The previous version of this saga was provided in this post back in February 2022. Here is an update.
During the EWRCo. 2021 consultation, we wanted to understand the fundamentals of how EWRCo. had arrived at their proposed approach to Cambridge. If an approach that required a Great Wall to be built through our villages, severing communities etc. was the best option, then so be it, at least we would understand why that was so. We have the same issues with the business case, but the FOIs for that are another story.
Previous experience with freedom of information requests indicated that we needed the request to be carefully written as any mistake might be used by EWR Co.’s legal team as a reason not to release the information. The Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations contain many exceptions and no doubt for good reasons. We had also noted that EWRCo. tended to refuse requests that other public bodies had accepted. This was in cases where people had asked EWRCo. and another public body for the same information.
We engaged our lawyers at Leigh Day to write a limited FOI request for the most important information. Separately we sent a less formal letter asking for information that did not fit the criteria for the Leigh Day letter. Leigh Day were asking for information already referred to in the 2021 consultation, but not provided. As always EWRCo. waited the full 20 working days before responding to Leigh Day. They then threw the book at us. They went through all the requests CA had made and bundled that with the Leigh Day Letter. They worked out exactly how many hours they had spent responding to our requests. We would view that as time spent providing information that should have been available in the first place. Noting the association between CA and local parish councils, they even went through parish council minutes looking for statements they felt were unreasonable.
In their lengthy refusal letter, the request was labelled “manifestly unreasonable” and “vexatious”. We were a bit surprised, since all we were doing was asking for information that they must have had to support their 2021 consultation and preferred approach to Cambridge. They also accused us of deliberately timing the letter to land when they were busy with the consultation.
Maybe they were a bit stressed. Maybe their supporting information was not all that it should have been. After all who worries about documents that are never going to be published.
We then asked Leigh Day to write an appeal letter for an internal review, explaining in legal terms why the request should be answered including case law supporting that (especially the Dransfield case on vexatious requests).
To their credit EWR asked another senior member of staff to look at the case, he was an Engineer rather than a lawyer. In any event when the pressure of the consultation was over and they had time to look again at our request … they decided to stick with the decision not to disclose and for the same reasons as before. It was still in their view manifestly unreasonable and vexatious.
At this point we decided to refer the matter to the information commissioner’s office (ICO) along with another letter from Leigh Day explaining legally why the request should have been accepted. The ICO accepted that there was a case to answer but did not have anyone available to properly look at it.
Update since February 2022
Time passed and we published a post on this blog setting out the information we had requested and our experience up to that point in getting it. As a result of that, local MP Anthony Browne took up the case and wrote words to the effect that whatever issues EWRCo. had with Cambridge Approaches, he would like to see the answer to those questions.
EWRCo. refused that request as well on the grounds that the matter was now with the ICO. Clearly, it’s not about who asks for the information or when.
I note that the recent Lib Dem Statement on EWR, read out at the last SCDC meeting and kindly copied to us by Cllr Bridget Smith, contains the following paragraph.
“EWR is a Government scheme being delivered by a private company resulting in poor accountability and little transparency. It has been an enormous frustration that government has kept residents completely in dark for years now about their intentions. This is a pitiful way of delivering a major piece of public transport infrastructure.”
It seems that locally at least, there is some crossparty agreement on EWRCo.’s lack of transparency.
Months later and about a year after the original FOI request, the ICO looked at the case. They started by asking us if we still wanted the information. We did. They also asked EWRCo. if they would now provide it. They would not.
Time passed and eventually the Information Commissioner ruled that EWRCo. could not use the argument that the request was vexatious etc and they should respond again within a certain number of days without using that exemption.
We waited, were EWRCo., actually going to supply the information?
Well, the latest news is that EWRCo. have appealed the Information Commissioner’s decision, so the saga continues and we will provide evidence to the tribunal next month.
Stay tuned for the next gripping instalment.