Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance finds a mixed picture in Town Halls when it comes to embracing Freedom of Information.
Amid the grim grind of recession, abolition of individual freedom, invasion of privacy and erosion of democracy, there has been one bit of good political news over the last few years: Freedom of Information.
If there is one thing the current Government deserve to be remembered for warmly, it is the Freedom of Information Act. It gave new power to individuals in their interactions with the state, it invigorated the media to perform its scrutinising role, and it has exposed countless items of wasteful spending and scandalous bad government.
Happily, the FoI Act has proved to be only the first step in a much more penetrating movement towards full public sector transparency. Windsor & Maidenhead Council have now published every item of spending
over £500, Boris Johnson has launched the London DataStore to allow anyone to use and study public statistics, the Government have launched Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s Data.gov.uk, senior public sector salaries are now to be released in full, and George Osborne has promised Google Government – the publication of all Government spending over £25,000.
However, it seems that despite the popularity and benefits of transparency, its future is not guaranteed. There is still a bizarre diaspora in local and national government who oppose it, unified more by their dislike of public scrutiny than by any positive vision.
While many councils have embraced openness, many have obstructed and delayed FoI requests, often on flimsy grounds and in breach of the law. Some have even publicly attacked the idea of transparency and accountability.
Most recently, Norfolk County Council brazenly published a list of what they called the “worst offenders” – ie those who dared to ask the most FoI requests. Conservative Councillor Cliff Jordan who led the attack, criticised those who made use of the act as being people who “do not have any accountability” and were diverting the council from providing public services.
Cllr Jordan is apparently one of those ivory tower politicians who would dearly love to govern without the pesky interference of the people. Somewhat embarrassingly for the Conservative administration in Norfolk, it turned out that the most requests were in fact filed by the Conservative Party – a total of 55, nine times more than the number submitted by the TPA.
Sadly the secretive Councillors of Norfolk are not alone.
Kent County Council famously refused to publish the salary of their (now outgoing) Chief Executive Peter Gilroy purely on the grounds that when he had previously been shown in TPA research to be England’s best-paid council employee, someone had been rude to him in a restaurant. Their attempts at secrecy backfired, and Mr Gilroy found himself on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast Show trying to explain why taxpayers had no right to know how much of their money he received.
There are, of course, some costs to FoI. The Act caps the cost of any individual request at £450, after which point the person filing the request has to pay if they want to get the information. In practice, there are very few requests that cost anywhere near that much, and most of those are unusual or poorly thought-out queries.
The vast majority of TPA requests, for example, are carefully targeted to obtain data that is cheaply and easily available, as it already exists in the internal accounts or files of the organisation in question. This is partly to keep down the cost of our requests, but also to ensure that any data we receive is comparable across different organisations.
For those concerned that requests are too costly, the best alternative would be to publish all the information in full and up front. It is perfectly possible for all the metrics, statistics and spreadsheets compiled inside public sector organisations to be published automatically.
The fact that some politicians view even that idea as unacceptable, reveals that they don’t really care about the cost, and in fact hanker after the comfort of an opaque and obstructive state. Last week, MSP – and joint leader of the Scottish Greens – Patrick Harvie laid into the Conservative plans for Google Government.
The idea of publishing all public spending over £25,000, he said, was “worrying” and would “turn the Scottish Government into nothing less than the research arm of the Taxpayers’ Alliance”.
Heaven help us! Having painted this horrific, dystopian image of the future, he then revealed his true concern:
“Day in and day out we’ll see story after story turning any element of public spending into a matter of shame.”
Ah – so the real problem for Mr Harvie is that things the public might dislike would be exposed. As with so many people who aspire to control the money and the lives of others, he fears the possibility of having to answer properly to the people.
His justification for this distrust of the public is revealing, too:
“I’m sure you can even pick the targets too – single parents, sex education, asylum seekers, young offenders…”
Lacking a decent logical justification for his opposition to transparency or accountability, he goes straight for smear tactics. It appears Mr Harvie thinks the public and the media are too xenophobic (“asylum seekers”), narrow-minded (“sex education”) and downright heartless (“single parents”) to be allowed a say on how their money is spent or how their services are run.
Despite all the progress that has been made, and the liberation wrought by the information revolution, transparency is still not safe. While no taxpayer would ever throw away the right to know what is done in their name and with their money, there remains a rump of arrogant politicians who would like nothing more.