Accessing information

Last week, Anna Bailey wrote about Nottingham City Council's cavalier attitude to transparency. Unfortunately, this council is not alone. One of our supporters from Hertfordshire has been experiencing difficulties with his local council, and the secretary from our West Yorkshire Branch, Nigel Shaw, and I have been in a battle with Bradford Council.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 clearly states public authorities must reply promptly, and in any event not later than the twentieth working day following the date of receipt. In all fairness, most of them do, and give you full answers to your questions. The councils I am concerned about are the exceptions to the rule, but unfortunately these exceptions seem to be growing and perversely are trying to use the Act to prevent you from accessing information.

For example, Nottingham City Council is trying to prevent individuals from issuing more than one FOI request every 60 days, saying such requests may be regarded as vexatious. This is nonsense, not least because a vexatious request is one intended to disrupt an authority, irrespective of when the applicant last submitted a request. Nottingham might be confusing 'repeated' requests and 'aggregating' requests for the purposes of the 18 hour limit.

In the case of Nottingham, if they published spending above £500 online, they wouldn't receive as many FOIs. There are also those who are more interested in council spending than others. Eric Pickles wants armchair auditors around the country to examine their council's accounts. If they cannot send more than one FOI every 60 days, this seriously hampers their efforts.

East Herts Council has failed to respond to 165 FOIs in the last six years within the statutory 20 working days. In percentage terms, the council has gradually got worse year-on-year.

On a recent FOI sent to Bradford Council, I received a completely unsatisfactory response, and asked for the decision to be reviewed. The council promised a response within 20 working days. This is now over a week late. Not only has Bradford Council refused to give me information other councils have freely given, it also can't be bothered to review its decision and get back to me in the time scale the law stipulates.

Councils who keep on thwarting the public's right to access information need naming and shaming. They may not have anything to hide (although I doubt it) but by acting in the way they do, they give the impression they have something to hide.

Last week the Department for Communities and Local Government launched a new website. It is not widely known that councils must make their accounts available to the public for twenty days a year, and if you enter your postcode, or address, or the name of your council into the search engine, you can find out when your council's accounts from the last financial year are open for public scrutiny. Please remember you will be able to check all spending, not just spending above £500. This is your once in a year right, so please use it, and if you find anything interesting, make a note of it, and get in touch.

If you are also experiencing difficulties accessing information through the Freedom of Information Act, please let us know. We need more transparency, not less of it. Exposing waste and getting better value for money for taxpayers is something councils should welcome, not discourage.

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