Labour challenged over Newcastle council FOI shambles


Opposition Liberal Democrats on Newcastle City Council have called for clarity and accountability from the council’s Labour leadership after Labour’s cabinet secretary Cllr Stephen Powers appeared to distance himself and his administration from the council’s response to the Government consultation on future of Freedom of Information legislation.
Cllr Powers was left visibly discomfited when Opposition councillors demonstrated that Powers’ amendment to a Lib Dem motion on freedom of information contradicted the official consultation response in the name of the City Council. Far from seeking to support and extend FOI provision, the Council’s response appears to endorse greater restrictions.
These include:
-          advocating geographical restrictions on local authority FOI requests, appearing to mean that only requests from within Newcastle could be considered and thus excluding requests from national organisations and media
-          suggesting that FOI requests should not be allowed during official consultation periods on e.g. the council budget, local development framework, highways improvements schemes etc.
-          reducing the maximum officer time limit on FOI requests from 18 hours to 12 hours
Lib Dem Opposition leader Cllr Anita Lower has called for an urgent statement from the council’s Labour leadership as to why their administration appears to support such steps, and why the Cabinet Secretary, Cllr Powers, seemed unaware that the council had made such a response.
She said: “The Opposition has legitimate concern about transparency and accountability at the council. We had to resort to submitting an FOI request ourselves recently in order to get the council to disclose the 2015 GCSE results for Newcastle schools, after our original requests for this information were denied.
The Cabinet Secretary, with responsibility for co-ordination of policy, was visibly squirming in his seat when the Opposition showed Labour’s amendment on FOI to be contradicted by the council’s own published response. He later accused the Opposition of “lying” about the council’s response and tried to distance the Labour group from it
The Opposition and the public rightly expect the council Cabinet to be accountable for the actions of the council and its officers. The  council’s response to the FOI consultation is very worrying, but the fact that the council’s administration expect  us believe they knew nothing about it is even more worrying.
We call upon the council’s Labour leadership to make a clear statement about its policy on freedom of information. If, as they claim, they oppose restrictions on freedom of information, they should take steps to publicly retract their own consultation response. They should also confirm that they take personal responsibility for all statements issued on behalf of the council. If they are not prepared to do this, and are not in control of formal responses to Government, what is the point of them?  
Cllr Powers now faces an awkward predicament. It is bad enough that the Cabinet Secretary, nominally in charge of policy co-ordination, appeared unaware of the council’s policy. If he can not support it in the council chamber, we ask whether he can credibly continue in his position. “
ENDS
 
Newcastle City Council’s response to Government consultation on Freedom of Information (our emphasis)
 
Newcastle City Council
Newcastle City Council feels it can only really offer evidence regarding question 6 of this call for evidence. 
Q6 Is the burden imposed on public authorities under the Act justified by the public interest in the public’s right to know? Or are controls needed to reduce the burden of FOI on public authorities? If controls are justified should these be targeted at the kinds of requests which impose a disproportionate burden on public authorities? Which kind of requests do impose a disproportionate burden?
The volume of requests is a burden on local authorities. Based on the figures used within the consultation of an average of 7.5 hours per request and the volume of FOI requests dealt with by NCC for the financial year 2014/15 of 1312, an estimated £246,000 was spent by NCC in answering FOI questions based on the statutory amount of £25 per hour. 
Whilst Newcastle City Council (NCC) accepts the principles of the FOI Act it is frequently misused and a tightening of the rules around requests should be implemented 
FOI has a purpose of providing information in the public interest however the process is often hijacked by questions relating to commercial interests. As an example requests for specific and itemised software packages are a time consuming and unnecessary request when details of commercial relationships are already matters of public record. Such request are not in service of the public record and serve only as an attempt to further the commercial interests of the requestor. Frequently however the requestors never actually bid for council services making such a request a waste of public funds. Given the Governments new transparency guidance relating to the publication of contracts this seems like the time to strengthen the commercial exemptions and consequently reduce the burden. 
FOI is often used by campaigners seeking additional information during periods of consultation. This puts a strain on officer time and the information requested is often not germane to the matter under discussion. It also has the result of reducing engagement between members of the public and the officers and elected members involved in the consultation or project. It is therefore suggested that exemptions are enhanced to allow such requests to be refused during consultation periods and that the requestor may be referred to the correct process. This would reduce unnecessary burdens on officers and serve the public interest at the same time. 
The current 18 hour time limit is costly for Local Authorities and often allows large and unwieldly requests. It is suggested that a reduction to 12 hours would be more appropriate as it would drive more directed requests at the onset and reduce time consuming fishing expeditions. It would also allow for Councils to charge at an earlier time. 
Ideally we would wish to see a greater geographical restriction on FOI requests however recognise that as requests are requestor blind this would be difficult to police. 
 
Cllr Powers’s amendment to Cllr Faulkner’s notice of motion (our emphasis)
 
Freedom of Information Act
 
Cllr Powers will move, seconded by Cllr Cook, that the Notice of Motion be amended as may be necessary so that the amended Motion would read:
 
“Council notes the FoI Act 2000 brought in by the Labour Party which gave an unprecedented public right of access to information held by public authorities.
Council further notes that Newcastle City Council dealt with 1312 Freedom of Information requests in 2014-15, adding to both transparency and accountability of local government.
Council opposes attempts to water down the FoI Act and introduce changes that include
-          imposing charges for requests
-          making it easier to refuse requests on cost grounds
-          making it more difficult to obtain public authorities internal discussion; or excluding some from access altogether
-          strengthening ministers’ powers to veto disclosures
-          changes to the way the Act is enforced
Council believes that the public good is achieved by greater, not lesser transparency of government at all levels.
Council resolves to:
-          write to the Justice Secretary to oppose restrictions to FoI, and
-          write to our local Members of Parliament to enlist their support in opposing changes to the Act in Parliament

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