The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire has been widely characterised by mistrust in the official processes. Nine months from the fire, the local community is still waiting for answers regarding who held responsibility for the decisions that led to the loss of 71 lives.
Hoping to help uncover answers to some of the wider questions around council housing that have been left outside the official inquiry into the fire, Research for Action has been using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain information from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC).
In August and September, we requested information regarding the management and oversight of council properties including Grenfell Tower. The requests were addressed both to the council and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) that has since been dismantled.
According to the Act, a public authority has to respond to an FOI request within 20 working days. After not receiving a reply and having sent a reminder, in October we took the next step and requested an internal review. Again we received no reply.
Our requests are public on the website whatdotheyknow, and browsing other requests on the site we noticed that we were not the only ones waiting for a reply that was long overdue. So we did some meta level information requesting and asked the authority how many FOIs they had responded to since Grenfell fire. Interestingly, RBKC provided the answer to this request perfectly on time: up until mid-November, they had responded to only half of the FOI requests they had received in the five months since the fire. We did not specifically ask what information the authority had failed to provide, but from monitoring the requests on whatdotheyknow it seems many of those that have been completely ignored relate to Grenfell and housing.
As there was still no word, even acknowledgement, in relation to our original requests, in December we filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The ICO is an independent authority that upholds information rights in the public interest. They prompted RBKC to respond, but the authority still failed to do so within the given time limit. On 2 March, the ICO issued a decision notice that obliges them to provide the information we initially requested. If they do not, the Information Commissioner can report them to the high court.
In their decision notice, the ICO state: “this ís one of a series of Decision Notices which will be issued to the Royal Borough in relation to these issues within a short space of time.” Thus we are not the only ones waiting.
Of course RBKC is dealing with a high volume of FOI requests. They are also subject to a criminal investigation. But that does not mean they can disrespect their legal obligations towards the public who are trying to hold them accountable. If they have a legal and legitimate reason to withhold information because of the ongoing investigation, they should at least respond to us stating that. Unfortunately it seems that Kensington and Chelsea’s response to people demanding answers is once more silence, inaction and utter contempt.
See all decision notices ICO issued to Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea this month here.
Links to our FOI requests:
Oversight of Council properties (to RBKC)
Grenfell Tower (to RBKC)
Grenfell Tower (to KCTMO)
Management of Council properties (to KCTMO)
We have now received responses to some of these FOI requests. Understandably, RBKC is refusing most of the information on the grounds that it is subject to a criminal investigation.
See also coverage on the ICO decision notices in the Guardian 13 March.