Wednesday 23 November 2011

'Mrs T request - Register of Members' Interests'

The correspondence continues with regards to my Freedom of Information requests. This one concerns my request for the Register of Members' Interests (including gifts and hospitality). It was refused on the basis that the information is available to view at County Hall, by prior appointment. I am sure they are correct in that, by law, they only have to provide the bare minimum of access. However, as I have said, neighbouring local authorities publish this information on their websites and it seems that yet again Carmarthenshire's attitude to transparency is at 'bare minimum', veering towards 'none existent', and at best distincly unhelpful. Not exactly in the spirit of the FoI Act. They do not seem to grasp that this is not about uncovering wrongdoing, it's about openness and 'putting your cards on the table', as it were.

Turning to the email recieved from Mr Colin Davies from 'Democratic Services'. It is in response to my proposal to personally collect the photocopied information from County Hall;

FW: REMINDER FW: Mrs T request - Register of Members' Interests
Tuesday, 22 November 2011, 11:25

Dear Mrs Thompson

Thank you for your E mail of 10 November last and I apologise for not being able to reply sooner.

You have already had a response from the Information & Data Protection Officer regarding your request for a copy of the register under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Register of Members’ Interests (including gifts and hospitality) is a statutory document and is available for inspection by members of the public at the County Hall in Carmarthen between the hours of 9.00a.m. and 4.00p.m. each weekday. The Council is not required to publish the register or to make paper copies available to the public, only to make it available at an office of the authority for inspection by members of the public at all reasonable hours.
If you wish to view the register during your next visit to County hall then I shall be glad if you could please let me know what time you would like to do this so that I can allocate members of staff to assist you. The register currently takes up 6 No. A4 ring binders and it would be helpful if you could indicate which members’ declarations you were particularly interested in, so that staff could extract the information for you and avoid the need to make the content of all 6 files available on the day. If you wish to see the whole register then of course this will be made available to you to view.

As referred to earlier the Council is not required to provide photocopies of the register and these will not be made for you.

Yours Sincerely,
Colin Davies
Rheolwr Gwasanaethau Democrataidd / Democratic Services Manager

(Note the large print in the last sentence, just so that 'Mrs T' gets the message)
Again, that 'not required' element comes into it - they don't publish, nor make copies - one can imagine someone sat in a dusty office scratching at a ledger with a quill. Perhaps I am imagining it but is there something of a personal and slightly sarcastic tone to this email from 'Democratic Services'? The email appears to exude barely surpressed irritation; I can view the Register during 'my next visit to County Hall' hmm. There will be 'members of staff' to assist me...will they be armed? Incidentally, much of the information released to me via the Data Protection Act concerned FoI requests where similar barely surpressed irritation is quite clear from internal emails. I am also beginning to notice, as I acquire other emails and documents from elsewhere, that bits and pieces had been quietly 'cut', not redacted, just 'gone' they were never there.... But that's DPA and another story.

Anyway, until this Council complies with it's own 'Core Policy' of transparency, joins modern society and maybe even publishes more information online, I imagine they are a little hard pressed to comply with requests so I replied to Mr Davies thus (and keeping with the blue theme);

To Mr C Davies, Democratic Services Manager;

Thank you for your response.

I fully understand your Statutory Duties and appreciate that under your present levels of transparency you have to consider not only the cost but also the staff time involved with complying with my request.
Without putting you office under undue pressure, I wonder if you would kindly compile a brief estimate of cost of allowing me to take photocopies myself;

1. The cost of the paper.
2. The cost of the ink.
3. Wear and tear (depreciation) and use (including electricity) of a photocopier to copy the material.
4. Office space for the time required.
5. Cost of staff to retrieve particular papers ( this will be unecessary as I will wish to view all the files, unless you believe I need to be be 'chaperoned').

I await your response. Should you agree and levy a charge, I shall then arrange a mutually convenient date and time to attend County Hall. Should you still not agree to photocopying, I shall still attend and I will, of course, wish to view all six files.
Please let me know your decision at your earliest convenience

Yours sincerely
Jacqui Thompson

I had an almost instant response (in larger letters, for emphasis, but still going with the blue theme);

Dear Mrs. Thompson,

Thank you for your E mail.
As referred to in my response to your original enquiry I am not able to provide you with photocopies of the register.
I shall be glad if you will please let me know when you intend to visit County hall to view the full register, so that I can make the necessary arrangements for staff and accommodation on the day

Yours sincerely
Colin Davies

So that's that then. I shall now try and gather a couple of willing helpers, make arrangements with 'Democratic Services' and take myself off, complete with notebook and pen and maybe even a camera, to County Hall again. I'll keep you posted.

My freedom of information requests, and the various responses and updates can be viewed here;


Pete Green said...

Laptop. Handheld scanner. Go.

Cneifiwr said...

Bloody brilliant. Even more determined than the other Mrs T.

Anonymous said...

The Council is not required to publish the register or to make paper copies available to the public...


nothing stopping them making a copy by request for research purposes rather than a statutory condition.

best watch crown copyright lol. do they still make hand held scanners? they won't let you plug that into their mains socket. not only the cost, but on safety.. people tripping up over the cable, hasn't been electrically tested etc.

if they di allow photocopys, usually there is a limit one can reproduce. something like two pages worth.. best take a pen and paper. but don't be suprised if they insist that to minimise wear, you have to be a minimum of one cubit away from said parchment. is it an a4 binder or big a4 binder? wouldnt it be quicker to video it? i suppose they could have archived these kind of things and put them onto microfilm and distribute them to libraries. saves people spending cash and causing co2 emissiions by traveling all the way to carmarthen

baarnett said...

Try saying you intend being armed with a camera phone, and asking them to confiorm they will not interfere with you "looking" at each page in turn.

(More the principle than the practicality - or to be honest, sufficient resolution to read afterwards.)

Photon said...

The point here is that the council is not being very cooperative. For example, why is providing copies of selected members' interests from the six files less effort than dumping the files on the front desk for you? Clearly, it is more effort, not less.

They would appear to have fee legs to stand on if you insist on making your own photographic copy with a camera or maybe a laptop and scanner. Pen and paper, of course, presents no difficulty.

What they are doing is presenting an attitude to the outside world that leads us all to think: the council is at best being unnecessarily hard-headed, or at worst, needlessly obstructive.

The barely-contained irritation is par for the course for anyone who's ever written more than one letter to a council department. It's a clear signature of people who see themselves within, and the public without. Therein lies the source of so many local authority problems...