A local authority leader has decided to attack journalists and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Bob Myles who has since 2007 led Angus Council attacked the use of FOI by journalists in a response issued relating to the amount of money spent on Credit Cards released under the FOI regime.
The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 came into force in 2005 and provides people with a right to request information from any public authority covered by the Act. Local Authorities are covered by the terms of the FOI legislation. The Act is important in the fight to have openness and transparency from public officials and is equally important in ensuring that public officials can be held accountable by the public.
The press have an important role in keeping the public informed and holding public officials to account for the benefit of the public and Freedom of Information allows them to perform this function. In a time of austerity where people are having to endure job losses and cuts in the provision of council services it is important that local authorities are held to account over how they spend the limited resources they have. Couple this with the reasons given for the cuts coming out from Westminster debts owed by councils are one important factor in ensuring that Councils are spending money wisely.
Cllr Myles reveals that the Council spent £2000 responding to one FOI request. If they did then I congratulate them on going the extra mile and providing a response to that individual. However, the law did not require them to do so. Under Section 12 of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 a public authority can refuse to comply with a request for information if the cost to the authority in complying is excessive. The cost limit is currently set at £600 by the Scottish Ministers. Essentially, if the Council did spend £2,000 responding to an FOI request then they would have been perfectly within their rights to refuse that request under the exemption provided by Section 12.
It has been reported that Mr Myles suggested that following the hacking scandal at the News of the World that journalists would now abuse the FOI legislation because they can no longer obtain information illegally and that this would come at an “excessive cost” to local authorities.
Cllr Myers is reported as having said:
It’s lazy – whenever they can’t find a story they just shove in an FOI request. I’m all for being open and honest with the public but when people start querying insignificant amounts it’s a waste of everybody’s time.
If these comments are true they are truly disgraceful comments to come from an elected official. Every penny spent by councils is public money and an insignificant amount spent may be significant depending upon what it was spent on. For example, £10 is a small amount of money, but when it was discovered that the husband of a serving Home Secretary had spent £10 on viewing two adult films which had then “inadvertently” been claimed for in parliamentary expenses by the Home Secretary, that became a significant matter. How then do we define what is a significant amount and more importantly who defines it? I suggest that we can’t, and even if we could that it would be unwise to do so.
A spokesperson for the council was unable to comment as to whether the comments were accurate as they came directly from Mr Myles. I will continue to try and contact Cllr Myles to confirm whether these comments attributed to him are true and if he has anything else to add.