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Council ordered to publish secret report after ICO ruling

A city council has been ordered to publish a hitherto secret report into is financial management after the information commissioner backed an FoI appeal.

As previously reported on HTFP, Nottingham City Council has refused to make public a report by accountants Ernst & Young into up to £51m of mis-spending.

It continued to withold the report following an appeal by the local democracy reporting service and Nottinghamshre Live, forcing both appellants to take the matter to the information commissioner’s office (ICO).

Now in a decision issued last Friday, the ICO has ruled in favour of full disclosure of the report.

The financial irregularities covered in the report concerned the unlawful transfer of millions of pounds intended for council housing services to the authority’s general fund.

Both the Nottingham Post and Notts TV have been campaigning for the report to be made public.

A previous report on the council secrecy issue in the Nottingham Post

A previous report on the council secrecy issue in the Nottingham Post

Local democracy reporter Joe Locker said:  “It has been over six months since I attended a seemingly inconspicuous meeting where the taxpayer-funded financial report was first mentioned.

“Since then, the council’s reluctance to publish the full report has been widely criticised in both local media and by residents of the city who expect complete transparency amid the ongoing financial crisis in the city and local government sector as a whole.

“The ICO’s decision ordering the council to publish the full report only emphasises the importance of trusted local journalism and shows the systems put in place to keep those in power in check are indeed working.

“The BBC Licence Fee-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service gives journalists the time and freedom to attend all-manner of council meetings and investigate whatever may be said in them. Without this freedom, we may never have found out about this critical report.”

In the decision notice, ICO senior case officer Christopher Williams said: “Given the facts of this case, the Commissioner does not find it plausible to dismiss the interest in the council’s financial governance as a purely private interest, as if it were the equivalent of mischievous or salacious tabloid reporting.

“The Commissioner considers that the publicly documented concerns about the council’s financial management provide legitimate and demonstrable grounds for public concern and a valid public interest argument in favour of disclosure in this case.

“In considering the public interest factors more directly associated with the exemption, namely, the need for a safe space for effective decision making, the Commissioner considers that the arguments provided by the council are generic and do not provide details of the specific harm which disclosure would be likely to cause.

“Public awareness of any issues identified in the Report should not inhibit the council’s ability to make decisions and any concerns about misinterpretation of technical details could be addressed in a preface or covering release.

The council must now release the full report by 12 February and it has already said it will fully comply with the ruling.

A spokesman said: “The Information Commissioner has made clear in the decision notice that the council had legitimate concerns around the disclosure of the report and that it had engaged the exemption not to publish correctly. However they have decided that on balance, the public interest outweighed the exemption in this case.

“The council has never shied away from the seriousness of the findings as explicitly set out in the report to Audit Committee and has been focused on addressing those weaknesses. Good progress is being made in all the areas where improvement was required.

“The council will fully comply with the ICO’s decision within the required timeframe.”