>>> Read the report here 

A SECRET report has revealed the extent of City of York Council's failure to comply with information laws.

In-house officials carried out a Freedom of Information audit last October and identified seven key concerns, but their detailed findings were not made public.

The council's failure to respond to the public's requests within the legal deadline of 20 working days was identified as a "fundamental system weakness" that presented unacceptable risk and required urgent attention.

The council says it has taken the actions demanded and performance has since improved, but it has come under fire for not having published the damning report at the time.

The Press obtained it through the Freedom of Information Act, itself, and it can be read in full here 

It is the second such secret in-house audit to be made public in recent weeks, following the emergence in June of another report into decision-making systems at the council.

The report reveals that in the year to last October, only 65 per cent of FOI requests were responded to on time, far below the national expectation of 85 per cent and below the 77 per cent figure reported to councillors last September, although the council says its compliance rate has since improved to 81 per cent for 2013/14.

The report says almost half of the late responses had been delayed because the council's communications team "vet some responses before they are sent out".

Veritau said: "The communications team's role is to provide media advice and they should not decide what is exempt."

When the separate secret audit emerged last month, the council said it was usual for such reports to be summarised for meetings of the audit and governance committee, rather than presented in full.

But Maurice Frankel, director of the national Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "It absolutely should have been made public. I can see no reason why it should not have been."

Veritau, the council's in-house auditors, raised concerns over:

  • Non-compliance with the 20-day deadline
  • The allocation of requests and quality assurance
  • The limited detail of how the council was performing
  • Lack of clarity over who was responsible for complying with the FOI Act
  • The council's publication scheme not being maintained
  • Previously-released information being hard to find on the council's website
  • Information not being published proactively, causing people to have to resort to the FOIA

The first of those was rated most as the most serious problem, the second and third were "significant weaknesses" and the other four were non-significant risks that nonetheless merited attention.

Veritau gave the council an overall rating of only "limited assurance" for its handling of FOI requests, the second-lowest of five ratings, defined as "poor management of risk with significant control weaknesses in key areas".

The Freedom of Information Act became law in January 2005 to grant the public greater access to information held by public-sector bodies, but there have been talks in recent years on diluting it.

City of York Council has faced mounting criticism in recent months over a lack of transparency and openness, from the Local Government Ombudsman, Information Commissioner's Office and opposition parties.