Local councils are providing inaccurate information in response to Freedom of Information requests.

Local councils are providing inaccurate information in response to Freedom of Information requests.

The Bureau carried out a nine-month investigation into how local councils spend their money. At the core of this investigation were Freedom of Information requests (FOIs) sent to all 433 local authorities in the UK, on a range of topics, including staff perks, redundancy payouts and sick leave.

This comprehensive FOI trawl formed the basis of the Bureau’s stories, which were covered by Channel 4 News and the Daily Telegraph.

The Bureau checked each figure obtained with the councils before publication and discovered that nearly one in four responses to our survey proved inaccurate.

The Freedom of Information Act gives people the right to access official information held by public bodies. Its aim is to make public bodies more accountable. Under the Act public bodies are obliged to provide the information held without alteration. As a result, an FOI request stands as a test of the quality of records kept by councils.

Naming and Shaming
The Bureau checked all information gained before publication. We contacted more than 90 councils to verify the data supplied by FOI officers. But 22 councils said the information provided through FOI was inaccurate.

In its response to our question on sick leave Caerphilly County Borough Council, for example, said the number of staff absent for six months or more was 145 in 2009/10. Asked to verify this data, the council said the figures supplied in response to our FOI had in fact been those for staff on sick leave for two weeks or more, and that the correct figures “would be significantly reduced, and without further detailed calculation, could be at least 50% less”.

Caerphilly Council declined to offer a corrected figure, despite making the following commitment to open government on its website:

“We are firmly committed to promoting openness and transparency in the way we conduct our affairs.”

Getting it wrong
They are not alone. When Lancashire County Council was contacted about the cost of living allowances provided to staff, including car business mileage, it initially replied that it spent £65m on such expenses in 2009/10. Once again though, when we asked for confirmation, that figure changed dramatically, in this case dropping to £10.16m, less than a fifth of the original response.

The council could offer no explanation for this discrepancy: “This figure is significantly less than the figure that was originally given to you and we are currently looking into this matter. We can only apologise for any inconvenience caused due to this error.”

Former Labour MP and Government minister Lord Wills is critical of the way some local authorities have implemented the Freedom of Information Act.

“Some councils, not all councils, but some councils are very poor at delivering their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act,” he said.

“I think some genuinely don’t understand it, they don’t treat it as a priority, which is a problem in itself, and they genuinely have not taken the time and trouble to understand how the Act works.

“Some, I’m afraid, inevitably use it to try and conceal information they would rather not come into the public domain. This is wrong and it needs to change.”

Missing deadlines
Accuracy is not the only area where councils fail to meet their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act.

Public bodies are required under the Act to provide information no later than 20 working days after the initial request was received.

However, many councils failed to reply to the Bureau’s requests within this time period. In the case of one typical request made by the Bureau, 29% of councils failed to meet the statutory deadline for answers. This pattern was repeated across many of the requests sent out to councils by the Bureau.

In some instances replies were received several months late. Nottingham City Council responded to a request for information on foreign trips made by council staff and members some five months after the initial request had been sent.

But North West Leicestershire District Council was an even worse offender, replying to a question concerning staff discipline a full six and a half months after the initial request was sent.

The Bureau’s investigation raised serious concerns on council spending in a time of serious budget cuts. Through laborious checking we were able to publish an accurate and detailed investigation. But the failings in the system discovered by the Bureau raise serious concerns about how FOI requests are handled by local councils and the information supplied.

The above report from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

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Team @ AberdareOnline

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