THE message from Camden Council, and nearly every other local authority around the country for that matter, is that the cuts ordered from on high are so deep that everything must be peeled back to the statutory minimum. No extra childcare hours, no extra voluntary sector grants, etc. Officers and councillors are repeating the mantra that they will be able cover what is legally expected of them, but nothing more. This enables them, they tell us, to work out spending for the next three or four years and squeeze a budget together.
But what if the legal minimum is a movable feast. All local authorities – all institutions that receive public funding – are required to answer requests from members of the public for minutes, emails, spreadsheets etc under the Freedom of Infomation Act. It takes staff time to answer them and unfair withholding, in theory but not practice, of information after 20 days could even lead to imprisonment.
Yet the legal minimum for answering requests here is unknown; it could amount to anything from answering no requests or to hundreds, thousands every year. In the cuts dossier released last week, there was little mention of how Camden’s FoI team will operate with less money and potentially less staff. FoI has a valuable place in the journalist’s toolbox, the right questions when sensibly phrased can occasionally cause secrets to tumble into the open.
But who is going to answer those pesky reporters asking how many loo rolls, biscuits and paper-clips the Town Hall goes through every year? The law says those questions must be answered too, even if the council is skint.