Press Release – Information Commissioner Decision Notice
Remote Meetings - Call for Evidence
In February of this year, Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) submitted a freedom of information request to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC) asking for all information received with the responses to the Local Authority Remote Meetings Call for Evidence including a breakdown of responses received, the number received and the content of the responses, together with any documentation the government holds in respect of the analysis of those responses.
The Government refused the request, saying that releasing the information at this stage served no particular public interest and was outweighed by the level of vexatious burden imposed on it in processing the request. It added that it intended to respond to the call for evidence, which will include a summary of the responses received.
LLG and ADSO were disappointed with the Government’s refusal to be open and transparent in relation to the evidence they themselves called for two years ago. We disagreed with the view that it was not in the public interest to provide this information. The response clearly showed that the Government had done absolutely nothing with the 4,370 responses submitted by organisations and individuals in good faith. All those who took the time and trouble to respond within the timescale the Government itself set deserved better. Had the Government processed the responses in a timely fashion once the Call for Evidence period closed, the information would now be available for all to see.
We referred the matter to the Information Commissioner. We argued that disclosure of the information was very much in the public interest and that the Department should have published the information which it itself asked for. The Department has large resources at its disposal to process the information, and the decision that our request was vexatious was, in our view. an attempt to stall remote meeting provision.
We are dismayed to see that the Information Commissioner has found in favour of DLUHC in their refusal to provide the information we asked for, despite accepting that the number of responses submitted to the Call for Evidence does indicate widespread interest (see decision notice dated 8 September – reference IC-239398-C6H1). We are also disappointed that the Commissioner has failed to properly hold DLUHC to account by accepting that the government intends to publish the evidence, but without, it seems, any commitment to when the information will be made available. It has of course been over two years now and we are at a loss to understand when the appropriate time might be, given the sector has been calling strongly for provision of remote meetings since the effect of the sunset clause was understood in the context of the coronavirus provisions.
We remain profoundly disappointed that the ICO, with its remit of ‘empowering through information’ has not, on this occasion, been able to give effect to that.
The result is that DLUCH is once again able to ‘kick the can down the road’.
We can only now watch the progress of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and hope that the government does what the sector is so loudly calling for, which is to accept the Lord’s amendment to put remote meeting provision for local authorities into permanent law once and for all.
Helen McGrath John Austin
Head of Public Affairs LLG ADSO Chair
3 October 2023