Monday, 23 October 2017

Council tried to charge resident for information

GORING Parish Council has been rapped after it tried to charge a resident for a freedom of information request.

GORING Parish Council has been rapped after it tried to charge a resident for a freedom of information request.

The Government’s Information Commissioner has ruled that the council broke the law when it demanded £125 for details about talks it was involved in.

The council also failed to answer within 20 working days as required.

Parish clerk Peter Clegg has accepted he had made mistakes in handling the request, which was the first of its type that the council had received, and the commissioner has said no further action is needed. The problem arose in January last year when the council was in discussions with Streatley about setting up shared allotments with the neighbouring parish.

In his report, the commissioner says that a resident wrote to the council wanting to know more about the talks.

The correspondent, who has not been named, asked whether other sites were being considered and, if so, whether the landowners had been approached.

The council was also asked whether it was receiving external advice and whether it had put together a business plan for the allotments.

In the council’s reply, Mr Clegg confirmed the discussions were taking place but did not answer the other questions.

The resident then sent another letter saying he wanted his questions answered in full.

Mr Clegg replied, saying the information would take five hours to find and that he would bill the resident at £25 per hour. He said he would start searching straight away and requested payment within seven days.

Although Mr Clegg believed he was entitled to charge, the Freedom of Information Act does not allow this. The law only states that authorities can turn down a request if they think it will cost them more than £450 to process.

When the resident pointed this out, the council responded with the answers he had requested and apologised for the error.

Mr Clegg told South Oxfordshire District Council about his mistake and apologised to the resident in person. The resident complained to the commissioner’s office.

The parish council has reviewed what happened and vowed that there will not be a repeat.

Mr Clegg said: “I have apologised twice — in person and by letter. It was a misunderstanding on my part, which I put right. The Information Commissioner’s office were happy with the action we took, so there is nothing more we could have done.

“It was our first request and it was a learning curve for us. It didn’t cost the resident any money and it isn’t going to happen again.”

The 40 allotments, 15 of which are reserved for Goring residents, opened as planned in May.

lIn November, a resident complained that the council was withholding minutes of its meetings, in breach of the Local Government Act. After seeking advice, the council apologised and sent out a copy of the minutes.

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