FOI: The council leader threatening to slash FOI budgets after being shown up for getting his numbers badly wrong

Remember the council leader who claimed dealing with Freedom of Information requests was costing his authority – Nottingham City Council – £500,000 a year? A Freedom of Information request  response actually put the figure at more like £64,000 a year.

His name is Coun Jon Collins, and it’s under his leadership that Nottingham has become the only authority in the country not to publish the all-transactions-over-£500 spending data which no other authority seems to have a problem with releasing (probably because the Government set the bar so low in terms of what they actually had to reveal).

Anyway, the Nottingham Post this week reported a ‘war of words’ over the cost of FOI. Coun Collins now claims his £500,000 figure was a reference to the overall running costs of the information  management unit. Friends in local government tell me such units tend to carry out a wide array of tasks, not least being responsible for data protection.

Simple misunderstanding? It would seem not. God bless the newspaper archive, because here’s what he said at a council meeting in 2011:

Speaking in a full council meeting in February 2011, he said: “We certainly spend half a million pounds every year managing FOIs.”

That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? It could, of course, just be a slip of the tongue … but then there’s the Tweet in reach he repeated the claim (see here on the Nottingham City Council Lols blog).

But ‘councillor caught out getting things wrong (to be polite) and then claiming he actually meant something else’ isn’t particularly newsworthy, even if the politician is running the council in charge of one of England’s larger cities.

However, his response to being caught on the hop, is rather remarkable. Quoting again the Nottingham Post:

Mr Collins said: “I’ve always referred to costs of the information management team and other officer time spent dealing with questions and queries – so more than FOIs.

“Still, if they think they can do the job for £30,000 then I can cut their budget to that and save hundreds of thousands of pounds for more useful frontline services.”

In other words, council officers do job and show up council leader in the process and he threatens to cut their jobs. What a nice man. As for his dig at ‘more useful services’ he presumably means ones which don’t result in him being accountable … or shown up as not being in possession of the facts.

To confuse matters further, the Nottingham City Council press office claims the actual cost of dealing with FOIs is £370,000 a year – based on the fact the £64,000 figure was based on a six month trial of a news system (so half of £64,000) which only recorded half of the number of FOIs received. Now, my maths isn’t brilliant but even if you doubled the £64,000 bill to account for the missing ‘half’ of FOIs, the cost should, on average, be nearer £128,000 rather than £370,000. Maybe the unaccounted for FOIs were particularly troublesome ones.

Maybe with such a poor grasp on numbers, it’s no wonder the council leader isn’t keen to reveal their spending data – but all in all, a rather sorry – and spiteful – saga.


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