Yawn. Councillor claims FOI is wasting money. But why?

Ken Thornber is leader of Hampshire county council, which makes him quite a powerful man in many respects, and it gives him access to platforms to make his views known to a lot of people at once – such as the Guardian’s public sector section of its website.

Sadly, Mr Thornber used the Joe Public blog to trot out a tired old argument against Freedom of Information, and how it is used at present.

Mr Thornber is outraged by the increase in FOI requests made to the council each year:

Since April 2009, Hampshire county council is well on the way to dealing with 500 requests – a 60% increase on the previous 12 months. I worry about the cost and the consequences as staff divert their attention from delivering services to delving for statistics. The council spends at least £50,000 a year dealing with FOI requests, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg regarding staff costs.

And then he has the “crazy” examples to hand:

I boil over with rage when my staff are tasked with identifying the number and cost of Fairtrade teabags that have been immersed in hot water on council premises in the previous financial year (0.2p per council taxpayer per annum), and the number of biscuits (plain and chocolate) that were supplied at council meetings.

There have been many other ridiculous requests. In addition to teabags and biscuits, my list of the most pointless ones so far includes what we spent on fireworks, alcohol, Christmas decorations (do people really expect us not to put them in residential care homes or children’s homes?); how many premises across the county are licensed to sell puppies and kittens; the number of mortuaries set aside for swine flu deaths; and a list of every piece of art we have commissioned in the last five years, including from schools.

He chunters on for a bit and concludes with this:

I no longer believe that my staff should be spending their precious time on such spurious requests. I believe we should explain to the inquirer at the outset the lengths to which we will have to go to get the information and, if they persist, we should have the courage of our convictions and refuse to answer the inquiry. It should be left to the information commissioner to adjudicate as to whether the inquiry is a legitimate cost on the public purse and in the public interest.

On one hand, he’s right. There’s probably no harm in an FOI officer pointing out how long an application will take to process before asking again if the requester really wants to make that request. However, by doing that, he’s already added more administration to the process.

But the Freedom of Information Act isn’t designed to allow councils to determine what is a sensible request. There are plenty of clauses tucked in there to stop information being released, but the general principle is about greater openness and access to information by the public.

No doubt the council leader is disappointed at turnout during each election – and can’t understand why more people don’t vote. Yet by trying to shut down, or control,  the Freedom of Information process to suit the council – and £50k a year in an authority the size of Hampshire probably doesn’t even match the catering bill for councillor catering – suggests a councillor who wants public participation on his terms.

There are many, many other aspects of council process which can be tackled and streamlined before tackling the minor cost of FOI. How about asking for fewer targets from government?

Yes, there are FOI requests which can be deemed as silly. But at least they get people talking about the council and interested in the council. Playing the “costing too much in tight times” card doesn’t suggest a councillor on top of his game, it suggests we have a councillor just looking to exercise greater control over one of the few processes which allows his cabinet-style ruling party to be held to account. Certainly, judging by the agenda for their Janaury 25th cabinet meeting, there seems to a premium on information.

And as for the councillor being able to pull out so many “silly” FOI requests in one go, surely the question has to be asked: Has he been spending his time researching this – time which could have been better spent running the council? Or did he get someone to do it for him, perhaps when they could have been answering these FOI requests?

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