FOI: Councils told to forget charging to access to information

And now for some good news. Over the past couple of months, I’ve blogged twice on councils which wanted to start charging for Freedom of Information requests.

First there was Chester and Cheshire Council – a newly-formed unitary which has spent a fortune rebranding itself – which announced it was going to charge for FOI requests, despite the fact that legally they can’t.

Last week, Hampshire County Council took a different approach, saying it wanted the Local Government Association – the lobbying group which costs the taxpayer at least £14million a year – to campaign for the right for councils to charge newspapers submitting FOI requests.

The rant by Cllr Colin Davidovitz, cabinet member for communications and efficiency can be summed up as this: We’re having to pay to do research to answer FOIs which papers then make money from by putting them on the front page. It can also be summed up as this: We hate the fact newspapers can ask awkward questions which we have to answer, despite having numerous get-out clauses under the existing FOI Act. Lets hide behind the need to save money to silence these niggly questions.

Of course, Cllr Davidovitz didn’t stipulate whether he’d expect the Press to use the press releases his authority issues, or whether he’d expect to pay to see them in print. It was clearly a dim idea, badly thought out.

Anyway, the good news is that communities secretary Eric Pickles has cut the argument off before the LGA could even clear his publicly-lozenged throat.

Roy Greenslade reports this morning on this assurance by Pickles:

“If councillors and council officers are to be held to account, the press and public need access to the information that will enable them to do it,” he said.

Holdthefrontpage carries fuller quotes:

He said: “If councillors and council officers are to be held to account, the press and public need access to the information that will enable them to do it.

“If town halls want to reduce the amount they spend on responding to freedom of information requests they should consider making the information freely available in the first place.

“The simple act of throwing open the books, rather than waiting for them to be prised apart by the force of an FoI, might even save a few pounds in the process.

“Greater local accountability is essential to accompany the greater powers and freedoms that the new government is giving to local government.”

 

Perhaps now councils which want to charge will now examine what they can do to increase accountability which in turn will reduce the need to use FOI in the first place.

2 comments

  1. My view is that if Councils made the information available in such a way so that the user can have the ‘ah-ha now I understand’ moment without having to resort to an FOI request, they would save a lot of time and money.

    Although we have over 90 councils’ transactions over £500 on our free Council Expenses Dashboard at http://www.biolap.co.uk/index.php/solutions/council-expenses.html , the quality of the information from councils is variable, ranging from some councils that provide full disclosure to others that provide the minimum of information.

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