Council Freedom of Information Request Refused

by Readers Question

9:20 AM, 1st November 2016
About 3 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

17:09 PM, 1st November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Robert Mellors" at "01/11/2016 - 17:03":

Paul Fitzgerald is the man that co-wrote the legislation and teaches the course. He is an ex-EHO and works both for and against councils.

Our association is likely to be running another course soon (possibly in the new year), which will be discounted as a group over an individual price if you want to come over to Grimsby/Hull 🙂

Robert Mellors

17:17 PM, 1st November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Luke P" at "01/11/2016 - 17:09":

Thank you Luke

If this is a course that gives me a HHSRS qualification, then yes I would be interested in doing the course. Hull is perhaps about 80-90 mins away from me, so it is do-able. Does he have a website or anything?, so I can see if he does any courses a bit closer to me.

Phil Ireland

20:50 PM, 1st November 2016
About 3 years ago

Hi Luke P
I was interested to read your experiences of obtaining information from a public authority under the FOI Act.
I worked until recently for a public body where we responded to over 350 FOI requests per annum. On a few occasions we were asked by members of the public to confirm the professional qualifications of individual members of our staff.
We would generally expect information of this nature to be disclosable under the Act for senior members of staff, and for staff whose details were already in the public domain, e.g. names of individuals already published on the authority's website.
We would generally apply the exemption under S.40 of the Act to protect the personal information (qualifications) of junior staff, as is the case in this situation.
While this may not be what you would wish to hear, you could ask the local authority whether the individual members of staff undertaking these inspections would be prepared to voluntarily provide evidence of their qualifications.
Failing this, I suspect the Information Commissioner may well take the view already given by NE Lincs Council.

Luke P

21:17 PM, 1st November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Phil Ireland" at "01/11/2016 - 20:50":

The main chap in question is not junior staff.

A previous conversation on unrelated matters with the ICO revealed the intention of the DPA was to allow more freely the sharing of information (albeit to the right people for specific purposes), not to stifle the flow of information as seems to be the reality...in this case, at least.

Searching similar FOI requests for professional qualifications sent to other public bodies more often that not, does NOT result in refusal.

What if this officer isn't qualified? How can I check this...do I really have nothing more than their word? NELC have been shown time after time to break the rules and I'm sure they're at it again. Honestly, watching this guy operate is akin to getting into a car with a 5-year old at the wheel 'promising' you they have a licence. It's like night and day.

I want higher standards within the industry and I also expect my LA (as I do all public bodies) to be honest, transparent and accountable. Is it really too much to ask that they operate within the rules and do their job professionally. If there are genuine improvements I should make, I will happily do them but they make it up and can't back up their claims when pressed.

Phil, do you believe hiding behind S.40 in cases like this is both sensible and the correct way forward?

Luke P

21:28 PM, 1st November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Luke P" at "01/11/2016 - 21:17":

As a specific example the LA insist on smoke seals on ALL fire doors (one of which is necessary on under-stairs cupboards where electrics are present). The guidance on this has been altered because this is the one place you do NOT want to seal smoke in, should a fire begin there. You want the smoke to escape and set off the alarms to alert the occupants before the staircase is burned away. Fire assessors know this, but the council haven't kept up-to-date and insist they are correct. Despite politely explaining and directing them to the legislation/guidance, they refuse to be told. They. Know. Best.

This cannot continue to go unchallenged.

I do not understand what the great secret is, or what is being protected by preventing access to anyone's professional qualifications...in ANY industry (public or otherwise).

Phil Ireland

21:31 PM, 1st November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Luke P" at "01/11/2016 - 21:17":

Luke,
Data Protection (DPA) is about protecting people's personal data, while FOI is about the sharing of public information, although it is confusing as the ICO is responsible for policing both.
Other organisations may have disclosed the type of information you have requested but believe me there are often nuances in the specific questions asked, or organisations who are not always familiar with the law.
I agree with the sentiments in your final paragraph, but maybe FOI isn't the right route for you to follow.

Lindsay Keith

21:32 PM, 1st November 2016
About 3 years ago

I wonder if there is any point addressing this point to Fire Insurers. They may know a tad more than the LA about Risk?

Mandy Thomson

8:21 AM, 2nd November 2016
About 3 years ago

I would suggest getting together with other affected landlords in the boroughs concerned and taking a joint action to challenge the inspectors' reports.

If the LAs refuse mediation and to listen to the evidence provided by fire safety experts and independent environmental health officers and the local authority ombudsman doesn't resolve the issue (which I personally wouldn't bank on as they would normally advise taking them to court), the council can be taken to a residential property tribunal.

The problem with local authorities is the only real way to challenge them is through the courts, and even then you need irrefutable evidence against them.

Carol Duckfield

8:44 AM, 2nd November 2016
About 3 years ago

What you may well find is tha the person is qualified but the bottom of the barrel as they demand lower salaries and/or may not have pursued on-going training to keep up to date. This is what I find with housing associations and thei staff - some are verging on incompedent

James Barnes

9:27 AM, 2nd November 2016
About 3 years ago

Forgive me for taking a slightly different view on this but wouldn't you be better off appealing a request for works/improvement notice's through the first tier tribunal (property chamber) on the basis you don't agree with the hhsrs hazard assessments. This is the normal appeal route, and given that you have the hhsrs certificate it should be something you'd be able to argue the point on.
From reading all the responses it sounds like the FOI request route is going in the wrong direction and won't really achieve much.

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