Asking Cambridge City Council To Routinely Release Results of Food Premises Inspections


Tuesday, January 26th, 2010. 10:01pm


Cambridge City Council - Hygine Scores Page

I attended Cambridge City Council’s Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 14th of January 2010. I used the fact the city council allows members of the public to speak at council meetings to ask the Executive Councillor for Community Development and Health, councillor Clare Blair, about how the council makes the results of its inspections of food premises available to the public.

My Question:

I’d like to know why the council doesn’t pro-actively publish full details of its food premises inspection reports (in addition to the simplified star ratings).

I’d like to find out what’s the deal the council has with the Scores on the Doors website, specifically would the council have to pay more to upload detailed documents or is the council just not using functionality available to them under their current agreement?

Without access to the detail those looking at the results don’t know if low scores are due to a cracked tile, using the wrong colour of kitchen roll, a failure to follow the latest paperwork fad – or something more substantive.

When the council required Domino’s Pizza on Hills Road to close a few months ago – why was the Scores on the Doors website not updated to reflect the inspection(s) which clearly took place in relation to that incident?

Why has the council decided not to make historical information (which could show which establishments are improving) available?

Why doesn’t the council give the public access to the raw data – let public do what they like with it? Why is the information made available via Scores on the Doors only available after accepting a “disclaimer” (Each council appears to have its own many are rather bizzare)?

Is there any prospect of Cambridge residents getting the kind of service provided to Norwich residents – where full details of inspections are now published routinely via the “scores on the doors” website?

Why is Cambridge City Council offering Cambridge residents, and visitors to the city, a poorer service than that provided in one of our neighboring cities?

Councillor Blair’s Response

Cllr Blair took a defensive stance; justifying the council not routinely publishing detailed reports on the grounds that “two hundred and sixty authorities use Scores on the Doors and only three authorities publish full reports”. She argued that because so many authorities do what Cambridge does it must be right. I think it is terrible that we’ve got someone running the city who thinks doing what everyone else does rather than making your own independent judgement is an acceptable, and desirable, course of action. Councillor Blair did not account for the fact that a number of the councils that do not use scores on the doors don’t use the site because they provide detailed information directly from their own websites (eg. South Moorlands District Council).

Cllr Blair said that another reason, beyond the mere fact that few others do it, for not publishing more details was that there would be a need to spend time redacting reports before they could be made public. I think this is another flawed argument because if documents were created with a view to public disclosure personal information could be kept off the elements of the documents to be disclosed.

Cllr Blair also said that the Food Standard’s Agency’s current review of the way in which the Scores on the Doors scheme, and being expected to announce a national Scores on the Doors scheme, was another reason not to publish more information. She said that the existence of the review meant that now was not the time to alter what the council is doing.

Cllr Blair told the meeting that that detailed inspection reports could be obtained by making Freedom of Information requests; she said she would expect details to be released in response to such a request.

Turning to Domino’s Pizza; Cllr Blair said that only results of “Full routine programmed inspections” resulted in updates to the information the council publishes to the public. She said that a note was not put on an establishment’s “Scores on the Doors” page if it was closed by the council but that such action “might be considered” in the future.

She finished by commenting on the council’s contract the company responsible for the Scores on the Doors website (Transparency Data Limited); she said the council pays a fee to this company, she didn’t say how much but said it was a small amount and the council was able to benefit from the economy of scale provided by so many councils using the service. Cllr Blair said the council’s agreement allowed the publication of extra supporting documents for no additional cost.

Jas Lally the council’s Head of Environmental Services also made a brief response – focusing on my question of if Cambridge City Council was already paying for the “full service” as being used by Norwich City Council but just not using it. He said it the council would have to pay more to get what Norwich has.

Opportunity to Respond

Given an opportunity to briefly comment on Cllr Blair’s response I drew attention to the the fact the Freedom of Information request route isn’t as desirable as proactive publication on the part of the council, not least due to the time delay and need to know what to ask for. Examples of correspondence with councils by individuals seeking full inspection reports under the freedom of information act can be viewed at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

Cllr Blair interrupted me at this point to say that she “wasn’t opposed to information going on the web”; this resulted in a brief exchange of views during which I tried to establish exactly what the position was particularly in respect to the service being actually being purchased from “Transparency Data Limited”. The meeting’s chair Cllr Liddle allowed me a little leeway here; but Cllr Blair wasn’t happy and in a pompous manner recounted the council’s public speaking rules – which allow a 3 minute question, a reply, and a 2 minute response to the reply from the questioner, and insisted they be followed to the letter.

Progress

Hopefully this has got the question of releasing information on inspections of food premises into Cllr Blair’s mind; made her aware its something she’s responsible for.

After the meeting I spoke to council officer – Jas Lally; he appeared genuinely enthusiastic about getting more of the results of his team’s work out into the public domain. He told me he was particularly keen to get information showing how officers can be effective at working with businesses to get them from no-star to one star (an important distinction) and further up the scale available to the public. I hope that I may have planted the seed in Cllr Blair’s mind prompting her to give her officers the political leadership they’re looking for – she did thank me for my “helpful and constructive” question.

The Environment Health Service Plan which was before the meeting was passed un-amended, it contains the key target of:

Reducing risk rating of food premises, through inspections, education and enforcement action where necessary

My view is that more information, and more easily accessible information, about inspections and what they find could help achieve that target. More openness about what the councils staff check on our behalf might prompt lobbying to make it more relevant, appropriate an useful giving us better value for money.

I would like to see the law require proactive publication of inspection reports as supplied to business owners. I would also like to see the raw data, including simplified “scores”, made available in a standard format by councils allowing all sorts of people to use the results an incorporate them into their websites, publications and services.

The Official Record

Unusually, and commendably, there is an alternative, relatively expansive, account of my question in the draft minutes of the meeting produced by council officers. Officers appear to have incorporated elements of my question, which I submitted in advance, into the minutes.

There is also a section in the minutes stating:

The Head of Environmental Health and Waste Strategy stated that to publish the full details, a major overhaul of the Council’s internal database systems would have to take place. It would also be more expensive as it would take more officer and administration time to publish the full details.

My recollection was that he wasn’t quite that dramatic.

10 comments/updates on “Asking Cambridge City Council To Routinely Release Results of Food Premises Inspections

  1. jeff cole

    i am sick and tired of government job creation schemes such as this,whereby unqualified people such as used in this operation can rate my business,based on whether or not i am filling in forms or sticking on labels.my kitchen is open for everyone to see, in my career i have served over a million meals,without anyone suffering food poisoning, it is actually quite hard to do,if you care in the slightest about your business.i fact the only case ican remember being published was that of heston blumenthal,who managed to take out his entire village!i bet he has 5 stars.

  2. Richard Article author

    I think elements of the inspection regime do need improvement; as you say Jeff – filling in forms and checking if the right sticky labels are being used aren’t perhaps the key things which it is important for councils to check.

    I hope that putting more information on what council officers are doing, and what they find, into the public domain will result in changes in what the councils do so that it more closely matches what the public demand and is more effective at keeping restaurants and food shops safe.

    There are, even in the highly regulated environment of the UK, serious cases of illness associated with food premises; an inspection regime is essential.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/7264914.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_east/4600004.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/north_east/8181106.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/humber/3644444.stm
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/berkshire/7927715.stm

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cambridge City Council is now publishing food hygiene “scores” on a new website, at:

    http://ratings.food.gov.uk/authority-search/en-GB/%5E/%5E/alpha/0/027/%5E/1/2/10

    There are still no detailed reports; no explanations as to why businesses have particular scores.

    Personally I use some of the businesses with a score of only 1/5 which the council classes as “major improvement necessary”. It isn’t clear if there’s a piece of paperwork missing or if these premises are actually dangerous.

    I have let the council know I am disappointed in the lack of detail published via the new system and have asked if the new system will be updated following non-routine inspections.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    There is currently a case where the local paper are reporting Cambridge City Council have closed the Cocum Indian restaurant in Castle Street Cambridge after customers fell ill however the council’s logo is still presented alongside Cocum’s “5/5 very good” hygiene rating on the ScoresOnTheDoors website.

    Notably the Food Standards agency, now the website Cambridge City Council suggests people use to check food hygiene ratings lists Cocum as being exempt from requiring such a rating:

    http://ratings.food.gov.uk/business/en-GB/506911

    This appears to be a mistake.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      Jonathan Whiteland has noted the Food Standards Agency only just changed the status of Cocum to being exempt:

      The current Cocum page on the Food Standards Agency website shows:
      screenshot of ratings page linked above

      Perhaps the Food Standards Agency have at last decided to act and update their website when premises are closed down by councils; but don’t have an appropriate way to show this, so have decided a marking of “exempt” is preferable to “5: Very good”?

      Further background:

      The Cambridge City Council news release announcing the closure is available, titled “Closure of Food Premises”.

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    I recently asked why the excellent Tandoori Palace on Histon Rd wasn’t listed on the Food Standards Agency Food hygiene ratings database:

    The Executive Councillor responsible gave me an email address of an officer to write to. I got a prompt and complete reply suggesting there was an error in the council’s database:

    The simple answer as to why you have been unable to find the business on the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) webpage is because our database currently shows the business as being closed, and as such, cannot be uploaded from our records on to the FHRS website. However, we are aware that the business is still trading, and will be inspected during this financial year, although I am unable to tell you exactly when this will be. Following your email, I have contacted my IT colleagues and have asked them to address the matter.

    As far as the current rating, I am pleased to say that the business was previously rated as 4 on the 0 to 5 FHRS score, so whilst there were a number of matters that needed to be addressed, the business was generally legally compliant.

    At the time of writing, ten days later, the restaurant is now listed (with a score based on its 11 April 2014 inspection:

    http://ratings.food.gov.uk/business/en-GB/506210/Tandoori-Palace-Cambridgeshire

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    I looks as if the problems mentioned above are still occurring:

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