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Is the cost of FOI really too high? Plus: Why Labour are cautious about the elections

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, April 21 2011

Politicians are prone to grumble that Freedom of Information requests cost too much time and money councils and others spend dealing with them - particularly from the media - might be better put to other uses.

But how much of a burden is it? And are the costs really making a significant dent in the finances of public bodies?

Kent County Council produces some interesting data on the issue which suggest that some of the assertions from politicians might be over-stated.

In 2010, KCC dealt with 1,539 separate requests - about three times as many as when the Act first came into force in 2005. It estimates that the hours spent dealing with these requests was 4,779 and the average cost of dealing with a request was £78 - compared to £71 the previous year.

But the bulk of requests did not come from journalists. The media accounted for 16 per cent of all requests; private individuals accounted for 58 per cent and companies 18 per cent. The costs of dealing with 246 requests from the media were £19,188. In the context of KCC's annual £2.4billion budget, that represents 0.00007995 per cent of its total spend. Now, to me that's pretty small beer.

It's far less, for example, than the £1.7m KCC has to spend on members allowances and expenses each year which, we are usually reminded, accounts for 0.07 per cent of its budget.

But the issue is not just about costs, it is about value. It strikes me that a lot of the information that is elicited by journalists has brought into the public domain data and information of bona fide public interest. That our politicians grumble about it rather reinforces this point.

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Ed Miliband was cautious to  play down Labour's prospects in Kent at the council elections on May 5. You can understand why. Although there are some hopes the party may wrest control of two or three councils - Dover, Thanet and Gravesham are being targeted - the party is starting from a very low base after being wiped off the county's political map over recent years, culminating in the catastrophic general election last year when they lost all their remaining MPs.

The view is that despite the cutbacks and continuing recession, the disaffection with the coalition government has not yet reached a point where people are out to give it a serious bloody nose. More like a gentle reproach. The Conservatives have also been fortunate that the backlash has been more pronounced against the Liberal Democrats over what the public perceive as broken pledges.

So I don't see major upheaval in Kent happening in a fortnight. What will be interesting to see is how the Lib Dems fare. Candidates appear desperate to detach themselves both from the leader Nick Clegg and in some cases, even the party. I'm told that election literature from some candidates in north Kent carefully avoid mentioning who they are standing for. 

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Categories: ema | Local Politics

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