Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why we use the FoI to ask questions

Earlier, I commented on a post by Coun Rory Palmer on his blog where he mentioned the fact that the Leicester Mercury has put in a request under the Freedom of Information Act for details of expenses claimed by councillors on Leicester City Council.

This is what he said: 'From reading the journo's blogs it appears they will be (somewhat predictably) looking at councillor's expenses. According to Keith Perch's blog the Mercury has submitted a Freedom of Information request for councillor's expenses. Councillor's allowances and expenses are published each year by law but I fully recognise why the paper want to do this in the current climate. For the record, I am the first and to my understanding, the only councillor in Leicester to have published details of my expenses on my council website.'

Credit where credit is due - Coun Palmer does disclose his claims describing what money he gets and what he uses it for. You can see it here. To be fair, his claims are pretty modest, he gives details and it looks transparent - I wouldn't expect to discover anything alarming when we see the detail we've asked for.

However, experience tells me that this may not be the case with everyone. Coun Palmer says that the law demands that councillors allowances and expenses are published every year, but they won't be published in the sort of detail that we think they should. What we have asked for is a copy of all expense claims AND the receipts used to back up those claims. Why? Because the summary that is published can hide a multitude of sins.

Take this example. A few years ago, we asked to see the detailed receipts behind the expense claims of a chief constable - not in Leicestershire. We were interested in a trip he had made to the USA. On the face of it, everything on the expense claim looked fine: flights, a hotel, conference fees, meals etc. But a closer study of the receipts (which evidently nobody in the audit or finance department of the police authority had done) showed that he had actually claimed for two return flights to the US, most of the meals were for two people and we'd paid for a double room and a 'partner's' package at the conference. The chief constable had taken his wife with him and charged the ratepayers. It wasn't the only thing we found - he regularly took his wife to London with him on business trips - and the chief constable resigned.

I remember a senior councillor - not in Leicester - being jailed after we found him working in a burger van after he had claimed that he had been forced to give up work so that he could concentrate on council work, which, in turn, allowed him to claim more money from the council. A council leader who had to resign after many years in charge after we discovered that he was being paid by a company effectively owned by the council.

I could go on.

My point here is not that all councillors are corrupt. I don't believe that for a minute, but there are some bad apples out there. Even if we find nothing wrong with any of the claims made by our local councillors, it will have been a worthwhile exercise - look at what happened in Westminster where nobody was able to check! It is part of what newspapers do, we help to keep people honest.

One other point: Coun Palmer says it is predictable that we would make an FoI request for the details. What is more predictable is that the only way we are likely to see such details is through a formal request under the law. Despite all their claims that our councils believe in open government, we know that when we ask for this sort of information informally, there's no way that the council will respond by saying: 'Of course, come in and take a look.' No, they'll force us to go down the legal route and they'll take as long as possible to give us the answer.

Finally, earlier I used Twitter to say that I'd commented on Coun Palmer's blog ... except I called him Coun Taylor! I can think of a few politicians who would be happy for us to misname at the moment, but I don't suppose Coun Palmer is one of them! I'm sorry for the error.

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