Walberswick parish council hit by avalanche of FOI requests

A PARISH council is struggling to cope with a huge volume of requests for information from a same small group of residents.

Walberswick's parish clerk Jane Gomm has worked more than three times her contracted hours in the last month dealing with requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act – and the council could be forced to apply for an emergency loan from the Government just to survive the financial year.

Since August, Mrs Gomm has dealt with hundreds of requests from a small group of villagers for information on varying topics – at a cost of more than �1,000 and 126 hours of labour.

The deluge of requests, also made under Environmental Information Regulations and the Data Protection Act, could force the council to cut back in other departments, and monthly meetings are already at risk of being cancelled to cope with the unprecedented volume of correspondence.

An attempt was made earlier this year to restrict the applicants from making repeated requests but, under the Act, public authorities have a legal obligation to provide information.

After stepping into the role four months ago, Mrs Gomm has struggled with almost as many submissions as the Foreign Office, which has its own staff appointed specifically to respond to FOI requests. She said: 'This is a small group of people who either live in or have homes in the village and have, for about two years, been making a large number of requests for information. It has put the council under considerable financial pressure and we are having to look for additional sources of funding just to reach the end of the financial year. We are having to minimise other work, which some people may see as more important.

'I have spoken to someone at another parish council who has received fewer requests in six years than we have in the last month.'

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She added: 'After taking legal advice the parish council wrote to four people to say they would no longer correspond, but the letters did not conform with the procedural requirements of the Act and I decided it better to respond to all requests, hoping it would end the matter, but it has just led to more. It's difficult to understand what it is they are trying to get at.

'I have no objection to giving information but a lot of the problems have arisen from requests for information that has not been recorded or simply does not exist.'

To add to the strain, the Information Commissioner's Office, which gives independent advice and guidance on data protection and freedom of information, has received 20 complaints in the last year from people unhappy with Walberswick Parish Council's responses.

Suffolk Association of Local Councils chief executive Shona Bendix said: 'It is really difficult for the council, being bound by law to respond to requests for information. There is a fine line between what is vexatious and a genuine request. If the council is being inundated it is costing them, and therefore the community, a lot of money. You have to wonder whether or not it is in the public interest. It will have a huge impact on the council's budget and divert them from the good work they could be doing.'

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