Bristol City Council FOI Reveals Contradictions and Lost Records

  • Bristol City Council refusing to release information under the FOI for contradictory reasons
  • FOI requests take months
  • Meeting minutes of council group covering unlawful cuts to the High Needs Block lost
  • Bristol City Council refuses to release FOI regarding correspondence affecting allocation of public funds

Since July 2019, I have made 12 Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests to Bristol City Council through What Do They Know, asking for information held on disability or Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) and usually relating to education. Of those, six have been refused, one is late from February 2021 and one is now six weeks late.

The Inclusion in Education Group Minutes
The Inclusion in Education group (IEG) minutes was the failed FOI that I decided was going to be my hill to die on. The group came from the Inclusion Reference Group (IRG) which had been tasked with coming up with the 2018 cuts to the High Needs Block (HNB) subsequently ruled unlawful in the 2018 Judicial Review

It was also responsible for coming up with the non-statutory Bristol Support Plan, something Bristol City Council places heavy emphasis on prior to schools applying for Education Health Care Needs Assessments.

In a Bristol Parent Carers Annual Event, which took place in June 2019, Chair of the IEG Tracy Jones, came along to talk to parent carers about the IEG and development of the Bristol Support Plans (BSP). Considering the IRG came up with the HNB cuts and then merged into the IEG which came up with the BSP, these meeting minutes which should contain the thought processes and development would be interesting reading.

Making the Freedom of Information Request

On 05 December 2020, I used What Do They Know, to contact Bristol City Council with a request. I asked: ‘Please may I have copies of all the meeting minutes and associated reports for the Inclusion in Education Group (IEG) from its original inception until the end of December 2020.’

On the 22 January 2021, I hadn’t received a response, so I emailed: ‘This request is a couple of weeks past deadline now.’

The very same day, Bristol City Council responded: ‘I can confirm that Bristol City Council holds the information you requested. However we are withholding that information since we consider that the following exemptions apply to it.

‘The information is exempt from disclosure under Section 22(1) of the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA). There is a clear intention to publish the information at a future date and in line with section 22(1)(c) it is considered reasonable in all the circumstances that the information should be withheld from disclosure until the date of publication.

‘To use this exemption we are required to undertake a public interest test. The matters which were considered in applying the public interest test are as follows:

‘Factors in favour of disclosure
‘Transparency or procedures
‘Factors in favour of withholding
‘It would require staff to spend time on accelerating publication rather than other
‘activities in the public interest
‘Confidence in the process may be undermined
‘It might result in inaccurate, unchecked information being disclosed prematurely, misleading the public

‘It is considered that the greater public interest therefore lies in not providing the information at this time. In coming to that conclusion, the public interest in providing the information has been carefully weighed against any prejudice to the public interest that might arise from withholding the information; in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information. This response therefore acts as a refusal notice under section 17 of the FoIA.’


Not to be deterred, I messaged back on the same day asking for a review because there was: ‘no guidance on how far in the future the minutes are going to be published, please either provide the date or release the minutes.’

On the 02 February 2021, I received an acknowledgement to my review, stating: ‘Thank you for your request for a review received on 27 January 2021. I am sorry that you are unhappy with our response under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I can confirm that we are considering your concerns and we will aim to provide you with a response by 24 February 2021.’

The 24 February 2021 came and went. On 05 March 2021, I sent:

‘Your response is now quite delayed. Is there an update to this before I take it to the ICO?’

No response.

On the 16 March 2021, I sent:

I was expecting a response for this by 24 February 2021.’

‘There’s no reason why these minutes should be withheld. They date back to 2018 and there has been no attempt to publish them. I would like them released under the FOI please.’

No response.

On the 01 April 2021

‘You said you would get back to me by the 24 February but we’re in April. Please may I have a response.’

No response.

On the 18 May 2021...

‘You said you would reply with a response by 24 February 2021. It is now 18 May. Can you respond please?’

On the 19 May 2021, over 5 months since making the request, I received a reply.

Bristol City Council wrote: ‘I am writing in response to your concerns about Bristol City Council’s handling of your request for information (our reference: 2496365) received on 5 December 2020 and which was responded to on 19 January 2021. 

‘I was appointed to carry out an independent review as officer not involved in the original decision.

‘In your request dated 5 December 2020 you asked for the following information:

‘ Please may I have copies of all the meeting minutes and associated reports for the Inclusion in Education Group (IEG) from its original inception until the end of December 2020. ‘

‘Original decision 
Bristol City Council responded to your request on 19 January 2021 confirm that we hold the information requested. However, some of the information was withheld under section 22 of Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act).

‘Internal review request 
On 22 January 2021  you contacted Bristol City Council to request an internal review as you were not satisfied with the original response to
the above request. You were concerned that we refused your request under section 22 of the FOIA .

‘I have treated your request for an internal review in line with the terms of the FOI Act.

‘Information requested 
Your original request, you stated that there is no guidance on how far in the future the minutes are going to be published and asked us to either provide the date or release the minutes.

‘Internal review 
I have reviewed the decision to withhold the information under the following exemption:

‘Section 22 of the FOIA – information intended for future publication
Section 22 of the FOIA states that information is exempt information if’
 (a) the information is held by the public authority with a view to its publication, by the authority or any other person, at some future date
(whether determined or not),
(b) the information was already held with a view to such publication at the time when the request for information was made, and
(c) it is reasonable in all the circumstances that the information should be withheld from disclosure until the date referred to in paragraph (a).

‘[1]The ICO’s guidance (22-page / 347KB PDF) states that public bodies do not need to have set a date for publication of the information they hold for the section 22 exception to apply.

‘As our original response indicates, when the request was received, some of the information requested had not been completed or published. The withheld information that was referred to in the minutes for example, the Ordinarily Available Provision document and Outcomes document was subsequently completed and is now publicly available on the Local Offer website.

‘I also consider that the delay that would be caused to you by reliance on section 22 would not place you at significant disadvantage, as any
disclosure under FOI is to the world. On balance, therefore, I consider that section 22 was an appropriate exemption to use in this case.

‘I therefore will focus my review on whether it was in the public interest to release the information.

‘Public Interest Test
This exemption is subject to a public interest test which means that we must consider whether the public interest favouring disclosure is greater than the public interest in maintaining the exemption.  I have concluded that the public interest factors in favour of maintaining the exemption outweigh those in favour of disclosure. Please see the public interest test factors below.
 
‘We considered arguments in favour of disclosure; that there was public interest in providing information recognising:

‘* the importance of transparency and that disclosure of the requested information will ensure that  the Council remains accountable to the
public in respect of its operations and decision making.
* Disclosing information would contribute to the development of public debate and allow the public to understand the rationale behind the Council’s decisions.

‘We balanced against those views that there were arguments to support the use of the future publication exemption on the basis that  Bristol City Council is committed to publishing the information and is in the process of doing so and that release of the information at this stage may jeopardise public confidence when inaccurate information is disclosed prematurely.
 
‘Having reviewed our response I consider that there were stronger arguments in favour of withholding the information in that the best use of public resources lay in  compiling accurate information and publishing it in a consistent and comprehensive format, in line with planned processes. The process of compiling this information and preparing it for publication is a complicated one that requires the input of a number of different teams. It would not be an appropriate use of Council resources if, in addition to this, we were duplicating our workload to respond to individual requests.

‘We considered the public interest test at the time of the request and took the view that it was reasonable in this case to await the planned
publication of the information.

‘We therefore uphold our original decision that the exemption at section 22 FOIA   applies and we were correct to withhold some of the information.

‘Decision
The final decision of this review is that it does not uphold your complaint.

Whilst the 5 months of pantomime responding to this request was going on, I decided to put in a FOI for the minutes of the IRG instead. Now these minutes predated the current Executive Director of People and Director of Education and skills and before the Belonging Strategy was even conceived.

The IRG was a group so instrumental in contributing to the 2018 Judicial Review against Bristol City Council, that these minutes were very important and there could surely be no reason for not releasing them under the FOI?

Requesting the Minutes for the Inclusion Reference Group

On the 16 March 2021, I put in the FOI for the minutes of the IRG: ‘Please may I have all meeting minutes and associated reports for the Inclusion Reference Group. This was the group that changed its name to the Inclusion in Education Group after the 2018 Judicial Review.’

It was probably not the best wording but surely one would have to be really disingenuous to take issue with it.

On the 22 March 2021, Bristol City Council replied saying: ‘ We are dealing with your request and we aim to send a response by 19 April 2021.’

On the 18 May 2021, I replied to the council: ‘

I am writing to request an internal review of Bristol City Council’s handling of my FOI request ‘Inclusion Reference Group’.

‘The request is long over due. Please may I have the information requested.’

On the 25 May 2021, the council replied: ‘I can confirm that the information requested is held by Bristol City Council. I  have detailed below the information that is being released to you. I apologise for the delay in response. The information requested is available on our web site here
About – Bristol’s SEND Local Offer – bristol.gov.uk

This was a strange reply. Having searched high and low on the council’s Local Offer page, I could find no minute meetings on the Local Offer website. It was almost as if I was being sent off on a wild goose chase. Not to be put off, I replied on 09 June 2021: ‘

‘I am writing to request an internal review of Bristol City Council’s handling of my FOI request ‘Inclusion Reference Group’.

‘I’ve been sent a link to the local offer website but I have not been sent the information I asked for nor a direct link to the information on the website, which I am unable to find. Please provide either a direct link to the minutes specified or the minutes themselves.’

On the 30 June 2021, Bristol City Council replied: ‘Your request for an Internal review is being conducted and a response will be with you in due course.’

On the 07 July 2021, some four months after first making the request, Bristol City Council finally responded:

‘I am writing in response to your concerns about Bristol City Council’s handling of your request for information (our reference: 14875098)
received on 16th March 2021 and which was responded to on 25th May 2021. 

‘Your information request was handled by Head of Service Accessible City. I was appointed to carry out an independent review as I was not involved in the original decision.

‘In your request dated 16th March, you asked for the following information:

‘Dear Bristol City Council, please may I have all meeting minutes and associated reports for the Inclusion Reference Group. This was the group
that changed its name to the Inclusion in Education Group after the 2018 Judicial Review’

‘Original decision
Bristol City Council responded to your request on 25th May 2021 to confirm that we hold the information requested and provided a link to the
Bristol’s SEND Local Offer webpage.

‘Internal review request
On 9th June 2021 you contacted Bristol City Council to request an internal review as you were not satisfied with the original response to
the above request.

‘I have treated your request for an internal review in line with the terms of the FOI.

‘Information requested
You stated that the link sent to you for the local offer website, did not direct you to the information required and therefore you had not been sent the information asked for and you require details of the direct links to the documents.

‘Internal review
I have reviewed the original request and the information sent.  I also note that on the 5th December 2020 you made an identical request (our ref 12496365) and the information available at this time was provided.  You requested an internal review for this request on the 22nd January 2021 and whilst this was being carried out, you submitted the request 14875098 for exactly the same information.

‘The Internal Request for case no 12496365 confirmed that at the time of the original request the information was not available but would be
published and in our response to your request 14875098 a link to Bristol’s SEND Local Offer webpage was provided.  This website provides all
published information regarding the current processes and agreements in place as agreed by the IEG.

‘Decision
We therefore uphold our original decision that the information in publicly available on the Bristol’s SEND Local Offer webpage and have today
provided links to the two documents that were not published and were unavailable when your request 12496365 was responded to.’ 

* [1]The belonging strategy 
* [2]The written statement of action. 

The requests were not identical. The Inclusion Reference Group and Inclusion in Education Group are two separate groups, although the second emerged from the first. The confusing mess of responses would become clearer after I put in a question regarding Send FOIs to People Scrutiny Commission.

People Scrutiny Commission

I submitted a question to the People Scrutiny Commission meeting of 20 July 2021, regarding the FOI issue with the minutes from the Inclusion Reference Group, which was handled for the meeting by Director of Education and Skills Alison Hurley.

My question was: ‘Bristol City Council refuses to release minutes related to the meetings of either the Inclusion Reference Group or the Inclusion in Education Group under the Freedom of Information Act.

‘In response to an internal review the council said: ‘We considered the public interest test at the time of the request and took the view that it was reasonable in this case to await the planned publication of the information.’

‘The Inclusion Reference Group was established in 2016 and ran until post 2018 Judicial Review, when it was reformed as the Inclusion in Education Group. At what point will the minutes from as far back as 2016 be allowed to be released to the public?’

The written answer given in public forum papers was:


‘In 2016 the Inclusion Reference group was run by officers, who have since left the local authority. A search for these minutes has been undertaken but central records have not been found. Presumably they were held locally by the officers in post at that time.

‘Minutes from the Inclusion in Education Group were not released due to the developmental stages of the documents contained within the minutes, which were due to be published at a later date. Since this time the following have been published:

‘• The Bristol SEN Support Plan
• The Ordinarily Available Provision Document (this included some of what was previously referred to as Graduated Guidance and BUDS)
• The Children and young people’s Outcome framework
• Written statement of Action
• New EHCP template and time for change project (this has been shared through the time for change project and it almost ready to be launched).

‘Items still being developed are the:
• Belonging Strategy
• Relationship Based Trauma Informed approached to Behaviour.
• Top Up project (including BUDS/

This contradicts the information I was given through the council’s FOI process and the review handled by the Head of Accessible City – who was present at the People Scrutiny Commission meeting.

The Inclusion Reference Group meeting minutes are not being published at a later date – nor are they identical as the response suggested. They have been deleted, lost, or misplaced. Considering these meeting minutes would have covered decisions made contributing to the unlawful cuts to the High Needs Block, I certainly had a supplementary question to ask.

“Bristol City Council hasn’t released minutes about the Inclusion in Education Group under the Freedom of Information Act. Now this group was set up in 2016 and tasked with coming up with the cuts to the High Needs Block which was ruled unlawful under the Judicial Review. I think I read these meeting minutes have been lost, which I think is really concerning. But also, since I’ve submitted this question, I’ve also had a further Freedom of Information Request refused regarding correspondence between Bristol Parent Carers and the Local Authority because the communications are considered personal data despite the fact that it’s corresponding about over fifteen thousands pounds being allocated from the Local Authority to Bristol Parent Carers to fill a CEO role with the organisation. So my question is really, because it feels like a lot of the time Send information isn’t particularly given in a transparent manner, what can we do to make that Send information is given under the Freedom of Information Act in a sort of transparent manner?”

In response, Hurley said: “In relation to the 2016 minutes, obviously it was a different iteration of the Inclusion Education Group and there does not seem to be records held centrally and all of the officers involved in those meetings have subsequently left. So that does post an issue in terms of releasing any minutes.

“In relation to the wider Freedom of Information, there’s quite a clear set of guidelines around releasing information through it, through an FOI to do with the time it will take officers to put the information together, the nature of the information, how sensitive it is. So if there are specific requests being refused or rejected at that stage, it is likely to be hitting one of those particular criterias through the actual FOI framework. I can certainly take the supplementary question away and come back and follow up with any further detail on that. But it’ll either be that it’s exceeded the time available or there is a sensitivity issue either to do with an individual or group.”

The latest FOI request that I was referring to in my supplementary question was regarding the correspondence between Bristol Parent Carers and Bristol City Council. Obviously, the council is a Local Authority and the other party is the Parent Carer Forum for the city, which receives funding through the Department for Education, various grant sources and Bristol City Council.

On the 10 June 2021, I had asked under FOI: ‘

‘Please may I have all Correspondence Between Bristol City Council and Bristol Parent Carers.

‘This is to include Alison Hurley, Stuart Hall, all Bristol Parent Carers, Contact and any freelance consultants working on behalf of Bristol Parent Carers and Contact from November 2020 to now.’


On the 17 June 2021, I received a response from the council:

‘I am writing to ask you to clarify your request. 
 
When you refer to the Bristol Parent Carers, do you mean the forum members or parent carers in general?
 
I will not be able to take this matter further without this extra information from you. Please let me know by 1 July 2021.
 
If I do not hear from you within the timeframe provided, I shall take it that you do not wish to pursue this request and will consider the request
closed.’

It’s a little concerning that Bristol City Council doesn’t recognise Bristol Parent Carers as the co-production group for the city, but nevertheless, on the same day, I clarified that when I said Bristol Parent Carers, I meant Bristol Parent Carers, replying:

‘This would be the parent carer forum for Bristol – Bristol Parent Carers. So correspondence between the Bristol Parent Carer Forum, which would include all forum members including the interim chair and Bristol City Council. And I’ve also asked for this to include Contact and any freelancers working for Contact on behalf of Bristol Parent Carers.’


Now you would hardly believe it, but on 15 July 2021, the council refused to release the information. The refusal said:

‘I can confirm that Bristol City Council holds the information you requested.  However we are withholding that information since we consider that the  following exemptions apply to it.
 
‘The information is exempt from disclosure under Section 40(2) of the Freedom  of Information Act (FoIA).  The information is personal data as defined by the  Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA). As it is information about someone else I’m  unable to give this to you; release of this information would constitute a breach  of Principle 1 of the DPA. Principle 1 states that personal data shall be  processed (used) fairly and lawfully and, in particular, shall not be used unless  at least one of the conditions in Schedule 2 of the DPA is met; in this case none  of those conditions have been met. This response therefore acts as a refusal  notice under section 17 of the FoIA.’

It’s interesting that the Local Authority is refusing to release correspondence between Bristol Parent Carers, charity Contact and other involved freelancers, especially when sums of money up to £45k was being negotiated for a CEO role, which included £15k from Bristol City Council for the city’s parent carer forum. The CEO role was never filled after failing to attract more than 2 applications for the role.

Bristol City Council had not considered correspondence between themselves and Bristol Parent Carers as personal data when I made a similar request in April 2020, supplying emails between Bristol Parent Carers and Bristol City Council under FOI.

Chair of People Scrutiny Commission, Councillor Tim Kent, also raised ‘concern’ during Public Forum regarding the minutes of meetings being stored on internal officers’ computers and becoming lost.

He asked Hurley: “Can I just check and obviously I realise that was five, six years ago so well before you came on scene. Are we ensuring that now minutes for internal officer meetings are being locked and kept separately to their own computer systems? Because I’m sor of aware in the digital age it’s very easy for things to get wiped and lost?…quite often people sort of delete emails these days within months. Are we logging now in say, on safe servers the internal minutes?”

Kent wanted confirmation that minutes would not be wiped after a year or two years.

Hurley couldn’t confirm the timescale but said that minutes would remain on Sharepoint longer than one to two years. She said: “So for all of the meetings that are formally governed and convened, there is a sharepoint site and certainly, we’ve come away from those individual recoding on individual officers’ computers, which I think is what the issue was for 2016.”

I will be requesting an internal review of the FOI request for the correspondence between Bristol City Council and Bristol Parent Carers. Although I won’t be holding my breath.

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