Why are councils spinning against freedom of information?

Written by Mike on . Posted in Articles, Free expression

The Local Government Association has gone into overdrive to question the Freedom of Information Act

During the slow news days of Christmas, spinners at the Local Government Association sent out a press release: “Councils quizzed on Santa, Napoleon and aliens in 2011′s most wacky FOIs.” With opportune timing, the story appeared in most national newspapers.

Perhaps just a bit of fun, it gave the impression that local authorities are being bombarded by frivolous or vexatious requests, with the Freedom of Information Act costing local authorities £31.7m a year. No matter that, according to the same evidence base used by the LGA, of 693,650 requests made to local government 98.4% were deemed straightforward by officers and not subject to internal review to weed out vexatious requests.

It’s striking that the LGA decided not to highlight how freedom of information has held town halls to account by exposing waste and maladministration. The Barnet bloggers showed how the council used an unlicensed security firm to covertly film residents. Perry Austin-Clarke, editor of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, used FOI to discover the council was spending £500,000 on mobile phones bills. It subsequently fell to £100,000.

A series of FOI requests by the Daily Telegraph exposed how local authorities spent £2m on hotel bills over just 3 years – including stays at the Four Seasons in New York, the Pan Pacific in Singapore, and the Athens Hilton. The beauty of FOI is that it gives the public the same powers of inquiry as elected councillors.

Scrutiny can now be as powerful outside the town hall as inside.

This attention is not always appreciated by officers and members. Local government receives more FOI requests than any other part of government – because the services provided are the ones closest to the general public. In the Ministry of Justice’s memorandum to the justice select committee inquiry into the act, it argued: “At a time when all public authorities are required to do more with less, this consideration of the financial impact of FOIA on public authorities is pertinent.”

In Birmingham city council’s response to the committee, it argues that FOI costs the local authority £800,000. The figure is based on £25 an hour to locate, retrieve and review the information then (for no apparent reason) doubled the figure for staff costs. Until recently Birmingham was spending £10,000,000 a year on pushing its agenda through in-house publicity and communications.

The council argues that to reduce the cost of FOI, requests should be charged at £25 to deter multiple requests. Yet it’s multiple requests that allow groups such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance to make comparisons between local authorities – and find that councils such as Birmingham have the highest spending on publicity.

As John O’Connell, research director at the Taxpayers’ Alliance told me: “The Freedom of Information Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted by the last government. FOI helped shift the power back to those who pay, and away from those who spend. It would be wrong to impose limits or caps on how much information taxpayers can request, and if public bodies wish to cut down on the work they do responding to FOI requests then they should simply publish more information proactively.”

Cost is a poor argument. While the LGA was happy to isolate the high costs of FOI, it pales into insignificance against the £427m a year claimed in mileage allowances for councillors and staff in 2009-10. The scrutiny that FOI brings to local government drives efficiencies.

It is certainly true that the number of FOI requests to local authorities has risen as people have become aware of their rights. Yet, research from University College London suggests that the cost of processing individual FOIs has also fallen by over half from £410 per request in 2005 to just £160 in 2010. FOI isn’t just the preserve of journalists or political parties: 52% of requests are from individual citizens, with 5% from businesses, journalists and political parties.

A concerted effort is underway to undermine the scope of FOI. It’s possible that requests could be charged in the future, severely hindering comparative investigative journalism. Another proposal is to lower the cost limit of £600 per request for central government departments and £450 for all other public authorities. This will only affect a tiny minority of FOI requests – but often the more pertinent.

A huge number of organisations (including Index on Censorship) are lining up to defend freedom of information. We’re hoping the justice select committee makes clear that the act is here to stay. But some policy makers have a desire to turn back the clock.

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, regrets the introduction of freedom of information. “In retrospect, this was a mistake, not because secrecy is a virtue, but because policy making, like producing sausages, is not something that should be carried out in public,” he has said.

It’s a politics-first approach; hold debates behind closed doors so political groups can present a united front. In local government, this ignores the possibilities that opening up decision making to the public offers.

Local government must do more with less. In these circumstances opening up the decision-making process can only be a good thing. It’s a pity that the LGA is framing the debate in such a misleading way.

This article was originally published in the Guardian on 16 March.

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