FOI: The council which tried to keep spending cuts hitting vulnerable people a secret

Staffordshire County Council, perhaps the only council in the country which tried to keep cuts a secret

Do you remember last year (so long ago!) when Staffordshire County Council tried to embarrass FOI requesters by ‘naming and shaming’ those costing the authority the most because of their frequent requests?

There were numerous problems with their ‘data’ – not least the fact it used average costs when everyone knows one FOI can be far more time-consuming than the next.

And then the Ampp3d data journalism team at the Mirror extrapolated the cost of FOI in Staffordshire from the council’s total budget, and found it ran to 0.003%. The price of transparency clearly isn’t that much of a burden.

One killer point made by Paul Bradshaw was the fact that the ‘name and shame’ list didn’t outline what people were actually asking for, so it was very hard for an individual to come to their own conclusion on whether or not it was money well spent. It appeared that Staffordshire County Council’s view that it wasn’t.

Now a story in Uttoxeter News has emerged which appears to show that perhaps the council could save money if it was just a little bit more open with information in the first place.

The News reports on an FOI which revealed exactly which 50 – so a quarter – of the 200 ‘Supporting People’ contracts the county council was cutting.

Support People contracts are used to provide support to vulnerable people, such as victims of domestic violence and those needing community alarms to get help in emergency.

The council announced the plan to cut a quarter of the contracts, but at the time refused to say which ones were going, citing ‘commercial sensitivity.’

Should it really take an FOI request to find out that support to those with dementia is being cut, or that frail pensioners must now pay for emergency alarms, or that those with learning difficulties may now have to live in care homes because funding to keep them at home has been taken away?

There are two points worth making here. The first is that if Staffordshire County Council really is bothered about the cost of FOI – rather than being worried about the fact FOI hands power to those outside the council to ask questions – then surely it should be more open about releasing information in context, at the right time.

The second is that hiding behind commercial sensitivity to withhold information which deserved public scrutiny as it involved potentially thousands of people and clearly reflects the council’s priorities within restricted budgets, appears to secrecy gone mad.

In fairness to Staffordshire, it does operate a disclosure log so you can see what else people have requested, but surely it would be much better for the county council to be more open in the first place. After all, it’s our money the council is spending.

Trying to keep exact details of spending cuts a secret seems quite remarkable.

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