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News group puts FOI to the test

A newspaper group has put the Freedom of Information Act to the test – with mixed results.

John Elworthy, Fen Group news editor at Archant Anglia, submitted six questions to Fenland District Council on January 3, two days after the Act came into force. It has so far received three responses, including one refusal.

His findings have resulted in three page leads for the group’s newspapers, which include the Wisbech Standard and the Cambs Times.

Fenland District Council was happy to provide information on the number of calls it had received to a free phone system set up a year ago to monitor complaints about bad smells from a pet food plant, and was also able to provide John with details of what is paid to the chairman of the council.

But it has refused the journalist access to a £25,000 report on car park charges, saying that it “cannot be disclosed as to do so would harm the effective conduct of public affairs”.

The report – commissioned 18 months ago – asks whether motorists should pay to park in all four Fenland towns and how future car park improvements could be financed.

But the council said it could not publish the report because it was in draft form and due to be referred back to the consultants for further work. It did not expect it to be published for another year.

The news group has now notified Fenland of its intention to appeal. The council itself will conduct the first stage of the appeal but a final ruling could be made by the Government’s newly appointed Information Commissioner.

The exercise will be a learning process for both sides.

John said: “They see it as a real test of their interpretation of the act, whilst I just happen to believe they are wrong and we are entitled to the information.”