Council under fire over Freedom of Information ‘interference’

Noel Park Estate (Google Maps)
Noel Park Estate (credit Google)

Criticism by councillors over access to information on estate problems, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Haringey Council says it is confident the “appropriate processes” were followed when responding to Freedom of Information requests from leaseholders hit with huge repair bills.

Opposition Liberal Democrats have called for an urgent investigation into councillors’ concerns that there appeared to be “political interference” with the response to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made by leaseholders on the Noel Park Estate in Wood Green.

Opposition councillors also demanded answers on whether the council had acted unlawfully by withholding information from responses. But a council spokesperson responded that it was “confident that the appropriate processes have been followed in the correct manner”.

Leaseholders on the Noel Park Estate have submitted FOI requests after being hit with huge bills – some totalling more than £100,000 – for replacement bathroom pods and other repairs to their homes.

According to a report by the council’s housing and regeneration scrutiny panel, an email chain revealed a senior officer requested that information on a policy to cap invoices at £10,000 in cases of extreme hardship be left out of an FOI response on the basis that “it would heavily undermine our position”.

In the same email chain, an officer noted that they had been asked to run all FOI requests on the issue past the leader of the council. The scrutiny report says the panel felt the evidence “demonstrated that decisions about FOI responses were being made based on what might cause embarrassment to the council”.

It adds that the panel was “very concerned there appeared to be political interference with the response to FOI requests as this goes against the spirit of Freedom of Information legislation and principles of openness and transparency”.

Lib Dem leader Luke Cawley-Harrison said: “These revelations are staggering. If it is true that any political office holder has been tampering with the FOI process, then they should resign.

“If Labour politicians are able to wield the red pen before information is sent out, then the council’s reputation will be trashed.

“Beyond that, there are further questions on whether the council has acted unlawfully by withholding information that should have been released under the FOI process, purely to save face. I expect an urgent investigation and answers provided into exactly what has gone on here.”

In a letter to the council’s chief executive, the Lib Dem leader states that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 sets out 23 exemptions where information does not have to be provided in response to a request – and undermining a local authority’s position is not one of them.

A Haringey Council spokesperson said: “We take our responsibilities in replying to FOIs extremely seriously and are confident that the appropriate processes have been followed in the correct manner.

“With regards to Noel Park pods, the leader was keen to understand what issues were being raised by residents. There was no attempt or intention to influence what information was being released.

“Information can be withheld from release under FOI requests for various reasons, including where it could affect contractual positions or commercial interests or contains sensitive legal advice.

“It is normal practice for officers to consider whether all the information held on any subject is appropriate to be released.”