A RARE revolt by Conservative backbenchers recently put paid to plans to close or end KCC funding for between 40 and 50 libraries.
Members of the Conservative group were reported to be aghast at the idea.
One confided that it would have proved catastrophic for the ruling administration and that the presentation in which the plans were outlined was like watching a car crash in slow motion. The leadership was instructed to have a rethink.
But what exactly was proposed? Other than that the cost-cutting plans set out suggestions that where libraries might be closed, district councils and voluntary groups would be offered the chance to run them, not much additional detail has surfaced.
And that looks like the way KCC – despite its much vaunted transparency agenda – would like it to stay. A request under the Freedom of Information Act by Ian Clark, an assiduous Kent library watcher, for the proposals presented to Conservative group last month has just been turned down by KCC.
Here is the council’s response:
“KCC is currently exploring and considering the future of the library service. If the information is disclosed at this time, the effectiveness of that important process could be compromised. The provision of advice and exchange of views by KCC members and officers is likely to be more reticent and circumscribed rather than the necessary full and open discussion to allow us to fully explore relevant options. This would adversely affect the delivery of KCC services by inhibiting free and frank deliberation between KCC members and officers about options for the future of the service.”
The response goes on:
"Once KCC have (sic) fully explored all options for the future of the service, we will start a series of conversations with local communities about how we can work with them most effectively. To support that conversation we will release a range of information to facilitate discussion and consultation. Releasing the requested information now would be likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs by undermining constructive dialogue with local communities before we can even start these conversations. It is important that this process is carried out in a correct and consultative fashion, not on a piecemeal basis.”
’Given that exploring options for the future of the library service is an ongoing piece of work and that no conclusions or clear proposals have yet been reached, and taking into account that we are committed to working closely with local communities to develop our ideas once we have decided upon an overall approach, we strongly feel that releasing the requested information at this time would inhibit the decision making process.”
"Therefore, it is the opinion of Kent County Council's Monitoring Officer that this information should be withheld under Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act, as disclosure is likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.
"Section 36 requires consideration of where the public interest lies, and it is KCC's opinion that it would not be in the best interests of the public for this discussions about things that may never happen to be put into the public arena prematurely and before the appropriate time.”
The response raises some questions.
How, if the proposals have been effectively scrapped, might they inhibit future decision-making?
Given that it is now in the public domain and widely known that the proposals were rejected by the Conservative group, in what way might the disclosure undermine ‘constructive dialogue?’
In what way would 'free and frank' advice and discussions over entirely new proposals be inhibited by the release of proposals that are not going to be implemented?
Where is the evidence that disclosure would – rather than would be likely to – prejudice effective public affairs? Guidance from the Information Commissioner on the exemption says engaging it is more likely to succeed where such an impact ‘would’ occur rather than ‘would be likely to occur’?
Finally, 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?’ (That’s also in the Commissioner’s guidance).
I can’t see how the response as framed by KCC addresses these questions but then again, the authority can be decidedly schizophrenic when it comes to transparency.
Perhaps the response is not really about constructive dialogue with communities at all but minimising political embarrassment.