Despite their vigorous calls to limit public access to their records due to the cost, Manchester City Council can’t even get their facts straight on how much they spend on Freedom of Information requests each year.
Freedom of Information (FoI) requests currently allow everyone access to information and spending decisions made by public bodies such as local authorities, the NHS and government departments.
However the government is currently conducting a review into the legislation, with many public organisations calling for taxpayers’ rights to scrutinising their spending and decision-making to be weakened.
Writing to the review on behalf of the council in December, City Solicitor Liz Treacy claimed the cost of FoIs was a ‘significant burden’ on the council at a time when it had to ‘do more for less’.
Adding that the council should be given the right to reject requests it estimated would cost ‘£250 or more in officer time’ to obtain – they can already reject requests estimated to cost more than £450.
Liz wrote: “Prioritising dealing with FOI requests is challenging when balanced against the need to deliver arguably more important front line council services such as social care.”
To find out the true extent of the costs of FoI request to Manchester council each year, MM submitted an FoI request.
It revealed that the annual cost to the council for staff dealing with FOIs is £94,463.
The council was also shown to have received 1,842 FoI requests in 2015, rejecting 80 on the grounds that providing the information would cost more than the legal limit of £450 in officer hours to obtain the information.
But deputy council leader Cllr Bernard Priest has claimed that – contrary to the council’s own facts and figures – the council’s spending on FoI ‘exceeded £1million’ a year of more than 2,000 requests.
He told MM: “Manchester City Council is fully committed to transparency in the interests of democracy and keeping Manchester people informed.
“While the cost of people whose primary job role is to deal with Freedom of Information enquiries is just under £100,000, the actual cost of dealing with a continually growing number of such enquiries is much higher because answering each one can take up to two and a half days of officer time.
“There is therefore extra cost which – although we cannot put an exact figure on it as it is not separately recorded – is certainly much higher.
“In reality, the cost this financial year of dealing with more than 2,000 FOI enquiries is likely to exceed £1million.”
The discrepancy between both these truths is more than £900,000 equivalent to the cost of 2,000 FoI requests all at the maximum value of £450.
The £450 is already supposed to account for officer hours dedicated to dealing with the request.
First coming into force in 2005, FoI legislation has been responsible for revealing a number of examples of public sector and government corruption and inefficiency, including improper expenses claims by MP and councillors.
Matt Burgess – founder of public information campaign site the FoI Directory and author of A Practical Guide to Making FoI Requests – said weakening the legislation would infringe on the public’s right to know how their taxes were spent.
“Lowering the FOI Act’s cost limits would stop vital information about the council’s work from ever seeing the light of day,” he said.
“The introduction of a lower cost limit would mean more FOI requests are refused and make it harder for the public to access information.
“It’s completely hypocritical for councils to spend extortionate amounts pushing their own interests and suggesting a reduction in the amount of information the public can access.
“Its resources should be spent being accountable to the public who have a right to know how their money is being spent.”
Not only does the council not seem to really know how much granting the public direct access to information costs them but they are more than happy to justify spending more than £1million on their own public relations and communications.
MM’s same FoI requested revealed that each year the council spend £1,057,590 on their PR and communications team.
Dia Chakravarty, the political director of campaign group The TaxPayers’ Alliance, deemed this expenditure a ‘waste’, saying the money should be redirected to upholding transparency.
She told MM: “Councils who bemoan the cost of responding to FoI requests could save a lot of money and effort by making more information available to public of their own volition.
“Taxpayers have every right to scrutinise how their money is being spent and unless there is a compelling reason to withhold information, authorities must do more to be transparent.
“In any case, a council which complains about FoI costs but thinks nothing of wasting over a million pounds on communications and PR should re-examine its priorities.”
But Cllr Priest defended the council spending more than £1million on communications staff – including press officers, marketers and professional tweeters.
“The council employs a communications team as part of our commitment to transparency,” he said.
“The role of this team is to keep Manchester residents and businesses informed of developments, services and events relevant to them, many of which are legal requirements.
“It provides information for parents, for example how and when to apply for school places, and about the events and services across the city.
“It also has responsibility for communications around public health, helping people access work and skills and supporting regeneration and economic growth.
“The communications team also works to support changes which will help other parts of the council save money – for example, encouraging recycling to reduce charges for rubbish being sent unnecessarily to landfill.
“To classify all of this as ‘public relations’ would be plain wrong.
“The press office only accounts for around a quarter of staffing costs but contributes to all of these goals in addition to answering thousands of media enquiries a year as part of the council’s democratic accountability.”
Image courtesy of www.tecmark.co.uk, with thanks.