Dear Information CommissionerOn June 3 2013 I wrote to the Chief Executive of Thanet District Council requesting to see all of the documents in the possession of the Council relating to its payment deferral and repayment agreements with Transeuropa Ferries and all paperwork related to the £3.3million owed to the Council by Transeuropa Ferries. Following the submission of an FIO request and an internal review the Council refused to let me see these documents (see attached documents).
However, under the terms of Section 15.1(a) of the Audit Commission Act 1998, the Council did let me see on 29 July 2013 a very limited range of the documents I had requested. These were documents mainly related to the financial year 2012-13 including invoices and payment records and extracts from the Ramsgate Port Terms and Conditions and Charges.
When I inspected these documents the Council was forced to admit that what they had previously described to me as agreements with, and debt owed to the Council by, Transeuropa Ferries, did in fact include agreements with, and debt owed to the Council by Transeuropa Ferries and three other linked and associated companies - Dianthus Maritime Co, Forsythia Maritime Co, and Odyssy Maritime Co.I therefore assume that because the Council had misled me by only referring to one company in relation to the agreements and debt, when in fact there were four, means that, if my appeal to you is upheld, I can see all the documents related Dianthus Maritime Co, Forsythia Maritime Co, and Odyssy Maritime Co as well.
Although I have now seen a small number of the documents I asked for in my e-mails of 3 and 7 June 2013 the vast majority of documents have not been released to me. As my e-mail to the Council’s Chief Executive of 3 June sates, I still wish to see all the documents related to the debt deferral and repayment agreement this would include copies of the debt deferral and repayment agreements themselves, e-mails, notes of meetings, reports, risk assessments reviews and external advice and opinion on all matters related to these agreements, their monitoring and the recovery of debt owed by the companies involved.The Council claims that the release of such documents “could be significantly prejudicial to a legal case taken by the council” to recover debt owed by the companies and on this basis has refused to release the documents to me. I fail to see how this reasoning can be true.
Transeuropa Ferries and its associated/ linked companies were party to the debt deferral and repayment agreements with Thanet Council. They must therefore surely have their own copies of these agreements and copies of any e-mails, letters, notes of meetings or legal advice relating to these agreements. The court (s) to which the Council is making its submission to recover the £3.3 million debt, must likewise surely have copies of most of these documents as evidence of the legitimacy of the Council’s claim. There is therefore insufficient to reason to withhold these documents from me.My request to see documents relating to the monitoring of these agreements, the management and recovery of debt, e.g. invoices, letters, e-mails, reports and statements of claim etc., would also be in the possession of Transeuropa Ferries and its associated/ linked companies. These documents will also have been lodged with the court (s) to which the Council is making its submission to recover the debt. The release of these documents to me could not therefore prejudice any legal action the Council might be taking to recover the debt.
Other incidental documents such as internal risk assessments and reviews of the agreements and debt re-payment management; reports and briefing documents presented to the Council’s elected decision makers; notes of meetings with elected decision makers; notes of meeting between council officers and or external advisers; any notes, reports, letters or mails related to l legal or constitutional advice on the debt deferral and repayment agreements and debt recovery action, will have no major bearing upon e Council’s debt recovery actions in the court (s) and could not therefore prejudice this process.My strong suspicion is that the Council is using the defence of prejudice to avoid releasing the information to me purely because the documents, or lack of them, are likely to be extremely embarrassing to the council officers and senior elected politicians who sanctioned these agreements. Particularly because the payment deferral and repayment agreements were kept secret from the vast majority of councillors and the public for almost 3 years, and the £3.3million debt only became known about when the companies involved ceased trading and went into liquidation in April 2013. These actions are contrary to the principles of openness and transparency in local government.
Finally there is growing public concern about this secret agreement. The local press has carried several stories and published many letters about what many believe to be a scandal. Local TV and radio and internet blogsites have also taken an interest in this matter. I therefore believe that irrespective of the Council’s defence of prejudice, there is an overwhelming public interest justification to order the Council to let me see and have copies of the documents.