Council Freedom of Information Request Refused

by Readers Question

9:20 AM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Council Freedom of Information Request Refused

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Council Freedom of Information Request Refused

I am writing this somewhat preemptively in the hope of some suggestions from the Property 118 readership.HHSRS

Recently the local authority (North East Lincolnshire Council) have been carrying out inspections at rented properties following a complaint by a tenant (justly or otherwise), with the results/hazards identified, of which there are always many, and the recommended remedies being forwarded to the landlord, with some of these repairs being mandatory. The inspections are taking place under the Home Health and Safety Ratings Scheme (HHSRS).

Part of my problem is that the council’s findings are often wrong, cannot be supported by legislation and the suggested remedies are nothing more than a ‘wish list’ of what the inspecting officer would like to see carried out in terms of works at the property. For some time I suspected the chap who carries out the HHSRS inspection was not competent and so I, along with around 50 other local landlords, undertook the HHSRS qualification course in order that we be able to better understand how the reports are compiled and the justifications for noting various ‘hazards’ within it.

Now that I am a proud HHSRS certificate holder and fully up-to-date with the latest material, I recently had an inspection by the main council officer (they are almost always carried out by the same staff member these days), it is clear to me that he neither knows how to perform an inspection nor, I strongly suspect, is even qualified at all.

I put my concerns to the LA and requested sight of his certificate in an informal letter, which was refused. I then made a Freedom of Information request that was also refused (as it is deemed ‘personal’ information), as was the subsequent Internal Review of that decision. When I spoke on the telephone with the inspecting officer’s boss, he laughed and said, ‘There’s no way you’re getting the certificate!’

I have now passed the request to the Information Commissioner and after 17 weeks of waiting, the case has finally been assigned to a case worker whom I had a conversation with today. He seemed sympathetic toward the Council and was really worried about ruling in my favour, because ‘How would I feel if my information was made public?’ This is a professional qualification for goodness sake! I asked how could anyone be sure that anyone in society is qualified in what the claim to be unless they prove so. I pointed out that I would not actually be gaining any new information as I already know the council officer’s name, I know what the qualification I am requesting sight of is in (HHSRS) and they have ‘assured’ me on a number of occasions that he is indeed qualified. Showing me the certificate is merely evidencing so, not in itself giving any further as-yet unknown information. The case worker seemed unconvinced.

In anticipation of a result that doesn’t reveal the truth, does anyone have a suggestion about how I could expose the Council and the truth as to the validity of their assurances that he is qualified. Of course, this could be the tip of the iceberg.

Luke



Comments

Luke P

10:43 AM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

I perhaps should add that when I put it to the council that they did not know what they were doing, they told me they have computer software that produces the reports and invited me to their offices to see it in action. I asked if we could go over step-by-step one of the reports as a worked example, they said not -partly because they refused to discuss specifics and partly because the person showing us the programme ('Civica') doesn't know how to work it...they're not an inspecting officer, just a general council staff member tasked with this job.

So essentially they were going to get me in a room, fire up a PC, click on the icon for the software and wait for it to boot as some kind of 'proof' that they know what they're doing. No, that just shows me they paid for a computer programme -nothing more.

I undertook my HHSRS course/qualification with the person who co-wrote this specific area of legislation and I contacted him for his opinions on the most recent report for a property I received. His response was that it was a shambles and it was clear they don't know what they're doing. He added that if one of his students produced a report similar to that for assessment, he would definitely be asking for it to be resubmitted. He mentioned that the software they were referring to required calculations to be made prior to the input of the answers (in percentages) and they'd even managed to use a couple of over 100%!

It is quite obvious to me that this LA are NOT qualified and are now trying to cover it up.

It matters because a fine can be issued for not carrying out the 'repairs', they can be done in default and then billed to the landlord. It could be used against a landlord if they choose to bring in licensing and prevent 'retaliatory evictions' by stopping the issuing of a S.21 as per the recent rule changes. The very least we should expect is that the people making the decisions know what they are doing!

Lindsay Keith

13:22 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Have a go at your MP or is that person a useless poodle?

Luke P

13:45 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Lindsay Keith" at "01/11/2016 - 13:22":

He is ex-Council an may help, but is more likely to want to help them cover up the shortfall I suspect.

Really this is not about my case, but a point of principle...is the Information Commissioner's Office really going to tell me (as seemed from my telephone conversation is likely to be the case), that professional qualifications are personal -and therefore 'withholdable'- where does this ultimately lead to?

Lindsay Keith

13:54 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

I can only offer to Luke P that The Law Society, the Bar and the medical professions offer the ability to check that a solicitor (or whatever) is in fact a solicitor not a fake. What Luke is seeking seems to me something that is or ought to be in the public domain anyway. A sensible LA with an eye to good PR would surely be proud of its qualified staff in any particular discipline to bolster its street cred? Look forward to seeing where this goes.....

Luke P

14:07 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Thank you Lindsay -succinctly put. More eloquently the point I was trying to make.

If the ICO know me back, the only thing left in my tool box is to refuse him entry on the next inspection, let them take me to a Tribunal and at that point state my case for refusing entry and that all I am trying to check is proof of qualification. Even if it does turn out he's qualified, I am happy for him to carry out his (poorly executed) work. There is a chance though that the Tribunal see me as a troublemaker and rule against me.

The longer this goes on and the louder the refusals get, the more I am convinced he's not qualified...otherwise they'd just prove it, right?

Luke P

14:26 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Here's a summary of the FoI Request and Internal Review responses...

Thank you for your information request. I wish to confirm that North East Lincolnshire Council holds the following information:
 
I request the qualifications in Housing Health and Safety Ratings System (HHSRS) inspections for both Mr C R and Mr D N (both NELC staff) and the date(s) on which these were obtained.
 
As the information you have requested is about a living individual we are unable to provide it to you. Section 40 (2) of the Freedom of Act 2000 
provides an exemption to the disclosure of information which is personal data of a third party.
 
‘Any information to which a request for information relates is also exempt 
information if:

(a) It constitutes personal data which do not fall within subsection (1), and

(b) Either the first or the second condition below is satisfied.’
 
The Data Protection Act 1998 defines personal information as 'data which relates to a living individual who can be identified:

a) from those data, or

b) from that data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller'.
 
The information you have requested would therefore be exempt from 
disclosure if either of the conditions set out in sections 40 (3) or 40 (4) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are met. The relevant condition in this case is at section 40 (3) (a) (i), where disclosure would breach any of the Data Protection Principles. The Data Protection Principles are set out in schedule 1 of the Data Protection Act 1998.
 
I can however confirm that the officers in post possess relevant qualifications for the post.

Internal Review...

Further to your request an Internal Review has taken place into North East Lincolnshire Council's handling of your information request, concerning HHSRS Qualifications for NELC Assessment Officers working for North East Lincolnshire Council and HHSRS reports held by the council. I have reviewed the response provided to you and the handling of your request in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.

I understand that you are challenging the exemption of (section 40) which was applied to the first part of your request which requested HHSRS qualifications held by officers working for the Authority. I have reviewed the initial response provided to you and I am satisfied that this exemption has been applied correctly. Qualifications held by officers is deemed to be personal data of those individuals. 

However as previously advised all officers hold the relevant qualifications in relation to the post they are employed in, this includes HHSRS qualifications.

In respect of the second part of your request which refer to the HHSRS report that we provided to you.

You question where the calculations are, along with worked 
examples.

I have attached a copy of the Calculation Summary sheet which provides the calculations used to determine the hazard rating score. NELC does not undertake manual calculations [**IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO INPUT THE NECESSARY DATA WITHOUT FIRST PERFORMING MANUAL CALCULATIONS**], NELC use a recognised HHSRS computer system call Civica.
 
In effort to assist your understanding of the information received, I am aware that the service have offered you the opportunity to attend a meeting where you will be able to view how the department’s computer system works and the different types of notices can be explained.

Mandy Thomson

15:25 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Hi Luke

Perhaps you could try a FOI request asking for the level of qualification required by the LA for the inspection staff in general?

I recently heard about a matter where a landlord was being asked to carry out modifications to qualify for a HMO licence, which the landlord argued were actually dangerous, after he showed the council's report to a qualified fire safety expert.

In fact the council inspector who carried out the report, who hadn't been in the job long, freely admitted that he wasn't a qualified HHSRS inspector, and in fact he was merely following a pro forma as he had been instructed. He wanted to consider the changes the landlord was requesting, but his line manager was having none of it.

The landlord and the inspector were right; an HMO should be assessed on an individual basis as each property requires different adaptations, and not simply held up against a rigid set of rules.

Luke P

15:58 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Mandy Thomson" at "01/11/2016 - 15:25":

This sounds exactly like what is happening in my circumstance...pro formas completed by unqualified individuals. To add insult, one of the inspecting officers was drafted in from another department specially after a fund was made available, known as the 'Rogue Landlord' fund. I'm all for eradicating the rogues, but at least make sure those tasked with the inspections know what they are doing first!

Perhaps they're not properly qualified, but I think they've backed themselves into a corner by declaring that they are and now the pressure is increasing, cannot back it up with evidence (so try to hide behind the DPA).

On the point of fire safety and dangerous advice, I have recently had fire risk assessments completed on all my HMOs and I'm implementing the recommendations (being the pro-active landlord I am), but there were a number of properties where the problems identified were actually the result of following earlier (and incorrect/outdated) advice from the LA. The assessors went on to say that they see that kind of thing all the time and even though their sole job is fire safety -and by extension keep right up-to-date with the ever changing legislation- they themselves even find they come to loggerheads with the council who believe they know best and are never wrong!

Lindsay Keith

15:59 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Thanks to Mandy for leading us from a semantic argument back to practicality. This LA is sadly like so many other such bodies and large organisations populated by drones. Drones don't want to leave their comfort zones where life is ruled by targets and rigid templates to do some 'work'. Perhaps the wise ones at Property 118 may start a debate to formulate a general strategy of letting them think they are terribly clever. Gently leading them round to accept that your own counter proposals and reaction to their 'reports' are their thinking as well and therefore very clever. Best of luck!

Robert Mellors

17:03 PM, 1st November 2016
About 2 years ago

Hi Luke

I've also had reports from LA officers (private rented standards and/or environmental health) which specify works to be done which are unnecessary and/or downright dangerous. For example, one LA told me that I had to put locks on the meter cupboard door so that my HMO residents could not access the meters and fuse box (consumer unit), but when I did this the Gas Safe engineer said this was illegal and I had to take the locks off immediately because that is where the emergency shut off lever is and if tenants cannot access this then in the event of a gas leak it could blow up half the street, - and yet the council told me I must lock it. More recently I had a cracked inner pane on a double glazed unit and the HHSRS report came back advising me to remove the broken glass dg unit and replace it with a pane of glass held in with putty!!!!! - I've not used putty in glazing for many years, and replacing a double glazed unit for a single pane held in with putty definitely won't prevent cold and draughts (the section of the HHSRS report under which this was listed).

I'm not a HHSRS expert, but I do have some common sense and I'm definitely not a rogue landlord, but I can see that many of these HHSRS reports produced by LAs just don't make much sense. I would be quite interested in gaining a HHSRS qualification myself, where did you go to get your qualification?

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