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.
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.
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.