Questioning Staffordshire on why they hate FOI

After reading on Ampp3d that Staffordshire County Council were whinging about spending 0.00003% of their budget answering FOI requests, and checking out their whinge myself, I decided to write to my County Councillor (Terry Finn) to ask why SCC are attempting to demonise users of this critically important transparency law. I made a point of reminding him that it helps us (citizens) to hold power (him) to account, given that we are the ones that have given him that power, and temporarily at that.

The letter:

Dear Terence Finn,

I am writing to you to express my disappointment in the way that Staffordshire County Council is attempting to demonise the use of a fundamentally important transparency law. Namely, the Freedom of Information Act.

As a Staffordshire resident the FOIA is crucial in ensuring I, and my fellow citizens, can hold you and council staff to account for the decisions you take in our name using the power we have lent you via the ballot box.

“The Cost of FOI Requests” on the SCC website (http://www.staffordshire.gov.uk/yourcouncil/dataprotectionandfreedomofinformation/HowMuchFOIsCost/home.aspx) states that “Often the FOI process is used by some commercial organisations to save time and research costs. We think this is a wrongful use as the information requested is already freely available publicly. The same applies to a growing number of FOI requests from the media. This can save companies and the press money by, for example, reducing research costs but only at a significant cost to the Authority which is unfair to Staffordshire tax payers.”

This statement is an inexcusable attempt to belittle the important work that the media do in holding power (that’s you) to account on our (citizens) behalf. Individual citizens mostly do not have the time, expertise or resources to carry out the kind of investigations that are necessary to effectively scrutinise local authority decision making. We rely on the media to do that for us. Attempting to accuse them of wasting our money is an attempt to tarnish their reputation at our expense, and your benefit.

Pressure groups and political groups are also singled out in the FOI Costs page of the SCC website. I am pleased to see that WhatDoTheyKnow.com, and independent website, has already been removed from that section as it should be. Still, the singling out of those groups also seeks to highlight those in a negative way given the preamble of the page. As fewer people join political parties and instead join issue-specific campaigning and pressure groups, such groups are becoming much more representative of citizens than the membership of political parties. Something you would be wise to remember as you claim a ‘mandate’ for the decisions you make using the power we have loaned to you.

Following from that point, I notice you have included “Labour Research Department” but there are no figures from other political parties. Can you clarify whether this is an omission by releasing to me the number of FOI requests submitted by each registered political party, or party-affiliated group, in the last two years please? I trust that given SCC’s dislike of FOI you’ll get that information to me in a timely manner without my having to resort using the FOIA.

I also noticed the page includes the names of individuals. Did you seek permission from those individuals to publish their names in this way?

Finally, the website states “the information requested is already freely available publicly”. Please disclose, for the time period covered by the aforementioned web page, the percentage of FOI requests where the response by Staffordshire Country Council was to point out that the information was already publicy available. Again, I trust that you will provide this in a timely manner to avoid the use of FOI. To be clear, I am requesting this information in order to verify whether the claim that many FOI requests are due to lazy researchers is actually true.

Yours sincerely,

Philip John

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