Freedom of Information: The pros and the cons

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TRANSPARENCY: The Freedom of Information Act enables the public to access recorded information held by public authorities – but are all requests legitimate and which bodies are still able to hide?

I’VE COVERED many topics on this blog which highlight our desire to be an engaging and open council.

When I looked back, however, I realised I haven’t yet mentioned one of the most significant changes to how the public gain access to what they want to know: the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

“Are councils prepared for dragon attacks?”

“Do local authorities have the resources to cope with a zombie invasion?”

“Does the public sector provide pet exorcisms?”

Unbelievably these are all genuine requests made to councils in England and Wales under the FOI Act.

Although I’m as concerned as every council leader should be about the walking dead, I’m really not convinced that these kinds of request relate to any of the 700 services that Oldham Council or the wider public sector provides(!).

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was introduced to allow the public to access recorded information held by public authorities.

Its remit covers all recorded information held by a public authority. It is not limited to official documents and it covers, for example, emails, recordings of telephone conversations and CCTV footage.

As I’m sure you can imagine answering these requests can take a considerable amount of time and resource, especially if the request is lengthy or complicated.

Not every query is as simple as “How many people in the town have a licence to keep a tiger, lion, leopard, lynx or panther as a pet?”. That’s a genuine FOI request sent to Scarborough Council. The answer in Oldham is, of course, hopefully none – although we do have a large population of common toads!

At present the cap on the costs of complying with an FOI request, or a linked series of requests from the same person or group, is set at £450 for local authorities.

With staff time calculated at the recommended rate of £25 per hour, this equates to 18 hours work before the council can consider charging or refusing a request.

As of November 4, Oldham Council has received 1,089 FOI requests in 2014 – that’s almost three a day. This is almost double the 590 FOI requests received five years ago in 2009.

And the number of FOI requests we’ve had has increased every year since the implementation of the Act in 2005…
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The University College London now estimates that responding to an FOI costs the council an average of £293 per request.

For Oldham Council that means £319,077 has been spent responding to FOIs in 2014 alone and, since the Act was established in 2000, the total cost of responding to FOIs is probably closer to £2 million to date.

Although this is a significant amount of money, it does have a democratic purpose: it ensures that we as a public body are accountable to the electorate.

But what about when public services are delivered by the private sector?

Is open government about who allocates money or commissions services, or about those who spend public money – and how far would you go?

The FOI Act only applies to public authorities and not to private entities.

Public authorities include government departments, the NHS, police forces, schools, colleges, universities and local authorities.

But in a world where the transfer of public services to the private sector is becoming more common, I’m concerned that the delivery of public services is becoming less transparent.

If private companies deliver public services should they not be held accountable in the same way as the public sector is? How can we deliver consistently high service standards if there is not a level playing field?

The same is true about the publication of spending records, senior officer pay and other matters.

Local councils are leading the way here – but others are staying very quiet!

Thanks for listening,

Jim

3 thoughts on “Freedom of Information: The pros and the cons

  1. Joan Davis

    I agree quite strongly ,that the same should apply , in the same way that it does in Public to the Private sector If we believe in a free democratic society

  2. Shaun McGrath

    I agree with your point regards the FOI act only applying to public authorities and not to private entities – something that should be addressed.

    What I do take issue with, though, is your listing some of the more ‘surreal’ (and completely ridiculous) requests made to councils.

    Such a negative representation of how the FOI act plays out, can only serve to give ammunition to those individuals who would see it revoked (at the very least brought into disrepute).

  3. Andrew Sayers

    I agree FoI must apply to privatised services – we don’t want privatisation to be a means for companies to conceal corruption.
    I trust you mention the ridiculous FoI requests to indicate the kind of thing public authorities may swiftly dismiss. It was sad to read Tony Blaiir regretted the FoI Act in his “A Journey”. What could he be frightened of ?

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