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

11:45 AM, 2nd November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "James Barnes" at "02/11/2016 - 09:27":

James, the FOI request wasn't my sole angle of attack, although taking that in isolation and as a wider point of principle...surely professional qualifications for any individual (especially if working for a public body) should be publicly available upon request.

Some of the problem is, the LA here are robots and whilst I can go to one tribunal and win, they will continue to visit other properties of mine (I have hundreds in the town, not just one or two)...even if I win 100 times over, they don't learn or question if they are perhaps going about things correctly or not. I would then spend all my time at tribunals and not doing main job, which is to rent properties.

Luke P

12:51 PM, 2nd November 2016
About 3 years ago

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

@Robert,

See: http://nationalhmonetwork.com/steering-group/paul-fitzgerald/ (although that email doesn't work any longer). I don't think he runs courses unless specifically asked, but I will let you know when we next have a session booked.

Larry Sweeney

12:54 PM, 5th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Hi Luke,
Very Well done on your qualification. As you know from the meeting you attended in Southport, I also have worked hard to hold these useless tax payer funded idiots to account. I certainly never thought of obtaining this qualification. Great Move.
With respect to inspections, I intend to film Council staff entering my property. They may not like this but it creates an audit trail ,and we can then have proof if they offer incorrect advise or opinions. I also have raised the Point with Liverpool, that tenants may feel very uncomfortable with council staff who are not DBS checked entering their homes for the purpose of carrying out their inspections. I have alerted my tenants to this ,and they are already stating that they will refuse entry. Since it is not me refusing entry, I will not be in breach of my licence conditions. Should be interesting watchin Councils obtaining warrants to break in to Tenants accommodation.

Edwin Cowper

23:38 PM, 7th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Isn't the requirement to put in a single pane of glass illegal? I believe that it is only lawful now to install double glazing

Simon Bentley

9:45 AM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Larry Sweeney" at "05/11/2016 - 12:54":

Whilst I fully agree with your sentiment and intent, I do not feel that the DBS route is not appropriate.

For it even to be legal for an organisation to insist that their employees (or volunteers) are subject to a DBS check they have to be in a role that is defined as an exception to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974,which in essence is people with regular contact and some specific professions for some of whom DBS legislation makes checks mandatory - I would have to check the legislation but I doubt these inspectors qualify on either count. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 is widely flouted by many organisations both public and private, and whilst I fully support appropriate vetting of employees/volunteers, DBS checks cannot legally be performed in many instances.

Simon Bentley

10:04 AM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Lindsay Keith" at "01/11/2016 - 13:54":

Rather than to continue to draw a blank from the council via the FOI approach, similarly to other professions with professional bodies might it not be possible for Luke to check these peoples qualifications with issuing body - possibly the EHRB or CIEH. It may be possible to use FOI to ask who the awarding body for their qualifications is, I cannot see how that is personal information.

Luke P

11:06 AM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Simon Bentley" at "08/11/2016 - 10:04":

Thank you for the suggestion Simon. I had already tried this route, but there are four certification bodies and no one list of all qualified individuals.

As of writing, I have not received a decision one way or the other from the ICO but the case obviously continues because I have received the following additional response to my original FOI request & subsequent internal review (I wasn't expecting any further comment on this route as NELC made their decision to refuse and it now lies with the ICO). Clearly the ICO investigation has ramped up the pressure a bit and they have had cause to revisit my request, demonstrating that there can be no confidence in anything they say (as they will change their mind at a later date -see below) and the clearly don't know their backside from their elbow...

"Your FOI request, included a request for the qualifications in HHSRS inspections for two named officers (both NELC staff) and the date(s) on which these were obtained.
 
In response to your request we originally confirmed that NELC held the information you were asking for, but it was exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act by virtue of section 40 (2) of the Act as it is personal data of a third party. We did however confirm that the officers held the relevant qualifications in relation to the post they are employed in, this includes HHSRS qualifications.
 
Following a review of the information held and the response provided to you, NELC wishes to withdraw our original response and provide you with the following response.
 
NELC do not hold the information you have requested. 
 
The officers named in your request are not employed by NELC, rather they are employees of Engie (our Regeneration Partner).
 
Information held by Engie in relation to their employees, does not fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. However to assist in answering your query, I am pleased to confirm that all Engie employees undertaking formal action in relation to the HHSRS inspections are required to complete a 2 day HHSRS training course with Warwick University or a similar provider. This training is supplemented by regular refresher courses / activities specific to HHSRS and other housing and inspection related knowledge and training.
 
This is in line with Annex D of The Housing Health and Rating System – Operating Guidance, which states “It is assumed that practitioners using the HHSRS for enforcement purposes will have a broad understanding of the relationship between housing and health, and will have read widely around the subject area. Practitioners are also expected to keep up to date with developments including any changes to the standards relevant to the ‘Ideal’ and any new research findings”.
 
Please note that the operating guidance does not make any reference to any requirement for an officer to hold any particular qualification. I trust that this now answers your request in full and clarifies the information held by North East Lincolnshire Council and the position concerning the qualifications required in respect of HHSRS inspections."

Essentially, 'We've had a rethink and *technically* it's not us -the Council- who hold the information, so there!' I don't know the ins & outs of the specific requirements on LAs, but surely if they are delegating to a third party, they themselves would need to hold/satisfy themselves that those carrying out their work are qualified/competent or whatever. They also now say qualification is not necessary...again I don't know for certain, but why would such a course exist and how on earth would an 'inspecting officer' know what to look for/how to complete the assessment without taking the qualification?

I think Larry, I will have to film all future inspections to show these idiots for what they are.

I don't mind completing any works, provided they're necessary and backed up with proper evidence/legislation. I will not spend money at the request of an inexperienced, power-happy council worker just because they believe they have a 'right' to demand it.

Luke P

11:09 AM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Luke P" at "08/11/2016 - 11:06":

Having just re-read the LAs most recent response, I notice they put:

"Information held by Engie in relation to their employees, does not fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act."

Do they mean that information does not fall within the scope of the FOI Act AT ALL, or within North East Lincolnshire Council's ability to access information held by Engie (which would be more understandable)...?

Simon Bentley

11:40 AM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

It seems you have been given the information I was about to pass on.

Common to many disciplines where there is no requirement for a specific recognised qualification defined in statute etc and the requirement is simply for a competent person, each organisation has to take a policy decision (essentially a strategic risk assessment) to define what they will accept/define as a competent person. Training organisations then design and offer out what they consider (hope) to be appropriate training courses, some then have the course approved by an outside awarding body, others issue their own paperwork, many of these are simply a certificate of completion of the training and do not actually make any real assessment or warrant as to the competence of the person. Much of this (especially in more practical/risky areas of work) is about pushing the liability on to the training company (most specifically their Professional Indemnity insurance).

FOI only applies to information held by public bodies (not their sub contractors) and it would appear that you have been given the essence of if not the actual documents relating to what NELC require from Engie "concerning the qualifications required in respect of HHSRS inspections". You could of course request to see some or all of that documentation but I suspect they would hide behind contractual confidentiality and commercial sensitivity etc and whilst you might ultimately win out you would probably have a long drawn out fight to learn very little in practice.

Luke P

11:46 AM, 8th November 2016
About 3 years ago

Reply to the comment left by "Simon Bentley" at "08/11/2016 - 11:40":

So having just come off the phone to a local Councillor and landlord, and after a conversation about how he encounters similar frustrations at Council meetings where Engie are present, in that they won't allow Councillors to ask questions, or sometimes refuse to enter meetings with Coucnillors at all, he said he suspects that third party partners could well be beyond the realms of the FOI Act (although he's not certain at this point), but Simon's most recent response seems to confirm.

If this is the case, I have lost almost all faith in open, transparent, accountable local democracy and government. How can this sort of thing be allowed to carry on??

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