Richard Benyon is a former Environment Minister and is MP for Newbury
A week ago this morning, I was given a two page going-over by the Daily Mirror – which claimed that I was “raking in £625,000 a year from his hard-up tenants’ housing benefit”. In other words, it produced some half-fictions wrapped up in a load of 1970s class warfare.
As it happens, their figures were wrong. But more importantly, the assumption behind their story was bizarre – namely, that private landlords should not be renting houses to people claiming housing benefit because it means public money ends up in private pockets.
This shows no understanding of how housing benefit actually works. The reforms introduced under Labour in 2008 mean that landlords do not know which of their tenants are in receipt of the benefit. You might as well argue that it is wrong for people on benefits to pay for what they purchase in a supermarket.
Behind this attack was the GMB Union, acting as a fig leaf for the Labour Party. It has gone on a fishing trip around local authorities, using the Freedom of Information Act to harvest data with which to knock the Government in general and Conservatives in particular.
In a comment piece in the Daily Mirror (below a picture of me looking as posh as possible), Paul Kenny, the Union’s General Secretary, made the weird claim that housing benefit should not be spent on private sector rents, but should be spent on new affordable homes instead. What such change would means for people on low incomes who depend on housing benefits is not made clear. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good rant?
This prompted me to ask how many FOI requests my local authority is getting and what the burden this activity is on council resources. The staggering answer is that a small unitary authority like West Berkshire Council receives around four or five FOI requests a day.
This has risen exponentially. Last year, they received over a thousand requests, a rise of 42 per cent in just one year. The Council leader, Gordon Lundie, has very real concerns about the burden this is placing on council finances. As well as raking up political ammunition the Act is used – some might say abused – for some very strange requests.
A reporter from a local paper in Brighton asked a series of questions about how West Berkshire Council deals with dead pets. He demands exhaustive details of how the authority processes the corpses of any cats or dogs it might come across.
Another perhaps more serious FOI request asked a great many questions on the ethnic profile of those on the housing waiting list. Council officials put a huge number of man-hours into complying with the demands of one person many miles away who, for all we know, will make no use of the data whatsoever.
It is interesting that the GMB Union is doing nationwide trawls of local authorities for nuggets that they can use to help the Labour Party. This could be a clever way of avoiding direct funding of the Party, and might be a means of Ed Miliband promising to reform his Party’s Union links in public, but still using union and its resouces below the parapet.
So during the coming months we should be aware of the Unions using the FOI Act for the Labour Party’s purposes. And the long run, we need to make sure that the Act is there for what it is designed to do. I would like to know the cost to Government, its agencies and local authorities of compliance with the Act. Perhaps I should put in an FOI request.