The ICO report states:
23. In this case, initially, the council explained to the complainant that: “there would be approximately five officers within the relevant team who may have had correspondence about this issue although we cannot guarantee that these are the only relevant individuals. Some of these or other officers may also have since left the council….
“We have checked one individual’s email address and found approximately 500 emails in November & December 2012. We consider that we would need to ask other officers to review a similar amount of emails and emall chains which may have included the Carnegie Community Trust.”
24. The council explained that it was the council officer named in the second and third parts of the request whose electronic mailbox it had checked. It had ascertained that there were over 500 emails in his mailbox for the period of November and December 2012.
25. The council explained that it had applied the search term “Carnegie” to these emails but this had not returned any results.
26. No further searches or investigations had been carried out.
27. The Commissioner, in her initial letter of investigation, asked the council to carry out a search of the mailboxes belonging to the five officers referred to in its response to the complainant for the relevant period, using relevant search terms.
However the council explained that due to restructuring it would be “extremely difficult to ascertain which individuals may have held relevant information.
We advised previously that there would be approximately five officers as this was the size of the relevant team but we cannot guarantee that these would be the only officers holding this correspondence.”
28. Furthermore, the council stated that it considered it was “not feasible” to request any individual officer within the department to review their emails for information collated five years ago, specifically commenting: “We consider it likely that relevant emails may have been deleted or that officers have since left the organisation, making it more difficult for us to review whether any information is still held.”
29. The Commissioner returned to the council on 10 October 2017 and asked it to clarify whether it was the council’s position that it would take too long to determine whether any information falling within the scope of the request was held, or whether, as explained in the council’s response to the complainant, it would be collating the information which would exceed the time for compliance.
30. The council explained that it considered it was not likely that information was held; however in its view it could not” explicitly and comprehensively state that no information whatsoever [was] held by the Council without reviewing each individual email held by (named officer] (and potentially other officers). ”
32. The Commissioner has examined the arguments provided by the council as to how long it would take either to determine whether information is held, and/or to provide the information to the complainant.
33. The council has not explained how long it has taken to conduct the search of the named officer’s mailbox, which retrieved 500 emails for the relevant period, and then to apply the search term “Carnegie” to those emails. In the absence of further detail or explanations, the Commissioner considers that this “sifting” exercise would take only a short time and certainly less than an hour.
34. The Commissioner asked the council in her initial letter of investigation to conduct a sampling exercise; that is, to retrieve a representative sample of emails and prepare them for disclosure. The council has not done this.
The Commissioner understands that, once no emails were retrieved by using the search term “Carnegie”, from the named officer’s mailbox for the relevant period, the council conducted no further investigations.
35. Rather, the council’s arguments have focused on the difficulty in checking what information may be held. The council has estimated that it would need to check all 500 emails received by the named officer during the relevant period in order to determine whether or not they are relevant to the request. It has estimated that it would take five minutes per email chain to do this, which equates to approximately 41 hours of work. It also stated that to carry out redactions could bring the total to around 50 hours of work.
36. The Commissioner does not agree that it would take five minutes per email chain to check whether or not it falls within the scope of the request. Returning to the wording of the request, the complainant asked for correspondence from certain individuals – members of “the organisation now known as the Carnegie Community Trust. “ If the council identified these individuals, it should be relatively straightforward to filter the emails by the name of the correspondent.
37. The Commissioner is concerned in this case at the adequacy of the searches that have been carried out for information for the purposes of determining whether compliance would be manifestly unreasonable. The council appears to have looked only at one named officer’s electronic mailbox to find information, as requested in the second part of the request.
Returning again to the wording of the request, the complainant also asked for correspondence from “the organisation now known as the Carnegie Community Trust”with “Lambeth council” for the specified period. The council has not, however, asked other council officers whether they hold information.
38. In her letter of 10 October 2017, the Commissioner asked the council to conduct further searches. The Commissioner suggested further relevant search terms that could be employed in addition to “Carnegie.” The Commissioner also stated to the council that, in her view, it is not unduly onerous for other council officers to be contacted and asked to conduct searches of their mailboxes for a specific two-month period.
39. However, the council has not done this. Rather, it responded as explained in paragraph 30, above, also stating in that response: “We note your comments regarding the search terms but consider using other more generic terms would be likely to result in a significant amount of emails to review; and would not necessarily be specific to the request or useful to the applicant.”
(Note: Lines in bold type by NFCP)