Manchester City Council has denied letting Manchester City Football Club dictate how and when it responds to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about their joint property ventures.
In August 2013, Human Rights Watch’s Nick McGeehan filed an FOI request with the council asking for information about its commercial relationship with the Abu Dhabi-owned Premier League club.
According to a report in Der Spiegel this week, the request was passed to City director Simon Pearce and he told fellow club bosses that releasing the information was unlikely to lead to public criticism, but McGeehan should be made to wait for his response.
Citing an email obtained from whistle-blowing platform Football Leaks, Der Spiegel claims Pearce wrote: “I want to disrupt any momentum.”
Despite City’s apparent approval for the release of the information requested, McGeehan received no response from the council.
Two years later, amid growing concerns about Middle East investment in various spheres of the UK economy, the Guardian’s attempts to learn more about the £1billion property deal the council struck with City’s parent company Abu Dhabi United Group in 2014 were also rejected.
City’s links with the council are under scrutiny again thanks to Der Spiegel’s week-long investigation into the club’s finances.
The magazine has claimed the Premier League champions have tried to circumvent European football’s Financial Fair Play rules by inflating sponsorship deals with related parties in Abu Dhabi and used various schemes to artificially reduce their costs.
One such deal, Der Spiegel claims, was the £400million, 10-year shirt and stadium-naming rights agreement City reached with Etihad Airways in 2011. That was enabled by a £2million-a-year deal with the council for the right to sell the naming rights to the publicly-owned stadium.
Last year, Sir Howard Bernstein, who ran the council between 1998 and 2017, was appointed as the City Football Group’s strategic development adviser.
Speaking to Press Association Sport, McGeehan, an expert on workers’ rights in the Middle East, said: “What bothers me about the way my FOI request was handled is the implication that Pearce and Manchester City appeared to have authority to dictate the terms of any release to the council.
“I’m also bothered by the fact no information was released to me despite Pearce apparently saying he didn’t think there would be any problem. If that’s the case, why did they not release it, and why was a subsequent request from the Guardian in 2015 refused on the basis of ‘prejudice to commercial interests’?”
Introduced in 2000, the Freedom of Information Act gives members of the public the right to ask government departments, local authorities and so on about their activities, particularly on how they spend public money. As the government white paper that first proposed FOIs put it: “Openness is fundamental to the political health of a modern state.”
Asked by the Press Association if City has the right to veto FOI requests that relate to them, a council spokesperson said: “The council has a history of working closely with Manchester City Football Club and the partnership has seen the wide-scale investment in east Manchester.
“However, the club do not influence how FOIs sent to Manchester City Council are responded to. On this occasion, the FOI related to the Etihad Campus, which was part of a joint development agreement between the city and the club.”
The spokesperson did not answer why McGeehan failed to receive a response or the Guardian’s FOI requests were rejected.
How FOIs are dealt with is overseen by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), an independent body set up to uphold information rights in the public interest.
An ICO spokesperson told the Press Association that it is “considered best practice for public authorities to keep contracted parties informed of FOI requests” but the responsibility to respond still lies with the public authority.
And the spokesperson also said the ICO wants to broaden the scope of the act to force public authorities to reveal more about their links with third parties.
“The ICO is currently making a case to extend the reach for Freedom of Information law to include outsourced services to private contractors that may have used public money.”
City, who host Manchester United on Sunday, declined to comment on the FOIs or their links with the council but have described the Der Spiegel stories as a “clear and organised” attempt to damage the club’s reputation with “purportedly hacked or stolen material”.
More from Planet Sport:
Top 10: Things that happened on the ATP Tour since Novak Djokovic last finished year as No 1 (Tennis365)
Judy Murray on why she thinks more female role models need to jump into the world of tennis coaching (Female First)