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Council refused daily’s FoI because response would attract ‘publicity’

A regional daily has won a 10-month fight to make details of binmen’s pay public – after council chiefs refused to do so for fear it would attract “publicity.”

Neil Elkes, local government reporter at the Birmingham Mail and its sister website Birmingham Live, had been locked in a Freedom of Information battle with Birmingham City Council over the release of the information.

The authority has now released the relevant details after Neil asked the Information Commissioner’s Office to intervene.

He had initially requested information on how much had been made in overtime payments to Birmingham’s binmen in the run up to strike action which they held last year.

Birmingham binmen during last year's strike

Birmingham binmen during last year’s strike

The action had been prompted by the council’s decision to scrap four-day working, cut pay grades of about 120 staff and slash overtime.

In July last year, while the strike was ongoing, Neil asked via a Freedom of Information request to the binmen’s overtime bill and details of disciplinary action against staff, as there had been rumours about issues on the picket lines.

Both requests were rejected by the city council in a response issued on 6 September, two weeks after the regulation 20 working day deadline, with the authority claiming making the information public would disrupt attempts to resolve the dispute.

A challenge to the refusal was later lodged and a reply received in November in which Kate Charlton, the council’s city solicitor and monitoring officer, told the Mail that revealing the information could leave the council at risk of equal pay claims by providing information to claimants and alert more staff to pay disparity, prompting more claims.

Offering further justification, the council added: “If [the information] were publicly available it would no doubt attract considerable publicity, very likely nationally as well as locally.”

An appeal was lodged early in December and by March no response had been received, so the matter was referred to the ICO, finally prompting a response from the authority.

Neil revealed on Monday that more than £1m had been made in overtime payments to the binmen in the lead up to the strike.

He told HTFP: “There were a lot of bold claims made about the costs and extent of binmen’s overtime during last summer’s strike action and this FOI request was an attempt to get to the facts behind those claims.

“But for months and month the council stalled, blocked and tried to wriggle out of providing this information, often on spurious grounds such as that the information could help those making justified equal pay claims against the council.

“Once the strike was resolved the council obviously hoped we would move on. But this was a matter of principle for us.

“It was only when I asked the Information Commissioner’s Office to intervene that we finally got the answer.”

Last week HTFP reported how Birmingham City Council had blocked a bid by Neil’s colleague Carl Jackson to make public a secret report on the impact Brexit would have on the city.

HTFP has approached the council for a comment.

2 comments

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  • May 23, 2018 at 10:25 am
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    And some people still wonder why the UK is 40th in the world press freedom rankings. There will, I’m afraid, be a lot more of this kind of thing in the future, so it’s important to keep fighting the good fight to hold these people to account.

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  • May 29, 2018 at 12:59 pm
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    Full marks for persistence but a million shared between how many refuse collectors?
    Such a statistic is useless – apart from being a big sum of money – unless you break it down per head.
    PS Is it still OK to call them binmen? I think the gender police may be after you!

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