Freedom of Information requesters have been getting an increasing amount of stick in recent times. Many authorities simply don’t like the Freedom of Information Act and have never bought into the spirit of the Act, and now that spending cuts are starting to bite, we’re beginning to feel the kick back.
Wolverhampton City Council has been issuing the ‘standard cost’ of FOI requests in some of its replies – although FOI officers I’ve spoken to say such a figure will never be anything other than a finger-in-the-air guess because it won’t take account of added-on staff costs, lighting, heating, phone bills and so on.
Until now, Cheshire West and Chester Council had perhaps had the most strident attitude towards FOI – trying to launch a charging policy for dealing with requests, which it began to publicise via the local press before being told by the Information Commissioner it couldn’t actually introduce a charging policy.
Then I heard about Walberswick Parish Council, in Suffolk, which has responded to a deluge of FOI requests from local residents by refusing to put up the annual Christmas Tree and doubling its council tax precept.
The council has also decided not to hold any more meetings until April and won’t be making any donations to local good causes. All of this is because it has started receiving lots of FOI requests.
According to the East Anglian Daily Times, hundreds of applications have been made under the FOI Act to the parish council, which, like most parish councils, is run on a shoe-string with just one parish clerk, in this case a woman called Jane Gomm, holding things together.
Ms Gomm, the most recent parish council meeting was told, had worked an extra 72 hours to deal with the FOI requests, and subsequent complaints which had fallen out of dealing with the requests.
Until this point, it’s possible to have some sympathy with the parish council. Generally, parish councillors are well-meaning volunteers who can find themselves sucked into village politics quite easily.
But parish councils aren’t big organisations. Answering questions shouldn’t be that hard. It’s not as if they have multiple databases, archives and systems to wade through, as you might expect an FOI officer working at borough, council or city council to have to contend with.
Any sympathy for the council evaporates when you find out what triggered the FOI requests in the first place.
Among those gathered in the village hall was John McCarthy, who confirmed himself a member of the small group of persistent applicants.
He claimed at the meeting the council had wilfully held back information he was entitled to.
Following the meeting he said the council had ignored repeated requests for details of discussions made during a closed session of a council meeting last September, adding: “I made a request for information on what that session was about and what legal advice the council had taken but it was refused.
“Another closed meeting was held which I was barred from attending.
“I requested a review, and a report was written for which I made a request but was told some information was unavailable.”
Mr McCarthy said the dispute began last May when his complaint that insufficient notice had been given of a previous council meeting was ignored.
Parish council chairman David Webb contests part of that view, but admits they made a mistake in not informing about people the meeting in advance.
To me, the problem isn’t so much about FOI but the failure of a council to be more open from the start. And this principle applies from parish councils right up city councils. There’s no point about complaining about the cost of FOI if you’re not being as open as you possible can be in the first place.
It’s a lot harder for larger authorities to be open by default – although that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try – but at a grassroots politics level, it really shouldn’t be that hard. Parish councillors, in theory, live in the communities they serve.
How many of the FOI questions could have been answered during a chat in the pub? Especially when the parish clerk admits to not being able to fully understand what is being asked of the council in the FOIs.
Rather than seeking to stigmatise the requesters – and effectively blaming them for a rise in the council tax precept and cancelling Christmas – surely the parish council would be better off working to resolve the concerns of the complaining residents.
As it is, it seems the parish council can’t even decide the impact of the FOI dispute. One parish councillor, Alvin Hunt, told the latest parish council meeting: “This is tearing the community apart for no reason whatsoever.”
However, David Webb, chairman of the council, told the BBC: “I’m not saying it has torn the village apart but it has certainly created a lot of unpleasantness.”
To quote a well-know telecommunications advert, it’s good to talk – especially if the alternative is cancelling Christmas, sticking up council tax and cancelling future meetings.