Why is council stonewalling over reports into food hygiene ratings for St Albans and Harpenden restaurants and takeaways?

Food Hygiene Rating

Food Hygiene Rating - Credit: Archant

Restaurants and takeaways blasted with poor food hygiene ratings have been left floundering after the district council refused to reveal the reasons behind their negative scores.

St Albans council is a member of the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) and its safety officers regularly inspect restaurants, takeaways, pubs, schools, hospitals, cafes and other food outlets in the district, checking how food is handled, the condition of the building and the general management of the business.

They award a hygiene rating that ranges from a zero, signifying “urgent improvement required”, to the top mark of five, an indication of “very good” standards.

More than 600 premises in the district have been rated with the vast majority being awarded three stars – “generally satisfactory” – or above. Four stars signify “good”.

However, a number of restaurants, pubs and takeaways have been rated at two, “improvement necessary”, one, “major improvement necessary”, or even zero.

The zero-rated establishments were A&A Peri Peri in London Road, Murgano’s in Victoria Street, Bengal Spice in St Brelades Place, Sea Salt in Redbourn, Harpers Kebab in Russet Drive, Harpenden Coffee Shop, Paya and Billy’s Bar and Restaurant in Harpenden.

But unlike some other local authorities - for example Norwich City Council - which publish the full inspectors’ reports explaining why the rating was awarded, St Albans council is keeping its findings a closely guarded secret.

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Determined to find out why certain establishments had scored poorly, the Herts Advertiser made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request asking to see the full reports.

But SADC has refused to release this information in case it forms part of future investigations, criminal or otherwise, and claimed it was in the public interest to withhold the reports.

Cllr Daniel Chichester-Miles, district council portfolio holder for environment, said: “Norwich is the exception rather than the rule, and the majority of councils do not release the full reports immediately, although they may be made available after a period of time.

“We want to work closely with those poorly-rated establishments to help them improve and then get them retested, and if we decide to prosecute then we don’t want documents that are potentially subjudice to be in the public domain.”

Of the zero-rated establishments highlighted in the latest round of reports, Sea Salt currently faces enforcement action, with an Improvement Notice and a Prohibition Notice served under the Health & Safety At Work Act. Hygiene Improvement Notices are also due to be served. A follow-up visit is due at A&A Peri Peri soon, and enforcement action is currently being taken at Harpenden Coffee Shop, where Hygiene Improvement Notices have been served and another visit is imminent.

The council said a zero-rating required it to allow time for the businesses to improve, and its enforcement policy was a staged approach with prosecution as a last resort.