Being a bit of an FOI geek, a front page headline screaming ‘Freedom of Information? Not Likely’ at a service station on the M62 was always going to catch my attention.
The story, in Monday’s Huddersfield Examiner, is quite an astonishing one. The leader of Kirklees Council, based in Huddersfield, has been altering prepared FOI responses before they go out to the public.
In his defence, Council leader Mehboob Khan says he changes maybe only one in every 100 requests.
“I would take issue with the word interfere and would point out that previous leaders and Cabinet members have been informed of FOI requests in the past. I am democratically elected to run the council with my Cabinet colleagues and we have a lot of local knowledge which can be used to improve or challenge our responses.”
Putting aside the basic error that he isn’t democratically elected to run the council – he’s democratically elected to represent a ward in Kirklees, only areas with an elected Mayor have a direct say over who they appoint as top political dog – there is quite a lot to feel uncomfortable about in Cllr Khan’s insistence that he has sight of FOI responses.
He argues that his involvement ensures that responses are ‘helpful and accurate.’ The examples of his meddling highlighted by the Examiner – I’m not sure whether they obtained the emails between the FOI officer and Cllr Khan using FOI – suggest that the opposite is the result.
In the first example revealed by the Examiner, reporter Katie Grant asked for details of how much council tax went unpaid in each year from 1993. The FOI officer produced the figures, and it was sent to Cllr Khan.
The paper reports:
But Clr Khan replied: “This is not going out. Who prepared the response?”
Instead, the Examiner received only the figures for the current financial year – which hasn’t even ended yet. In defending that decision, Cllr Khan said:
“I felt that the figures were less clear when they covered several years all the way back to 1993 and masked the real facts which was about how much as a council we had outstanding and how much we had collected in council tax in 2009/10. I think the picture given in the response was a clear one about the current situation.”
The basic principle of FOI is our ‘Right To Know.’ It isn’t a ‘Right To Know if the information if the council leader decides that the information is correct’ or ‘a Right To Know information which is clear about a current situation.’ The council clearly held the information requested – it should therefore have released it.
Remember the quaint notion of ‘applicant blind’ – where all FOI requests are supposed to be treated equally? Cllr Khan doesn’t appear to believe in that either.
When a request was submitted about the cost of Christmas activities, the FOI officer again produced a figure, which Cllr Khan blocked. He argued:
Clr Khan told the information officer: “The council doesn’t specifically celebrate Christmas – the council promotes the town and village centres.”
Clr Khan also asked whether or not the request had come from “someone local” and whether or not they had chased their request up.
The information officer told him who the request was from and that the response was overdue but it had not been chased, adding: “We do not have an exemption that would justify us in withholding the information.”
Clr Khan then replied: “The response is incorrect and should not be released.”
Whether the information came from someone local is neither here nor there. If a council officer, diligently doing their job, can produce a figure for spending around Christmas, who is the council leader to block it? And why would he seek to?
In the third example provided by the Examiner, a number of media organisations had requested to know how much the council had spent on hiring celebrities. Most councils managed to answer this one, and the Examiner reports that the FOI officer produced a response with information to send back. Cllr Khan intervened again:
But Clr Khan stopped it from going out. He said: “I suggest this response … you will notice that it is different.
“I refer to your recent enquiry regarding the use of celebrities by the council. I have trawled our various services and unfortunately this information is not collated in one central place.”
When challenged on this by the Examiner, Cllr Khan said:
Officers advised me, and continue to advise me, there is some argument over what constitutes a celebrity and how much is paid for people to perform such roles for councils. We have very few calls on celebrities in Kirklees and where this has happened in the past there is no one budget line or place to store that information.
Yet other councils managed this without problem – I suspect very few have a ‘budget for celebrities.’ I would suggest the marketing budget in various council departments is a good place to start.
I doubt there is anything legally wrong with Cllr Khan’s actions, but they go against the spirit of Freedom of Information. If an officer, trained in FOI legislation, can produce a response which he or she believes is correct to go out, who is Cllr Khan to act as gatekeeper?
Of course, should the media organisations Cllr Khan doesn’t want to see which celebrities the council has hired still want the information, there is always the Audit Commission Act, section 15 of which allows people to inspect all the accounts – in detail – normally during the summer.
Perhaps Cllr Khan would want to sit in on that too, providing his context and analysis alongside audited accounts?
In the meantime, perhaps Cllr Khan should be reminded that FOI isn’t about providing context, it’s about providing information held by a public body – good and bad – and it’s to the credit of the Huddersfield Examiner that they’ve turned over so much space to reveal what I consider to be something of a local government scandal.