As previously mentioned, we have lodged a Freedom of Information request with Somerset County Council.

We have asked for release of all documents as viewed and created by the Standards Committee Hearing Panel which met on 6 March 2015 and on 9 March 2015 and used to reach their decision on the action to be taken against Cllr Huxtable, including the report by the investigator, even if heavily redacted.

We sincerely hope SCC can find the courage to do the right thing.

SCC have acknowledged our request and say “Whilst we will endeavour to send our response to you by 14th April 2015, we are currently experiencing a high level of requests and we may not be able to meet the statutory deadline of 20 working days from the receipt of your request.”

Unknowns do not help heal the deep divides amongst the WSR fraternity. More information in the public domain will assist with the answers to those unknowns.

Only with better understanding the WSR supporters can, we believe, settle arguments and move on.

Update: On 13 April 2015 we received an email from SCC and are now considering our response to the council, if any. Meantime, for information, we reproduce much of the content of the email (see below in italics).

I confirm that we do hold the information you are seeking but we are unable to provide it to you. Our response is detailed underneath your request as follows.

Your request

I would like to see all documents as viewed and created by the Standards Committee Hearing Panel which met on 6 March 2015 and on 9 March 2015 and used to reach their decision on action to be taken against Cllr Huxtable. All documents please, including the report by the investigator, even if heavily redacted. 

Our response

Minutes

            We do not hold information relating to the minutes at this time.

           

The Report

We do hold this information but we will not be providing it to you as we judge it to be exempt under Section 40(2) and Section 36(2)(c) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Section 40 (2) – Personal information

There are references throughout the document to personal information of individuals who have not given their consent for this information to be released.  It is not possible to anonymise the content to the extent that it will not identify those individuals because of information already in the public domain.  Whilst we have received consent from the majority of the complainants to publish information relating to themselves, there are constant references to third party individuals who have not given their consent.

This is an absolute exemption, and does not require consideration of a public interest test.

Section 36(2)(c) – Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs

Section 36 requires a public interest test on the qualified person’s reliable opinion. Please see below.

Arguments for disclosure

The public have an interest in ensuring that Councillors conduct is professional and adheres with the code.  When this conduct is in question they have an interest in knowing that it is looked into, and if appropriate recommendations made.

Arguments against disclosure

The published report and outcomes provide details of the processes, and the outcomes from that process, and are in the public domain.  This means that the Panel’s findings against Councillor Huxtable on the charges of breaches of the Code of Conduct and actions taken or recommended by the Panel are in the public domain.

Releasing further information would be detrimental to the authority, due to the allegedly defamatory nature of some of the content.  This would result in public money and resources being diverted to deal with the resulting fall out.

If the council were to be taken to court, this would generate further media and public interest, on a matter where a decision has been made, and published.

Balance

Due to the very real risk of being taken to court and the impact on resources and cost of this to the council it is in the public interest to withhold the information.

The Evidence

The evidence relating to the Standards hearing consists of the following:

a.)        Agenda, Reports, and Outcomes on SCC website

b.)        Exempt Appendix to above reports

c.)        Additional representations made in exempt session from Cllr Huxtable

d.)        Written Statement provided from confidential source

a.)        The agenda, reports and outcomes in respect of Cllr Huxtable’s conduct are already in the public domain located at http://www1.somerset.gov.uk/council/boards.asp?boardnum=51

As we are not providing this to you direct, we are applying exemption section 21 which is ‘Information accessible to the applicant by other means’ under the Freedom of Information Act.

b.)        The appendix, and the briefing note presented to the hearing contained exempt information and were excluded from publication under the Local Government Act 1972 Schedule 12A. Therefore we are applying the absolute exemption section 44 which relates to information covered by prohibitions on disclosure.

c.)        The additional written representations presented to  the hearing by Councillor Huxtable, and his representative, were made with the press and public excluded, and with an expectation that they would not be released to the press or public.  We are therefore applying exemption section 36(2)(c).

Section 36 requires a public interest test on the qualified person’s reliable opinion. Please see question one for further details of this exemption.

d.)        The additional written statement from a member of the public named in the report relates to information provided from a confidential source, with the express expectation that the information remains confidential, and is only shown to the hearing panel meeting in exempt session. 

As information has been provided in confidence we are applying the absolute exemption section 41.  Whilst there is no public interest test, the public authority believes that disclosure would cause harm or be unconscionable, and it is likely that this would result in a breach of confidence claim which would on balance succeed.

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