LAMBETHWATCH SPECIAL: HOW TO AVOID ANSWERING A FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT QUESTION – ONE “The public interest means what is in the best interests of the public not what is of interest to the public.”  

These are some of the questions put to Lambeth council’s Freedom of Information team in recent months. FOI rules state the council must answer an FOI question within 20 working days. If you’re planning on asking an FOI question, you may find the following helpful. NB: Some responses may have been received from Lambeth’s FOI team but not posted on the WhatDoTheyKnow website from where all the following are taken:

ONE – MISUNDERSTANDING WHAT WAS ASKED IN THE FIRST PLACE….

The request was successful. (Well – eventually as readers will see….)

Jason Cobb 28 October 2017

Dear Lambeth Borough Council,

Please can you tell me how many void properties currently exist at Cressingham Gardens.

Thank you.

…AND THIS IS LAMBETH COUNCIL’S FOI TEAM’S LATE – AND OVER THE TOP – RESPONSE:

I can confirm that Lambeth Council holds the information you have requested.  However, it is not possible to meet your request.  The information is being withheld because we believe the following exemption applies: Section 31(1)(a) (Law enforcement)

31.—(1) Information which is not exempt information by virtue of section 30 is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice –
(a) the prevention or detection of crime,
(b) the apprehension or prosecution of offenders,
(c) the administration of justice,
(d) the assessment or collection of any tax or duty or any imposition of a similar nature,
(g) the exercise by any public authority of its functions for any of the purposes specified in subsection (2),

Section 31 is a qualified exemption under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which means that consideration must also be given to whether in all the circumstances of the case the public interest favouring disclosure is greater than the public interest in maintaining the exemption.

The public interest means what is in the best interests of the public not what is of interest to the public.

Lambeth’s FOI team then quote a judgment involving Camden council: ITALICS The issue was considered by the First Tier Tribunal in Yiannis Voyias v ICO and LB Camden (EA/2001/0007 23 January 2013).  They considered whether the council could withhold the addresses of empty properties under section 31(1)(a).  The Tribunal’s decision was that withholding the information was correct.  It is not in the public test to act against the decided case. – Ed.

Public interest test considerations

In applying this exemption, we have had to balance the public interest in withholding the information against the interest in favour of disclosure.

Factors in favour of disclosure
 
The council’s commitment to openness and transparency
Public interest in bringing disused properties back into use given the shortage of available properties in the borough
 
Factors in favour of withholding

There is a high risk that releasing information on empty properties in the borough, and more specifically information relating to one particular Estate will lead to more crime, particularly as a FOI response is a publically available document;

It is not in the public interest to increase the risks of crime;

The Council has considered the public interest test in withholding the requested information outweighs the public interest test in disclosure of the requested information.  In accordance with Section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, this correspondence acts as a Refusal Notice.

UNDETERRED, MR COBB WRITES BACK…….

Jason Cobb 21 December 2017

Dear Lambeth Borough Council,

I would like to request an internal review. The LB Camden case quoted is for a completely different request. It seeks to find the addresses of empty properties. My request only asks for the number of empty properties. This therefore does not provide a security risk.

Please release this information. Thank you.

BUT LAMBETH ARE STICKING TO THEIR UNLOADED GUNS………

Internal review team, Lambeth Borough Council 23 January 2018

Dear Mr Cobb

I write in connection with your request for an Internal Review dated 21 December 2017.

It is our position that disclosure of the number of void properties over a relatively small area could allow an interested individual to determine which the properties were; leading to the properties potentially being used for unlawful purposes. We therefore maintain our reliance on s31 for this case.

Kind regards,

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IS NOT RECORDED ON THE WHATDOTHEYKNOW WEBSITE BUT….

Internal review team, Lambeth Borough Council 3 May 2018

Dear Mr Cobb

We can confirm that we are able to revise our position and can provide the following information:-

In total, there are 27 empty properties on the Cressingham Gardens estate (Tulse Hill) as at 27th April 2018.

11 are currently having works done and will shortly be used for temporary accommodation.

Seven properties have either been bricked or caged up as they are uninhabitable and the remaining nine requiring major works are being assessed for either possible temporary accommodation use or will be permanently sealed off.

I hope this is of assistance. Kind regards Jane Shields LLB LLM Policy & Communications Manager (Source: WhatDoTheyKnow website)

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