Law firm to investigate council’s secrecy tactics in tree-felling saga

Sheffield Council has called in an external law firm to investigate attempts by senior officials to prevent discussions about the city’s highly-contentious mass tree-felling programme being made public by marking emails ‘‘not subject to FoI’’.

Wednesday, 2nd June 2021, 10:16 am
Mass protest and march in Sheffield against the City Council and Amey who are felling trees in the city

Law firm Bevan Brittan has been commissioned by the council to investigate whether the attempted use of legal privilege to stop emails entering the public domain via Freedom of Information requests was applied properly.The council – which has already previously admitted some emails were “incorrectly marked” in this way – said the law firm will provide recommendations on “best practice” to feed into its complaints procedure.It follows a complaint from street tree campaigner and FoI specialist Marcus Combie to the council in relation to its use of legal privilege in emails and FoI.Emails involving senior council officers about Operation Quito – a major police operation supporting the council’s street tree-felling operations in early 2018 in light of increasing protests against the policy – were released to Mr Combie in late 2019.Several were given the subject line ‘‘Covered by legal privilege and not subject to FoI’’ and related to the council’s involvement in a shared media strategy with South Yorkshire Police and a wish not to publicise it for fear of ‘‘politicising’’ the force’s operation.The police had insisted publicly they were ‘‘entirely impartial’’ in the dispute but the emails revealed the council was to be ‘‘heavily involved’’.Among those copied into some of the email chains were then council leader Julie Dore and Councillor Bryan Lodge, who at that time was cabinet member for environment and streetscene.In March 2020, the council’s director of resources Eugene Walker said the council now accepted some emails had been “incorrectly marked”.After seeking further information about the attempted use of the exemption via FoI from March 2020, Mr Combie made official complaints in March 2021. Earlier this month, the council informed him Bevan Brittan had been commissioned to investigate how the council applied legal privilege to emails. The work is being led by an information law specialist who will be able to interview council officers.The firm’s findings will inform the council’s response to Mr Combie’s complaint. He has been told the standards complaint will not apply to Julie Dore as she is no longer a councillor.A Sheffield City Council spokesman said: “In March 2021 the council received a complaint from a member of the public about the use of legal privilege in emails and FoI. This matter has been looked at previously and submissions made to the Information Commissioner’s Office who, at the time, were satisfied with the council’s response. However, in line with the council’s complaints procedure, where matters relate to elected members, this is being considered further and is standard procedure.“A law firm has been enlisted to examine the factual background, which will include looking at random FoI requests to give their view and make any recommendations on best practice. These findings will then be used to feed into the complaints process.”They said it was “too early” to say they will form part of an inquiry expected to begin this year.