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Weekly loses two-year fight to publish secret council racism and sexism report

Charles Thomson 1A report into racism and sexism at a council is to remain secret after a weekly newspaper lost a two-year fight to make it public.

The Romford Recorder has been battling since 2021 to report on a 400-page dossier into the “disturbing” culture at Havering Council.

The Local Government Association read the secret “internal self-assessment” as part of a voluntary review, and concluded that racism and sexism had been “normalised” at the authority.

However the press and public have still been barred from accessing the evidence that led the organisation to that conclusion.

In its challenge, the Recorder had specifically stated that the identities of those who reported the incidents should be redacted before publication – a requirement under data protection rules anyway.

But the Information Commissioner’s Office has still ruled the public interest in the contents is overridden by an interest in suppressing the information.

Recorder investigations reporter Charles Thomson, pictured, told HTFP: “It is obviously disappointing that after a two-year battle to uncover this catalogue of alleged racism and sexism at Havering Council, the ICO has ruled that it should be suppressed.

“Whilst it agreed that there was a public interest in disclosure, it preferred the council’s argument, which essentially amounted to: ‘if you force us to be transparent about this bad thing that has happened, the next time something bad happens, we will have no choice but to actively cover it up’.

“In my opinion, this is an unacceptable and inappropriate argument for a public authority to be making, and it is a shame that the ICO would accept it.

“We are currently debating whether to refer the case to the cost-free tribunal.”

In a story about the decision, Charles wrote: “The Recorder argued that there was an overwhelming public interest in transparency over a taxpayer-funded investigation into wrongdoing at Havering Council.

“But the council claimed that if forced to publish the dossier, other organisations undergoing similar reviews in the future would “either not engage in the process at all, or spin such information so as to ‘control the narrative.'”

The ICO acknowledged that there was a public interest in disclosure of the information, citing the “weighty public interest in disclosure of information that relates to issues that concern race equality, accessibility, diversity and inclusion”.

But it added: “The commissioner accepts the council’s argument that there is a real risk that disclosure of the requested information would affect the openness of future peer reviews and self-assessments conducted by councils.”

In a statement, the council said: “We understand the importance of transparency and accountability, however, it is imperative that staff feel protected and can participate in reviews such as this with the confidence their identities and experiences will be kept confidential.

“We therefore welcome the ICO’s decision.”