Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Little Boxes

I don't seem to be getting very far with my request to Carmarthenshire Council for 'Details of officers expenses' (thirteen senior officers). I originally made the request last December, the response, (a refusal under costs grounds) was late and the information seemed to be was scattered around County Hall, with some of it 'in boxes' and some of it on an internal online data base. On February the 12th I asked for an internal review.
With alarming speed the review was completed 10 days later with a fiery response from the Acting Head of Law;

" detailed review of your request is set out below. However I would first like to correct the inaccuracies contained within your email. It is wrong to suggest that the Authority does not know where the expenses claims are kept or that they are scattered around County Hall. Mr Tillman [FoI officer] did not say either of these things. The expenses claims are stored in a known location, in accordance with the system clearly set out in Mr Tillman's letter"

Well, that told me didn't it?
The full thread of this request can be seen here. it was on the WhatDoTheyKnowSite, there was no seperate 'letter' or email.

I leave you to judge for yourself whether Carmarthenshire Council would be better served by using a simple, uniform filing system, and just how 'clearly' the system was 'set out' in Mr Tillman's response as below;

"Your request covers a five year period and there are thirteen officers listed in your request. Of these, twelve officers have made expenses claims, which are normally submitted monthly. Twelve of the officers included in your request have also made use of an electronic claim form, using the Council's Resourcelink system. This differs for each officer - some first made use of this in 2009, others in 2010 or 2011. however, the majority of the claims submitted in the period covered by your request are recorded manually on paper claim forms. Once processed, these claim forms are archived in batches of 50 for each month in employee number order, but not by order of department. Around 3 to 5 batches are then placed in boxes which specify only the month and year of the claims. There are usually six boxes per month. Extracting all of the forms submitted by these officers for the entire period covered by your request would therefore entail manually retrieving these claim form batches and extracting the relevant information from them. It is difficult to provide a precise estimate as to how long this would take, however, we have undertaken a sampling exercise [a time and motion study?] and found that it took three minutes to locate and retrieve the June 2009 claim form for one of the thirteen officers. A further 2 to 5 minutes would then be spent on extracting the information from each form, depending on how many items have been claimed for. Based on this, it would take at least 60 hours to complete this work and comply fully with your request"

Phew, I'm exhausted at the thought! There must be so many claims!  Apparently they are happy to provide me with the information on the 'Resourcelink' system. Looks like I'll have to settle for that or be accused of costing the authority a fortune.

I can see why it took Heather Brooke so long to extract the MPs expenses.

Part of my request was for the fees and expenses for the Returning Officer, I would have thought this was easier to locate but so far they have quietly ignored that bit. I then looked at other requests, to other councils for the same information. It turns out that Returning Officers do not come under the control of the council; their role is in a 'personal capacity' under the Representation of the People Act and no one 'appointed' under this Act is subject to FoI. However, most councils are perfectly happy to disclose the details. It is odd that Carmarthenshire Council haven't mentioned this. Or that the maximum limits or 'charges', set by law can be seen here. Maybe I shall ask again about this in my 'refocussed' request.

I did not intend to 'shoot the messenger' and believe Mr Tillman has, over the years, answered my requests as best he can, given the information provided to him. It is the system which is clearly at fault and a reluctance from some, for whatever reason, to provide me, and the rest of us, with the information.

Yet again transparency in Carmarthenshire has the consistency of mud. This is important information, why isn't itavailable at the touch of a button? or even a mouse...

Update 6th April 2012 - Little boxes (part 2)


Must just mention, before I go,  Llangunnor Community Council near Carmarthen are considering filming their meetings - I hope they do; 

1 comment:

Mr Mustard said...

In England one can inspect the Accounts of the council once a year and then demand to see any of the supporting papers. If the same law applies in Wyou might like to tell them now so that they can find a room with a photcopier and a kettle and you can settle in with a friend and look through them all and take copies as you desire. Telling them now that you are going to do this might secure some co-operation and an FOI answer instead.

In the alternative you could ask just to see one entire box now under FOI as that should be within the time limit.