Council rejects ‘vexatious’ information request

Parkside Chart Way Horsham - Horsham District Council and West Sussex County Council SUS-150723-162029001

Parkside Chart Way Horsham - Horsham District Council and West Sussex County Council SUS-150723-162029001

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A Horsham resident has hit back at claims his requests to the council for information were ‘vexatious’.

Geoffrey Richardson wrote to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about Horsham District Council’s introduction of a five-page online form for Freedom of Information requests.

He said that by removing the dedicated FoI email address from that section of HDC’s website it had forced members of the public to complete the ‘laborious’ form.

In response the ICO said that while Dr Richardson’s letter had not provided evidence of a breach of the Freedom of Information Act, ‘it does raise issues which have been brought to the attention of the public authority’.

A spokesman for HDC said: “There has always been an email address on the council’s contact webpage, and a postal address, which can used by anyone to contact the council for any reason, including submitting FoI requests.

“In February, we improved the FoI section of our website and introduced an online form for FoI requests which helps users give sufficient information to help us to respond to their requests.

“This has resulted in an increase of over 11 per cent on the same period last year, and so we are confident that we are taking the right steps to improve requests for information.

“Publicly available reports state that the council exceeds the Information Commissioner’s target for responding to requests.

“When we introduced the online form, we replaced email button. This led to one complaint from a member of the public to the Information Commissioner who confirmed to us that we had ‘good reason for making the change’ and that a postal address and general email was published.

“The ICO did not refer the matter to its enforcement team and considered that the case was closed. The ICO asked whether the council might want to reconsider placing the email address back on its website, the council was happy to do so and responded to the commissioner on the same day, having placed the email address on the relevant page www.horsham.gov.uk/contact/contact-freedom-of-information.”

A refusal notice by HDC’s Information Governance Team, sent to Dr Richardson after his latest FoI request, said: “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.”

Dr Richardson said he would appeal the decision and called the reasons given by the council ‘ludicrous’.

COUNTY TIMES COMMENT

This newspaper has all too frequently criticised Horsham District Council for its lack of openness and its apparent contempt for public scrutiny.

That’s why, two years ago we launched our Free Speech Charter.

Sadly, little seems to have changed.

Now, one resident has had his Freedom of Information request refused because the council has concluded that Dr Geoffrey Richardson’s request is ‘vexatious’.

It is true, that Dr Richardson has made a number of requests on matters of public interest in recent years and that the council has the right to refuse the not inexpensive business of responding to them on the grounds of them being vexatious.

However, what is especially alarming in the council’s response are the words: ‘It is noted that you regularly write to the local newspaper and have asked questions at Council meetings on the same themes.’

It is a fundamental principle of free speech that residents have the opportunity to ask questions at council meetings and are free to write to the local newspaper.

That HDC keeps records of residents using legitimate democratic processes in this way should worry all voters who care about transparent local government and the right of local people to ask questions and make their voices heard.

We have seen nothing in the letters Dr Richardson has sent us to suggest he has ‘demonstrated a personal grudge and a persistent intention to cause annoyance and/or distress’.

The council should remember that it exists to serve the people - and not the other way round.

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