Robert Oxley is Campaign Director at the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
What have credit-card fraud at an arts quango, jazz lessons for NHS bureaucrats and the cost of twelve rather expensive fig trees adorning Parliament got in common?
The answer is that they were all exposed by Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted by the TaxPayers’ Alliance. But in a post for ConservativeHome this morning, Richard Benyon MP has decried the tool that was used to expose these items of waste. He’s worried about troublesome unions using the FOI Act, the burden requests under it place on local government and wants to ensure that the legislation is doing what it was designed to do (or at least what he thinks it was designed to do).
It’s not the first time I’ve encountered a politician decrying the use of FOI – after all even Tony Blair went on to regret his introduction of the Act. But FOIs are an incredibly important way of scrutinising power and ensuring how taxpayers’ money is spent is held to account. Sadly, it is far too common for a politician or bureaucrat to attack the method by which information was gathered rather than deal with actual subject matter. And invariably any complaint about information published under FOI is always followed up by spurious suggestions that the Act is placing too heavy a burden on those administering it.
I have some sympathy with Richard about the write up he received regarding his position as landlord of social tenants. Some of the comments in that article were clearly absurd and demonstrated zero understanding of the housing challenges faced by the UK. But perceiving the article to be unfair does not change the fact that Richard is a recipient of taxpayers’ money via housing benefit paid in rent to him. And given that he is receiving taxpayers’ money, should the public not be allowed to scrutinise how much of their money goes to him or other large-scale landlords?
Mr Benyon is clearly unhappy about the GMB union’s use of the FOI Act for its political campaigning, but don’t forget we know how much taxpayers’ money that very union receives because of the FOI Act. The extent of the scandalous taxpayer subsidy to GMB and other trade unions was exposed thanks to research by the TPA into so called “facility time” – the arrangement where public sector employees are given time of to undertake “union duties”.
Since successive TPA reports into trade union funding, this subsidy has been cut by Mr Benyon’s colleagues in government. Those reports were only possible thanks to the largest ever FOI campaign undertaken by ourselves and it’s a testament to how FOI can provide the evidence needed to change policy for the good.
But FOI also has its very own version of Godwin’s law. That is that the longer anyone discusses FOI the more likely someone else is to claim that the FOI Act has resulted in an expensive legion of public sector employees whose sole job is to respond to the daily requests about red pen use or zombie emergency plans. It’s worth noting a couple of points about this complaint. Firstly the cost of responding to FOI requests is nearly always vastly over estimated. Secondly much of the information requested should be by default available to the taxpaying public, and thirdly requests often expose waste that far outweighing the costs of dealing with the occasional flippant request.
Local government pay is perfect example of all of these. To produce our Town Hall Rich List the TPA used to have to FOI every local authority for information about senior official’s pay and pensions. That information should have been – and now is – published automatically by local government as the act originally envisaged for most government information. Now that information is readily available and reported, the culture of high pay is being curtailed at councils and absurd payoffs are being scrutinised in far greater detail. All of this leads to a better deal for taxpayers but started off with a simple FOI.
Freedom of Information keeps those who spend our money honest. That’s why whether every time there’s an MP, trade union, council or civil servant unhappy with a specific FOI there is always one clear winner from the request: taxpayers. With greater transparency and scrutiny comes greater accountability. That means less waste, better public services and hopefully lower tax bills. Richard Benyon MP might be unhappy with his treatment using information garnered via FOI but the Act is too important to be undermined. It must be defended vigorously from politicians of all parties who too easily forget whose money they’re actually spending.