Saturday, 3 January 2015

Tales from the County Hall crypt - Freedom of Information ten years old

The Freedom of Information Act came into force ten years ago this month. In 2005 the public gained a new and crucial right to information which, nationally, has revealed a vast amount of data and specific information. To celebrate this milestone it's perhaps worth looking at a very small selection of the highs and lows of the use of the act here in good old Carmarthenshire.

The number of requests made to the council has roughly doubled from 449 in 2005 to 1028 in 2013 (we know this thanks to a FOI request).

There are criticisms of the Act in that it is costly to implement and is open to abuse from commercial 'fishing' to those 'wacky' requests about Zombie invasions. The former is par for the course and the latter is a very small minority, swiftly and inexpensively dealt with. Both are easily recognisable.
The cost is capped and a request can be refused if it entails an excessive amount of rummaging about.

It's a bit like the NHS; far from perfect for either the users of the service, or the practitioners but we can't imagine a world without it. It has undoubtedly helped to open up public services to greater scrutiny and accountability, it should now be extended to all providers of public services whether privately or publicly owned. And, whilst I'm mentioning it, to the royal family which currently has it's own royal veto exemption...

In ten years the internet has advanced to such a degree that the concept that disclosure under FOI is 'disclosure to the world', is exactly that. Sites such as What Do They Know have made requesting easier and puts the whole thread in the public domain.
Many councils catalogue all requests and responses on their websites in a 'disclosure log', even Pembrokeshire. Not Carmarthenshire yet though.

Here's a few examples of the world of FOI in Carms, some requests were made by me, some by others. One thing I've discovered is that it's not always the disclosure which is interesting but what is withheld and the reasons given for doing so.

A FOI request in April 2011 revealed that after the council held a public vote to name the new theatre in Llanelli, the one which was selected actually came second in the poll with 51 votes. The winner, with 88 was quietly ignored. There was a post on this blog about it...

A request for the register of councillors' interests, (which most authorities routinely publish online) was met with a flat refusal and entailed a visit to view the register under a very unwelcoming escort. One of the 38 recommendations of the WLGA report is that this should be published online.
I thank you.

There was another tortuous request for details of fees paid to the Returning Officer for the 2012 local election. Although the figure was supplied, £20,000 the council 'couldn't remember' when it was paid to Mr James. This was a little odd and it took further digging to reveal it had been paid well before the election, in a previous financial year and before the number of contested seats became known.

Requests I made for credit card spending details were disclosed, as were, eventually and reluctantly the register of senior officers' interests and hospitality. Requests for payments made to Scarlets Regional Ltd showed the council providing back door subsidies to the tune of £1000 per week.

In 2013 it was disclosed that the council had just two officers to deal with FOI requests and data protection issues. The same request revealed that the press office had at least seven employees, job descriptions included an ability to 'improve' the council's image.

Without FOI we wouldn't have known that almost 3000 employees in this Labour run council were, as of January 2014, paid below the Living Wage.

Another request, in 2012, revealed that the council paid Odeon Cinemas Ltd, worth about £2bn, a £20,000 contribution to a sound system for the new cinema in the council led Easgate development, Apparently it was given on the grounds that it would 'safeguard jobs'. It was at one of those 'Meryl's meetings' of course....

However, when it came to an 'exempt' report concerning 'the transfer of public toilets from county to town councils', mysteriously, they wouldn't budge and never have. Top secret.

Another curious matter was County Hall's bloody minded determination not to disclose correspondence between the council and the Towy Community Church over the £1.4m bowling alley project. It seemed to touch a nerve. Even I was surprised with the degree of venom towards me in their response to the Information Commissioner.

Oddly, a very similar request for correspondence leading to the deal between the council and the Scarlets to sell off land to Marston's was disclosed. I'm sure it was entirely co-incidental that at that time, the chief executive was on his gardening leave.

Another request queried the position of an employee, who, according to the council's Statement of Accounts was on a salary of over £150,000. Legislation requires that details of any posts over that salary band are published in the Accounts.

The response was that there had been an "error in the notes to the Statement of Accounts...We are therefore grateful that you have brought this to our attention via your request as this has enabled us to identify this error, which will be raised with our external auditors".
What would they do without Mrs Thompson eh?

More recently, Gloucestershire Police were not giving anything away about their investigation into Carmarthenshire Council, just in case there was more civil litigation....I've covered that here.

I would have to say that my own experience in Carmarthenshire is mixed. As a blogger, FOI requests are simply a way of obtaining further information for research, the same principle applies to journalists and not a day goes by without a news story in Wales based on FOI request. County Hall has a bit of a 'thing' about bloggers though...and inquisitive reporters as well for that matter.

It's part of life and demanding that reporters withdraw requests, or being defensive and preoccupied with 'image' is not the way forward and therein lies the way of duck houses...

The way forward is to routinely publish as much information as possible and to change the default setting to open, it will not necessarily reduce requests, but it will complement the system. Exemptions and public interest tests should be used consistently and fairly - for example, reasons for refusal shouldn't be changed at a different stage of a request.

Finally, responding to requests should not be seen as a burden on public bodies but part of their new found drive for transparency and public engagement. With the 'change in culture' apparently imminent in Carmarthenshire, fully embracing the spirit of FOI after ten long years can only help it reach its stated aim of being the 'most open council in Wales"


Cneifiwr said...

Interesting blog post. One reason why the number of requests is growing is that the council seems to be routinely treating any request for information as a request made under FOI - community councils asking for information about car parks and other matters, for example - simple requests which would have been dealt with before FOI. There is also a growing trend to form advisory panels/working groups of elected councillors which are not part of the list of committees under the constitution, and anyone wanting to read their meeting minutes is being told to make a request under FOI.

All of this inflates FOI numbers and slows down the release of information.

Anonymous said...

Suggest you might wish to look into the euphoric comments made by Meryl G and other Councillors concerning the proposed hotel development at Machynys, widely reported in the local press. The recipient company of the Planning Consent (Loughor Investments Ltd) appears, from the latest records, to be "dormant" ie is not or has not ever traded". It's address (via Google Streetview) is a modest semi in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. It is suspected that the company will be seeking gazillions of grant aid (Council/Welsh Government)......surely worth an FOI?