Thursday, 7 April 2016

It was heartening to read – buried amidst the recent rant of how Boston Borough Council planned to make life miserable for ‘vexatious’ complainants – a line saying: “The council does, however, recognise its duties under the Freedom of Information Act, the Data Protection Act and related legislation, to provide information to requesters.” 
Now, though, we’re wondering if Worst Street intends what it says.
Although a recent government review of the ten year-old Freedom of Information Act  said there would be no changes to it and found that it was "working well,” councillors have a long history of bewailing the cost of responding to FoI requests and declaring that they could save money by ignoring them.
This was echoed in the debate on a new ‘Persistent and Vexatious Customer Policy,’ when the guardian of Boston Borough Council’s purse, Councillor Aaron ‘Frank’ Spencer, announced that a single serial complainer had cost the council “thousands” in staff resources and time.
This year alone, the individual had reportedly sent 41 emails, made four complaints, two enquiries and eight Freedom of Information requests.
Councillor Spencer was quoted as saying: “That individual has cost this council thousands. That’s important and why we need to seek to adopt this policy.”
He added that the new policy should aim “not to compromise the integrity of the council” – whatever that means.
The policy would deal with customers who made excessive demands on officers’ time and resources or were abusive or refused to accept a decision even after repeatedly arguing a point.
Reports quoted Michelle Sacks, the council’s Head of Customer and Democratic Services as saying: “This would give us the tools within the constitution to deal with these customers effectively.
“It would give us the framework to say ‘this is our adopted policy that members of our staff have to follow and it is the way we deal with our complaints’.
“The benefits of having a policy like this will be not to reduce the number of enquiries but to reduce the impact on resources of dealing with the individual.”
She added: “This is about treating all our customers equally and fairly and identifying our customers which fall into ‘persistent and vexatious’.”
If that sounds like a lot of waffle to you, relax – it sounds like a lot of waffle to us as well.
What does not appear to have been said at any stage is that Worst Street – in common with other councils – can if it wishes charge for FoI requests
If local authorities estimate that providing the information will cost more than an ‘acceptable limit’ of £450 they can either refuse or charge the full estimated at the rate of £25 an hour – that’s 18 hours’ worth.
We wonder whether we might be seeing Worst Street’s opening gambit towards charging for FoI requests whenever the rules allow.
Remember the famous “free forever” garden waste collections which somehow fell into the “we never said that” category?
Certainly, a serial complainer who has cost the council “thousands” might well be curbed by such a policy, and make questions fewer and more focussed in a way that would save staff time and costs. But equally, such a policy might stun him/her into silence.
 “Thousands” is a conveniently imprecise amount – but if the figure exceeds £3,600 for the requests quoted then charging is allowed.
Interestingly, we had sight of a response to a complaint this week in which a perfectly valid protest was rejected – largely on the grounds that the complainant deserved the treatment complained of.
If nothing else, it highlights the unsatisfactory council policy of allowing internal employees to evaluate complaints.
Perhaps the council could adopt the approach of Ferndown Council in Dorset, which has told residents to stop writing about its decision to reduce a speed limit – because the complaints are “stressing out staff.”
All together now … Aahhh! There, there.

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