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Bristol City Council slapped with warning over poor performance on freedom of information requests

The local authority has been criticised for years over its failure to responding to FOI requests within 20-day timescales.

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Bristol City Council has been slapped with a stern warning by the government watchdog, and could soon face enforcement action, over its poor performance in answering Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Due to frequent delays in answering FOI requests, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has given the council until the end of the year to comply with a series of recommendations to improve its performance.

Anybody can legally request information held by the council, or any other public authority, to ensure access to information for the public and the press. While there are some exemptions, the council has a legal duty to provide any data that’s requested within four weeks – but it often doesn’t do so.

Public authorities are legally required to answer requests within 20 working days, but the council only hits this target for about six out of 10 requests.

In a practice recommendation published on August 30, the commissioner said: “Bristol City Council has had a consistently poor level of performance in its response times to Freedom of Information Act requests. This has been highlighted by the disproportionately high number of complaints about response times submitted to the Information Commissioner.

“The council has consistently been one of the public authorities within the local government sector about which the commissioner has received the most FOI complaints in recent years. Between April 2022 and August 2023, the commissioner received 61 complaints about the council … and a significant number in the years immediately preceding this.”

This comes after the local authority slashed its own target for meeting FOI requests on time in 2021 – from 90% to 70% – to give itself a “more realistic” prospect of meeting it. And most recently, a judge ordered the council to release a secret report after a long FOI battle by an opposition councillor, who accused the authority of lacking transparency and a “fear of scrutiny”.

These problems with freedom of information requests at Bristol City Council will likely persist under the new committee system, councillors have warned.

Next year, Bristol City Council will no longer be run by a directly elected mayor. After local elections in May, the council will instead be run by several committees of councillors, following a city-wide referendum last year.

One reason for the switch was to improve transparency, yet the councillors responsible for setting out how the new system will work warned that problems with freedom of information would likely continue. The committee model working group faced public questions on Friday, September 8, about exploring ways to solve the long-standing issues.

Local resident Dan Ackroyd said: “I and many other people are very concerned about how the council is handling freedom of information requests. There’s currently a culture of secrecy and when we move to the committee model, just from day one there’s going to be conflict about discussions on whether some information can, should or must be published.”

But councillors on the committee model working group questioned whether they were best placed to be discussing FoI issues. They also raised concerns that these problems would persist despite the governance switch.

Labour councillor Mark Bradshaw, who represents Bedminster, said: “Obviously people feel there are issues with the way the system works, but is that actually related directly to the committee model that we’re discussing today, or is it something that would exist as an issue regardless of which model of governance the council has?”

Conservative Geoff Gollop, of Westbury-on-Trym and Henleaze, added: “We’ve got enough challenges that we’re tasked with, so I don’t think we can deal with that. But we should have the assumption that we are being open, that’s part of our public accountability. I think it’s something we should be discussing.”

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Freedom of information requests to various public authorities have led to several revelations in Bristol about important controversial issues. Recent examples include a planning chair joking with a developer before approving plans to knock down a shopping centre in Knowle; cracking concrete and corroding bearings on a motorway bridge needing £200 million worth of repairs; and doubts about the West of England mayor’s claims on exploring bus franchising.

These were only some of the requests that were actually answered, and some after months of delays. Many more are not responded to, due to frequent use of exemptions on data such as commercial confidentiality or personal information. One retiring councillor suggested the FOI issue should be looked at, but only after the next local elections in May.

Steve Pearce, Labour councillor for St George Central, said: “This is something that councillors could look at in another forum. I’m not sure there are any who are planning to do so, because by the time they reach a conclusion there’ll be elections and a new cohort will probably want to look at it again. It’s not a very satisfactory answer, but much of what you say is right and the new cohort should look at it, in my opinion.”

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