20 days. We’re legally allowed to do that.
Recruit: And then we just say we can’t provide the information?
Hugh Dennis: I can see you catch on fast. No. We wait another 20 days and send a reply, apologising for the delay but then say we can’t respond at the moment.
Hugh Dennis: So this here’s our bible – “Fantastic excuses and when to use them”. As far as the general public are concerned this document does not exist, has never existed, and will never existed. Let me take you through it:
Recruit (reads): Freedom of Information Act
Do not respond until after 20 days. Then use one of the following reasons for not being able to provide the answer there and then.
a) We’re unable to contact the officer concerned because they are away
b) because we have a shortage of staff the request is taking longer than usual
c) the officer has left and we cannot access their emails
Recruit: But can’t the emails be accessed via IT servers?
Hugh Dennis: Yes – but people making FOI requests don’t know that – and we’re certainly not going to tell them. If you carry on reading……
Recruit (reads): After another 20 days write back and say we cannot give them the information for one of the following reasons:
a) Environmental Regulations
Hugh Dennis: Yes – that’s a good one to use. We told one person we couldn’t answer questions about the Carnegie library because of Environmental Regulations which apply to wetlands areas.
And the library’s not in a wetlands area?
Hugh Dennis: No. Carry on….
b) It would take too long to answer the request
c) The East Devon argument
Recruit: The East Devon argument?
Hugh Dennis: Yes – if you look in the appendix…..
Recruit: Ah, yes.
Hugh Dennis: Basically it’s some tosh about gas and electricity consumption in some building. But we always use that argument. And then if you go back to the main part of the booklet.
Recruit (reads): Important: Any response should always begin ‘ We can confirm that’ or ‘We maintain that’
Hugh Dennis: Yes. We always use the phrases ‘confirm’ or ‘maintain’ even though we are not confirming anything or maintaining anything.
Recruit (reads): Never use the same reason to the same person . They may get suspicious.
Hugh Dennis: Yes
Recruit: But what if they appeal?
Hugh Dennis: Well they have a right to ask us for an internal review. If you carry on reading….
Recruit (reads): Unfortunately, people making a Freedom of Information Act request do have a right to ask for an internal review. This must always be turned down, using the same grounds on which we turned down the original request.
Recruit: That’s brilliant
Hugh Dennis: I know.
Recruit: And can they appeal to anyone else?
Hugh Dennis: Yes. The Information Commissioner’s Office. But then it’s out of our hands. No longer our problem. We’ve done what we’ve been told to do. We keep the councilors happy. If the ICO tell us to release information then it’s their fault. Not ours. By the way…(starts to look concerned)….I’m sure your face looks familiar. Have you worked on other councils?
Recruit: No. And my name’s not really Charlotte Gray. I’m Sophie Raworth from BBC TV’s Watchdog programme……….