Small steps towards greater transparency

In our struggle with Kent Country Council, the Information Commissioner has ruled in favour of the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Some background: In putting together the Town Hall Rich List 2008, we asked all the councils in the UK to provide details of those employees earning over £100,000. Many councils, appreciating that there is a clear public interest in - and right to know - what Town Hall executives are paid, replied swiftly and properly, providing us with the information we had requested.

Some councils were more reluctant though, and that reluctance tended to correlate closely with the remuneration of their top executives; those who paid massive salaries were much less keen to reveal them. Kent County Council - who had 14 people earning over £100,000 in 2006-07, one of whom earned over £240,000 - refused to provide any details. Citing the repercussions which had befallen their fabulously well remunerated Chief Executive last year following the publication of his pay the previous year - apparently people said things to him in the street - Kent withheld all the information requested (even after an appeal). This turned out to be a mistake, as their refusal generated quite a media storm.

The case with the Information Commissioner: Dissatisfied with the lack of information we lodged an appeal with the Information Commissioner (ICO) almost exactly a year ago (28th February 2008). As the ICO is overstretched and underfunded, the case took almost a year to process. But last month the ICO gave its Preliminary View, upholding our right to the names and positions of those individuals earning over £100,000 in 2006-07. It ruled that exact remuneration figures could be withheld on personal data grounds, but that tight bands (£10,000) must be given next to the named individuals. Kent County Council have been instructed to now provide us with the requested information. We await the arrival of that letter with interest.

New ICO guidance for all public bodies: No doubt stimulated in no small way by the TPA's campaign for more openness and transparency, the ICO has now published explicit guidance to deal with the revealing of public sector salaries. Brought out only yesterday, the guidance stresses that public bodies (including local authorities) should provide requested salaries (as long as they are attached to someone significantly senior enough) as a matter of routine, in bands of £5,000. Names and positions should not be withheld unless there is a legitimate concern over the privacy of the individual; people knowing roughly what you earn is not an invasion of privacy if you are responsible for spending millions in taxpayers' money.

It does not go as far as we would like, and unfortunately it does not address many of the problems that exist with the Freedom of Information Act in this respect. However it is a step towards greater transparency, one which we broadly welcome, and one which are proud to have had some part in bringing about. 

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