Wed, 20 Feb 2019
WEST Berkshire Council has refused to reveal how many of its staff and councillors have criminal convictions, despite admitting that there has been some past wrong-doing.
The Newbury Weekly News submitted two Freedom of Information requests to the council; one asking how many staff and councillors had criminal records, whether any were currently under investigation, the details of the offences and if there were any, when they were committed.
The other request, submitted on the same day, asked how many council staff lived in West Berkshire and how much the authority had spent on staff commutes last year.
But the council decided to merge the two separate requests together as one before refusing them for “placing an unjustified burden on the authority”.
The council also described the request as “vexatious, on the grounds that it is a ‘fishing expedition’”.
A ‘fishing expedition’ is defined as being a broadly-worded request, whereby the requester casts their net widely in the hope of catching information which may be of interest and the return is based upon pot luck.
Despite conceding that there has been “past wrong-doing by some staff” the council claimed it was “not however, of significant enough public interest to warrant the processing of this request”.
The council did admit it would be in the public interest to know whether employees had been through a suitable screening process.
In relation to the requests for criminal records, the council said it would take six to seven hours to collate the information and an additional 15 to 16 hours to answer the paper’s seven questions about staff commutes.
In its response the council said: “It is my experience that the motive of a media reporter is usually to capture interesting information that can be used to support or cover a news story.
“This request does not seem to relate to a specific issue therefore it’s likely that this request has been submitted with a hope of revealing something that the requester would consider sufficiently interesting to report on and may, or may not, lead to the identification of an issue which is worthy of pursuit.
“Whilst there is a public interest in knowing whether council employees, particularly those working with vulnerable people, have been through a suitable screening process, the public interest is served by DBS checking processes and the council’s staff management policies and procedures.
“Under the Local Government Transparency Code 2015, the council is required to publish information with the aim of being transparent in its decision making and accounting processes.
“For this reason, the council publishes a range of information on its website, including councillor allowances, statements of accounts and council budgets which are publicly available to you.
“A large number of requests submitted by reporters from this organisation have been for specific information where there is a public interest however, certain requests appear to have the intention of attempting to highlight instances of wrong-doing by the council and its employees.
“That there has been past wrong-doing by some staff is not however, of significant enough public interest to warrant the processing of this request.
“Complying with this request would cause distress to council officers, in relation to the subject of the request and the amount of time required to collate the information. When this request is considered alongside other requests submitted by the same organisation, the level of harassment and distress will increase significantly.”
The NWN has asked the council to treat the two requests separately and, failing that, for an internal review to be conducted.