Tag Archive for local authorities

FOI in English Local Authorities in 2016

FOIMan summarises the results of research into the numbers of FOI requests that local authorities in England received in 2016.

The new s.45 code of practice requires all public authorities to publish data on their FOI performance, but that hasn’t always been required. Outside of central government, the availability of reliable data on FOI request volumes is patchy to say the least.

Local government is reputed to receive the most FOI requests of all public authorities. Between 2005 and 2011, the Constitution Unit at UCL carried out valuable research into FOI in local government, including request volumes. The reports on their research can be found on the UCL website.

Since the 2011 report (on 2010), there hasn’t been any comprehensive data available on FOI volumes in local government in England (to my knowledge). As regular readers will know, I conducted some research into FOI in local government as part of the preparation for my book The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook. In Autumn 2017, I wrote to a sample of councils across the country and asked them a number of questions. Amongst those questions I asked for the number of requests received in 2016 and the number of those requests answered in 20 working days.

In my latest article for the Freedom of Information Journal I have reported on the results of these questions, and compared them to UCL’s research to examine the trends in council request volumes. It will come as no surprise to learn that request volumes appear to have continued to rise over that period.

If you want to read more about the outcomes of my research, other aspects (including how requests are managed and how performance is monitored) are explored in detail in The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook which will be published at the beginning of January 2019 by Facet Publishing. Details of how to order a copy at a discount can be found at the top of the sidebar opposite.

Local Authority Meetings & Secrecy

FOIMan clarifies the relationship between FOI and local authority meeting rules.

Following the awful tragedy that unfolded at Grenfell Tower, there have been a lot of questions asked of the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). Yesterday (29 June 2017) the council held a Cabinet meeting which began and ended in controversial circumstances. I was subsequently asked by a follower on Twitter about the relationship between FOI and attendance at council meetings.

The short answer is that there is none. FOI gives a right of access to information held by public authorities. It doesn’t regulate access to meetings.

The longer and more helpful answer is that FOI forms part of a range of legal requirements that ensure that local authorities like RBKC are accountable. I’ve written previously about transparency rules in local government. In relation to meetings of the RBKC cabinet, the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 are, I believe, the relevant rules. I won’t go into whether RBKC were entitled to exclude the media from the meeting in this case as a) I don’t claim to be an expert in this area, and b) it’s already been dealt with by a legal ruling which ruled that the Press had to be admitted. But if you’re interested in what the rules are, the regulations I mention above may be of interest to you.

From my point of view, one of the most interesting issues is that RBKC are the latest organisation to discover that the perception of secrecy can be just as damaging, if not more so, as the revelation of embarrassing information (interestingly a theme explored by Dr Ben Worthy in his recent book on The Politics of FOI, which I thoroughly recommend). As one MP in their maiden speech said:

The public has the right…to know what its elected representatives are doing…Publicity is the greatest and most effective check against any arbitrary action.

The MP was Margaret Thatcher, and she said this in 1960 in support of a Bill to allow the Press to attend council meetings.

(HT to Alan Travis of The Guardian – @alantravis40 – for providing the quote above from Hansard in a Tweet yesterday)

Local Government? FOI is the least of your problems

FOIMan reviews the current regulatory state of Town Hall Transparency.

I declare this meeting open!

I declare this meeting open!

Freedom of Information (FOI) regularly receives a bad press from public authorities, and in particular from the Local Government Association, who like to highlight “wacky” FOI requests (which, as others have made clear, may not in actual fact be that wacky). The funny thing is though, a cursory glance at local authority transparency regulation makes it pretty clear that FOI is the least of town halls’ worries.

I was recently asked to provide training in the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations  2014. Now, in all honesty it’s quite some time since I worked in a local authority, so whilst I was aware of the regulations in a very broad sense, I was glad of the opportunity to spend some time researching the current scope of local government transparency requirements. Once I had delved a little deeper I began to wonder why FOI attracted all the ire.

The Openness Regs are just the tip of a large and glassy iceberg. The bit that got most people’s attention when they were launched by DCLG Secretary of State Eric Pickles earlier this year was the requirement on councils to allow local people to film council meetings. In fact, the regulations also add to the growing list of information that DCLG expects local authorities to publish.

Just this year we’ve seen a new Transparency Code which for the most part is now mandatory in England. English councils have to publish details of staff members earning over £50,000; contracts over £5,000; time spent on trade union activities; all council property; grants to various organisations; how much they collect in parking fines; and much else besides. They’re encouraged to adopt the Open Government Licence for all this, so that people can download it and use it however they see fit.

Since the mid-1980s, councils have been expected to allow the public access to papers of their meetings – agenda, minutes, reports. Until recently this just meant allowing them to pick up copies from council offices. But more recent legislation means that papers relating to executive meetings must also be published on the local authority website (“if it has one” – cue councils up and down the country rushing to dismantle their internet connection). “Key” decisions must be advertised 28 days in advance, as must matters that are to be discussed in private. The decisions taken by members and officers under executive powers must be published, and now, through the Openness Regs, the same is true of many decisions taken by council officers under delegated powers. They must also publish “background papers” that were used in reaching the decision.

You may be thinking that this is still very different from the obligations under FOI though. People can’t request that papers be sent to them. Except they can – as long as they’re prepared to pay for photocopying, printing and postage, the regulations of the last couple of years require the council to provide the copies. Bear in mind that public authorities can charge the same for information released under FOI. The similarities don’t end there. Just as it is a criminal offence to block access to information requested under FOI, council officers can find themselves facing a charge if they attempt to stop you accessing council meeting papers.

The good news is that if councils comply with these requirements, they won’t have to answer FOI requests – most of the time – for the same information. Section 21 of FOI provides an exemption where information is already reasonably accessible to the requester, and this applies in situations where an existing legal requirement provides access. Councils can even refuse to provide the information in a format specified by the requester unless the requester’s situation – for example, a disability – means that the information is not reasonably accessible to them in the published format.

So even if FOI was abolished tomorrow, town halls up and down the country would still find themselves having to publish significant volumes of information, and perhaps even having to answer requests. In the meantime, as the end of FOI does not seem to be on anyone’s agenda at the moment, town hall transparency can at least save them some work in answering FOI requests as well as keeping Mr Pickles at bay (not to mention avoiding some embarrassing judicial review outcomes).

Get in touch if you’d like to know more about my in-house training in Local Government Transparency.

The Street that Cut Everything…including FOI

How would the residents featured in the BBC’s The Street that Cut Everything have fared with FOI?

Wow, it was tough yesterday, returning to work after a few weeks’ holiday. So last night I remained sedentary watching telly. And up came the BBC’s political reality television programme, The Street that Cut Everything.

For those who aren’t in the UK, or missed it, the programme makers persuaded a street in Preston (northern England) to try an interesting social experiment. They were to do without local council services for 6 weeks. A fascinating idea given the massive cuts that all local authorities are having to make in the current climate.

Of course, it started off with most residents believing that the council cost too much, and it wouldn’t be too much of a hardship to do without it. They received rebates of their council tax which they decided to pool to pay for any services they required privately.

So up turned the bin men to take away the (empty) bins.  The street lights were turned off. They couldn’t go to the local leisure centre or park. They started to receive fines for not disposing of dumped fridges and recycling appropriately. And it didn’t take long before the previously friendly neighbours were at each other’s throats over whether they should be paying for one family’s benefits or free meals-on-wheels for an elderly resident.

In short, it became patently clear to them that they couldn’t cope without the council, and that it was, in actual fact, excellent value.

Partially in jest, I asked on Twitter whether they would have to answer any FOI requests. I say partially because there’s a serious point here. The residents had to find ways to provide all the services and benefits that the council provided with limited funds. In other words, they were basically a council in microcosm. And they found it impossible to provide their own services effectively on even a very basic level. Imagine if Mrs Smith from No.9 had had to answer tens of questions a week about what they were doing on top of actually doing it.

I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here of course. Councils are in a better position to provide services than a group of unqualified, inexperienced and uninformed members of the public, and their budget was very limited and left little scope for redistribution. And I’m not (as I hope you’d realise by now) arguing that FOI should be further restricted.

But even if you believe in openness, accountability and transparency as most of us do, it must be remembered that answering FOI requests is a service. It has to be managed to ensure that resources aren’t overwhelmed and are used fairly. That’s worth bearing in mind if you think that a public authority is taking too long to answer your request, or if it has refused your request on cost grounds. It might not be being secretive or dragging its heels. It might just be very, very busy providing a range of services, many of which you probably take for granted or are simply unaware of.  And it answers FOI requests on top of that, in the vast majority of cases in the time that it is supposed to.