Freedom of Information: Why journalists should keep up the fight

One of the more frequent types of FOI stories I spot when trawling for FOI Friday is the “cost of consultants hired by councils” story.

Most councils have the information to hand, and most release it. It’s the sort of information they tend to have to hand quite readily in their carefully prepared accounts.

But not in Pembrokeshire, where the Western Telegraph is now appealing to the Information Commissioner after the county council refused to release information.

Says an article in the paper this week:

In November, the Western Telegraph submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request for the details of expenditure on consultants since January 2004.

It simply requested a breakdown by year and asked for the name of the consultants used, the amount paid and what the work entailed.

The council admitted that it had spent £1.2million in the last financial year, but would not say who that money was spent with or release figures for the remaining years — claiming it would cost more than £450 to provide the information.

Under the FOI act, if a request costs more than £450 to provide, an authority does not have to release it.

In December, the Western Telegraph appealed to the council’s review panel for the remaining information to be released.

But last week the review panel upheld the original decision, prompting the paper’s appeal to the Information Commissioner’s office.

Best of luck to them. It can become a long process turning to the commissioner, and some journalists say they often get cases where authorities will bounce something into the long grass of the appeals process to avoid releasing information for as long as possible. How much truth lies behind that belief, I’m not sure.

But continuing to fight can be worth it. This week, Holdthefrontpage reported on how, after 18 months, the Kent Messenger group had won an FOI appeal against Kent Police.

Says HTFP:

The KM Group has been fighting Kent County Council to reveal the whereabouts of the sites to deal with ‘Operation Stack’ – a system whereby lorries currently queue on the M20 to avoid congestion on other roads when ports or the Channel Tunnel are blocked or closed.

KCC has proposed a 70-acre site for the lorry park, which would cost £40m to build, at Aldington just off the M20 south of Ashford.

However the KM Group has been fighting the council to discover the locations and comparative costs of other sites under consideration, using the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations.

The council told the KM Group it was not in the public interest to release the information because of commercial sensitivity, the potential impact on land values and possible anxiety caused among those living near the other locations.

But following a ruling from the Information Commissioner’s Office, the council has until this week to publish a list of the alternative sites being considered and the cost to the taxpayer of developing them.

It said KCC was wrong to withhold the information, ordering it to be disclosed because of the “considerable environmental impact” and the affect on local residents.

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