Thursday 27 January 2022

Brent Council flights hit a brick wall


Jaws dropped when the SW Londoner published a story that Brent Council was top of the league in spending on air travel. An initial response that this was down to the diverse nature of Brent didn't wash as other London boroughs are similarly diverse. Universal opprobrium followed.

An FoI request by Paul Lorber eventually elicited the response that the story was wrong because the Council supplied wrong information.However, the Council was unable to provide the necessary proof because it did not have automated access to the data:

Can you please provide a justification for all this air travel and provide the date, the full cost, the purpose of the trip and the persons on the flight for each trip costing more than £100 over the period covered by the article attached.

Officers have written to the original FOI requester to apologise as unfortunately we provided the wrong information and this subsequently generated this news story, which is also inaccurate and which we will seek to correct. The information that was provided in error included costs for flights and other travel related expenses for both council officers and service users. The cost for flights alone would be considerably less. Brent flighrt

Council officers do not fly anywhere on council business unless absolutely necessary. None of these flights were taken by councillors or senior council officers.  All of these flights are directly related to social workers working with vulnerable children. Family court orders may require social workers to assess a vulnerable child’s extended family in their home, which could be abroad, or accompany a child to be reunited with extended family members who live overseas, or visit a child in care a very considerable distance from Brent. As Brent is one of the most diverse boroughs in the UK, with over 55% of residents born overseas, family members are often more likely to be abroad.

We have advised the original FOI requestor that upon reviewing our data, unfortunately it is not possible to separate the flights and other related travel costs in an automated way. In order to do so, we would need to review each of the 199 bookings individually, which would take at least 15 minutes per booking, which would equate to over 49 hours of officer’s time.

As such, the request exceeds the statutory limit of £450 set out in Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act and we have advised the requestor that we are unable to provide the breakdown of flight costs alone by council officers. We are also unable to respond with the detail you have requested for the same reason. 

Furthermore, you have requested details of the persons on the flights, and this information is exempt from disclosure under Section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FoIA). This is because the information constitutes personal data as defined by Section 3 of the Data Protection Act 2018 and disclosing it would breach the Data Protection Act principles. This is an absolute exemption and consequently consideration of the public interest test does not apply.

This constitutes a refusal notice under Section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act.



Philip Grant said...

For Brent Council to use the excuse that they provided incorrect information, in reply to a Freedom of Information Act request, just about sums up the mess that they have got themselves into.

I accept that it has been difficult with staff cuts they have had to make because of cuts in Central Government funding since 2010, and that the difficulties caused by Covid-19, and staff working remotely.

But surely they should have computer systems in place that would split the various elements of travel costs, so that these can be checked for internal audit purposes, to ensure that the Council's spending is monitored for "best value".

Yet they claim that it would be too expensive to get the right figures, which would allow it to supply information properly requested by two FoI applications, and correct the appalling image created of Brent being the London Borough which spends far more on air travel than any other.

I have had plenty of problems of my own over FoI requests to Brent Council, with incorrect details given and with information being withheld which should not have been.

I am still waiting for a formal decision by the Information Commissioner's Office on whether Brent Council wrongly withheld information from me, claiming that it was not in the public interest to supply it. In my opinion, they did not wish to disclose it because it may have been part of a Council cover-up!

Brent Council has statutory responsibilities under Freedom of Information law - they need to improve if they are to meet those responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

Even Brent's overstated expenditure on flights is dwarfed by the 500k cost of the plane hired to fly Liz Truss to Australia!!!

Anonymous said...

And how much is the police investigation into no 10 'parties' going to cost us hard working tax payers?

We'd rather our tax money was spent on preventing knife crime amongst young people - we should be nurturing these young minds.