Why Government needs to look at itself before accusing councils of lacking transparency

Westminster – stuck in time?

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has a similar relationship with councils to the one former education secretary Michael Gove had with teachers.

For some reason, that keep-on-kicking approach Gove adopted with the teaching profession appears to have cost him his ministerial brief in the recent reshuffle, while Mr Pickles gets to, well, keep on kicking.

Many of the things Mr Pickles has pushed on have been welcome: The crackdown on local government propaganda newspapers, insisting councils must allow filming of meetings, and the publication of data on spending over £500. But the devil has often been in the detail of Mr Pickles’ headline-grabbing initiatives.

Several renegade councils continue to publish newspapers in spite of much hyperbole, the ability to film democracy in action is far from guaranteed and spending data is produced in many differing fashions and tells you little about what a council is actually buying. Of course, it’s much better to have a communities secretary who buys the principle of what he calls ‘armchair auditing’ than one who doesn’t, but substance behind the headlines has been often lacking.

A fascinating blog post this week on politics.co.uk claiming that Whitehall has neutered the Freedom Of Information Act. It’s an excellent read and sets out the many challenges of actually getting information via FOI from a Government department. It’s no secret that parts of Government – the system, rather than any political party – just don’t like FOI, and this has resulted in various proclamations by senior ministers.

Tony Blair, the chief champion of FOI claims it was the worst thing he ever did, while Jack Straw, who pushed the legislation through while at the Home Office, also says it was a mistake. David Cameron, meanwhile, claims it slows Government activities down.

I suspect their expressed views are more to do with a drip-drip of negativity from those around them rather than any personal prejudice to the Act. The politics.co.uk post reveals the various tactics used to kill FOI requests straight off, most of which revolve extending the reach of FOI exemptions to the absolute limit, while inventing clever limitations on their own ability to get information at the same time.

Look out for the trick which involves the Ministry for Justice only searching the subject line of emails when looking for information, rather then the full body of the email. My experience of Government and FOI is limited. It was appalling to watch the Cabinet Office bend and twist to avoid releasing details on the Hillsborough disaster, especially when it is supposed to the be the champion of FOI within Whitehall.

Prior to the BBC’s battle on this one, I know several reporters who tried to get information from Government in Hillsborough but were turned away after being caught in a labyrinth of excuses, processes and exemptions. Shortly after Liverpool lost in the Champions League final in Athens in 2007, it emerged that many fans had been locked out of the ground, with claims that there was only limited checks being done on people entering the ground. When Liverpool fans complained, UEFA opened up a remarkable line of attack – claiming that Liverpool FC fans were the worst behaved in Europe.

A dossier was apparently handed over to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport which had been banging the drum for Liverpool FC fans since the slurs was made. Yet when it came to the Liverpool Daily Post asking for a copy of the report from DCMS – UEFA refused to release it, instead only quoting from it – the government department said no, on the grounds that UEFA wouldn’t expect them to release it,  a curious application of an exemption for a document which was potentially a factor in determining government policy.

On this blog, I regularly highlight some of the more exasperating incidents of local authorities getting it wrong on FOI, but they are in the minority.

A quick look at Whatdotheyknow proves this. In Whitehall, however, a negative attitude towards FOI appears endemic, if not the established norm. As the 2015 election looms, many politicians will make overtures about accountability and transparency.

Actions need to speak louder than words in Whitehall, and perhaps little less time spent kicking councils and a bit more time sorting out Whitehall should be the order of the day.

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2 comments

    1. Thanks – quite hard to write them that way too. The paragraphs appear to have merged after I’d previewed it and pressed published!

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