Freesteel Blog » FOI complaint to the council

FOI complaint to the council

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007 at 11:56 am Written by:

Last month I put in a follow-up request to Bristol Council about their educational IT procurement. In their previous response, they said they could not give me a copy of the contract they had signed with their supplier, Northgate, because:

[I]t is considered that disclosure at this time would prejudice the commercial interests of the parties and could lead to legal action against the Council, as such; it would not be in the public interest to release the information at this time.

Legal action only takes place if there has been a breach of a confidentiality clause in the contract they signed, and this is a textbook case of the council manufacturing a public interest argument by attempt[ing] to contract out of its responsibilities.

This is not allowed.

Councils are allowed to sign confidentiality clauses, but they should carefully consider the compatibility of such terms with their obligations… It is important that both the public authority and the contractor are aware of the limits placed by the Act on the enforceability of such confidentiality clauses.

So on 3 December I filed a follow-up:

Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting all relevant details relating to the Council’s consideration to accept such confidentiality requirements in the contract it signed with Northgate, as well as all parts of that contract which are not considered to be commercially sensitive.

I also pointed out that according the framework contract which Northgate had signed with Becta dictating the terms under which they could sign contracts with councils, the information I was requesting was deemed not confidential.

On 2 January, not a minute sooner than required by law, I got this:

I write in response to your email of 3 December 2006 requesting under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for all relevant details relating to Bristol City Council’s consideration to accept confidentiality requirements in the contract it signed with Northgate as well as all parts of that contract which are not considered to be commercially sensitive.

In responding to your request I will deal with the relevant facts, which you highlighted.

BECTA (British Educational Communications Technology Agency) is a UK agency, which supports all four UK education departments in their strategic ICT developments. It is not a body that governs Local Authorities in England and Wales; it does not have power or jurisdiction over local authorities. Decisions and frameworks by BECTA do not have to be followed by local authorities. There is nothing in BECTA’s constitution that stipulates local authorities are bound by BECTA’s decisions and frameworks.

Documents and guidance found on the BECTA website relates to contracts that BECTA enter into with suppliers such as Northgate. They do not apply to local authorities unless they have a contract with BECTA.

The DCA guidance does state that authorities should consider the compatibility of confidentiality clauses, which it enters into with contractors, with our obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. This was taken into consideration when Bristol City Council entered into the contracts.

When the Council was in the process of negotiating the ICT contract with it’s chosen development partner, the issue of freedom of information was specifically considered and addressed in the drafting of the contract. The contract was in a standard format, which was approved by the government through its agency for building schools for the future – partnerships for schools.

As a consequence of this, the final form of the contract (and its confidentiality clauses) reflects appropriate obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and sets out clearly that information for which it is felt appropriate to disclose and that information which would harm the commercial interests of the parties were it to be disclosed.

Consequently, Bristol City Council is still relying on the exemptions in S.41 and S.43 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in relation to the charges for the provision of ICT services to each school. As stated in my previous response, the Council wishes to be transparent and accountable to the public but having considered the public interest test, disclosure at this time would prejudice the commercial interests of the parties and would place the Council in breach of contract. At the present time and in accordance with the terms of the contract, it is not in the public interest to release the information and this information will not be disclosable until 2018.

The Council will endeavour to send under a separate cover, on receipt of a postal address, details of the contract which is not deemed to be commercially sensitive. Further information on building schools is available on the partnerships for schools website and the building schools for the future website at

I appreciate that this response does not answer your request in full but for the reasons as set out above, the Council declines to disclose all of the information you have requested.

If you are not satisfied with this response or wish to lodge an appeal against any exemptions that may have been applied, you can do so through the council’s complaints procedure, details of which can be found at

If, after you have exhausted the council’s complaints procedure, you are still not satisfied with the response you have received you have the right to complain to the Information Commissioner, details of your right to complain can be found at

I replied the same day to the “Trainee Solicitor” who had drafted this response:

Thank you for your reply. In your recent response to my FOI request you said that you would endeavour to send me by separate cover, on receipt of a postal address, all those parts of the contract signed between Northgate and Bristol City Council which are not deemed to be commercially sensitive. My address, which was included in my original request, is at the bottom of this message.

You have assured me that the issues of confidentiality and freedom of information were specifically considered and addressed in the drafting of the contract. My FOI request asked for the details of this consideration, which the guidelines say should have been undertaken. You have not yet informed me whether you hold any evidence of this consideration in the form of emails, minutes of meetings, or any in other written communication or record.

Finally, I am fully aware of the legal relationship between Becta and local authorities. I am, however, referring to the information which, according to the contract Northgate signed with Becta, is not confidential since it must be reported in the quarterly management information report stipulated by Schedule 7 of
their agreement

I can see no way that it would be a breach of confidence for Bristol City Council to release information that your contractor has already agreed with another public body is not confidential, irrespective of what appears to be, on the surface, an attempt to contract out of obligations under the Act.

In the last three weeks I have received nothing. So I have finally got my arse in gear and filed a complaint to the council which appears to have no special complaint procedure for FOI requests:

On 1 November, and 3 December 2006, I filed Freedom of Information Requests to Bristol City Council for details about the £8.9million 10-year contract signed in July 2006 with Northgate to supply ICT equipment to schools. I have received unsatisfactory responses in both cases.

The persons who responded to my requests claim that the council have contracted out of its obligations under the FOI Act — in contravention of the guidelines — by signing commercial confidentiality clauses. They have furthermore failed to confirm whether there is any written evidence that there was a careful consideration of “the compatibility of such terms with their obligations under the Act”, as required by the code of practice. I have also failed to receive through the post any “details of the contract which [are] not deemed to be commercially sensitive,” as promised by Mr. K.O. in his 2 January reply.

According to the rules, I have to first exhaust the council’s complaints procedure, before I bring this matter to the attention of the Information Commissioner. As I am unable to find any pages detailing this procedure in relation to FOI requests on your website, can you outline to me the stages as well as a fixed timetable which will tell me when this procedure has been exhausted? I feel this is necessary given the performance I have experienced so far where FOI requests are replied to in the last hour of the 20th working day.

I later checked the press release again and saw that the £8.9million deal signed between Bristol Council and Northgate was for only 5 years. So the idea that the information would remain confidential until 2018 — seven years beyond the expiry of the contract — is somehow missing the point; we have the right to know anything that does not prejudice a commercial interest — ie the flow of money. This means we should automatically get to see all contracts after the government has signed them, and there is no longer anything anyone can do to stop them.


  • 1. Becta Watch » Blog &hellip replies at 31st January 2007, 12:50 pm :

    […] 30;.They do not apply to local authorities unless they have a contract with BECTA…. Originally from BlogPulse Search Results for: becta reBlogged by Becta W […]

  • 2. Ambo replies at 5th February 2007, 3:58 pm :


    Did you get anywhere with this ? I am interested in understanding the scope of this contract and what key performance indicators have been agreed.

    It is a large amount of money and my suspicion is that it does not address fundamental principles relating to service improvement (ie infrastructure support) and cost reduction.

    Let me know, please


  • 3. Julian replies at 6th February 2007, 9:23 am :

    I’ll post anything I get up on this blog. I’m doing a dry run for a larger project I will be contributing to: a FOI archive by mySociety. I was lead to believe that this would be a tough case to take on, which it is, which is good for my purposes.

    My intuition is it’s all about money, and nothing else. Whether anyone gets good kit or bad kit is of no importance to those who set it up. The actual mission of a well-run businesses is to deliver something as mediocre as possible, and charge as much over the odds as they can get away with — that’s how you make profit. What you don’t know, can’t hurt you, so apparently it’s not in the public interest to find out if you are being ripped off royally.

    One can pretty much discount any evidence of innovation in the supplier companies outside the finance department; it never happens with ICT projects of that scale. Furthermore, the system rules out the possibility of a positive contribution from among the customer base because they don’t want to have to reward anyone outside the board of directors.

  • 4. Freesteel » Blog Ar&hellip replies at 28th May 2007, 4:14 pm :

    […] dentiality requirements. I repeated my request on 2 January 2007 (page 5). On 24 January (page 7a) it was refused because it would take longer than 18 hours to lo […]

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