The hearing, which took place at Exeter Magistrates’ Courts, was set up by the ICO after EDDC refused to comply with the ICO’s request to make public six progress reports on the office relocation project, insisting that they remain secret.
While trying to establish how much information about the office relocation was in the public domain about the project, a senior EDDC officer revealed that the overview and scrutiny committee in July 2012, had been given an edited version of a key report.
As a member of the overview and scrutiny committee, I remember this report clearly, which was decidedly sketchy. However, at no time was the committee told that it was a different version from the one that officers had access to.
At today’s hearing there was standing room only, with around 25 members of the public present.
The hearing was presided over by a judge accompanied by two lay people.
As each witness faced the legal teams, they took an oath to tell the whole truth.
There were barristers acting for both the ICO and EDDC. The cost surely ran into thousands for today alone.
EDDC had brought its appeal to the tribunal on a technicality. Officers were arguing that its relocation consultant from Davis Langdon, was effectively a member of staff because the key link with the council, Steve Pratten, worked at EDDC’s offices.
If this (very tenuous) argument convinced the judge and laypeople, it may be possible that EDDC could keep the information secret.
However, it emerged during questioning that:
– Mr Pratten mainly uses a Davis Langdon owned laptop to carry out his work
– Reports for the council are on Davis Langdon headed templates
– Mr Pratten has no responsibility in EDDC for decision-making or any involvement in council core business
– He has no staff reporting to him
– The contract was awarded to Davis Langdon, not to Mr Pratten
– The contract refers to possible wider help from Davis Langdon, not just from Mr Pratten
Save Our Sidmouth chair, Richard Thurlow acted in the stead of Jeremy Woodward, who had brought the original Freedom of Information request and subsequent complaint to the ICO.
Mr Thurlow asked several questions of both the EDDC officer and Mr Pratten.
It was pointed out (with a little irony) that while EDDC were now arguing that Mr Pratten was akin to a member of staff, the council had previously claimed that Mr Pratten’s reports were independent, when the overview and scrutiny committee had voted in favour of EDDC allowing Save Our Sidmouth to commission a properly independent report!
The judge intervened often, asking pertinent questions about Mr Pratten’s role, of Mr Pratten himself and of a senior EDDC officer, who was present to argue the council’s position.
Mr Pratten confirmed when asked by the ICO barrister, that he would be comfortable with the idea of another company (even a rival) viewing his reports.
This seemed quite odd to most of us, as this was surely far more potentially damaging to Davis Langdon than members of the public reading his reports!
At times the judge seemed sceptical and frustrated at what he was being told.
He asked for less “fudging” at one point
At other times the EDDC officer and Mr Pratten appeared to be disagreeing with each other as while one answered in the affirmative or negative, the other could be seen either shaking or nodding his head in disagreement with what was being said.
The ICO barrister suggested that if the Davis Langdon reports walked like a duck and quacked like a duck, they were in fact ducks. But EDDC teams insisted that the use of Davis Langdon headed paper was “arbitrary.”
The EDDC barrister talked in a frustratingly unclear gabbling manner, especially when reading out passages from reports. He had to be asked to speak more slowly and clearly so that members of the public could hear. In reply, he asked if members of the tribunal had copies of what he was quoting from, apparently irritated that he had to take account of members of the public trying to hear.
The word “embedded” was used a lot. The EDDC team was arguing that because Mr Pratten was “embedded” in the council he was effectively an officer and so his reports should remain confidential.
While much of the tribunal was interesting, I think most of us left thinking how disgraceful it was that EDDC should refuse to provide important information to members of the public (or even its own scrutiny committee) about a project that taxpayers will be paying for handsomely, if it goes ahead.
We should also not forget that the council has a truly dreadful record on openness of the entire project, with virtually all decisions on the relocation taken behind closed doors – see this blog post from a year ago – https://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/virtually_all_decisions_on_eddc_office_move_taken_in_private/
And that a request from the overview and scrutiny committee (led by me) that a group such as Save Our Sidmouth be allowed to commission their own survey on the state of the Knowle, were voted down by the conservative group at full council in February – https://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/council_nods_through_decision_to_spend_1m_on_skypark_land
Here’s a report from that overview and scrutiny committee meeting in January – https://www.claire-wright.org/index.php/post/independent_survey_set_to_be_undertaken_of_knowle_buildings
See the East Devon Alliance reports of the day here – http://eastdevonalliance.org/2014/08/28/information-commissioner-v-east-devon-district-council-report-on-morning-session/
Sessions may continue after today and a decision is not expected for two to three weeks yet.