Freedom for Freedom of Information requests

Investigative journalism requires a variety of skills and one of them is the correct use of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. In a bid to ensure that the investigative work that LW undertakes on your behalf is both open and transparent we have decided to publish a selection of future FOI requests as and when they are submitted.

In this way we hope to more fully involve Tower Hamlets residents in the process we undertake, much of which is of course done behind the scenes. And we don’t mean making the tea in the LW offices.

Contrary to the belief of some the submission of an FOI request is not some magic wand that will instantly reveal the murkiest secrets of an organisation. Quite often the person submitting the FOI will wait the full 20 working days allowed for the response only to be told “computer says no”.

The reason for this is that in order for an FOI request to work the person submitting it needs to know that the information they need actually exists beforehand. Tricky, huh? The FOI response is often just the formal admission of the existence of the information. But this does mean the information has been validated and can be used and published.

An FOI should not be used for a ‘fishing expedition’, just asking a general question and hoping that the response will reveal something. Most of the FOIs that LW submits are to Tower Hamlets Council and the staff who deal with our requests should be allowed to get on with their work without having to deal with requests which are completely daft. These people do a good job and provide an invaluable service to all residents.

So as proof of our commitment to  ‘openness and transparency’ (except when we have to be closed and opaque) and our eventual goal of being recognised as a ‘beacon blog’ (whatever that means) here is an FOI request we made of Tower Hamlets Council. We will of course publish the eventual response, even if it is “computer says no”.

The Tower Hamlets Council reference for this is 6192193 so you can if you wish track it on the FOI section of the council website including the eventual response.

Freedom of Information Request 6192193

To: Tower Hamlets Council

Date: 06 October 2016

I understand that the Council employs people to visit every address in the Borough to check in person that the Register of Electors is as accurate as possible.

With regard to this type of canvassing and any other similar activities please could you provide me with the following information:

  1. How many Youth Services staff worked as canvassers for the council making sure the Register of Electors was accurate between 2010 and 2015?
  2. How many members of Youth Services, currently or previously employed, undertook this role?
  3. How many members of Youth Services, currently or previously under investigation, undertook this role?
  4. What vetting measures, including the use of DBS checks, did the Returning Officer and the Council use with regards to all canvassing staff?
  5. What measures does the Returning Officer and the Council take now or during the time stated to ensure that people added to the Register of Electors by canvassers in this manner actually existed?
  6. How many people added to the Register of Electors were later found, after checks, to have been inadvertently added?

It’s quite an interesting FOI request isn’t it?

You can find out more about the now annual Register of Electors canvass here.  In essence council people go round every dwelling in the borough and check that the Register of Electors is accurate to hopefully make it tricky for anyone to abuse the voting system.

This is one of the forms that are used, a Household Enquiry Form.


The eventual response to the FOI may well be nil, nil, nil, lots, lots and nil of course. But the questions are worth asking don’t you think?

The above is only the specific questions asked of course, it is always a good idea to use a FOI template such as this one on the FOI Directory which we use. We also add “Freedom of Information request’ to the header of the document as well as the previous administration would use the absence of such wording as an excuse to argue that the document was not a FOI.

LW also submits FOI requests in PDF format so it makes it more difficult (but not impossible) to alter the document.

Background to FOI 6192193

Why this FOI? As both regular readers of LW will know our investigations into the previous council administration often lead us in the direction of the Youth Services people under Lutfur Rahman. We have written about Youth Services in these stories:

The main stories regarding Youth Services under Rahman we have yet to write. Because we are waiting for the result of, you guessed it, an FOI.

It’s all about votes

Apart from anything certain members of Youth Services might have got up to which is already in the public domain there is also a much more serious and fundamental story about Youth Services that needs to be written.

This story is about voting.

It’s not a story about intimidation at the ballot box (although that happened) and it is not a story about Rahman’s administration giving most grants to areas where he and his supporters got most votes (although that happened).

It’s a story about a very sophisticated system that operated across the whole of Tower Hamlets that has so far remained secret.





%d bloggers like this: