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Council publishes independent report into historic management of street tree FOI's

Sheffield Town Hall

An independent report into Sheffield City Council’s handling and management of Freedom of Information Requests relating to both its historic management of street trees and general requests has found that it has not intentionally withheld information, but that practices used to record and label information were ‘inappropriate’.

Following a complaint from a member of the public regarding the way in which FOI’s on its historic street tree management programme have been dealt with, Sheffield City Council commissioned Bevan Brittan to conduct an independent evaluation into the allegations that disclosable information was marked ‘Not subject to FOI’ and being incorrectly withheld as a result.

After reviewing the information available and interviewing a range of council officers on the matter, the report concludes that investigators “have not seen evidence that information was deliberately withheld to avoid publication”.

It explains “We have seen evidence that the intended purpose of the labelling process was to flag information, which is sensitive, for the Information Management Team to then review carefully before making decisions on disclosure under FoIA, and not to intentionally withhold information which should otherwise be disclosable.”

However, the report does find that the practice used to flag emails containing advice subject to legal professional privilege (LPP), which is exempt from being disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, should not have been used.

Sheffield City Council accepts these findings and has ceased to use this method of labelling.

The council also accepts it could not demonstrate suitable record management processes and procedures. The organisation has taken steps to ensure that this has and continues to improve. Such steps include increasing capacity in the relevant teams and making this a top priority in the corporate delivery plan.

Leader of the Council Terry Fox said “We commissioned Bevan Brittan to write this report as we take our statutory duties seriously and wanted to ensure that any areas where we fall short could be identified and acted on.

“Although the report makes for uncomfortable reading in parts and does not reflect what we want to be as an organisation, we welcome the recommendations and are committed to implementing the necessary changes to improve how we handle requests for information.

“Maintaining our commitment to openness and transparency in relation to the management of street trees remains a priority and now that we have had time to digest its findings, we will make the report public, as we have done today, and share with the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Independent Inquiry into the Street Trees Dispute.

“We have come a long way in our approach to street trees, thanks to the new Street Tree Strategy, and the work of the partnership, but will continue to welcome these opportunities for further learning and reflection.”

You can read the full report here.