As opposition councillors on Harrow Council, which has seen a near 60% increase in handling Freedom of Information Act requests between 2012 and 2015, we are most concerned by calls from the Local Government Association and other organisations for tighter restrictions on the process.
We wonder if complaints of an increase in ‘vexatious’ requests in fact means an increase in unwelcome or inconvenient ones, given genuinely vexatious requests can already be dismissed without spending time and money on an investigation. Indeed, even under the existing rules councils are finding ways to refuse to comply with requests. In Harrow, a local news blog which exposed public money being spent on tuxedo rentals andproduced key evidence which led to a councillor being found to have brought his position into disrepute, has since been told its requests are vexatious. We have also been forced into making formal FOI requests as a last resort; in one instance when neither the Leader of the Council nor the Chief Executive would give us a straight answer on something as basic as who attended a meeting. In Harrow, ‘transparency’ has become something of a dirty word.
The overriding feature of the Freedom of Information Act is a presumption that information should be published. Changing the current arrangements would put this presumption at risk, and would almost certainly increase the ability of councils to keep information secret because it’s damaging or embarrassing, rather than because it’s justifiably confidential. If this were to happen, the biggest losers of all would be local taxpayers – who councillors and officers alike are supposed to serve.
Cllrs. Susan Hall & Barry Macleod-Cullinane
Leader & Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group