Groundbreaking legislation introduced at the turn of the century, it has enabled journalists – and taxpayers – to obtain details about the activities of public bodies which would previously have been classified. Disclosures over the Sheffield tree-felling scandal are a case in point.
Such revelations – or the mere threat of incriminating information being released – have led to a new era of accountability which has helped to shape public service reform. However a loophole means organisations in receipt of taxpayers’ money are exempt and can veto legitimate questions about their use of public funds.
This needs to change. If an organisation – whether it be a waste disposal contractor, health provider, train operator or tourism body by way of example – is subsidised by the public purse, it should face the same scrutiny applied to Whitehall departments, quangos and town halls.
A cross-party matter, its importance is illustrated by the two independent inquiries taking place at Welcome to Yorkshire into Sir Gary’s expenses claims – he is said to have repaid £40,000 – and myriad bullying allegations. In turn, these have prompted many searching questions about the organisation’s governance, with the resulting obfuscation risking even more reputational damage to an organisation which has, in fairness, achieved so much good for this county.
And even though half of WTY’s £4m-a-year budget comes from councils, it still only intends to release a summary of the conclusions of the respective inquiries on its terms. Again, this does not go far enough. Given WTY’s confirmation that Sir Gary has not been in a position to formally participate in this process – legal representatives of the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire say he has been “voluntarily assisting” the twin investigations – the onus is on Keith Stewart, the interim chairman, to take the lead and make his body fully FOI-compliant.
What has Welcome to Yorkshire to fear? Not only would it help to restore trust – and, maybe, win the back the confidence of those councils withholding money until these matters are cleared up – but it would also help convince MPs that all public servants entrusted with taxpayers’ money do need to be scrutinised more effectively in the future.