Three year fight over Simon Dudley speech report – Photo 1 of 1
A three-year battle to remove redactions from a key report came to a head as it was debated in plenary last week.
The Richard Lingard report, which followed an investigation into a speech by former leader Simon Dudley, has been the subject of a long-standing challenge led by resident Andrew Hill and former councilwoman Claire Stretton since it was first published in October 2019.
The report was first made publicly available in December 2019 following a freedom of information request, but was heavily redacted.
Subsequent complaints resulted in more redactions being removed.
The district argued that redactions were necessary to protect officers.
It has been claimed that disclosing officers’ names could negatively impact future investigations into wrongdoing.
The fear was that officials could be publicly criticized if they were named in investigative reports – and that would stop them from being honest.
Although this view was initially upheld by the Information Commissioner’s Office, an interlocutory decision by a higher court (the First Tier Tribunal) in October 2021 found that this should be overturned.
In March 2022, the tribunal gave orders to provide the version of the report that removed many of these redactions. The judges said the younger officers’ names should remain redacted, but the name and comments of the senior officer concerned – Russell O’Keefe – should be included.
The council had claimed that the appointment of council officials could lead to this [them] refusing to cooperate in any future investigation… honestly.”
However, the tribunal judges questioned the claim that this finding made council officials likely to be dishonest in future investigations into wrongdoing.
“[This] seems to us to be an opinion that no sane person could have reached,” the judges wrote. “Honesty can be expected of public officials, especially when it comes to wrongdoing.”
In addition, there is a “weighty public interest” in the information.
This version of the report was only made public last week, as it formed the basis of a Council debate on whether to keep members informed of court decisions affecting the Royal Borough in the future.
The latest version of the report was published on the Council’s website on January 13 this year.
Despite the court result, Mr Hill says it “doesn’t feel like” a win as the verdict was not initially brought to the attention of all councillors.
“If you don’t report things like this to the council members, how can we make sure this never happens again?” he said.
At last week’s council meeting, a motion was tabled by the opposition to notify all members of the outcome of future major legal cases involving the district – which was rejected on Tuesday 24 January.
“Mr Lingard rejected the view that no electoral advantage was gained,” Mr Hill said. “If I’m the only person who knows that, it’s not transparent and open.”
Although the latest version of the report is publicly available on the Council’s website, Mr Hill thinks it is unlikely that the average person would be aware of it or be able to find it easily.
He said: “This is about the security and integrity of elections. Other candidates were disadvantaged – people were tricked.”
In a statement, the Royal Borough said: “The Council was not involved in the first stage court proceedings [in October 2021] Appeal against the ICO’s decision.
“Unfortunately, neither the ICO nor the Tribunal have informed the Council of the Tribunal’s March 2022 decision to provide another redacted version.
“However, when the Council was first made aware of this in July 2022, it produced the new version and made it available to the applicant within a few days.
“The Council has published four versions of the report since 2019 and the extended deadline largely reflects the two appeal processes.”