Time for the stick

THE era of local councils making decisions behind closed doors with little accountability for how public money is spent is supposed to be over, but it appears some town halls are still struggling to cope with this new age of openness.

The failure by so many authorities to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests on time is lamentable. The Act is straightforward, with staff given 20 days to provide the information.

Clearly some inquiries will be much tougher to provide a response for than others, but four weeks to retrieve information from within your own organisation is surely enough for even the most complex query?

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A number of exceptional cases would obviously be excusable, but councils such as Hull – which failed to hit the four-week target for half of the inquiries it received, or Kirklees which was late 40 per cent of the time, are simply not good enough.

Hull Council gave the same reason heard many times before up and down the country – demand has increased while staff levels have dropped. But this is not a basic service provided at the whim of a council, it is the law and it is being flouted time and again, and with little hope of change.

By law the authorities also have to balance their books each year and – regardless of increased demand, staff shortages or any other problems – they will make sure it gets done. Of course the reason being is that failure to balance the books by the end of March results in severe repercussions, and therein lies the problem. Despite failing ratepayers so appalling, there is, unfortunately, little being done by way of punishment.

Until the FOI Act is given teeth, until a council is penalised for its poor performance, there is little motivation for them to improve.

Councils were offered the carrot of leading a new era of open local politics, as some have chosen to ignore it, perhaps it is now time for the stick.