201203 Authority Email Exchange re FoIA

03/12/2020 from Highways England
RE: Bill Esterson MP request

Can we not at the very least ask them to provide a time period from which they want the minutes from?
I have to ask what’s the point of the FOI Act when I see things like this.

Regional Investment Programme (RIP) North West
Highways England | 5th Floor | 3 Piccadilly Place | Manchester | M1 3BN
Tel: +44 (300) 470-5218 Mob: 07714 272 026 Web: www.highwaysengland.co.uk

The point is transparency and open Government.  the reply reads:

[redacted] last comment, about the FOI Act, is partly why I suggested we hold our nerve on this, and explain the history of the previous requests, why we rejected them and politely decline this one, at the same time making clear as gently as we can that RVF is making the MPs complicit in a concerted campaign of harassment that should properly be considered by the Information Commissioner (who I think will rule the campaign out of order).

I had an interesting conversation with [redacted], the FOI Officer, about this earlier. He pointed out that, even leaving the previous history aside, we should probably treat the email from Nina Killen as a fresh FOI request, MPs effectively being members of the public too. Doing so is attractive for several reasons: first, that the timescales for responding to FOI/EIR requests are longer, giving me time to just focus on the existing ICO appeal; second, because we would then send an acknowledgement advising them of this fact, which would prepare the ground; and third, because it would allow us to follow the same logic as with the previous requests, enabling us to set out the reasons why we refused to supply the info.

Another reason I suggest continuing to follow the logic of what we’ve done so far is that if we accede, it will not be the end of the matter. On the list of organizations that was posted on RVF’s website, there are still another 8 stakeholders that they haven’t yet requested the minutes of meetings for. We can safely assume that we will then be asked for those 8, as well as the 8 we have so far refused, and the 4 new bodies included in the MPs’ request. In addition to that, we refused a further 7 organizations (back in February, when RVF submitted 8 EIR requests on the same day) that were not in fact on the list, so we can assume RVF will come back for those too. That’s 27 organizations we would have to search for – and I have little doubt that RVF will think of new requests to submit.

A third reason for continuing to resist is the damaging effect that releasing the records is likely to have on our relationships with stakeholders. We’ve already seen Peel backing off, saying they will not talk to us on the record in future; and we now have the Everton FC example, where RVF, knowing we’ve talked to the club, go and harass the stakeholder, who then come back to us, concerned that we’ve been misrepresenting them. But if this eventually became an appeal to the ICO, actually this evidence is likely to be quite useful in illustrating the malign purposes of the RVF campaign; and in adding weight to the argument that RVF are trying to impede the legitimate work of HE, and in fact impeding us from carrying out our statutory obligations to consult.

There is of course no guarantee that, if we call their bluff and force RVF and/or the MPs to appeal to the IC, the Commissioner will rule in our favour – but we wouldn’t be much worse off than if we give way now. On the other hand, if she did rule in our favour, it could go a long way to closing down the FOI/EIR route for RVF in future.

I’m not saying that refusal is an easy option – far from it. But for myself, I’d quite like to give it a go. And who knows? Maybe the uncharacteristically spirited rebuttal published in the New Civil Engineer recently suggests more of an appetite for defending ourselves robustly!