Hampshire County Council is cross. Because the local newspaper puts FOI requests on the front page.
Hot on the heels of Chester and Cheshire West Council, it has joined the ‘let us charge for FOI requests’ bandwagon.
In fairness to Hampshire, it hasn’t gone as far as Chester did. Councillors in the Roman city approved a report which set out that they planned to charge for FOI requests. It took just two emails to the Information Commissioner’s Office to establish that councils can’t actually charge for FOI requests.
Instead, councillors at Hampshire are calling on the Local Government Association to campaign for authorities to have the right to charge for access to information.
Given the LGA failed so badly when supposedly campaigning for cuts to Town Hall budgets to be limited – it boasted about refusing to scare-monger ahead of the announcement, which saw bigger than expected cuts pushed out to the provinces – should we be worried by the prospect of an LGA campaign in favour of secrecy?
It’s probably wise to put the lobbying skills of the £14million-a-year drain on Town Hall finances to one side, so I would argue that yes we should.
Councillor Colin Davidovitz, cabinet member for communications and efficiency, said: ‘There’s no doubt that newspapers use the information they receive from FoIs to benefit a great deal, by putting it on their front page to sell more papers.
“They are benefiting from research we do on their behalf, at our expense. We also provide information to researchers. I see nothing wrong with charging organisations who benefit from the information we give them, for the service we provide. Why should taxpayers pay for newspapers to benefit?’
Why not go the whole distance and charge any newspaper which uses information from a council report on the front page?
But seriously, there’s a very simple answer to Coun Davidovitz’s ‘why should we pay?’ argument. It’s this: Because you have to be publicly accountable, and town halls in the past have shown they struggle to do this by default, which is why need FOI in the first place. Oh yes, and newspapers serve the readers who pay your wages.
The fact Coun Davidovitz singles out newspapers suggests he doesn’t like the sort of FOI-based stories which have graced the front pages in his area. Perhaps his time would be better spent making sure that the grounds for these stories don’t emerge in the first place.
It’s essential that the principle of all FOI requests being treated as ‘applicant blind’ – ie so the motive of the requesters can’t be taken into account – is maintained.
If nothing else, an FOI request by a journalist has the potential to be read by tens of thousands of people. That’s got to be much cheaper than each reader submitting their own FOI request.
Councils know that such a situation is highly unlikely to occur, so making access to information for journalists more difficult is a handy way of keeping troublesome stories out of the press.
That’s why it’s worth fighting.