Thursday 29 February 2024
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Nottingham

Information Commissioner orders council to publish full financial report after refusal

Nottingham City Council must publish a secret report raising “very serious concerns”  over its financial management following a ruling by the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Accounting firm Ernst and Young (EY) was asked to review the Labour-run authority’s books following the uncovering of significant misspending in the council’s Housing Revenue Account in 2021.

Millions of pounds strictly intended for council housing and tenants had been wrongly and unlawfully transferred to the authority’s general fund over a series of years.

It is estimated the cost to make amends is around £51m.

But the council only published its own 10-page summary of the review, and said the full report cannot be made public.

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In July 2023 a Freedom of Information (FOI) request was made to the council asking that the full report be made public on the grounds its release would be in the public interest.

A response was delayed in August while the council undertook a public interest test to determine if the report should be published.

However, the test ruled in favour of not disclosing the information.

A subsequent internal review was requested, and this too concluded the report should not be published due to the council’s need to consider technical reports for officers in a “safe space”.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service appealed the decision of the internal review to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Today (January 5) It has ruled in favour of a full disclosure of the report.

In the decision notice Christopher Williams, Senior Case Officer, 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.

“Moreover, the Commissioner notes that public concerns about the council’s financial management are not confined to the matters associated with the Report.

“It is a matter of public record that the council recently lost considerable sums of public money in its investment in Robin Hood Energy.

“It is not the Commissioner’s role to scrutinise the council’s financial practices but it is clear that it would be reasonable for the public to be concerned about the council’s practices.

“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 Commissioner recognises that the issuing of the section 114 notice postdates the request and cannot be considered as a relevant public interest factor.

“However, he does consider that, to an extent, it retroactively legitimises and adds weight to the public interest concerns which count in favour of disclosure in this case.”

The City Council must now release the full report within 35 calendar days of
the date of this decision notice.

The council had a right to appeal the decision to a first-tier tribunal, however it says it will be complying with the ICO’s decision.

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.

“It’s important to make clear that key information included in the report had already been published in a public report to the council’s Audit Committee. The council took the view that the full report was of a technical nature designed to support the work of professional officers.

“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.”

•  Council faces growing public pressure over unpublished finances report

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