Stop asking us questions demands C&RT

May 2018 - From the beginning Canal & River Trust has claimed it wants to be open and honest with boaters and others. The Floater's Allan Richards has spent days trying to extract information through formal Freedom of Information requests that C&RT is now insisting are vexacious – even going as far as to claim that exposing the failures of its staff is somehow harrasment. Allan now reports on the hazardous occupation of reporting errors and omissions in C&RT’s Board papers.

A simple request pointing out that information provided under C&RT’s publication scheme is incomplete has failed to result in its correction after more than a month. This is one of two requests that Information Officer - Legal and Governance Services, Melissa Ashdown-Hoff, considers as vexatious.

Ms Ashdown-Hoff states ‘I am refusing both your requests for information under section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act as I believe that they can be described as disproportionate and unjustified and fall under the definition of what can reasonably be considered as Vexatious. The legislation under section 14 states that:

“Section 1(1) does not oblige a public authority to comply with a request for information if the request is vexatious.”

She goes on to say “The Freedom of Information Act was designed to give individuals a right of access to information held by the public sector in order to improve accountability and transparency. Section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act was established to protect the public sector from those individuals who choose to misuse the Act by submitting request with the intention of being annoying or disruptive or have a disproportionate impact on the public body.”

... perhaps someone should explain to her that C&RT is, supposedly, a charity and no longer in the public sector!

Ms Ashdown-Hoff's tirade does not stop -

“When reaching this decision I noted the decision in the case of Information Commissioner & Devon County Council v Dransfield (GIA30372011). In this case Judge Wikely identified four broad issues or themes identified in that case as being indicators of whether a request can be said to be vexatious. These are:

(a) The burden placed on the public authority and its staff;

(b) The motive of the requestor;

(c) The value or serious purpose of the request, and

(d) Any harassment of, or distress caused to, the public authority's Staff.”

Ms Ashdown-Hoff, who has been with the Trust just a few months, is the replacement for Frazer Halcrow, the man that the Trust accuse of of three ‘mistakes’ in altering information before replying to an information request. The second request she considers to be vexatious is one asking for a copy of the information the Trust meant to provide before Mr Halcrow altered it three times.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires that those subject to the Act have a publication scheme. C&RT is subject to the Act. Furthermore it commits to provide information where it can irrespective of obligation under the act to do so. It is also subject to Environment Information Regulations.

C&RT’s current policy regarding board meetings is to publish a ‘bundle’ consisting of minutes and other related documents. Unfortunately, in 2018 they failed to publish January’s ‘other documents’. They have also failed to publish minutes for the March board meeting despite publishing the related documents.

Perhaps of particular interest to boaters, they omitted to publish information relating to a board decision regarding the recent license fee consultation.

It has been suggested to C&RT that the following needs to be provided to adhere to its publishing commitments -

1. The minutes of the Board of Trustees Meeting held on 22 March in York.

2. The unpublished papers from the Board of Trustees Meeting held on 25 January in Coventry.

3. A copy of minute 18/007 (which appears to have been inadvertently left out of published minutes).

4. Copies of any report or presentation made by Jon Horsfall, Matthew Symonds or any other person in connection with minute 18/007. This includes both reports and presentations made during Board meetings, prior to Board meetings or subsequent to Board meetings.

However, according to Ms Ashdown-Hoff, the request to correct information which C&RT has already committed to provide is vexatious.

Perhaps it is minute 18/007 that is causing the problem. Boaters were told on multiple occasions that the purpose of its long running licence consultation was to make licencing fairer rather than raise extra revenue.

Despite the assurances, the Board decision in January means that the majority of boaters will pay more. By labelling the request vexatious, Ms Ashdown-Hoff has effectively prevented disclosure regarding how that decision was made.

One is left wondering if and when the information will actually appear.

The complaints of Ms Ashdown-Hoff are that 'on numerous occasions' we have asked for details of minutes of meetings, the costs of legal action, business plans and waterway partnerships.

She claims: “I can see no overriding public interest, purpose or value in the requests which would prompt the volume and frequency other than an attempt to cause annoyance or disruption to the Trust.”

She goes on to say: “In addition to the volume of requests I am also aware that you are an author of an online interest and campaigning group called The Floater. One of the stated aims of Floater is: 'Original campaign group protesting the creation of Canal & River Trust.'”

Accuracy is clearly not Ms Ashdown-Hoff's forte. One of the Facebook groups associated with The Floater is called The Boaters' Manifesto and that indeed started as a campaign group protesting the creation of C&RT five years ago. Even so it is hardly a crime.

Ms Ashdown-Hoff also seems to feel that C&RT employees should be able to make policies and mistakes in secret and complains that we have “posted on line the details of officer’s names and photos of 3 Trust employees without their consent and made allegations that offences have been committed under section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Those 'allegations' took the form of a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner - and you can't get much more above-board than that.

She thinks that: “Posting the details online along with the content of the article caused unwarranted harassment and distress to employees of the Trust.”

Peter Underwood, editor of The Floater said: “We feel that holding the Trust to account for it's failures is very much in the public interest and Allan has simply been trying to hold C&RT to it's promises of openness and honesty.

“This mixture of threats and recalcitrance is exactly the reason it is necessary to keep asking the questions C&RT doesn't want to answer. The Floater is not an anti-C&RT campaign group. It is a news site run by boaters that seeks to hold C&RT to account and report it's activities to boaters. To attempt to pretend anything different is mendacious on the part of this C&RT employee.”

C&RT’s publication scheme can be found at -

And its specific commitment to publish board minutes and papers at -

Photos: (1st) January - minutes but no other documents, (2nd) March - documents but no minutes, (3rd) Ms Melissa Ashdown-Hoff, (4th) Matthew Symonds, (5th) Head of customer service support Jon Horsfall.

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