All posts tagged 'Freedom-of-Information'

Has Michael Gove's dog eaten his Freedom of Information homework?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Sunday, October 14 2012

Education secretary Michael Gove, as we all know, is something of a stickler for standards. But when it comes to his own department, standards are something that his officials seem to have a rather casual - not to say cavalier - approach to, at least so far as Freedom of Information goes.

A year ago, I lodged a request with the DfE asking for any information it held in private emails exchanged between Mr Gove and his officials, along with Kent County Council, relating to the council's involvement in a legal dispute with the department after the abrupt cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme.

The request was made last October and should have been responded to within 20 working days. To date, I have not had a formal response as required under the law; I have not even had a refusal notice telling me that the DfE does hold information but isn't prepared to give it to me.

The request I made was triggered by the disclosure of a leaked email obtained by the Financial Times, written by Mr Gove using his private account, sent to special advisers and a civil servant around the same subject. This led to a number of FOI requests on the subject but the DfE has sought to argue that as private account emails, they are not government-related and, therefore under the law, exempt from the Act.

That argument has been demolished by the Information Commissioner (the FOI watchdog) who has ruled that it is the content of emails that matters when it comes to determining whether they are captured by FOI - not whether they are sent from a private account.

Frustrated by the DfE's prevarication and despite any number of (unanswered) reminders, I eventually made a formal complaint to the Commissioner, who has now ruled that the DfE must give an answer within ten days.

It could still reject my request, of course. It could tell me that any emails that might have been sent no longer exist (how convenient). It could give me everything I have asked for (being optimistic here). All I'd like is an answer of some description.

Whatever the outcome, the episode is a good illustration of why journalists retain a healthy scepticism when it comes to the utterances of politicians who preach the virtues of transparency and accountability and then do completely the opposite. So far as Mr Gove is concerned, it is a perhaps a case of "could do better." Maybe he should be served with a notice to improve...

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Should Kent County Council be taking the axe to funding for sports development? The Conservative administration's line is that a cut of £200k is acceptable and justifiable because it it simply taking the budget back to pre-Olympic levels.

But opposition is growing and there is dissent in the Tory ranks.

Cllr Mike Jarvis, a backbencher, says it is wrong and risks squandering Kent's Olympic legacy because the authority should be building on the interest in sport the Olympics has prompted and using it as a catalyst to get more people active - entirely reasonable arguments. KCC says that it is protecting funding for the Kent School Games, which is true.

But they started before the Olympics and it is unclear what additional plans the authority may have to further develop new programmes or schemes - and without any money, it is rather hard to see how they might happen.

Cllr Jarvis rather tellingly points out that KCC spends colossal sums on external consultants and suggests that if the council is looking to save money, this ought to be an area the council takes a look at first.







Tags: , , , ,
Categories: parish council | Politics

Kent's secret library plans revealed - are they still under threat?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 17 2012

When Conservative county councillors were presented with a report last year setting out draft plans to withdraw funding from 44 libraries, they baulked at the idea.

They could predict what was in the offing: damaging headlines about the threat of closures to much-cherished village libraries, many of them in the party's heartlands, no matter what spin was put on it to present the shake-up as innovative and 'transfomational'.

It was an electoral liability they were not prepared to countenance, especially as the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the libraries in question would have come close to the next election. Library chiefs and the cabinet member responsible were sent way with a flea in their ear and told to have a re-think.

Now the report - accompanied by a presentation of frankly bewilderingly complex graphs - that caused a backbench revolt has been leaked.

KCC was anxious to keep it under wraps and had argued that the public interest in allowing politicians to debate policy options in private was greater than the public interest in disclosing it.

So what are we to make of the report? We already knew that the authority was being pressed into considering changes because of the tricky budget situation - and it bears out these suspicions by talking about the need to 'secure affordable local solutions' and 'deliver further revenue savings'.

A key element of KCC's plans was to offload libraries to third parties - voluntary groups, community groups, parish councils and those vague organisations known as 'social entrepeneurs'.

These would be paid an annual grant to maintain the library on behalf of the council although perhaps unsurprisngly, the report is silent on what may have happened had no-one come forward to take on the job. (In all likelihood, they would have shut).

The savings to KCC would have come from negotiations with these third parties to reduce costs on books, premises and IT. In other words, KCC's expectation was that organisations who took over the libraries would have had to have done the job for less.

So, are we to presume that this approach to Kent's libraries has been abandoned altogether? Actually no. When KCC came back with a new report about its approach to 'modernising' libraries last year, which was presented to councillors in public, virtually all these elements were retained: the idea of third parties taking over remains central, savings will have to be delivered, locality boards will be key in 'shaping the future'.

The only thing missing from the report was a list identifying which libraries Kent had in mind. KCC clearly has a conundrum. It has significantly more libraries than many other authorities and although £4m will be chopped from the budget between now and 2014, it is still not enough. Other ways of running the service are clearly being considered out of necessity.

One solution that could be under consideration involves the council's 'Gateway' centres, many of which contain libraries. 

KCC has just confirmed it is reviewing these and among the options being considered is whether to put them out to tender and allow the private sector to run them. At the smaller end of the scale, watch out for reduced opening hours.

Either way, anyone who thinks that Kent will be able to preserve its network of libraries as they are now is probably being unrealistic.

You can read the confidential report here:


kcclibraries (540.77 kb)

kentlibrarylist.doc (24.50 kb)

Tags: , ,
Categories:

Ssshhh...don't mention National Libraries Day. And Gove stumbles over FOI

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, February 1 2012

IF you visit a library in Kent this Saturday, you probably won't notice anything different. And you certainly won't come across any special event or activity.

Odd? Not especially, until you realise that it is National Libraries Day, a now annual event to celebrate libraries.

Kent County Council is facing claims it is 'snubbing' the national day of celebration from several campaigners who have questioned why there are no events planned to mark the event.

Unlike many other authorities, KCC has opted not to put on a specific programme for the day. Inevitably, that has led to claims the council is downplaying the event because it does not want to draw attention to a shake-up that some fear could mean cutbacks.

For its part, the council says it has a year-round programme of activities and it is focusing on promoting those. There's no major scandal here. But a briefing note from managers to staff appears a little sensitive over the fact that nothing is going on.

The note says staff approached about National Libraries Day “must refer all enquiries from members of the public, community groups and organisations to your district manager."

The memo says: “As NLD is a Saturday, the busiest day of the week for us, all our staff will be fully engaged in helping people to use our wide range of services. There is much to celebrate about libraries in Kent and we will mark National Libraries Day in the best way possible - by continuing to deliver the best quality service to our very many satisfied customers.”

One council library worker told us that staff had effectively been silenced.

In a statement, KCC said: “Managers were briefed on National Libraries Day and advice was given to staff on how to deal with enquiries. The message reminded staff it is not appropriate to engage in campaigning activity which undermines Kent County Council’s commitment to the library service. However we do fully support the National Library Day’s aim to celebrate libraries, librarians and library staff in all sectors and there are more than 14,500 events throughout the year being held in local libraries, from children’s reading sessions and coffee mornings to computer training sessions.”

CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, which backs the event, said: “We want to see as many local authorities get involved as possible. It is disappointing but there’s nothing mandatory that says councils must be involved.”

Ironically, the low key approach adopted by KCC has only served to draw attention to its lack of activity - which was surely not intended.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Education secretary Michael Gove faced MPs to answer questions on a range of subjects this week. He was characteristically confident but less convincing when pressed about the use of private emails by him and his advisers to conduct government business.

He and his department have faced claims that they have done so to avoid the public gaze over potentially sensitive issues. It was because of this that we asked - via the Freedom of Information Act - whether he or his advisers had done so in relation to Kent county council's challenge through the High Court over the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future project.

That was three months ago. We're still waiting for a response. 

 

Tags: , , ,
Categories: Crematorium | Precept

How KCC awarded £4.2m contracts without competition. Plus: KCC leader used FOI response to criticise press

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, November 4 2011

GETTING  value for money is something councils are acutely conscious of, especially now with money in short supply and much greater public interest in, and awareness of, how taxpayers' money is spent.

As one of the country's larger authorities, contract procurement is inevitably big business at County Hall. An astonishing £850m is spent on contracting services and goods each year.

Which means companies will know there is potentially lucrative business to be had from KCC, which in turn benefits from such competition and can often use its size and economies of scale to get good deals on behalf of the taxpayer by being able to drive prices down.

However, as we report today, there is not always competition for some of these contracts. The county council has awarded at least £4.2m of business in the last two years without putting the business out to tender.

It has taken a while for KCC to provide us with these details - initially claiming that there was no central registry which recorded the occasions when contracts were awarded without tender and therefore it didn't hold the information we had sought.

(That was changed when we pointed out that the council's own rules stated that where this happened, the details should be recorded and filed.)

There are often good reasons why contracts are awarded without being put out to tender but as KCC itself says, they should be the exception rather than the rule.

What is particularly striking to me about the list is the number that were related to social care and health services, where councils are increasingly reliant on the independent sector. The issue here is that many of these are statutory requirements; if the council hadn't awarded a contract, it presumably would have been in breach of its legislative obligations to continue providing the service.

You can read our coverage of this in this latest Kent Messenger. And here is the full list of contracts and KCC's explanation: 

KCC CONTRACTS.pdf (2.21 mb)

*************************************************************************************************************************************************

I blogged recently about a curious FOI response from KCC.

As well as providing us with information about the costs of drawing up an environmental report into the proposed Operation Stack lorry park off the M20, it included a comment criticising our earlier press coverage of the issue.

It now appears the criticism was inserted at the behest of the county council leader Paul Carter.

In its response to a follow up query we made, the council has replied:

"Thank you for your email, we are very sorry for the delay in responding to your enquiry.  The comments you refer to were included at the request of the Leader of the Council and were intended to reflect the Council's concerns that the public were not provided with an accurate reflection of the facts.  
 
"As you will be aware there are no provisions within the FOI legislation that restrict the extent to which public bodies correspond with an applicant, as long as the requested information is provided, or an explanation is given for non disclosure, public bodies are free to engage as much as considered necessary.  Although your request referred to financial information relating to the Operation Stack Proposals, our comments relate to those proposals and therefore are not considered to be out of context." 
I wonder how this response sits with the principle that when it comes to dealing with reqests, FOI is supposedly motive blind? Why someone is making the request and who is making the request are not material considerations.
Still, it does show that interest in FOI goes right to the top at County Hall. Can't be a bad thing...
  

 

 

 

Tags: , , ,
Categories: Politics

How KCC used an FOI response to criticise press coverage of Op Stack report

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, October 6 2011

One of the key elements of the Freedom of Information Act is that it is motive blind - in other words, public bodies like councils or police forces are not supposed to take into account why someone has sought information from them.

It goes without saying that there is often a suspicion among people like me that this part of the Act is not always adhered to quite as strictly as it should be when it comes to FOI requests from the media.

Such suspicions were reinforced this week when Kent County Council responded to my request for details of the costs associated with preparing a draft environmental report on the Operation Stack lorry park off the M20.

How KCC spent £417k preparing Op Stack report>>>

This request followed an earlier one seeking a copy of the report, which was initially rejected by KCC but then accepted after we appealed.

As a result of that request, we published a story in August that highlighted how Kent Fire had flagged up some serious issues about how they would cope in the event of a serious incident at the site unless certain steps were taken.

At the time, KCC was offered the chance to comment - as was Kent Fire - but both declined, with Kent Fire saying that as the scheme was one that may not happen, it did not see much merit in it responding.

You can read that story here

KCC responded to our second request for the costs this week and provided all the information we had asked for (albeit on Day 20).

What was equally interesting was that the response criticised our previous coverage, saying we had selectively reported part of the Jacobs' report - it was 1,700 pages by the way - and had therefore "failed to provide the public with an accurate reflection of the facts."

It's not unusual for KCC - and many other councils - to take issue with the way in which their activities are covered.

But this is the first time I've seen an FOI response deployed to direct criticism at media coverage. It's especially odd given that the authority was offered a chance to comment at the time of the first story but declined. It didn't even respond at the time the article was published. (And it wasn't entirely right in asserting we had not referred to the need for measures to reduce the risk.)

I've no idea why the response incorporated this or who decided it should be. But I feel an FOI request coming on.

Read KCC's FOI response here:

 20111006112628405_0001.pdf (513.93 kb)

Tags: , , , ,
Categories: Manston

No public interest: KCC's original library closure plans stay under wraps

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, September 6 2011

Kent County Council is pretty keen to ensure that its now-abandoned proposals to shut or hand over the running of some 40-50 libraries is not seen by anyone.

Efforts by a vigilant library watcher, Ian Clark, to persuade the council the report should be published have been rebuffed a second time after KCC rejected an appeal he made under the Freedom of Information Act.

In its original decision, KCC relied on an exemption that permits public bodies to withhold information where it is prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs - Section 36 - an exemption that has proved rather controversial and  can only be used if it is sanctioned by a senior official, in this case the council's monitoring officer Geoff Wild.

When such decisions are appealed, the appeal has to be conducted by someone "independent or senior" to the person who made the original decision. So it fell to KCC's group managing director Katherine Kerswell (who is indisputably senior).

This is the text of the reply sent to Ian dismissing the appeal:

Dear Mr Clark

I have been asked by the Managing Director Katherine Kerswell, to reply
to your request that KCC review the handling of your original request
for information.

You have informed us that you are unhappy with our decision to withhold
a copy of the "library closure proposals" put before the conservative
group meeting w/c 20th June 2011 on the grounds that disclosure is
likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. This
particular exemption (section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000)
can only be invoked by the County Council's Monitoring Officer who is
also the Director of Governance & Law.

Internal reviews must be conducted by someone independent and/or senior
to the person that made the decision. In order to be able to fulfil our
obligations to you under section 45(e) FOIA, the Managing Director as
the superior officer to the Director of Governance and Law has reviewed
the information that was withheld from you.

The nature of the information is such that she concurs that its release
would undeniably prohibit the free and frank exchange of views and
discussion of ideas in the future which is essential to the effective
conduct of business within the County Council before matters come into
the public domain. It would also cause unnecessary public concern over a
number of ideas that were discussed that may not come to fruition and
have not yet appeared within any blog or in the public domain.

It is essential in any local authority for the elected members to be
able to discuss ideas with confidence and ensure that the policy options
that do end up in the public domain are the most appropriate. Disclosure
of this kind would significantly undermine their confidence in such a
necessary and essential part of our governance and would undermine the
effective conduct of public affairs.

Therefore, the Managing Director maintains that the use of this
exemption was correct.

There are a couple of points worth making here, which I've blogged about before. Where is the "clear, specific and credible" evidence that the "substance or quality of deliberations or advice would be materially altered for the worse by the threat of disclosure?" as the Information Commissioner suggests should be provided?

The response talks about the belief that disclosure would "prohibit" free and frank discussions. The FOI Act says nothing about prohibition in the use of Section 36 - it talks about whether disclosure would inhibit the ability of public bodies to explore extreme options.

It is not the case that the ideas which the Conservative group discussed have "not yet appeared within any blog or in the public domain" - they have and here it is.

So, I am not entirely convinced and it would be interesting to see what the Information Commissioner thinks.

And it will be interesting to see how KCC chooses to meet its statutory obligations under the Local Government Act 2000. Access to information regulations require councils making executive decisions to not just publish records of those decisions but detail all other options that were considered and subsequently disregarded.

And it won't be long before we do have some indication of the new proposals. A public consultation on the future of the library service gets underway next month.

Tags: , , , ,
Categories: Precept

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.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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. 

Tags: , , ,
Categories: ema | Local Politics

Why councillors won't be scrutinising an action plan on children at risk. Plus: KCC under the gaze of FOI watchdog

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, April 12 2011

County councillors should be meeting tomorrow (Weds 13) to discuss and ask questions about Kent County Council's action plan that sets out how it intends to deal with the damning Ofsted report into child protection services.

They should be but they won't. The meeting has been cancelled. Not, however, because the issue is not considered important enough and not because the committee didn't think it was worth it.

In fact, the committee - at least the opposition members on it - very much wanted to debate the Improvement Board plan and hear what KCC leaders and officers had to say.

But it seems the cabinet scrutiny committee meeting has fallen foul of a constiutional hiccup, the kind of thing that gives bureaucrats a bad name.

Here is what has happened. Back in 2010, the then cabinet member responsible Cllr Sarah Hohler and the now ex-director of children's services Rosalind Turner made a commitment that the cabinet scrutiny committee would be able to debate and comment on the draft  improvement plan before it was finalised.

The problem is that the draft plan is no longer a draft. It has been finalised. So, as a rather apologetic email sent to members of the cabinet scrutiny committee records: "The offers made by Rosalind Turner and Sarah Hohler on 8 December to submit the Improvement Plan back to the Committee for further consideration before being finalised unfortunately no longer apply, since the Plan is no longer available in draft form for such consideration."

Not only that, but KCC says that technically speaking, the final report has not yet been sent to the cabinet for rubber-stamping and scrutiny committees aren't allowed to scrutinise anything that hasn't.

So, cabinet scrutiny can take a look at it next month but even if they do, they won't be in a position to suggest any amendments or possible improvements, as the report is no longer a draft but a final version and "is not capable of further revision."

Not surprisingly, this has gone down like a lead balloon with the opposition parties who have questioned exactly what the purpose of scrutiny is if there's nothing they ca ndo in any case. Meanwhile, council leader Paul Carter says it is important that due process is followed.

The action plan may still get scrutinised but by the time it is, rather a long time will have passed since Ofsted first came calling on KCC to deliver its highly-critical report.

No wonder some people have described scrutiny committees as toothless watchdogs and that the checks and balances in the system of cabinet government are weighted heavily in favour of the decision makers who run things.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I have become quite accustomed to responses by KCC to Freedom of Information requests that begin with an apology for failing to meet the 20-day deadline.

In fact, I can't think of a recent one that didn't - one I submitted in early November last year was finally replied to nearly three months later.

So it's not a major surprise to learn that the Information Commissioner has listed the county council as one he intends to monitor over the next few months because they are, in his view, taking too long to respond to enough requests in time.

KCC says that it receives double the number of requests monthly than other authorities and its response rates are not far off other counties and unitaries. fair enough. But if it is having to deal with twice as many requests as other councils, I'm afraid that is not a good indicator of an authority that is pro-active when it comes to publication of information.

If KCC was to give greater thought to how it might routinely publish more information - not data - it might find it has fewer requests to deal with.

And fewer occasions when it fails to meet the 20-day deadline.

 

 

Tags: , , ,
Categories: Freedom of Information | Precept

Why Southeastern is still on track. Plus: an insight into how an FOI request to KCC was processed.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, March 21 2011

It would have been a shock had Southeastern not been awarded a two-year extension to its contract to run Kent's rail services until 2014.

Why? Well, notwithstanding the legitimate complaints about their performance - especially over the winter - and the anger over hefy fare increases, the government was tied into contractual arrangements agreed by its predecessor that made it virtually impossible to do anything but give the company the nod til 2014.

For all the pressure brought to bear, transport secretary Theresa Villiers really had little alternative and you sensed her frustration in a statement announcing the decision which alluded to her having no other option.

The issue now is to ensure that Kent commuters get a much better deal when the franchise is retendered and being relatively close to a general election, I anticipate that our MPs will be bringing all their influence to bear on the government to do just that. MPs have been able to deflect the blame on to the previous government until now but that won't be available as an excuse next time around.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

I had an interesting insight into how Kent County Council dealt with a recent Freedom of Information request of mine today.

The request  was based around some questions I had made about recent invoice transactions that are now being published monthly on KCC's website. As it turned out - not for the first time - the transactions I had queried were entirely innocent but because no context is provided on them other than the most basic of details, you can't tell from the website. (Which reinforces the important distinction between data and information and that Mr Pickles' crusade to increase transparency, though welcome, is not without its flaws.)

Anyway, it appears the response needed signing off by no less than two cabinet members and the acting head of the press office and was copied to several senior officers before it could be dispatched. It also appears someone was requested to estimate how much time was spent drafting the response to the request.

I don't have any problem with any of this - every council has similar arrangements and protocols for dealing with FOI requests but it is worth making the point that the Act does not permit any authority to treat requests from the media any differently from anyone else - and to be fair, in terms of my own experience, I've no reason to believe KCC does when it comes to providing information.

So, perhaps the request to estimate how much time was spent on the request was connected to a drive to make sure, as this indeed was, that my request was dealt with promptly and within the statutory 20 working day limit.

On the other hand,  there may be some other explanation of which I am unaware.

 

 

 

Tags: , ,
Categories: KCC

Got a bee in your bonnet?

Bloggy BeeIf you have a voice, and would like it to be heard, why not consider writing a blog for our site?

Click here to send us a message and let us know!

Welcome to our blogs!

Our Blogs

Tag cloud

Topics of Conversation