Monday, 15 October 2012

FoI - the cost of a can of worms

More Freedom of Information scaremongering today on the BBC from Steve Thomas, Chief Executive of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA). If he's worrying about cost perhaps I could suggest, when the WLGA delegation returns from their jolly in Brussels, they look at the cost of their own quango.

There are no figures available for the WLGA but I imagine it equates with the English version, employing 28 executive staff between £70,000 - £170,000 per year, plus offices, staff and expenses etc. Then you've got the various councillors who frequent this talking shop, Carmarthenshire's own Kevin Madge is one of four deputy Chairs; Meryl  was Chair for a few years, how much was forked out in expenses remains a mystery.

Mr Thomas doesn't seem to like transparency, he spoke against both the requirement to film meetings and to publish spending details. Is it the cost of FoI's that's really worrying Councils? I asked Carmarthenshire Council how much they spent, they said they didn't know. We do know they have ten staff in the PR department and two in FoI and Data Protection, which says it all.

The Freedom of Information act should be protected at all costs and open to all, it's the only thing that members of the public have got to continuously hold public bodies to account, albeit subject to endless 'exemptions', and albeit dependent on the body deciding that the risk of reputational damage doesn't outweigh their legal obligations. The WLGA is supposed to promote democracy and 'improve the reputation' of our councils, the latter is clearly the priority.

Mr Thomas frets that with; 'cuts in public expenditure councils could not afford to spend huge amounts of money on "unnecessary" FoIs. "Every pound and every shilling is required at the moment to push into frontline services,"

'Unnecessary FoI's'? what would those be then? Perhaps Mr Thomas would like to give a definition, and if he can maybe he could quantify the number and cost of those 'unnecessary' requests.

The real problem perhaps is not the cost but the accelerating ability for Joe public, almost at the click of a mouse, to find out more and more information. The fig leaves are slipping. With diminishing budgets it has never been more important for us to be able to judge if it's being spent correctly. How many councils have cut expenditure purely to avoid bad press - instead of sending five officers on a pointless far flung 'fact-finding' mission first class maybe now, with uncomfortable FoI's in mind, they'd only send two, or even abandon the idea altogether.

FoI should also, like the NHS, remain 'free at the point of entry' and councils should publish far more information online instead of using resources to tell us the correct way to address the queen.
Welsh Councils need to get a grip, they are not a selection of exclusive clubs protected and cosseted by quango bosses like Mr Thomas, they are spending your money and making decisions which affect you, and you have a right, and you should continue to exercise that right, to know how, why and what is spent.


towy71 said...

it is my view that any money our council spends on the WLGA is money wasted!
Freedom of Information is necessary for tax payers to have some oversight on the goings on in the civil service, both local and national.

nospin said...

If as Towy71 says the WLGA is funded via councils, it cannot be independent from them and therefore need to be disbanded as pointless RIGHT NOW - TODAY!!

nospin said...

It was FOI's which allowed me to calculate the ripoff that WAG has done to council tax payers.

I asked for a like for like comparison of the annual grant over 10 years of devolution( ie new devolved function and one offs stripped out) I wanted a direct comparison so that I could calculate the actual percentage increase, which was 123% increase, ie more than doubled. Comparing that to inflation over the same period of 35% showed just how much the Barnet grant had actually incresed YET over the same period WAG reduced the support for council budgets from an average 85% TO 80%, forcing councils to have to increase council tax way over inflation and pocket 100s of millions of pounds for their own WAG spending plans.

A VERY NICE WAG STEALTH TAX. Of course towards the end of this period they also allowed the revaluation to go ahead and STILL nowhere else in the UK has had this imposed on them.


caebrwyn said...

After some digging it seems that WLGA 'projects' are grant funded by the WG, I assume the running costs/salaries etc are too. As for expenses claimed by Councillors I have no idea. It is not an independent body and is of course funded by the taxpayer.
The WLGA website has no link to a FoI section nor any details of funding, salary bands, spending details etc.
I agree, pointless.

Anonymous said...

As you say, cut the number of staff in PR and continue with FOI,as it stands, as we already pay for it anyhow, through our taxes!

Don't you just despair at the thought processes of these unelected inflated egos, who live on another planet from us mere mortals.