Chester is a city with a proud history of being a fortress. The walls which the Romans built to keep them safe remain today, although the only invaders these days are tourists.
The local council, Chester and Cheshire West, is keen to draw as much attention as possible to would-be visitors about what the area has to offer. Start asking questions about what the council is up to and you’ll find the council is a little less forthcoming.
It has become the first of what I suspect may be a number of councils to try and kick up a stink about the impact of the Freedom of Information Act. In what must be a contender for the most hopelessly one-sided press release of the year, the council press office informs people that taxpayers are footing the bill for FOI requests relating to the numbers of cheques it processed, whether it employs feng shui consultants and if it knows it its buildings are haunted.
The press release can be summed up as follows: We get 900 FOI requests a year, they cost £250,000 a year to deal with and, well, money’s tight so we’re going to charge for them in the future to put people having a laugh off, right? (Interestingly, an FOI here puts the number of requests at nearer 100 every two months)
A chap called Cllr Jones – his first name isn’t given in the press release, but who I assume is the council leader Mike Jones – says:
“We are all in favour of openness and transparency but some of the questions are vexacious, ridiculous. Sometimes even anonymous (Justin Time)… and in no way reflect the admirable spirit of the Act.
“What concerns us greatly is that these FOI queries sometimes request copious detail, requiring a considerable amount of staff time to research – all of which is costing the Council taxpayer money, much of it unnecessary in these times of financial stringency.
“Many of these enquiries are from companies simply using FOI to answer questions for market research purposes – at the expense of the taxpayer.”
The press release concludes by saying that the Act is being ‘abused’ by those who make such requests, and that Cllr Jones was applauded when he raised this issue at the Local Government Association Conference. Not exactly a tough gig – providing people not mad keen on FOI with the chance to give it a kick.
However, either Cllr Jones is attempting to mislead those who read the press release into believing these ‘quirky’ requests made up the majority, or he simply isn’t fully informed of what is going on. Of the 900 requests he talks about, around 70 have been made by people using the FOI website Whatdotheyknow. Far from being all wacky, many people may well find them interesting and well within the spirit of FOI. How much the council pays for supply teachers, the cost of the cheshirewestandchester website, the number of empty commercial properties in the area and the number of domestic waste penalty fines issued have all been released via whatdotheyknow. Information, I think most people will agree, people have the right to request. The council is, after all, paid for by taxes and elected by the public. Oddly, such sensible requests have been left off Cllr Jones’s press release. But given they can’t even get Cllr Jones’s first name into the press release then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised here.
Cllr Jones seeks to reassure the public that he has the council’s ‘solutions team’ on the case to make sure they can start charging for FOI requests. Thank goodness for the solutions team – after all emailing the Information Commissioner’s Office for advice would have been far too simple, which is exactly what I did.
Here’s the bad news for Cllr Jones. Councils can’t just charge for FOI requests. If it costs less than £450 in staff time to collate the information, then you can’t refuse to provide it on grounds of costs. Nor can you charge for that time.
How do I know this? Because I asked the ICO this question:
So I understand that the guidance says that so long as an FOI request does not exceed £450/£600, it should be released for free, with the only costs being those of contacting the person involved and/or reproduction fees, but not staff time?
To which I got this reply: That’s right. Most authorities are not able to apply standard charges for requests and staff time taken to find the information should not be charged.
Councils, and other public bodies can, however, charge for postage or photocopying, a fact East Cheshire Primary Care Trust makes clear on its website. Perhaps the solutions team will be doing some Googling too. If they do, they’ll find many authorities which waive small charges because they are just too expensive to process. If this is really about money, then Cheshire West and Cheshire’s ‘solutions team’ will presumably come to this conclusion too.
The reason I ask if this is really about money is because the council also needs to be asking itself how it could help save money by making it easier for people to get information by other means. Some simple steps the council could take:
- Improve the council’s FOI page. Poor is one word for it. Shocking is another. Perhaps it could tell people that they could start by ringing the council department in question and asking if they can just have the information.
- Carry a released information page. All bodies are supposed to publish generally the information they have released. Push those authorities which haven’t and they’ll say something along the lines of ‘oh yes, we’re getting around to it.’ Those that do will find they don’t get duplicate requests that often. Hint: Having a link which says disclosure log without a link within the text doesn’t help.
- Publish more information by default. The Gifts and Hospitality list is missing, as are election expenses. If you are more open by default, you’ll spend less releasing information.
- Re-read the FOI Act. There are more than 40 reasons to refuse an FOI request, not to mention the ability to say ‘no’ to vexatious requests. If you are so worried about the Act being abused, then use the exemptions more often.
- Talk to the requesters. Understanding what people want will help you. Really, it will – and it’ll mean it won’t take three months to answer a question about how long bins have been emptied on a Monday for.
If the solutions team want to take these on board, I won’t charge for them. When Chester and Cheshire West was created in April 2009, its slogan promised it ‘will bring a fresh and energetic approach to providing top quality services for its many customers and communities.’ Starting the new era of the council by sending councillors out on an open top bus to see what their area looks like might be different, but to retreat behind the old trick of trying to charge for something certainly isn’t.
Anyone for an FOI on what the solutions team actually does, or how much research Cllr Jones did before getting onto his PR high horse?