Sunday, 18 November 2012

A Big Doggy Mess

Back to the continuing sad story of Lennox the dog. It turns out to be a big mess.

Lennox was a sort-of-but-not-quite pit bull, seized by Belfast City Council as a dangerous dog and eventually put down despite worldwide protests and two court hearings. The council had complaints from all over the world, including 214,687 signatures on an online petition. Even the First Minister intervened - but to no avail.

The Council's official position is here

The website of the Save Lennox campaign is here.

Say nothing

The Freedom of Information Act was one way in which those interested attempted to get involved. The Council faced a flood of letters, emails, and Freedom of Information requests. There are at least 50 on the issue on the What Do They Know website alone. Just between July and August this year, 152 requests were received.

It looks like the Council were completely unprepared for the storm of protest and concern that met what was a fairly routine activity. They say that the dog was violent and unpredictable, that their staff were threatened, and one councillor received a death threat. As a former local government officer, I'm sympathetic to their plight. But their FOI response is not a good example of how to respond.

To judge by the What Do They Know requests, their main approach seems to have followed the well-known Northern Irish slogan: 'Whatever you say, say nothing'. Many were left long unanswered. Of the July and August requests, about 80% received no response; the 32 which did get an answer were told their request was 'vexatious' - a very unsatisfactory interpretation of the vexatiousness provision. Between June 2010 and July this year, there were no vexatious requests; in the month of August, there were 60.

The Council responds - eventually

On 14 November, the Council eventually got around to sending out responses, in what appears to have beena mass mailing, due no doubt to the sheer volume involved. Here are five examples of their responses which show a very varied pattern of approaches:

On 14 July 2012, Stephanie Lowe from the USA asked for a series of documents about the council's decisions. This response came on 11 October and did not answer the questions but referred to the Council's official statement on its website.

On 22 July 2012, Patricia Sarko asked for 'complete' documentation, including details about the dog wardens. Receiving no reply, she wrote back on 21 August and 1 November. She got one of the 14 November replies, a very detailed response which refused to provide the information, saying it did not hold some and had decided not to provide the rest. This was on the basis that:

(a) disclosure about relations with vets and kennels would 'damage the Council’s credibility and reputation with the providers of these services' - no section of the act is cited, but presumably the claim is that this would prejudice the Council's commercial interests (Section 43) by making such companies reluctant to trade with them;

(b) that some information was exempt because it was held for the purposes of a criminal investigation (Section 30) not specified, but presumably under the Dangerous Dogs Act) - even after applying the public interest test, by which some exemptions can be overruled;

(c) details of the dog wardens were exempt as personal data (Section 40) - information identifying individuals, which they would not reasonably expect to be disclosed;

(d) communications with lawyers were exempt as covered by legal privilege (Section 42);

On the whole, this is a good and thorough response,  however belated. I'm not convinced all the correspondence needed to be withheld - some could have been provided with names redacted to protect individuals and companies. Nor is the criminal investigation exemption entirely convincing - the public interest is strong (there is an argument that the Dangerous Dogs Act was ill-thought out and rushed through for political reasons). And although personal data of dog wardens should certainly be withheld, experience about their qualifications and experience could be provided without identifying anyone (and some was already disclosed in 2010). In the interests of transparency, the public should get more information than this - and it should help to clarify the issue.

On 19 July 2012, Tracie Green wrote: 'hi i would like the daily mirror newspaper to give me the name of the kennels that lennox the dog was being held'. The Council replied on 26 July that 'we do not hold any information within the scope of your request' since they are not the Daily Mirror. This was completely unhelpful - it is both a clear request for specific information, which the Council does hold. A certain amount of common sense would have been appropriate here. Ms Green had already asked for 'all the files' on the case on 14 July, and having no response by 7 September she asked for an internal review - which she was entitled to, and should have got. There was no response. A request by her on 26 July for the location of the kennel was also ignored, and again on 7 September she asked for a review. She finally got a response on 14 November to the last question, which ignored her review request and cited the 'credibility and reputation' point. She responded the next day, again asking for a review; I am following this to see if she gets one.

On 14 July 2012 Diane Shaw asked the council 18 questions on the issue (including 'why do you call yourself human beings?'). She received one of the 14  November replies: a general answer, assurances the dog was cared for, and a reference to the official statement on the website.

On 14 July 2012 Annette Pappas asked for 'documents, court transcripts including recorded phone calls and emails concerning Lennox prior to his seizure including and beyond the date of his death, and means of death (method and by whom) and how he was disposed of and when??.records before during and after the case and where and by whom he was disposed of'.

Having received no response by 12 September, she asked for a review. Again, her answer came on 14 November. her review request was ignored and she was told the information was being withheld under Section 30 (the criminal investigation exemption) and, as regards the names of those involved, the 'credibility and reputation' point. There was no mention of the public interest test.

A poor response

From experience, I sympathise with Belfast City Council. But all in all, this is a poor response from them. The huge number of enquiries - 152 requests is more than many FOI officers have to deal with in a whole year - and the climate of suspicion and threats of violence certainly made it a difficult situation for any public authority to handle. An unprecedented situation naturally puts pressure on staff. But most of these enquiries were around a very small number of facts and issues.

It is completely unacceptible, both from a compliance and public relations point of view, to ignore requests completely. Even a simple 'we are coping with an unprecedented level of enquiries and we are working our way through them' response would at least allay public suspicion. Silence only feeds conspiracy theories.

Every requester should get an equal level of response. There appear to be different degrees of detail in these letters - the American requester got much less than others - and some requesters seem to get a less thorough reply.

Finally, there is a legitimate public interest in the handling of situations such as these. Information about how decisions are made, what factors are taken into account, and - possibly - what external organizations are involved, are all matters the public has a right to know. Full and early disclosure, within appropriate limits, is generally the best policy.

Otherwise, you end up with a situation like this: a big pile of doggy mess.

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