High praise for Waste Management – Boos for Environmental Health

FOI Requests to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Two of my requests came to fruition Tuesday. One positively; one positively Kafka-esque in the level of bureaucratic unhelpfulness.

First, praise for the handling of my FOI request for the borough’s waste management contract with private contractor SITA. I met with Peter Ramage, Head of Waste Management to view both the current contract and the working copy of the new contract, which will take effect 1 April 2005. By all accounts, I am the first member of the public to view the contract. But Mr Ramage said he would not have a problem making the contract available to all members of the public in its electronic form once it is finalised in the next few weeks. I hope this will be the case.

So why would you want to look at a waste management contract? Firstly, these contracts are paid for with your taxes. Kensington & Chelsea’s contract costs £12.2 million annually, not including the cost of running the waste management building, collecting abandoned vehicles, etc. Here’s a brief rundown of the contract:

  • Street cleansing specifications – this section lists the number of employees that clean streets plus a listing of every street and minimum cleansing frequencies. You’ll also find in this section which streets must be cleaned of chewing gum and how often they should be cleansed. Clearing away abandoned vehicles can sometimes be found in this part of the contract, but in RBKC clearing away abandoned vehicles is covered by another contract.
  • Location of all litter bins. As of 31 March 2004, the borough had 700 litter bins across the borough.
  • Listing of all the manned public conveniences in the borough (just three!). Unmanned public toilets are managed by the outdoor advertising firm JCDeceaux under another contract.
  • Number and location of winter vehicles (snow removers, salt bins, etc)
  • Notting Hill Carnival & special events – 200 tonnes of waste was generated at the last Carnival, much of it was unsold food abandoned on the streets. This section of the contract outlines the cleansing schedule for the Carnival i.e. when residents should expect the area to be back to normal. The contractor also cleans the area outside basement flats after Carnival.

Now onto food safety inspections.

Before I went on holiday, I telephoned the Borough’s FOI officer to see how my request for environmental health reports was progressing as it was the last of the 20-working days. I was pleasantly surprised. The officer said he would be able to answer my FOI/EIR request after I narrowed it down for him by stating I was interested specifically in just the food safety inspection reports.

However, when I turned up at the council offices Tuesday, I was told that, in fact, they would not release these reports. Some of the difficulties are technical – it appears the council operates on an antiquated system where each report is scanned in without any key field recognition or identification. It is simply an electronic version of the actual document. But these could simply be put on disc. No – “We need to go through every inspection report on an individual basis looking for exemptions”, said Janet McCrae, the council’s food and training manager.

All exemptions in the FOI and EIR are discretionary so it is within a public authority’s power to disclose these documents and a public authority should not be hunting around for exemptions to restrict access. I have written articles about how such reports are made public in other countries and it is outrageous that citizens of the UK are routinely being denied information about the safety of the food they eat. How are we to make informed and educated choices about the food we buy and consume if this information is kept hidden?

Amazingly, Janet McCrae refused to even disclose the Harrods food hall inspection report – a document already in the public domain after it was FOI’d by the Sunday Times. It was actually on the table right in front of us and I’d already looked through its contents. Nothing amazing! But she demanded it back and refused to make a photocopy. I was stunned by this willful obstruction. McCrae said I would have to file a written request for the report (which I have since done).

I will be writing a longer article about this shortly. In the meantime, if you would like to add your support to my campaign to get these food safety reports made public, please write to:

FOI Support Team
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Room N111
The Town Hall, Hornton Street
London W8 7NX
Or email [email protected]

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