Monday, 9 May 2011

Carmarthenshire Council Refuse to Reveal Spending Details

I recently asked, through the Freedom of Information when Carmarthenshire Council would be publishing details of all spending over £500, in an accessible format, in line with English councils who have now nearly all complied. To date the Welsh Assembly hasn't issued similar guidance so Welsh Councils are not obliged to release the data.
Those that don't disclose the information continue to incur ongoing costs by having to answer individual requests for specific items of expenditure. So to publish, with little in the way of set up costs, would not only improve transparency and accountablility and perhaps make some a little more mindful of what is being spent, but reduce costs of FoI in the long run.

I followed up my initial request by asking for spending details, over two years, narrowed down to four areas of council expenditure; Chief Executive's Department (including Legal), Regeneration and Leisure (includes Planning), Democratic Services and the Media/Press Department. Unsurprisingly, considering the previous response, my request was refused. The predictable reason for refusal was the cost of the work involved which exceeded the limit. I would not wish to incur the council taxpayer great expenditure in answering my request and I can understand that, at the moment the information is not centrally held, in which case I will also assume it is not being particularly well monitored either. The Council gave me examples to back up their refusal ie 6,257 items over £500 in Regeneration and 900 items in the Chief Executive's department. This is a lot of cash. I was also informed that even if I narrowed my request to one department, the details, eg invoices etc would not be released.

I think, from now on at least, this information should be collated in a form which will be accessible, subject to data protection etc etc to the general public. If you give someone several millions of pounds, as the taxpayer directly or indirectly gives the Council, you should expect to see exactly how, where, when (and to whom), it was spent, after all if you give someone a couple of grand to build an extension you would expect to see, if you wished, an itemised bill. This is no different.
I am not suggesting that anything untoward has been going on..but I am sure the Council would prefer full and open disclosure of data rather than face a possible drip feed of scandalous excesses hitting the headlines in a manner akin to (even more from) the Wales Audit Office.

I now expect the Welsh Assembly to at least consider issuing guidance to Welsh Local Authorities recommending that such data is published from now on.

1st request;
2nd request;


Ty said...

How come Carmarthen County Council seems to think it's above the Law?

Only on this issue ofcourse

caebrwyn said...

As yet, the law does not insist the details are disclosed in this form, it will take a concerted campaign to force the hand of Welsh Local Authorities, otherwise they will be able to hide behind Freedom of Information exemptions for ever more.
Sadly though as far as planning, legal matters, freedom of information responses, accountability, etc etc are concerned, Carmarthenshire Council are not only above the law but make it up, to suit, as they go along.

Lliedi said...

For them to be able to tell you that there are “6,257 items over £500 in Regeneration and 900 items in the Chief Executive's department” it must mean that information is readily available in a database.

While it may be unreasonable to ask to see every invoice they could quite easily provide you with a spreadsheet detailing (for example) the department, date, description and cost.

There would be no vendor name, so data protection is not violated in any way there. What are they trying to hide? My guess is that they don’t want to show how much they have spent on legal advice, consultant fees, etc.

Anonymous said...

With anonymity and unaccountability being this council's priorities, they are a bit like the Masonic Order. Not so much a secret organisation, but an organisation of secrets. With the taxpayer footing the bill for this shower, it should be total accountability and no immumity for any officer or member who has deviated from their Code of Conduct.

Photon said...

An interesting post.

Whilst it's annoying, the council clearly isn't obliged to release as councils in England are. Similarly, it does look, for now at least, that it would be excessive expenditure to collate all that data requested under FoIA. So, in legal terms, they are doing nothing wrong.

But in transparency terms, they are getting things very wrong. Expenditure like this is recorded on computers. If councils recognise they need to be transparent and accountable, it really wouldn't take a good programmer long to put the lines of code in to allow a very simple, cheap print-out or online database to be available.

The difficulty that councils who refuse to voluntarily be more accountable to the public is that the public will tend to perceive them - rightly or wrongly - as evading that accountability. Inevitably, that kind of thing leads to accusations of cover-ups. They should wise-up and improve their game.