FOI: When MPs have to use the Act, there’s surely something wrong

Regardless of the public perception of MPs, there’s no denying that, once elected, they hold a privileged place in public life. Doors open for them which would remain shut to most of us. Calls will be answered when the rest of us would get an answerphone. And, you’d assume, if they ask for information, they could reasonably expect not to have to resort to the Freedom of Information Act.

MPs can, of course, attempt to hold the Government – or its ministers and departments – to account by using parliamentary questions to try and get information or, indeed, speak in the Commons should the topic be right.

And, in my experience, they tend to be able to get the audience they expect when dealing with public authorities in their communities. Or so I thought.

This week, a lot has been made by the Justice Committee over the cost authorities are having to cover to meet their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. I am a firm believer that the costs could be substantially reduced if public authorities were more open by default. Decent, and updated, disclosure logs would be a good start, along with publication schemes which acts as a index of all the information an authority produced.

But perhaps this lack of openness is best summed by the fact that MPs and councillors are among the people having to use the Freedom of Information Act to get information.

In Bristol, MP Chris Skidmore had to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out the cost of policing some events. The FOI request resulted in this letter of praise to the Bristol Evening Post. Why would the local MP feel the need to use FOI to get information from his police force? Avon and Somerset Police is a force which can find the time to create a meaningless (because it’s not accurate) widget on its website saying how much FOI has cost this year, but doesn’t have a relationship with a local MP to get information quickly? Oddly, I can’t find a widget which predicts how many crimes remain unsolved in Avon and Somerset so far this year.

In Corby, MP Louise Mensch has resorted to FOI to get hold of a document which explains why a civic project called the Corby Cube has cost £10m more than expected. The Corby Cube is a theatre, library, register office and council office. The local council says the report can’t be release for commercial reasons, but the report was compiled by a cross-party team of councillors. Should Ms Mensch have to resort to FOI when looking into how public money has been spent? The answer, I rather suspect, is to do with saving face at the Labour-controlled council.

Looking at FOI evidence submitted by local authorities to the Justice Committee, Birmingham City Council says it receives 20 requests a year from councillors or MPs. That figure has remained static  at a time when requests from the media, ‘service users’ and employees, have risen. But to have a state of affairs where local MPs – and even councillors of the same authority – using FOI to get information suggests there is something wrong.

For an MP or councillor to resort to FOI is rather like a journalist using it – you don’t do it through choice, because it takes 20 days. It’d be much better to be able to ask for the information, get it quickly and be able to trust you’ve got everything – something that’ll never be guaranteed through a press office, because the role of a press office isn’t to provide all the information, but the information an authority wishes to present.

Even when on council duty, it appears councillors don’t always get access to the information they need. In the FOI submissions, the Centre for Public Scrutiny reports that FOI is a powerful tool for members of councils overview and scrutiny committees – the very bodies which are supposed to have free access to information to ensure effective scrutiny of the all-powerful, and often one-party, cabinets which make all the decisions at councils.

If the cost of FOI really is such a problem – and I’d argue it’s the price you pay for democratic scrutiny – then surely the first job of authorities is to work out how to make it cost less while maintaining access. Being more open with everyone would be the ideal start and if even MPs and councillors are still finding themselves using it, I would suggest there’s a potentially very large culture change with a large saving attached just waiting to be implemented.

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