There was some welcome news from Eric Pickles this week. The Communities Secretary, addressing the Local Government Association (LGA), said that the trade association which represents local authorities should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act in the same way as councils and Whitehall departments.
The FOI Act was one of the major achievements of the previous Labour administration. It enables organisations like ours as well as politicians, journalists and members of the public to obtain and uncover important information about how we are governed and how our money is spent. The extension of this principle will not only increase accountability but also facilitate the identification of more potential savings within the public sector. What’s more, as we said in our book How to Cut Public Spending (and still win an election), it would do no harm building support for the spending cuts announced in the Emergency Budget and, inevitably, further measures in the upcoming Spending Review.
The LGA is one of three taxpayer-funded trade associations we identified in a recent report; associations whose sole aim is to influence debate and the direction of policy on behalf of the public bodies that they represent. A monumental 76 per cent of the LGA’s net annual income, amounting to nearly £15 million, is sourced from subscriptions paid for by the member organisations, organisations which are wholly funded from the public purse. At present, they are running their own ‘Who’s in charge? The Accountability Campaign’. Their website states that this is “calling for more accountability and greater value for money within the public sector”. Would they like themselves to be included as part of the strive for greater value for money, I wonder? The signs are that they would prefer not to be. Just last year they refused to release the details of various allowances, which we eventually got our hands on. Unsurprisingly, the data showed indefensible, above-inflation increases across a wide range of councils.
Supposedly, the LGA is not a public body. But it is financed with taxpayers’ money and a creature of local councils and so Eric Pickles is absolutely right to open them up to scrutiny by the people that fund them. The general public effectively take the place of company shareholders in this situation.
Then there's the NHS Confederation and the Association of Police Authorities. Surely these two remaining trade associations, funded by the taxpayer, should be subject to the FOI Act too? If the Government do not include them, they will leave themselves wide open to accusations of hypocrisy.
Beyond trade associations, there are other taxpayer-financed bodies that do not fall under FOI legislation. The charity Alcohol Concern, for example, receives 57 per cent of its funding from the Department of Health and yet, being an ‘independent’ body, does not find itself subject to the Act. Do taxpayers not have the right to know how their money is being spent? The Carbon Trust gets all of its £100 million funding from the Exchequer, reports to a government minister and yet, by being classed as an independent company, is exempt from FOI scrutiny. The point was made in our book that it would be more than interesting to know quite how much the Trust spent on their high profile marketing campaign at various London Underground stations. Alas, we may never know.
The debate continues as to how each and every council, department, emergency service, school and other public bodies can achieve maximum productivity with the least amount of money, amidst a £156 billion budget deficit. Eric Pickles’ statement will mean the public can highlight ways of saving money from within the LGA via the ten year old Freedom of Information legislation. It is time for the other trade associations and independent enterprises that receive taxpayers’ money to open up to this public scrutiny as well.
Outside of that, there is the question whether these organisations should exist at all. What right do publicly funded bodies have to use money, coming from taxpayers’ pockets, to influence the debate and direction of policy? Public money is meant to provide services, not to pay for organisations involvement in political disputes and promote their political views and interests. You shouldn’t have to subsidise the promotion of political views that aren’t your own.
By Jago Pearson