Several local authorities have offered their views on freedom of information for the Government’s review. I’m afraid that none of the councils in question want more freedom of information, or even the existing freedom to be maintained. They all want a move into the dark. Of course – in the spirit of Sir Humphrey Appleby – they are all for the idea of openness in principle. But when it comes to the practicalities, they all seem to think that further restrictions would be prudent.
Chelmsford City Council laments:
“In our view, there are too many requests for information which are fishing for information with the hope that the requester will capture an interesting bit of information.Occasionally these requests may end up with an interesting bit of information which the public should know, however these occasions tend to be rare and it can be argued that the resources put in to responding to these requests cannot be justified with the end result.”
Cumbria County Council says:
“Council’s should also be enabled to refuse media requests that could be considered as ‘lazy journalism’ that will clearly not inform genuine investigative journalism or that will not result in ‘news’ that is not in the public interest.”
Kent County Council bureaucrats agree:
“Journalists and the Media also use the Act as a “fishing expedition” for potential stories, in effect utilising valuable council resources to do their research for them.
Disappointingly, the information provided to the Media is then often misrepresented or taken out of context to “sensationalise” and sell news.”
Richmond-upon-Thames Council concludes:
“Although we believe it will be difficult to administer in practice we do feel there need to be some measures to address the number of requests made by journalists and companies in lieu of undertaking their own research, on a fishing exercise or trying to gain a commercial advantage. In essence local Council Taxpayers are funding journalists and private companies to do their jobs.”
Walsall Council says:
“Controls should be targeted to the size of requests and requests that are…often a range of questions posed simply on a fishing expedition looking for a story. “
As a fisherman I look at the matter rather differently. I’ve asked about: council asset registers, works of arts kept in storage away from view, free office space given to trade union officials, and many other things. I’ve seen the fish wriggling on the hook as I try to get at the truth.
Southwark Council is worried about the duplication between queries to their Press Office followed by the same query via an FOI request:
“Use by the media of the FOI regime is alongside their use of other contacts and means of obtaining information from councils. This can lead to inefficient administration of requests with the potential for duplication of processing…..It is suggested that consideration be given to removing both media/journalists’ requests and those received from commercial entities from the FOI regime, to enable public bodies to deal with such requests more efficiently and with a greater regard to available resources.”
The “efficient” approach being that their Press Office says “no comment” and that ends the matter – rather than journalists having a pesky back-up mechanism for discovering what the Council is up to.
There are all sorts of bright ideas for preventing municipal failings being disclosed to the public. Telford and Wrekin Council suggest that as “much of FOI is misused…the burden would be reduced if a payment was required when an FOI is submitted”. Newcastle City Council says that: “Whilst Newcastle City Council (NCC) accepts the principles of the FOI Act it is frequently misused and a tightening of the rules around requests should be implemented” with “greater geographical restriction on FOI requests.”
North Yorkshire Council makes the ingenious suggestion that the more consideration goes into repressing the request, the easier it should be to tot up the cost of compliance as excessive:
“Currently the fees regulation excludes time spent on reviewing information, considering exemptions, consulting with third parties and making redactions. These activities can need very significant amounts of time, even when (say) an automated search has retrieved information in a matter of minutes.”
Actually often councils make very heavy weather of answering questions. They put great effort into concealment – struggling to find an excuse to refuse to answer. Also into spin – asking press officers to help with drafting responses.
Then as a self-fufilling prophecy these councils make the (thoroughly dishonest) excuse of cost.
For instance Manchester City Council says:
“Prioritising dealing with FOI requests is challenging when balanced against the need to deliver arguably more important front line council services such as social care.”
That mentality would seem to be based on the notion that local authorities operate perfectly. That any request for information can only be a distraction. That such a challenge could not possibly result in improvement since efficiency is already at optimum level – with the tiresome exception of resources devoted to FOI requests. But the truth is rather more contrite. The real reason that council leaders and chief executives despise council taxpayers knowing what they are doing is to avoid their mistakes, negligence and extravagance falling into the public domain.
Liverpool City Council want to make it easy to deny an FOI request without allowing a pesky applicant to mount an “internal review”:
“It is our position that our approach to an FOI request is robust and thorough from the outset, and that the legislation is applied by trained experienced staff so that an Internal Review is unlikely to reach a different conclusion.”
Perhaps an internal review is a bit of a waste of time in their case. Here is what the TaxPayers’ Alliance had to say in their submission:
“An FOI request sent to Liverpool City Council last year asking how many employees received remuneration in excess of £100,000 in a financial year ended up with a complaint being made to the ICO. The senior information officer repeatedly provided incorrect responses, claiming that the information was publicly available. Despite pointing out that this was not the case multiple times, via phone and email, a complaint was lodged with the ICO after the failure of an internal review. The ICO contacted the council who subsequently revised their response. The process took three–and–a–half months and required 27 emails.”
Apart from the media struggling to obtain information there are also some heroic private businesses baffled by tendering arrangements who pursue the matter. That is good news for Council Taxpayers anxious to achieve best value. But it is a most vulgar procedure so far as the bureaucrats are concerned. For instance South Norfolk Council complain:
“Often after providing the information, these very same organisations then try to sell their products and services back to the Council.”
Yet as WhatDoTheyKnow.com argue in their submission:
“Use of Freedom of Information by commercial organisations is sometimes criticised. We at WhatDoTheyKnow.com are happy for our service, and Freedom of Information rights, to be used by those pursuing a commercial interest. It is good for both the public sector and commercial organisations if businesses can, for example, find out about services which the public sector needs and offer to provide them in better and cheaper ways.
“Proactive publication of public sector contracts would satisfy many of the requests from commercial organisations.”
Rather than softened, the requirements should be toughened. The TaxPayers’ Alliance said:
“As for enforcement more generally, we believe that public sector staff are either unaware or not fully appreciative of the fact that they are breaking the law when they respond late. For example, a response to a simple request sent to TfL on 17th October 2014 was received on 13th July 2015. The penalties for breaches should be more stringent, with the penalties handed directly to the ICO, which the ICO can use to resource their work. It may also be worth considering making individuals personally responsible for breaches. This would ensure a higher standard of responses and that processes are adhered to (and improved.”
“If public bodies believe that the burdens are too big, quite often that is a function of their own inefficiency. A request to Cornwall Council asking how much had been
paid to councillors in the last three financial years was rejected on cost grounds. The FOI officer stated that gathering the information would take 37 hours.”
It is not just the councils quoted above. The Local Government Association – which includes an overwhelming majority of councils in England objected that:
“Requestors are effectively using the FOI route as a short cut to undertaking proper research.”
The logic was confused. They added that requests were “often for information that is already published on council websites”.
Hampshire County Council echoed this point:
“We have seen increasing numbers and complexity of requests, whilst having to reduce the resources available to respond to them. We have managed this through more efficient processes, and publishing more information routinely (e.g. senior staff salaries and spend data).”
Fine and dandy. But if it is just a matter of emailing a link on the website to a dozy journalist who couldn’t find it then what is the great burden?
It is no good pretending we are all in favour of transparency. The bureaucrats are undertaking a big lobbying effort for greater concealment.
Where should local councillors be in all this? How many are aware of the attack on transparency that has been made in our name? The points made by the Centre for Public Scrutiny should give pause to those (perhaps those who happen to be in power) from siding with their chief executives against their local residents:
“Some elected councillors have used the Act to get hold of information about their own councils. Although this has not been widespread it does speak to a wider cultural issue in the sector. In our evidence to the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into FOI in 2012, we highlighted experiences in two councils where councillors had been compelled to use the Act to access data held by the authorities of which they were members.
“Since this date, the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 have given councillors enhanced information rights, but the availability to councillors of information remains a live issue in which the presence of the Act, setting the cultural tone and laying out a range of expectations on information governance, is central. Information access and provision by councillors was central to the scandals around patient safety at Stafford Hospital and child sexual exploitation in Rotherham.
“We know that councillors continue to experience difficulty accessing information held by their own authority; changes to the FOI regime would send a negative message about the importance of openness and transparency.”
Indeed. In my local council of Hammersmith and Fulham I have found the “member enquiries” service has become politicised. I recently asked about spending on agency workers and was told that while the facts were available I would not been given them until “clearance” was obtained from a Labour councillor. (When I challenged this I got the answer but the initial response was still disturbing.) Queries are supposed to be answered within eight working days but this is routinely missed.
Freedom of Information is something that all local councillors should champion. It is fantastic tool for a thriving local democracy, well run services, and the best possible value for money. It is a powerful weapon against corruption. Local authorities and the Local Government Association have effectively declared war on it. Not in my name.