Keep the politics out of FOI

The Leader of Kirklees Council has been accused of vetting and altering FOI responses from his council. FOI Man thinks that politicians should keep out of answering FOI requests for their own good.

Just a brief post because I wanted to draw attention to David Higgerson’s post on the Council Leader at Kirklees Council. The Council Leader in question allegedly insists on reading FOI responses before they go out and seemingly forcing the FOI Officer to change responses that don’t quite fit with his political message.

First thing to be clear about. Most FOI Officers don’t have all the information in their organisation to hand. They have to ask other people about it. And it’s absolutely right that people in a position to know the information are able to correct errors before the information goes out.

And there are reasons why an elected politician may need to see details of a request and proposed response – for example if they are the “qualified person” ruling if disclosure of information would or would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs (under s.36 of the Act). If the information relates to them, there may be good reason to consult them to check the accuracy of the information.

But by and large, I’ve always felt that politicians, and for that matter, political advisors,  should be kept out of preparing FOI responses unless they happen to have the relevant information. Even if their motives are purer than pure, it just doesn’t look good. And as David points out, if an FOI Officer is able to collate information to answer a request, why should a politician stop it, just because they don’t like the way it portrays them? At the best it looks like control-freakery; at the worst it politicises and undermines what should be an effective administrative process.

It does happen unfortunately, but hopefully articles like this one in the Hudderfield Examiner will demonstrate to politicians and their advisors that their best bet is to stay as far away as possible from answering FOI requests.

No comments

  1. bainesy1969 says:

    I digress, but can an elected politician be a section 36 qualified person? I think not: by s36(5)(o)(ii) it is “the public authority” itself, or (iii) “any officer or employee of the public authority”. An elected member cannot be qualified under the latter, so they could only ever be qualified to the extent that they “are” the public authority, and, therefore, as an *individual*, they cannot be or purport to be the qualified person.

    By the way, there used to be a long-since-archived list of s36 qualified persons on the old MoJ site, but it seems to be lost now. It would be interesting to see if we could rustle up a new one (*dons FOI requester hat, and toddles off to whatdotheyknow.com*).

    Also by the way, I wonder if Mr Khan was involved in the repeated failures to appeal the CON29R case recently once again refused in the Upper Tribunal?: http://www.osscsc.gov.uk/Aspx/view.aspx?id=3217

  2. foiman says:

    Hi Bainesy and sorry for taking a while to approve your comment. I agree that s36(5)(o)(ii) may well prevent an elected politician from being the qualified person for authorities falling within s36(5)(o)(ii) and/or (iii). But immediately above (ii) is (i) a Minister of the Crown -and most of them (though not all – some are Lords) are elected politicians. Other clauses under s36(5) that would put an elected politician in that role are: (a), (b), (d), (f – I think), (g – I think), (m), and (n) – the Mayor of London can and does appoint elected politicians – including himself – as the chair of functional bodies). I concur that this isn’t the case for local authorities though!

    Funny that when we’re supposed to be becoming ever more open, more and more of this important stuff keeps going missing off websites!