1. Mr Watts introduced the report and presented a series of slides which set out the development of the public right to information since the Freedom Of Information (FOI) Act in 2000 and the Council’s rate of compliance with the Act’s requirements. Key developments included the increased ease of access to Council information online and the ease and speed of submitting online requests. Factors affecting the Council’s ability to respond included the increasing complexity of requests (as many people could now find simpler information by themselves, online), multiple requests and the decreased number of staff available to handle and respond to requests. The process had been reviewed to make it as streamlined as possible and he undertook to report on the data dashboard to a future meeting of the Cabinet Committee.
2. Mr Watts then responded to comments and questions from the committee, including the following:-
a) asked if the Council was able to charge for providing information, as having to pay might improve the quality and clarity of requests submitted, Mr Watts advised that the Council was permitted to charge for requests it considered to be vexatious or unreasonable. The Cabinet Member for Communications, Engagement, People and Partnerships, Mr B Sweetland, suggested that requesters could be made aware of the costs to the Council in responding to their request. A view was expressed that some organisations would charge for information which the Council had provided to them at no cost;
b) interest was expressed in having a comparison of Kent’s experience of FOI requests with that of other local authorities to see if the same challenges were shared;
c) asked how changing the target time for responses would change performance statistics, for example, increasing it from 20 to 25 days to allow for more complex enquiries, Mr Watts advised that the average response time was currently 22 – 23 days. Mr Watts and Mr Sweetland advised that the deadline of 20 days was a statutory requirement and could not be changed by the Council. Late responses would attract fines from the Information Commissioner’s Office, with resultant reputational damage. The Council needed to streamline its response process to improve compliance;
d) a view was expressed that the way in which it responded to FOI requests should be seen as a badge of pride for any democratic body; and
e) asked if the number and nature of requests could be broken down to show how many of them related to the people of Kent, how many related to issues for which there was a statutory exemption and how many appeals there were, Mr Watts advised that geographical data would be difficult to identify as requesters using email did not have to provide anything more than an email address for the response. Data on the types of requests, however, could be provided in future reports and Mr Watts undertook to do this.
3. It was RESOLVED that the information set out in the report and presentation be noted, with thanks, and the additional data requested above be submitted to future meetings.