CARNEGIE LIBRARY: MYSTERY OF WHO CARRIED OUT SECRET WORKS REMAINS AS INFORMATION WATCHDOGS BACK LAMBETH

The Information Commissioner’s Office have backed Lambeth council over their refusal to answer a Freedom of Information request regarding out-of-hours’ building works done at the Carnegie library in Herne Hill.

On 24 May 2018, News From Crystal Palace wrote to the council requesting the following information

Please state what works, other than those carried out by Forcia in relation to the installation of the gym, have been carried out in the Carnegie library Herne Hill since April 1st 2016. Please state from which council budget/s these works have been paid and how much the amount/s was/were please state who authorised these works and when.”

Parts of the ICO report – words placed in bold type by News From Crystal Palace – say:

The Commissioner notes that the complainant refers to himself as a journalist. The Commissioner has read articles by the complainant and from this she understands that there is a wider concern within the borough in respect of library closures which has been documented in articles on-line.

The Commissioner accepts that the complainant’s requests have reflected the local area’s concerns about the council’s handling of library closures and their redevelopment. Consequently, there has been value in the requests for information.

But the Commissioner’s view is that, notwithstanding the specific content of the request, there is now a significant amount of information available on the council’s website. She is satisfied that a reasonable person would think that the purpose and value of the request of 24 May 2018 are not sufficient to justify the impact on the public authority.

  1. In respect of any harassment or distress caused by the complainant’s requests, the Commissioner notes that the complainant has adopted a facetious, flippant tone in his correspondence with the council.

But the Commissioner considers that experienced officers should be able to handle requests from persistent complainants who may make unsubstantiated allegations, with minimal amount of irritation or distress.

Nevertheless, she recognises that spending the limited resource available dealing with requests for information on the same matter can cause an unjustified level of irritation or distress.

  1. The Commissioner acknowledges the importance of public authorities being accountable to the public. But she also acknowledges that the council has proactively placed information in the public domain.
  2. The Commissioner considers that the complainant’s correspondence has now passed a point where it has become unreasonable for the council to continue to respond….
  3. The Council relied on the information already in the public domain to demonstrate its consideration of the public interest in disclosure.
  4. The Council advised the complainant: “We see no further public interest in disclosure of this information especially as the library is now open.”
  5. The complainant considers this to be:

“an utterly inane claim….it is an appalling insult to the people of Herne Hill.”

  1. The Commissioner does not agree with the council’s statement that the completion and opening of the Library marks an end to any public interest in disclosure of information in respect of the Library.
  2. The Commissioner considers that there is always an inherent value in organisations which spend public money being open, transparent and accountable for the way in which that money is spent.
  3. However, weighed against that is the strong public interest in protecting public authorities from an ongoing burden of answering continuous correspondence on the same topic where previous requests have failed to resolve matters.

OTHER POINTS FROM THE ICO’S DECISION:

The Council’s view

  1. At the time of the request the Library was closed, however, it has now re-opened with the council posting an explanatory article on its website.
  2. The council considers that the complainant submitted multiple hand written requests to cause inconvenience and a burden to the council.
  3. The complainant considers that the work undertaken on the Library does not comprise ‘the redevelopment of a building’, as described by the council. He advised the council:

“These are INTERNAL works the nature of which appears to be a closely-guarded secret. It is not a redevelopment.”

  1. (sic) The complainant explained that he requested the information he seeks in the particular format of separate requests “so it made them easier to deal with”.
  2. The complainant refutes the council’s consideration that by providing a response will be likely to lead to further questions. He explained:

“At the time I doubted if I would have any more FOI requests relating to Carnegie library, Herne Hill. “It is a one-off request for matters which have only occurred over the last year.

“As I have said before, if a council is refusing to provide an answer to a question, then the journalist in me asks what have they got to hide. “The answer may be: ’Nothing’. “But by your very persistence in continuing to refuse to answer certain questions, the suspicion remains: ’What have they got to hide?’

  1. The complainant provided the Commissioner with the background to the request as follows:

“.. merely to establish what other works were going on in the library while Forcia, a perfectly reputable company, were installing the gym in the library’s basement. “Residents living above the library complained of noise from out-of-hours building works.”

  1. The Commissioner has considered the burden created by the complainant’s request in the circumstances of the case. She notes that the council has provided a good deal of information regarding the library, the work undertaken and future plans on its website*.
  2. The Commissioner considers that the information provides detailed explanation. Nevertheless, she notes that the points of the complainant’s request are not specifically addressed there. *https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/places/carnegie-library
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