There is nothing like a good telling off!

TPA supporter John Martin appears to be on the receiving end again.

Periodically, Norfolk County Council (NCC) tells me off for the number of enquiries, both formal and informal, that I make for information and the number of questions that I ask. It is clearly that time of the year. I returned from holiday to find a severe rebuke, on this occasion from one of NCC’s solicitors. I have absolutely no problem with the chap in question; he is always polite and patient with me, but I fear that the same cannot be said of those who instruct him in County Hall.

By way of a softening-up salvo, the solicitor pointed out that over a period of three years I had made 49 requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), written 19 letters and made 169 other requests for information. Phew! He estimated that the 49 FOIA requests alone had cost between £4,000 and £5000 to answer. (Like many local authorities, NCC does not record time and places an estimate of £98 on dealing with each FOIA request it receives, however complex or simple.) He also told me that if I did not discontinue my practice of copying my correspondence to all 84 elected members, NCC would consider what action it could take to prevent this. Ouch!

My first response was simply to say that opacity is inevitably costly. In my experience, the number of requests that a public authority receives for information is usually in inverse proportion to the degree of willingness it shows to be open and transparent. However, I thought that I really should deal in detail with what he had to say.

I pointed out that my FOIA request averaged roughly 16 a year. In 2009-2010 NCC processed a total of 798 such requests. That made me responsible for just 2.25% of them. How dreadful was that? And on the basis of his estimate, that produced an average annual cost of £1,568.

To put that in context, the cost to NCC that same year of processing three conduct complaints to the Standards Committee against members was £13,730. In the past ten months, the NCC Leader alone has himself attracted three conduct complaints from his own colleagues, two including allegations of bullying. I suggested that it might be more appropriate to recommend that he tempers his conduct, rather than I temper mine.

But then there were all of the other requests. This was my defence. If it helps any of you in a similar position, you are welcome to use it for free:-

·     My approach has never been a vexatious one.

·     The issues aired have been of general public interest.

·     The information provided has been widely disseminated by me.

·     Much of the information is readily available to officers.

·     It is not made easily accessible to the public.

·     The information is usually not costly to provide.

·     In many cases there is now a legal obligation to share it.

I reminded the solicitor that otherwise I have simply taken advantage of opportunities made available under the NCC Constitution, such a Cabinet public question time, but reminded him that the answers provided are often defensive and uninformative, and frequently incomplete. Furthermore, there is no opportunity for debate or any other kind of follow up.

But my real concern about his letter was that NCC now, for defensive reasons, is trying to stifle my right, and the right of all members of the public (if they choose to exercise it) to take part in local government. I know of no basis, short of an injunction from the High Court, on which NCC can prevent me from communicating with any of its elected members. I argued that I am entitled to raise any issues with NCC that impact on me as a member of the public and a council taxpayer, regardless of whether NCC has a strict legal or procedural duty to respond. Where it chooses not to, then I shall leave others to draw their own conclusions and to pursue the issues themselves, should they see fit.

What followed was a pleasant surprise. One NCC member e-mailed me and described the solicitor’s letter as “bloody outrageous”. Another e-mailed me expressing concern at what he saw as an attempt to gag me and said; “Most of what you ask is probably what a majority of the public and the members should be asking”. This has not happened before, and so I have some limited hope for the future. Yes, the FOIA is an extremely useful tool, but surely a reasonable local authority should be prepared to volunteer information that it is in the public interest to share without it having to be invoked.

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