Saturday, 9 August 2014

Why should we have to ask?

Just days after my previous outpourings, which concentrated on the abject failure of many public bodies - our local council included - to achieve high standards when dealing with Freedom of Information requests, I could have sworn the Scottish Information Tsar (sorry Commissioner) had experienced a 'Eureka!' moment.

In a special report to Parliament on Thursday, Rosemary Agnew expressed serious concerns about the continuing unacceptable attitude of some councils, health boards and other agencies who simply fail to respond when we have the audacity to ask them questions. Hope you heard the penny drop.

Ms Agnew claims in a 33-page report that Scotland's well-regarded FOI set-up could be undermined unless authorities which have been simply ignoring requests over the last nine years change their errant ways. Sorry Commissioner, but the ducking and diving I referred to in that previous article is set to continue unless the culprits face meaningful sanctions.

The latest collection of Freedom of Information requests to Scottish Borders Council, and the responses, were posted on the SBC website this weekend. Because there is no obligation on public bodies to diligently publish answers on a regular basis, we've had to wait a couple of months for an update, and some of the stuff dates back to May.

Surely this flaw in the arrangements should also be addressed for there is not even an obligation on the organisations providing public services to publish requests and answers at all. In other words the information should be out there, but it isn't. Why not publish the FOI list once a month?

I'm grateful to the FOI requesters who asked about payments to external law firms, the amounts of cash SBC handed out in employment tribunal settlements, and the number and size of redundancy and severance packages for those leaving the Good Ship Newtown St Boswells.

For the record, law firms engaged by SBC earned more than £275,000 over the last four financial years, and 48 tribunal settlements accounted for £477,955 plus another £25,000 in costs for the council to defend the cases.

The facts and figures on redundancies are included in the recently published annual accounts so I wont repeat them her, and my own search to see how much had been spent on private consultancy firms failed to produce a recent set of figures.

Rest assured, it will amount to a tidy sum for I see from a previous FOI request in 2012 there was a running total at that time of over £400,000.

Under the present arrangements requesters like us will continue to quiz the public sector in search of information which we are entitled to have. But on the other side of the divide some clever-dick official will be dreaming up yet another dodge to deny access to the facts in cases where disclosure could cause embarrassment or lead to calls for some kind of investigation.

So what could be done to prevent the obfuscation and confusion outlined in the Commissioner's special report? Well I don't see why we have to ask for much of the information in the first place. Why not make it compulsory for councils and others to publish how much they spend on outside law firms and consultants every three months, details of each local authority department's credit card expenditure - say twice a year - and so on? And I'm sure many other categories of information could easily be included on a statutory list.

The effect would be to reduce the number of FOI requests while also reducing the pressure on the Commissioner and her staff who seem to spend at least 25 per cent of their time chasing those organisations who don't respond in time.

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