Problems with new accounting regulations no excuse for poor FoI responses

Our annual Town Hall Rich List always manages to provoke a reaction, and this year’s was no exception. Data for the latest 2011 list was taken from councils’ 2009-10 statement of accounts, thanks to a very welcome change in the regulations. Previously, we compiled the information by sending freedom of information requests to all local authorities in the UK. We still had to send requests to councils in Scotland and Northern Ireland this time round as the new regulations do not apply to them.

The new regulations state that while councils should provide information for the respective employees in the year to which the annual accounts relate, “equivalent disclosure is required for the comparative year.” This means that councils should not only provide the most recent year’s figures, but also the one prior to that for the sake of comparison. It is worth noting that while the levels of disclosure varied (for example, some providing searchable pdfs, others providing scanned documents or poorly formatted ones) most councils met these standards with ease. But some didn’t.

Where councils did not provide comparable information for the 2008-09 financial year, we searched our Town Hall Rich List 2010 to fill in the gaps for that year. We did this because it is the most reliable information on senior salaries that has been published, as it was assembled through Freedom of Information requests. This caused confusion with Lincolnshire County council’s numbers. In response to our request last year they initially provided positions and salary bands of £10,000. We had to submit an official appeal through the council to get more information, as our request asked for total remuneration and names. They then provided names and bands of £5,000, still a little short of what we actually requested.

Lincolnshire Council disputed the figures for remuneration increase in this year’s report. This figure will be high in some columns if a person received an extraordinary redundancy payment, was in post for part year or if incomplete information was provided by the council. In Lincolnshire’s case it was the latter. However, we controlled for this. When working out the average remuneration increase across the board we only included those in post for the full two years; therefore excluding part year employees, those who retired or were made redundant. What’s more, the source for the 2008-09 figure was clearly stated in the notes column of the report. For Lincolnshire’s entry, this explained that the 2008-09 figure was taken from our last Rich List and was taken from a provided band.

This example highlights three important points. First it draws attention to the inconsistent and selective disclosure in the councils’ 2009-10 statements of accounts. The second is with councils’ inaccuracy or reluctance to respond fully to Freedom of Information requests. Third is that we had to appeal to Lincolnshire to get these figures, which they now say are wrong; this reluctance to be open and transparent last year has clearly not helped. True, they now publish pay online, and with good detail, but this is not retrospective. Lincolnshire provided us with both figures, through FoI and through their own accounts, and this was the most detailed publicly available information.

Our Campaign Manager Charlotte went on the radio to talk about the THRL with a councillor from Lincolnshire County council. Rather than discussing the issues at hand, the councillor just focussed on the “wrong” figures. Of course, Charlotte was quick to point out to him that they were the council’s very own figures. If they’re wrong, then Lincolnshire have provided the wrong figures. It is so disappointing that taxpayers in Lincolnshire were denied genuine debate about savings at the council. Staff and councillors at Lincolnshire should check our sources, then their own accounts and FoI responses.

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