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Havering Council is unable to say how many times it’s breached Freedom of Information law in the past year.

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Ironically, that’s because the response to a Recorder FOI submission asking how many requests haven’t received timely responses is itself 27 working days overdue.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, public bodies – such as councils – must respond to requests for information within 20 working days, either supplying the data or making the case that it should be withheld.

It has now been 47 working days since the council acknowledged receipt of the Recorder’s request, which asked how many FOI requests had not been responded to within 20 days, along with a breakdown of reasons.

Opposition leaders Cllr Clarence Barrett (Residents’ Association) and Cllr Keith Darvill (Labour) said the lack of response raised the question of whether the council was overstretched.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Cllr Darvill. “If they aren’t responding within accepted standards they’re in breach and that’s worrying.

“There’s the indication that there are administrative problems in the sense that we might be cutting back too much on staff.”

Cllr Barrett added: “Freedom of Information is simply access to information that already exists.

“While some FOIs can be quite complex, a request asking how many FOI applications have been made is surely one of the easiest to respond to.

“There needs to be a sensible balance between the freedom to access information that may be in the public interest and having the resources in place to respond accordingly. Delay and obfuscation will only lead to mistrust.”

Bank cashier Lorraine Moss said she had submitted three requests over the last year – two of which had been returned late and one had been returned containing no information because the council didn’t know the number of hours worked by cabinet members.

TaxPayers’ Alliance campaign manager Eleanor McGrath said it was a legal requirement that councils respond to FOI requests on time.

“They should be working harder to meet the deadline,” she said. “In the long term, local authorities should be more transparent to the taxpayers footing the bill and put as much information online as possible.

“That way they won’t need to respond to as many requests and can answer them quickly when they do.”

A council spokesman apologised and said the delay was “unacceptable”.

“This request involves co-ordinating a lot of information and we are currently compiling this,” he added. “However, we accept that this is very late and not acceptable.”

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