It struck me the other day that, while we probably have little to thank the Blair administration for, we should all be grateful to it for giving us the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Where would we be without the Act when so many public authorities still seem to find it impossible to embrace concepts of transparency and accountability? For instance, our local newspaper here in Norfolk has just published an article revealing that incidents involving vehicles belonging to our councils, the local police and other service providers in the county have resulted in more than £4m being claimed on insurance in the past three years. Just think what impact that must have had on the premiums charged.
I calculated that the newspaper must have sent in at least ten separate requests under the Act to extract the information necessary to produce the article. My first reaction was one of admiration. But then, I started to feel a trifle resentful. How can the newspaper get away with that when I have just received an unsolicited telling off from the leader of Norfolk County Council for wasting “thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money” with my requests which, in the case of the Council, average only ten in a whole year?
Let us have a look at some figures. The most recent ones that I could obtain for the Council are for 2008-2009, and no – I didn’t request them under the Act! In that year, the Council received 589 requests, which means that I was responsible for only 1.69% of them. The media made 110 requests, and of the requests that were submitted by political and pressure groups the Conservatives were credited with 55. I doubt somehow that the Leader will risk telling off the media. (One of his colleagues was lampooned in the local newspaper earlier for referring to those who rely upon the Act as “offenders”!) Equally, he can hardly tell off the Conservatives, because they control the Council. Individuals generally were responsible for 198 requests, and there is evidence that some submitted more than one. I do not know whether any of them have been told off.
Needless to say, I filed a defence and in case it helps anyone else who has been on the end of criticism of this kind here it is. I have only ever sought information in respect of matters that are – or should be – of general interest to the residents of Norfolk, and much of that information has related to the expenditure of taxpayers’ money. (A good example would be expenditure on external consultants.) I do not believe that my approach has been vexatious, and I have always disseminated the information widely for the benefit of any number of third parties, including elected members of the Council. (It is surprising how often members respond by saying “I wasn’t aware of that”. If I am feeling uncharitable, I am inclined to enquire why they had never asked the questions themselves.)
Much of the information that I have sought is readily available to the Council. Often, it is likely to be needed for management purposes or to brief committees or even to answer questions from members. For this reason, it cannot be expensive to provide. It is just not made easily accessible to the public. And increasingly there will be a legal obligation on the Council to publish more of this kind of information, just as it is now required for the first time to show full details of the remuneration packages of many of its chief officers. (If anyone is interested, the Council’s chief executive collected £263,700 last year.)
In summary, the right to make such requests has been conferred by Parliament for a purpose, and there is a balance given that the right to information is not an absolute one. (There is much scope for pleading an exemption.) Any public authority that seeks to deter the making of such requests really does walk a dangerous tightrope.
John Martin, Norfolk