Monday, 20 July 2015

Freedom of Information - what has it done for Carmarthenshire?

It seems that every couple of years attempts are made by government to 'crackdown' on FOI requests. The latest development, widely reported in the national press, is the establishment of a Whitehall panel to review the Act to consider, amongst other things, whether it is 'overly intrusive'. Such 'reviews' never bode well and, as the Telegraph reports, the panel members might not be the greatest fans of FOI.

In Carmarthenshire the FOI Act has, over the years, uncovered some interesting information. The authority receives around a 1000 requests a year and one request, made in 2012 revealed that the unit responsible for FOI and Data Protection consisted of just two employees; unlike the press office....

FOI requests have revealed credit card spending details; back door subsidies to Scarlets Regional Ltd; invoices for legal costs; officer's hospitality engagements and hotel and travel costs. A good snapshot of the variety of requests can be seen on the WhatDoTheyKnow website. (Update 18:05; My Society, who run the WDTK site have now responded to the government's proposed FOI review, it can be read here)

One particularly long winded request was for the correspondence between the council and the Towy Community Church about the Xcel project, known as the evangelical bowling alley. The request was to ascertain how the authority reached the decision to cough up £1.4m to a fundamentalist evangelical group (another FOI also established that no Equalities Assessment had been carried out to).

There was a strange determination not to release the information, initially refused on 'excessive costs' grounds the ICO disagreed and ordered the council to issue a fresh response. This time they changed tack and said the request was 'vexatious'. I appealed again to the ICO that this was clearly a matter of public interest and I was not the only one making enquiries.

The council then brought out all its guns and accusations, waved the libel judgement in front of the ICO, called me a criminal and convinced the ICO that I was a thoroughly disreputable character. If you wish to read the decision notice in all it's glory it can be found here.

In marked contrast, the council were willing, eventually, (and coincidentally whilst the chief executive was on enforced gardening leave last year), to release the damning emails leading up to the dodgy deal, and the last minute intervention by the chief executive, to pay off the third party loan for the Scarlets. The main figure in question, £280,000 was rather more than the £196,000 the Exec Board decided last week to cut from other outdoor sports pitches over the next three years, (or making them "cost neutral" as the council spin machine puts it).

On the subject of gardening leave, my request to Gloucestershire Police for details of the criminal investigation following the WAO reports revealed a disturbing lack of actual investigation. I pursued part of the request with the ICO but to no avail. The main grounds of refusal were upheld in that the documents which were available would be withheld as they might compromise civil litigation, which may or may not happen in the future. All very odd and intriguing, the ICO decision notice is here.

A recent request was for a 'viability appraisal' authored by Savills on behalf of Ffos Las Ltd. The appraisal was to make the case to reduce the S106 agreement for a development of 280 homes. The request was refused under 'commercial confidentiality'.

I thought little more of  it until several weeks later when an article appeared in the Guardian concerning a FOI to a London borough to acquire 'viability appraisals' to reduce S106 agreements. The requestors were a little more persistent and eventually got the reports, also by Savills, which were then analysed and showed exactly how figures were manipulated to reduce 'viability'. All perfectly legal of course...Interestingly, this subject also cropped up today at a parliamentary debate on London's housing supply, reported here.

County Hall has certainly had a problem with grasping the idea that public money is in fact public money, and how it is spent is a matter of public interest. This was illustrated by a demand, a couple of years ago to a local newspaper to withdraw a FOI request for senior officers' expenses.

My requests, which have been made in good faith and for the purposes of research for this blog, were naturally considered, in the course of recent litigation to be part of my 'campaign' and a request for returning officer expenses was considered to be worth a special mention in Mr James' witness statement. It turned out that one particular set of returning officer fees, from the local election in 2012, was very odd indeed.

Requests for Members' registers of interest were refused some time ago but the WLGA review has insisted these are now published online - like virtually every other local authority. We are still waiting for this to happen. The minutes from the cross-party group considering the WLGA report itself were not even published and were initially only available through FOI.

In my view the FOI Act is working fine, more or less, as it is and any review should only be considering widening it's scope. For instance, as more council services are outsourced to private companies there is a strong argument that these companies should also be open to scrutiny and FOI requests.

As I have pointed out in the few examples above, requests to Carmarthenshire Council have met with varying degrees of success and failure, even if we take the ever present toxic culture and obsession with image out of the equation, the council are quite adept at torturing the Act. Often it's case of 'truth versus spin' and only a few short weeks ago the council still seemed to be still quite happily bending the truth in favour of spin.

The last thing we need in either national or local government are any further restrictions.

On a lighter note, some requests can have unintended amusing consequences. A recent (and reasonable) request to the Met police for details of livestock thefts across their manor produced some surprising interpretations of the word 'livestock'.
In amongst various horses, dogs and cats were 'two tins of mackerel', 'two teddy bears' and 'chicken fillets', oh, and a tortoise named 'xxxxxxx' (redacted). 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a PETITION doing the rounds on the internet thelink is:-
which we can sign. I read the ICO decision not to allow your request and am not surprised. CCC are very clever at pointing to others' decisions as a vindication of their own actions. They pointed to a WAO examination of the matter you requested information about and of course this swayed the ICO into deciding the public were not entitled to know the details as the WAO were satisfied. Of course the Libel case is being used as proof of vexatiousness too. As for the WAO they were happy with the way the CCC handle whistleblowing by only reading the policy; they did not look any deeper even though an investigation would find that the CEO and his officers do not follow the policy and it's procedures even going so far, in 2010, as misleading the Chair of the Standards Committee by telling him there had been no whistleblowing; whereas I personally had whistleblown as had 3 others. The Chair has to rely on the honesty of Administration and Law to pass on truthfully information concerning the whistleblowing policy and how it is working. ICO and the WAO are paid for from the public purse yet they prefer to take the word of the CCC rather than delving too deeply and really looking after our interest. I wonder what would happen if someone else made your FOI request and could the request be made to the WAO as they are supposedly satisfied with how the CCC used our money to support the Towy Community Church and the Xcel project? No doubt I have too much history to avoid the vexatious excuse being used against me should I make the request. I really admire you for trying to keep us informed and am pleased we now have the Heralds which seem to be more independent of the CCC than the other local papers. Please sign the petition as I really think the Government now regret having given us the FOIA in the first place and will do it's best to lessen it's usefulness to us the public.

Jennifer Brown (whistleblower)