Imperial’s secret ‘note’ stays, well… secret

Sadly, we will be unable to bring you the details of Imperial College’s 31-page document on building in the AONB just yet. The college’s Freedom of Information act appeals system has just judged our complaint about the fact Imperial won’t release a document that, back in February, Kent County Council said was fit for public consumption (until Prof Sykes’ people complained)… and, surprise, surprise, said no to our request to see this file.

The reasoning appears simple.

  1. It’s just an out-of-date briefing note of no current importance.
  2. In spite of the above, it contains ‘the type of information that, if released into the public domain, could jeopardise the College’s ability in the future to obtain competitive tenders or ensure value for money in relation to developments at its Wye Campus’.

Have we mentioned recently that Imperial don’t do courses in applied logic either? Well, read on…

The background to this long-running saga may well be familiar by now. Back in February Kent County Council included in its documents to be released to the public a 31-page report by the property agents GeraldEve discussing how Imperial might approach building in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The document never appeared, because KCC killed it on the orders of Imperial. We complained to Imperial and said: please show us the report. They said: no, we don’t have a copy, and even if we did it wouldn’t be fit for you to see.

Now…

The first part of our complaint was the plain fact we couldn’t understand how Imperial could commission a 31-page report from a bunch of very expensive international consultants and not maintain a copy on the premises (unless they were keeping it off site in order to avoid the FoI).

Here is what Jon Hancock, Head of Central Secretariat & Assistant Clerk to the Court and Council, says to that…

The briefing note was prepared for a meeting of an internal College working group. It was used to inform discussion at the meeting and to assist in the group’s decision making. Once a decision had been taken, it was felt by the group that the briefing note was no longer required and, consequently, no copies were retained after the meeting. It was understood by the group that, if the College did need to consult this particular briefing note again, then a further copy could be obtained from GeraldEve, who hold the original. As this was a working group meeting and not a formal College Committee Meeting, its proceedings were not minuted and nor were its working papers required to be retained.

As the working group has completed its consideration of this note, and as the situation has in any case changed since the note was prepared, it is unlikely that the College will need to refer to this report again. I have also enquired to see whether another copy of the briefing note had been retained elsewhere in the College, but without success.

You with me so far? This was just a ‘note’. All 31 pages of it, commissioned at Lord knows what expense from GeraldEve. But not important enough to keep a copy on the premises.

Our second complaint was this. Imperial’s FoI officer had decreed this report couldn’t be released on the grounds that it was commercially sensitive… even though he hadn’t seen it because, as we have seen above, they didn’t have one.

Jon Hancock replies…

Although it is true that the College’s Freedom of Information Officer, Dr Ince, had not himself had a chance to review the document or to apply the various tests required by the Act when considering to release or withhold information, he had discussed its contents in general terms with members of the Estates Division who had seen and discussed the briefing note. It was clear from his investigations that, even if the document had still been held by the College, much of it contained the type of information that, if released into the public domain, could jeopardise the College’s ability in the future to obtain competitive tenders or ensure value for money in relation to developments at its Wye Campus.

As you may know, one of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act is that public authorities provide “advice and assistance” to those making requests under the Act.

I have concluded that Dr Ince’s statement above does not indicate that he was pre-judging the case or that, if the document had been available, he would not have considered the document carefully and applied the FOI tests rigorously. Rather, I believe that Dr Ince was trying to assist you by advising you of the probability that, even if a copy of the report had been available, large parts of it were likely to be considered to be commercially sensitive and that these sections would probably not have been released.

The only alternative response open to Dr Ince would have been the bare statement that the document was not held by the College and could not therefore be released, which might have been seen as unhelpful.

Well, heaven forbid anyone should think Imperial College was being ‘unhelpful’. They simply feel that a report they commissioned but no longer keep is, without looking at it, unfit for public viewing, even though Kent County Council’s own FoI service thought we should all take a look at it last February.

Are you convinced by all this? I have to confess: I’m not. And here’s a question I would certainly be asking were I a member of the Imperial Council. How much did this lengthy report from an international consultant, one so unimportant now it’s not even worth filing, actually cost the college, and by implication the British tax payer?

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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2 Responses to Imperial’s secret ‘note’ stays, well… secret

  1. Jo says:

    I find it very odd that a working group discussing a £1bn (£1.5bn?) project should not take minutes of its meetings. It’s hardly the examply of good governance one would expect from a top academic institution with a highly regarded Business School. I wonder what Ofsted inspectors would say?

  2. J Arthur says:

    I suppose the only consolation that Jon Hancock can derive from such a pitifully
    weak, and blatantly unconvincing response is that it pays his mortgage and puts food on his table.

    Selling his soul in this manner cannot, however, do much for his well-being.

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