LBWF Chief Executive Linzi Roberts-Egan orders a review of how the council handles residents’ requests for information, but the omens are not encouraging

In a recent e-mail, LBWF Chief Executive Linzi Roberts-Egan tells me: ‘We are currently reviewing our FOI [Freedom of Information Act] and SAR [Subject Access Request] processes to ensure they are as effective and efficient as possible and that the errors identified in dealing with your FOI and SAR will be avoided in the future’.

If this review is meaningful, then it will be welcomed.

But as is always the case with LBWF, it is advisable to be cautious, because as the pertinent history indicates, fine words are one thing, fine actions quite another.

To start with, it is notable that the designated head of service, the Data Protection Officer Mark Hynes (who of course is also Monitoring Officer, and Director of Governance and Law) has often promised reform before.

A couple of examples, chosen at random, give a flavour.

In 2015, I e-mailed LBWF requesting it to review how it had handled one of my Freedom of Information Act questions, but was ignored, so then put in a complaint.  

Mr. Hynes investigated and established that my e-mailed request for a review had been received in the Town Hall, but then mysteriously deleted, allegedly because of ‘human error’. 

However, he assured me, action would be taken to prevent a repeat, underlining very specifically: ‘I will discuss the issue with the Information Officer service manager [sic] in order that they review operational procedure around the mailbox’.

Six years later, another blunder occurred, and this time round Mr. Hynes advised: ‘I have now had the opportunity to carry out further checks and can confirm that the information provided to you…was incorrect. Please disregard the response previously sent to you and please do accept my apologies for this error. We have reviewed our internal processes to ensure that mistakes of this type do not happen again’.

All of that sounds as if Mr. Hynes has been on the ball, and determined to secure improvement.

But whether his words have translated into solid change is a different question entirely.

In fact, as the following cases suggest, far from improving, it appears that the LBWF information services have sunk to new lows, with Mr. Hynes himself also floundering in circumstances of his own making.

During December 2022, I made a Freedom of Information Act request; LBWF then prevaricated; I complained about this to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO); it intervened; and I finally got a response, six months after I should have done.

At the end of this saga, Mr. Hynes was forthright:

‘In my capacity as the Council’s Data Protection Officer, I received the notification from the ICO of your complaint. I took action upon your request and requested from the responding service to review the matter of your concern and respond to you within the timeframe directed by the ICO…

The service has expressed their apologies for the delay in following up on their FOI response. I am satisfied the service has considered and implemented the appropriate measures to prevent such occurrences’ [emphasis added].

That appeared to be encouraging.

Yet scroll forward a couple of months, and there was another debacle.

This time, I made a Freedom of Information request, and LBWF simply ignored it.

So I appealed, and Mr. Hynes in person upheld my complaint, and stated unequivocally: ‘The service area responsible for this information will issue you a copy [of the information requested] under separate cover’.

But months passed and nothing happened, and as a result in September 2023 I again complained to the ICO.

Subsequently, the ICO wrote to LBWF instructing it to release the material to me on three separate occasions, each time (as was its normal practice) setting a deadline, first 10 working days, then 35 calendar days, and finally 5 working days.

Yet LBWF ignored this whole correspondence.   

In fact, it was only in January 2024, shortly after the ICO’s case officer and legal department started considering action against LBWF for possible ‘contempt of court’, that I finally received the information requested, an extraordinary 150 days after the date when it was legally due. 

Little wonder that the ICO now describes the service that LBWF provided to me as ‘not acceptable’. 

What’s interesting, too, is that the ICO finds no evidence that I have been ‘targeted’, in other words singled out for special treatment, which strongly suggests that in its view cases of the kind described are by no means unusual.

The Freedom of Information Act and the Data Protection Act are key components of local democracy, and this is particularly so in Waltham Forest, because LBWF continually pumps out its own self-serving narrative of events, while constricting access to real-time and historic data, particularly over sensitive aspects of performance.

It is possible that Ms. Roberts-Egan will bring about a change in attitude, but much depends on whether Mr. Hynes and his admirers in the Labour Leadership play ball.  

As the saying goes, it’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks.


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