A twist in the case of the county council which believes FOI costs too much

The other week I blogged here about how Ken Thornber, the leader of Hampshire County Council, was enraged by the increasing number of FOI requests his authority was receiving.

He used the Guardian’s Joe Public blog to drag out this tired out routine:

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.

And so on and so on. The conclusion being that councils everywhere should rise up against this tide of FOI requests and say ‘enough is enough’ and make the Information Commissioner decide on whether they should have to answer these so call spurious requests.

Of course, the law doesn’t permit Hampshire, or any other council to do such things. And there are also tight restraints on how much each FOI can cost, not to mention the 40 odd exemptions FOI requests can be rejected under.

Yes, I dare say many of those FOI requests which the good leader of Hampshire is going on about do come from journalists.

But in my mind, his holier-than-thou stance is damaged somewhat by the fact that a local Lib Dem in Hampshire, Cllr Ron Hussey, felt the need to use FOI to find out that the amount spent on mending pot holes in the county has fallen by more than 40% in recent years.

Clearly, this isn’t the sort of story the ruling Tories would particularly want out in the open, but it does beg the question as to why Cllr Hussey felt he had to use FOI to get these figures. Clearly they exist – and must have been quite easy to extract – yet Cllr Hussey felt he had to use FOI rather than just ask as a councillor for the information.

Perhaps if the burden of dealing with FOI is *so* great in Hampshire, Cllr Thornber could turn his attentions first to making sure that councillors can get the information they need through the traditional channels meant to be open to them?

4 comments

  1. Many councillors have to use the FOI Act to extract information from their own council. There was an article about Norwich City councillors having to do this a few years ago. The Chief Executive at the time is now a Local Government Ombudsman.

  2. Thornber’s quote just shows how out of touch a lot of councilors are with what really spikes peoples’ interest about local government, particularly items perceived by some as ‘waste’ (booze, art, even poor old christmas decorations). The FOI act has brought to councils a stark realisation of what many people want to know. If only they had the power to not reply to things they don’t think are ‘important’ (i.e. that make them look bad).

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