LETTER: Appeal over ‘vexatious’ FoI

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The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is to be congratulated for requesting that Horsham District Council restore back to its website the Freedom of Information (FoI) email ({mailto:foi@horsham.gov.uk|foi@horsham.gov.uk|email}) that Leader Cllr Ray Dawe’s led council had chosen to remove for reasons known only to themselves.

My experience was that their new system made it more difficult for residents to complete an FoI and I had written to the ICO about this.

The ICO replied to me stating that my letter ‘raises issues which have been brought to the attention of the public authority [HDC]’.

The ICO went on ‘I have contacted Horsham District Council to draw their attention to the section 45 Code of Practice, and ask them to consider whether or not their change of process supports the guidance that is offered there. As a consequence, not only have I drawn attention to the fact their change of process might bring them into conflict with the aims of the section 45 Code of Practice, I have asked them for further information about how an applicant might access their publication scheme.’

I find it extraordinary that HDC was not fully compliant with the Code of Practice issued by the Secretary of State (under s45 FoI Act). HDC has had its knuckles rapped by the ICO and yet there came no apology from HDC in last week’s newspaper (1.9.16, p20). Who was responsible for this error without apology to the residents?

I am grateful to Joshua Powling for his report in last week’s paper (p20).

However, the council’s accusation of me being ‘vexatious’ was in relation to a second quite different FoI.

I have sought through an FoI the release of emails about the future ownership of Park North.

Earlier this year HDC sold its former three floor offices (Park North, North Street) to a property developer with HDC making some £5 million profit. Park North is to be turned into a number of flats and planning permission was only very recently given.

HDC has chosen not to answer this simple request but instead wrote to me stating:

‘We have decided that your request is vexatious and in accordance with s14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 the Council is not obliged to comply with your request. The reasons that we have concluded that your request is vexatious is because you have made numerous overlapping requests for information. The content of your requests (including this most recent request) demonstrates a personal grudge and a persistent intention to cause annoyance and/or distress. It is noted that you regularly write to the local newspaper and have asked questions at Council meetings on the same themes. Furthermore this pattern of excessive requests places an unnecessary burden on the Council.’

HDC do not say who might suffer ‘annoyance’ and/or ‘distress’.

The reply is troubling. Why is it ‘vexatious’ for a tax paying resident to ask the local council about the future ownership of Park North? If anyone is likely to suffer ‘annoyance’ or ‘distress’ it is the tax payers who are not being furnished with the facts.

I have appealed HDC’s refusal to answer the FoI on the basis that it has wrongly applied the law because HDC criticises me personally in their reply.

The law is clear that an applicant cannot be vexatious, only the request.

Dr Geoffrey Richardson

Tennyson Close, Horsham


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