Friday, July 18, 2008

Open Season on Council Financial Information

I've just discovered something that looks genuinely amazing. Its called the Audit Commission Act 1998. It may not sound very exciting (having audit in the title doesn't help in this respect), but it does appear to give astonishing rights to local residents to look into the accounts of the Council. For a short period of time after the Council's accounts are audited, residents living in the relevant area have a right to inspect any financial records making up those accounts. And it appears that aspects like commercial confidentiality don't come in to it - just about the only exception is records relating to employees payroll.

And the good news is - it is currently open season for Cambridge City Council accounts until August 26th. For Cambridgeshire County Council, you will have to contain your excitement until 13th August for open season to begin.

What I think this means is that if you want to inspect any invoices or contracts relating to last year's City Council accounts you can do, and take copies. Want to know how much various contractors have been paid, or who the Council is doing business with and on what terms - just ask. As a Councillor I can ask and would expect to see most information I wanted, but I think conditions would apply - like having a reason for wanting it in relation to my role as a Councillor, and respecting confidentiality. The Audit Commission Act appears to give all residents very wide powers to inspect information during open season - I can certainly think of a few long term contracts I have already asked about since May that I wouldn't mind reading (and reading them would beat counting sheep for insomnia).

I still can't quite believe the right to information is as strong as presented to me, but I understand Freedom of Information (FOI) campaigners are using the act to challenge where Councils are refusing to release documents outside the open season under FOI legislation due to commercial confidentiality, when there was an absolute right for the public to read the documents during open season so how can they be called confidential. There are also some interesting implications from a data protection angle, but that is another story.

If anyone does try using these powers in Cambridge, please let me know how you get on.

1 comment:

Ruth said...

Chris, Thanks for this fascinating piece of information! I had no idea about this. I'll let you know if I make use of it.