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August 12, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:12am

FE Week wins FOI battle against college which labelled request for principal’s expenses ‘vexatious’

By James Walker

FE Week has won a freedom of information battle against a college that blocked the release of its principal’s expense claims over the “nature and tone” of previous reporting by the education news website.

Highbury College in Portsmouth labelled the website’s request for details of the principal’s expenses for the last five academic years as “vexatious” in its refusal to hand over the information.

The college, which offers NCTJ journalism courses,  delayed this decision by almost three months, saying it needed to “consider the public interest test” in relation to sections of the Freedom of Information Act.

But the Information Commissioner’s Office has now ruled that the college was wrong to refuse the request, which was first filed ten months ago.

The ICO said in its ruling, published on Friday, that Highbury College was “not entitled” to rely on section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which can allow authorities to refuse “vexatious” requests.

It ordered the college to issue a fresh response to the request without relying on section 14(1) within 35 days.

The ICO said: “Failure to comply may result in the Commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court.”

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Following the ruling, a Highbury College spokesperson said it will “continue to work with the Information Commissioner’s Office to ensure all Freedom of Information requests are handled correctly and in accordance with ICO guidelines”.

FE Week welcomed the ruling and told Press Gazette: “As reported by FE Week, Highbury College has sunk over £1m into a failed international venture in Nigeria and the principal flies first class.

“It is therefore unsurprising they wish to hide these taxpayer funded costs from the public.”

According to the ICO decision notice, Highbury College referred the Commissioner to an FE Week article that “acknowledged that their FOIA requests were made after information from a ‘whistleblower’”.

The college tried to suggest the FE Week reporter was “acting as a proxy for an individual who may have an illegitimate motive or were simply fishing for possible information that might bring credence to the whistle blower’s claims”.

The college also argued that “given the nature and tone of recent reporting” about it by FE Week, the website might have used the information to “create an article of unfounded accusations”.

It argued that the potential publication of such an article made the request vexatious.

Highbury College also claimed the volume of data requested and “the need to redact” or sift out some information would have caused an “unjustified level of disruption and a major distraction from core college business”.

It added that a previous FOI request by FE Week reporter Billy Camden relating to flight expenses “did not reveal any information of value”.

“…the complainant has merely asked for different information and may continue to do so in the hope of eventually finding some information that could be turned into a story of sorts,” the college continued.

In her preliminary assessment of the case, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told Highbury College that FE Week’s publication of a story claiming the college was fighting to recoup £1.4m of debt from a Nigerian state on 11 January appeared to be the “main reason” for its denial of the FOI request.

Earlier this year Highbury College blocked access to the FE Week website on its computers following publication of the story.

In a statement at the time, Highbury College said it blocked the website because it did not want staff and students being “distracted by inaccurate and untrue stories”. It reversed its decision a week later in response to public outcry.

The Information Commissioner told the college its issue with FE Week’s previous work was not “compelling enough to warrant the application of section 14”.

It said the reporter’s interest was legitimate and that the public had a “right to know how public money is being spent and assess whether value for money is being obtained”.

Highbury College told the ICO it was “disappointed” with Denham’s assessment and claimed the release of the information would likely lead to the data being “fashioned and twisted by the complainant to create a story that is lacking objectivity and that tenuously links the information to sensationalised headlines”.

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