Updated: The Local Government Association have been in touch to say they did not send the email asking for information, but that the email was prompted by their query to the Lawyers in Local Government group on the back of suggestions from some councils about FOI volumes becoming problematic.
An interesting press release landed in my inbox tonight from the Campaign for Freedom of Information, a wonderful group which has seen off many threats to FOI and was instrumental to it being enacted in the first place:
A survey of local councils, aimed at gathering information to push for restrictions to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The Local Government Association (LGA) has written privately to councils saying it is thinking of calling for changes to the Act and asking them to supply details of “problems” caused by it.The email, circulated last month, says the LGA is “considering pressing the Government again for changes to the FOI legislation, having regard to the cost and time in handling FOI requests”. It says it is particularly concerned about “the use of the FOI process by researchers and campaigners for their benefit at our expense” and asks for statistics on the proportion of requests made by “media, campaigning bodies, commercial or business bodies undertaking their own research” and the time and cost of dealing with “research type” FOI requests.
The LGA says the email to councils didn’t come from them, but from Lawyers in Local Government, which the LGA had spoken to about concerns among a small number of councils that FOI was being used increasingly by commercial organisations. They’ve asked me to point out they didn’t send the email to the councils involved – which I’m happy to do.
To me, this effectively means is a tax-payer funded organisation – the LGA, despite its official sounding name, is little more than a lobbying group for councils, funded by millions of pounds worth of subscriptions paid by councils – is proactively seeking to restrict use of one of the few tools available to the public to hold its members to account. The LGA says it is just seeking views at the moment.
If this was a survey which sought views in general, it would be different. But it’s very clear from the tone of the email that what we have here is someone fishing for tales of woe about FOI.
Why on earth would an organisation which represents councils run by councillors who all purport to believe in open-ness and transparency possibly be pushing for such a negative slant on FOI?
Here’s my view: It’s the most effective tool journalists, members of the public and campaigners have at their disposal to find out what is going on at a council. Many, many front pages have only been possible thanks to FOI. To many councils and councillors, that’s a bad thing. For those of us who believe people have to earn the right to be elected, and should expect to be held to account, it’s a very good thing. There are many, many good councillors out there. There are also many senior councillors who seem to believe the public’s right to know begins and ends with an election leaflet every May.
There have been many examples of councillors bleating on about the cost of FOI in these financially-tight times, but very few ask themselves what could be done to reduce FOI requests without putting up blockers. The fact councils are raising this with the LGA suggests to me some are just hell bent on putting up blockers.
Councils could, for example, publish disclosure logs, or ban their press offices from kicking difficult stories into the long grass by insisting journalists submit FOI requests.
They could release more data and information as standard. They could improve the way they archive information, making it easier to find the stuff being requested. They could stop doing research on those submitting FOI requests. Politicians could stop meddling in the process.
But most importantly, they could embrace the public’s right to know by encouraging officers to support the use of FOI.
Yes, I know it’s an additional job on top of very stretched people, but councils have to remember why they are there. The public has a right to know, and that spirit should run through authorities. All too often, it’s seen as a chore, a hassle, almost a cheek for a member of the public to show an interest.
The language used by in the email is very telling: “It says it is particularly concerned about “the use of the FOI process by researchers and campaigners for their benefit at our expense” and asks for statistics on the proportion of requests made by “media, campaigning bodies, commercial or business bodies undertaking their own research.”
In the same way I was appalled to hear the union which represents journalists saying it supported council newspapers and the statutory regulation of the press, any right-minded – or public-minded – councillor should be appalled by the tone of the communication. It’s not ‘their’ money – it’s our money, paid in taxes for councils to deliver services. It’s not asking for the views of member councils, it’s asking for evidence to support for an already-formed opinion.
Ironically, the LGA’s enquiry to Lawyers in Local Government has resulted in something it criticises journalists and researchers of – using officer time to carry out its research. Only it’s not using the tool available to everyone, FOI – it’s just imposing itself on councils for information to suit an agenda.
It then wants even more public money spent reviewing FOI again – less than two years after a cross-party committee generally agreed FOI was in a good place.
Updated: A Local Government Association spokesman said: “The LGA and local government are fully committed to the Freedom of Information Act and the purpose for which it was intended. Some local authorities have raised concerns with us about the volume of requests are being put in by companies for commercial purposes and the increasing amount of time and resources it takes to process them.
“As the membership body for local government, the LGA is trying to ascertain whether this is a widespread issue.”
Going after FOI on cost grounds has nothing to do with the money spent, but everything to do with being uncomfortable with the results of the public having a right to know. And at more than £14m a year, we probably have a right to know just what our councils are getting for their contributions to the LGA….