After years of residents (and the Salford Star) complaining over Salford Council's abysmal record of responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests within the statutory time limit of twenty working days, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has stepped in.
The Information Commissioner reports that Salford City Council is currently responding to less than 65% of all of its FOI requests within the legal timeframe, and will now monitor Salford – along with Cumbria County Council, Nottingham City Council and the Northern Ireland Department – in relation to FOI requests received between 1st February and 30th April 2015.
"Public authorities must respect people's rights of access to information" says Graham Smith, ICO's Deputy Commissioner and Director of Freedom of Information "That means responding to FOI requests within the statutory timeline of twenty working days, or with a slight extension if the request is particularly complex.
"We hope these public authorities use their inclusion on the latest monitoring list as an opportunity to get their houses in order" he adds "so they can provide an acceptable service to the public by handling requests more efficiently in the future..."
Only this week, the Salford Star highlighted the case of one resident who had to battle Salford Council for nine months to receive information about Salford City Mayor, Ian Stewart (see here).
Recently, the Star has waited almost four months for a response to a FOI request relating to Martin Vickers which was then refused. We waited almost another three months for a response to a request related to viability assessments, only for it to be refused...we requested an internal review on 30th January, which was never even acknowledged. This week the Star submitted another FOI request relating to Chapel Street which hasn't yet been acknowledged.
Recently, Salford Council introduced a new automated FOI online form for residents to submit requests – but if an automated acknowledgement is not sent, residents have no proof that those requests have been submitted.*
The Star tries not to overburden staff at the Council with FOI requests and only submits them when absolutely necessary. But most could be avoided if Salford Council's press office actually responded to questions rather than ignoring them. Salford Council hasn't responded to a press query from the Salford Star for well over a year.
The Information Commissioner's statement highlights further concerns about openness and transparency at Salford City Council which Salford City Mayor Ian Stewart promised to improve when he was elected in 2012.
"Getting better at communication means that we as a Council must be more open and transparent with the public" Stewart said "I will seek to generate that openness and transparency in future…"
Meanwhile, in a shocking indictment of the Mayor and the Council, a new Facebook group has been set up for Salford residents to pool their experiences of Freedom of Information requests sent to Salford Council – click here for details
* To prove that a request has been sent, the only way to do it really is to have your request form completed on your computer screen, then click the date button so that it's showing on the screen, then take a `screen grab' by holding down the `shift' and `print screen' buttons to copy and paste the image.