Liverpool City Council makes MI6 look open and transparent!
I have been struck recently by just how bad Liverpool is at answering Freedom of Information requests. This was particularly brought home to me by the problems that Audrey O’Keefe had in dragging out from the council the admission that the taxpayers of Liverpool had paid Joe Anderson’s Industrial Tribunal bill. A further FOI revealed the e-mails between officers about this issue and how one officer in particular was trying to get other officers to provide necessary information but was obviously facing resistance.
I put in and enquiry which was not an FOI and eventually (after two reminders) I got this response.
XXXXXXXX has mentioned to me that you had raised an issue in respect of performance on FOIs and late responses. The Information team endeavour to answer requests within the 20 day deadline and our performance stats are upper 80%.
We have seen an increase in the number of actual requests coming forward in the last 3 months and many of these have just been below the threshold of (18hours) which means they can be quite complicated and time consuming.
In terms of the number of requests Liverpool get we are at probably one of the highest numbers over 2,000 a year. Just over a year ago it was 1,000 so that indicates how this work is growing. We report to Audit and Governance Committee on performance around FOI and DPA as part of its work programme.
Clearly this is not good enough. An 80% level of achieving the response targets is not satisfactory. Many of the replies that are produced are perfunctory and clearly at one point at the back of 2013 the council clearly did not understand part of its role in dealing with FOI responses and what should or should not be revealed. I understand there was a meeting with senior staff of the Information Commissioner’s Office to clear this up.
But I don’t blame officers for this problem. They have a tiny group of people dealing with what is now a huge number of requests which is over and above those for any other equivalent authority that I have been able to check. No the fault quite clearly lies with the political leadership of the council for the furtive, shifty way they do business.
As I pointed out in a blog recently there is no place or meeting at which councillors can ask questions of the Elected Mayor. Of course, he doesn’t venture out to meetings with the local residents who pay his wages and has so far failed to respond to my generous offer to provide him with an opportunity to debate green space issues in public!!
Perhaps the Labour councillors hold him to account at their group meetings?! I don’t hold my breath. The accounts of their groups meeting is that they get the same tongue lashing that I get in council.
Our Select Committees which are supposed to hold the ‘Executive’ to account are useless at this task. They do have some value for the work that do but in terms of their real purpose they add little or no value. Of course they operate outside the terms of the Law which set up the scrutiny role. It has been clear since the Labour Chief Whip circulated all Labour members in 2012 that their positions (many of the Labour Group get paid) depend on the Mayor. You can only ask questions of the Mayor if you get his permission first. There’s independence for you!
So members of the public, many of whom have been blocked on Twitter from following the Mayor, put in FOIs. And not only members of the public. I too have had to resort to FOIs even though I am an elected member. Our council is a by-word for obfuscation and keeping things secret.
Let me give you one example of this. The Mayor has clearly decided to sell off the Harthill Estate part of Calderstones Park. This is no secret – he admitted it to the Echo. Fair enough – he currently has the power to do it but:
1. He has no mandate to do it. At no time has he ever put the sale of this and other parkland into a manifesto on which he can be judged.
2. This decision was taken and almost £1,000,000 spent on the acquisition of Beechley House entirely in secret. Officers proceeded by using their delegated powers with no public report on or authority for the spending of such a large amount of money.
But this is not the only example. What is going on between Everton and Walton Hall Park? What is happening at Sefton Park 12 months after the planning application for the desecration of the Meadowlands?
No wonder that so many of us resort to FOIs!
A pledge that a Lib Dem Mayor will make is that the number of FOIs will decrease because they are no longer required. A Lib Dem Mayor will regularly go out and meet people in their communities. A Lib Dem council will introduce effective scrutiny of performance so that people can see if they get value for money.
Roll on May next year!
It has been some time coming but I have now officially complained to the Information Commissioner about Liverpool City Council’s poor record in responding to FOI complaints. I am asking him to undertake a full review about how FOI issues are dealt with inside the council.
My letter is here:
Christopher Graham Esq.,
Information Commissioner’s Office,
Wycliffe House Water Lane,
10th November 2015
Re: Liverpool Council and FOIs
I am writing to you to suggest that you should undertake a review into the way that Liverpool City Council deals with FOI complaints.
I enclose two documents. The first is from a senior officer of the council complaining about my blog on FOIs which is the second document attached.
You will see that the officer makes no specific complaints although they are threatening unspecified actions against me. This is hardly surprising as it was this officer’s department that supplied me with the information on which I based my conclusions.
Frankly I have no idea how the Council is behaving and delivering compared with other councils or parts of the public sector. I am however, convinced that the council is behaving poorly and that it deals with the letter and not the spirit of the FOI laws. The fact is, as admitted by the council, that it only gets responses to FOIs in 80%+ of the questions raised with it.
You will note also the rise in FOIs which has corresponded to the reduction in proper questioning and debate through other parts of what is an abnormal democratic process.
I am asking you to review the actions of the council as a whole in this matter. Should you do so I can assure you that there are a plethora of Liverpool citizens who would be prepared to tell you how difficult it has been to get answers from the council and how poor some of those answers have been.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Cllr Richard Kemp CBE
Leader, Liverpool Liberal Democrats