After I wrote yesterday about some councils not complying with Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, a supporter left a comment alerting us to a story in Kirklees.
It was reported in March in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner that the leader of Kirklees Council, Cllr Mehboob Khan, had been meddling in public information. Cllr Khan instructed staff to let him see FOI responses going to members of the public so he could amend them if necessary, and the newspaper obtained e-mails proving this. Cllr Khan says freedom of information is important and he only wanted to ensure the correct responses were going out, although the opportunity for him to make politically motivated amendments is there, something he vigorously denies.
To give you an example, one of the newspaper's reporters, Katie Grant, issued an FOI asking how much council tax is currently owed by people living in Kirklees – including all overdue payments. The FOI officer prepared a thorough report going back to 1993, which was then sent to Cllr Khan. He refused to let it go out, and instead told officers to prepare a report covering 2010/11 - a financial year which at the time had not finished.
When asked by Katie Grant why he had interfered in such a way, he responded by saying:
"This area falls into the portfolio shared by myself and Cllr Shabir Pandor and we would want to see this kind of information as a matter of course. In terms of this particular response, after discussing with colleagues, I felt that the figures were less clear when they covered several years all the way back to 1993 and masked the real facts which was about how much as a council we had outstanding and how much we had collected in council tax in 2009/10. I think the picture given in the response was a clear one about the current situation."
If there are still outstanding council tax payments owed covering previous years, it reflects badly on the council. I don't think the initial report prepared was 'less clear'. Nor do I think it 'masked the real facts'. It strikes me that Cllr Khan was using his position to act as a spin doctor, ensuring the council was painted in the best possible light.
Bringing this story up-to-date, is has now been reported Cllr Khan is being investigated for misconduct, and rightly so, although the process will be conducted behind closed doors! I'm sure the irony isn't lost on you. We have a council leader who has interfered in the FOI process being investigated behind closed doors, and the council will not even supply any information about it, including the date of the hearing. All the council will say is, “Due process is now being followed and we will not comment further until completion.”
When the newspaper informed the council they would be running a story about this non-transparent process, the Head of Legal Services said they would explain why. They then promptly pulled out of the interview, without giving an explanation. I have spoken to the newspaper this morning, and the council's position has not changed.
The way some councils abuse the FOI process is nothing short of criminal. They don't respond in time, or give wholly inadequate responses. They manipulate data to suit their own ends, and try to limit our right to freedom of information. Barely a day goes by without a supporter or a journalist contacting me about problems they are encountering or a story they want giving a wider airing.
Taxpayers in Kirklees do not have faith in a process that hides itself away. By refusing to give the names of those investigating Cllr Khan's alleged misconduct, and by also refusing to give a date when the hearing will take place, it further undermines the trust it has with the people it's supposed to serve.