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Council chief accuses journalists of using FoI to ‘create trouble’

FOIA council chief has accused journalists who send Freedom of Information requests of trying to “create trouble” for local authorities.

Keith Ireland, managing director of Wolverhampton City Council, made the claim that the FoI act was not being used for the reasons it was originally intended.

Mr Ireland spoke out about the Act during a meeting of the council’s scrutiny board, covered by Wolverhampton daily the Express & Star.

His comments came just days after Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, told MPs it “isn’t acceptable” for journalists to use FoI to generate stories, claiming it amounted to “misuse” of the legislation.

Last month the Society of Editors launched its HandsOffFoi campaign with the backing of HoldtheFrontPage and Press Gazette.

The campaign was founded after the Government appointed a commission made up mainly of opponents of FoI to look at watering-down the legislation.

During the meeting, Mr Ireland said: “The vast majority of requests come from media across the country, be that the BBC, local media, or media in general.

“They come from people who are out to create trouble for councils and students who are too lazy to do their own research.

“Others come from big companies who can’t be bothered to look up the data and want to know when contracts are on for re-evaluation.

“It is a really costly exercise. The original principle of FoI is not what is happening in reality.”

A report revealed the council received 272 FoI requests between April and June this year.

Of those requests officers identified that 59 had been made by media organisations.

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has previously expressed his support for keeping the Act as it is, arguing that if anything its powers should be expanded to cover private companies providing public services too.

He told the Express & Star: “I profoundly disagree with the comments made by Mr Ireland.

“The Freedom of Information Act may sometimes make life uncomfortable for public servants but it has led to information being made available to the public about the decisions made in their name.

“That’s why the Act should be strengthened and extended rather than watered down by the Tories.”

8 comments

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  • November 10, 2015 at 9:16 am
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    “They come from people who create trouble for councils” says Ireland.

    Naughty people, eh?

    Upsetting the public sector’s out-of-control gravy train.

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  • November 10, 2015 at 9:28 am
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    Perhaps if the councils started by saying how much they spend on employing back office staff to respond to foi requests that would help them make the case.

    The point about lazy journalism is a fair one though. FOI has been around for 10 years or so, what were journalists doing to fill column inches in the 1990s and why not think about going back to some of that?

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  • November 10, 2015 at 9:33 am
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    Put another way:
    ‘Pesky journalists wanting to wash municipal dirty linen in public… How dare they challenge our public money wasting incompetence!’

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  • November 10, 2015 at 10:23 am
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    @ Pete, London. Pre-FOI, Journalists were still allowed out of the office and still had contacts who would provide leads to the dirty linen that public ‘servants’ would prefer the public didn’t know about. Now, FOI is
    vital because whistleblowers are hunted down ruthlessly, in what seems to be in direct proportion to the seriousness of their allegations.

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  • November 10, 2015 at 10:30 am
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    “They come from people who are out to create trouble for councils and students who are too lazy to do their own research.

    “Others come from big companies who can’t be bothered to look up the data and want to know when contracts are on for re-evaluation.”
    Troublemakers? It’s called holding councils to account, but if Mr Ireland is MD, not leader of the council, does that not mean he’s not an elected councillor but one of those bureaucrats modern councillors seem to think are so wonderfully efficient. What they are not is democrats.
    Students “too lazy to do their own research?” It’s been said elsewhere that an FoI request takes a lot of work. And if it was ever possible to obtain the required information without an FoI request because it was already in the public domain, there would be no need for the Act.
    As to the bit about big companies…that has to be nonsense. It is not in a company’s interests to chase up that sort of info via FoI. Contract reevaluation dates must be in the public domain, or how could they get the tenders? Getting the info ahead of time…well now, I reckon a bribe would be quicker & easier…

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  • November 10, 2015 at 10:56 am
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    Pete – It’s nothing to do with ‘laziness’ on the part of reporters. Councils force journalists to use FOI to obtain the most basic of data, then they whinge that they’re having to cope with too many FOI requests.

    My editor was once told by a council’s head of communications that he would have to FOI the date of a council meeting.

    Requests for information which councils were forced to provide within a matter of days under the Local Government Act are now reclassified as FOIs without consulting the reporters and then put on the backburner for 20 working days. That is an offence under the Local Government Act, punishable by a summary fine in the lower court – but try ringing your local police force to report a council officer who won’t give you a report, and see how far you get. Then try complaining to the Information Commissioner, and let me know in 18 months’ time what the ruling was.

    FOI was brought in on the premise that it would open things up, but in fact it has shut a lot of things down. Councils, police forces, etc, use it as a stalling tactic. It is not that reporters are lazy. It is that too many civil servants suffer from slippery desk syndrome; rather than spending half an hour going and getting the information you need, they lazily palm it off to the FOI department which has the dual benefits of meaning they don’t have to deal with it and also likely hampering your reporting. And you can’t even ring the civil servants directly to try to circumvent this ludicrousness, because they’re all instructed to never, ever tell or provide anything to a journalist and instead to immediately patch them through to the comms department.

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  • November 10, 2015 at 1:11 pm
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    The only issue here is the embarrassment to those council / health bosses who are earning salaries that those who foot the bill can only dream of.
    I see that the highest earner at Harrogate Borough Council last year was the (former) head of financial management who got a whopping £198,294.
    I can’t imagine what responsibility he/she has to earn so much money in a town where there is no affordable housing for young families, traffic chaos and residents are being asked to fork out to get their garden waste removed – on top of the council tax we already pay.
    As I’ve said on an earlier story about FoI, I’m a big supporter of it, when you lift a stone it’s amazing what you find out.
    Carry on digging folks!

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  • November 10, 2015 at 2:13 pm
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    What does he mean by saying that the FOI is not being used for the purses it was intended.
    The more these people protest the more the phrase “they doth protest too much” comes to mind.
    As for the comment that beforehand journalists got stories fr sources – that is more difficult these days with fewer journalists on local newspapers being able to find the time to meet their colleagues never mind any so-called contacts.

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