In its 10 years of operation the Act has been used to expose countless instances of injustice, maladministration and downright criminality the most notable being the MPs expenses scandal. Had it not been for the FOI Act we would never have known about how hundreds of MPs were maxing out their expenses and allowances to top up their already generous salaries and pensions in a state funded orgy of naked greed. Thankfully once exposed their reputations were deservedly trashed. Many of these grasping carpet baggers were removed from the Lords or Commons and some, but not enough, were imprisoned for taking a ride too far on the Westminster gravy-train. Yet instead of celebrating the 10th anniversary of the FOI Act and proudly proclaiming its effectiveness in holding public intuitions and politicians to account, the Government instead unveiled plans to weaken this important democratic tool.
In the autumn of 2015 it set up the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information to review the workings of the FOI Act. Members of the Commission include several people who have made criticism of the FOI Act and who appear to be unfriendly towards the democratic principles of freedom of information. The consultation exercise being carried out by the Commission also appears to be skewed in favour of undermining the effectiveness of the FOI Act. Amongst other things, the Commission is canvassing opinion on whether to charge fees for making FOI requests and appeals, whether to exempt internal briefings and discussions of public bodies from the Act altogether, and whether to allow public bodies to impose much lower cost/ hours thresholds for rejecting FOI requests.
Sadly, Thanet Council is one of those organisations which has joined in the anti-democratic hullabaloo to undermine and weaken the FOI Act. In a response to the Commission’s call for evidence, TDC has shamefully proposed the introduction of a £25 charge for each FOI request made to the Council. It has also proposed the tightening up of the hours and cost rule to enable the rejection of a large number of FOI requests, and changing the rules to make it easier to reject what TDC judges to be spurious/ vexatious FOI requests. You can see TDCs submission here https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/487269/Responses_R_-_Z.pdf
I accept that processing FOI requests is time consuming and costly. I also accept that TDC receives its share of vexatious/ spurious FOIs. However the overwhelming majority of FOI requests are reasonable and legitimate. Some FOI requests also serve the extremely important democratic purpose of exposing the incompetence of TDC’s politicians and senior officers, breaking down their culture of secrecy and holding them to account. For example, the FOIs I have submitted on Pleasurama, TransEuropa Ferries and the East Kent Opportunities development at the New Haine Road revealed extensive mismanagement, cover-ups, abuse of power and bad practice which former Labour Leaders and top council officers would have preferred to have remained hidden from public view. Indeed former Labour Leader Clive Hart actually cited my use of FOI requests as one of the reasons why he resigned as Council Leader in 2014 (see http://thanetgreencouncillor.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/ian-driver-statement-re-clive-harts.html)
Most recently an FOI request from Margate-based campaigner, Louise Oldfield, has revealed serious mismanagement of the troubled Margate Dreamland Amusement Park project. It’s no exaggeration to say that our FOI laws are a vital component of a modern democracy and should actually be strengthened and extended rather than weakened and restricted as TDC has argued in its submission to the Commission.
I must confess to being confused as to why TDC has become so hostile towards FOI requests. Its own Constitution makes 18 separate commitments to being open, transparent and accountable to the people of Thanet. TDCs own Independent Standards Advisers also suggested that one of the ways of restoring the council’s tarnished reputation and rebuilding confidence in its politicians was “for citizens to be able to access information held by the Council they have elected”. Yet TDC bosses appear, on the basis of their submission to the FOI Commission, to be hell bent on reducing and limiting openness and transparency and making it even more difficult, especially for those on low income, to get information from their council.
It would also appear that efforts have been made by TDC to exclude elected councillors from having any involvement in formulating its response to the FOI Commission. The Commission invited all UK public bodies to comment on the operation of FOI laws on 9th October 2015. The consultation deadline was 20th November 2015. I have checked the minutes of all TDC meetings between these dates and can find no reference to councillors being asked for their views on this important consultation. I can only assume therefore that important recommendations about the public’s right of access to TDCs information have been decided in secret, presumably by a small cabal of top officers and cabinet members, who may have vested interests in avoiding public scrutiny. This is simply unacceptable and undemocratic – all councillors should have had the opportunity to express their views on this very important matter.
But most mysterious of all, I was surprised by the fact that TDCs submission to the Commission appears to have been at odds with what I understand to be its ruling party’s (UKIP) policy on FOI. According to what I have been able to find out “UKIP supports the right for the British people to find out more from government about how decisions are made, information the government keeps on government business and where the government spends our money. The Freedom of Information Act is an invaluable tool to empower the British people”. (link http://www.confirmordeny.org.uk/?p=117) UKIP MP Douglas Carswell also had published in the Daily Mail in July 2015 a long article supporting the FOI Act and opposing efforts by the government and the Freedom of Information Commission to weaken and undermine it (link http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3166828/This-law-allowed-expose-dodgy-MPs-paedophiles-nuclear-risk-RAF-air-raids-scroungers-s-no-wonder-Tories-want-ban-Freedom-Information-writes-DOUGLAS-CARSWELL-MP.html)
It seems strange to me that a UKIP controlled council would support a submission to the FOI Commission which is at odds with UKIPs policy on this important matter. Unless of course UKIP policy has changed; Thanet UKIP councilors are unaware of their party’s policy on this matter; or more worryingly the submission to the Commission was prepared and submitted by officers without the knowledge and approval of TDCs ruling political group. If the latter is the case then the Leader of the Council has no option but to contact the Commission and withdraw the submission and speak to the officers concerned. I have written to TDCs Leader Chris Wells and Deputy Leader Lin Fairbrass to see if they can throw any light on this matter.
Although this is a long and complex posting surely the bottom line must be that all public bodies must be accountable to the people they work for, especially a public body like Thanet Council which has long history of corruption, incompetence, secrecy, and maladministration. Yet here we have the appalling spectacle of what most surely be one of the most disreputable councils in the UK lobbying the FOI Commission for permission to become even less accountable, transparent and open than it now is. The people who drafted this submission, have learnt nothing from recent events. They should be utterly ashamed of themselves. And those politicians who approved this submission should step aside for those with a stronger commitment to democracy