Thursday, January 06, 2011

Council objections to publication of spending data

Last week it was announced that so far fewer than half of England's councils had started publishing the spending data which the government wants them to disclose.

Screenshot of local government transparency timeline

Ministers have given local authorities a deadline of the end of January to issue online the details of their expenditure on items over £500. The Communities and Local Government department maintains a timeline to display progress towards this.

But documents obtained by the BBC under freedom of information show some councils have protested to the department about this demand from central government.

East Dorset council opposed the plan, complaining that "this will create work to comply with and...add no value at all." Its chief executive David McIntosh wrote: "Rather it is only likely to result in requests and therefore further work when the few people who bother to look at it ask for further clarification."

Mr McIntosh also called for the Freedom of Information Act to be revisited. His letter stated: "It's initial and laudable aim was to allow individuals to access information held about them by public authorities. In practise it is mainly used by companies, contractors, consultancies, students, employees, journalists and the public to access information for commercial, academic, editorial, or other purposes."

(Apart from the grammatical and spelling errors, Mr McIntosh is also wrong on the initial aim of the FOI Act. The law which gives individuals access to information about themselves is actually the Data Protection Act.)

Other councils which objected included Stoke-on-Trent which said the scheme "will increase paperwork and process" and Cornwall which said it "will require a disproportionate increase in resource".

Similarly Roger Tetstall, chief executive of Test Valley, told CLG that "the requirement to publish 'items of spend over £500' will result in significant amounts of staff time being wasted on dealing with frivolous, vexatious and idiosyncratic enquiries".

Wyre Council was another opponent. Its then chief executive Jim Corry also called for the government to "ban Freedom of Information requests from commercial companies as they are not in the public interest and waste valuable staff resources".

Some authorities did not object in principle to publishing spending data, but were unhappy about the threshold of £500. These included Gloucester, Newark & Sherwood, and Haringey.

Alan Jarrett, Deputy Leader of Medway Council, also questioned the £500 criterion: "I envisage that the resultant enquiries (both general and FOI) will be excessive and possibly vexatious, and will not assist public accountability."

Waverley Council was worried about other aspects of the department's transparency plans, expressing concerns for example about the idea of publishing online the details of licensing applications.

Its leader Robert Knowles wrote: "My worry is that the current drive towards transparency, while a sound political principle, must not be taken to an extreme, in which councils are spending large sums on processing and publishing information for which there is no local demand."

However it should be noted that these councils which told CLG of their objections or reservations about the government's openness agenda are only a small minority of over 240 which expressed views on how to reduce administrative burdens on local authorities.

In contrast there are many authorities which are highly enthusiastic, while there are certainly others who may not be keen but accept this is the way the wind is blowing and feel there is little point in protesting.