Cllr Susan Hall is the Leader of the Conservative Group, Harrow Council. Cllr Barry Macleod-Cullinane is the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group.
We were most interested to read the recent Conservative Home piece which cited various councils hoping for a watering-down of the Freedom of Information Act. Indeed, similar views have also been expressed by the Local Government Association and other public sector organisations. As opposition councillors in Harrow we find this a most alarming development.
A particular desire of the LGA and some of the councils offering comments is the ability to clamp down on what they class as ‘vexatious’ requests, or ‘fishing’ by journalists.
In the case of the latter, though it is, of course, possible for any information obtained by journalists to be taken out of context, surely that should serve as an incentive to councils to make more information available as a matter of course – along with other information which may provide said context?
Redefining what constitutes a ‘vexatious’ request is a slippery slope, and could in our view mean a refusal to heed requests that are merely unwelcome or inconvenient. Also, as genuinely vexatious requests can already be dismissed without spending time and money on an investigation, can any alterations to the status quo be satisfactorily justified? Indeed, even under the existing rules councils are finding ways to refuse to comply with requests.
Take two examples from Harrow; a local news blog (iHarrow) had a record of breaking various stories of genuine public interest, often through the use of FoI requests. One such story involved public money being spent by council staff on dinner jacket rentals for awards ceremonies – a perfect example of the information itself being embarrassing, rather than being made as such by removing the context.
The site also, thanks to detailed analysis of email records and IP addresses, produced key evidence which led to a councillor being found to have brought his position into disrepute. iHarrow has since been told all its requests will be treated as vexatious and not complied with.
Incredibly, we’ve been forced into making FOI requests as a last resort for basic information – and even then we’ve been unsuccessful. For example, when the Leader of the Council and the Chief Executive refused to tell us who attended meetings discussing the legal advice received in relation to a Judicial Review against the Council over service cuts, we submitted a formal request. We didn’t ask for the advice itself, understanding the importance of legal confidentiality – just information which would tell us which councillors went to the meetings where this advice was discussed.
Our curiosity stemmed from the fact that the Cabinet member and Cabinet assistant for the relevant service area were also trustees of the legal advice service bringing the Review – the latter additionally serving as its director – so there was clearly enormous potential for conflicts of interest. To our amazement this most mundane of requests was rejected and is currently with the Information Commissioner.
The overriding feature of the Freedom of Information Act is a presumption that information should be published. Changing the current arrangements would put this presumption at risk, and would almost certainly increase the ability of councils and public bodies to keep information secret because it’s damaging or embarrassing, rather than because it’s justifiably confidential. If this were to happen, the biggest losers of all would be local taxpayers – who councillors and officers alike are supposed to serve.