Monday, July 20, 2009

Freedom of Information Victory

You could say that last Thursday's Full Council meeting was slightly less predictable than usual...

Motions to Full Council are usually just a way of setting out a party line - opposition Councillors put down a motion to try shifting the Council's opinion, the ruling Lib Dems then amend the motion by getting rid of it and replacing it with some meaningless guff about how wonderfully the Council is already responding to said problem. Occassionally the Lib Dems don't bother about waiting for the opposition motion, and go straight to the self-congratulation.

An example of the latter was the Lib Dems motion designed to set out how they are going to improve the availability of information to the public, particularly in the area of Freedom of Information requests and Councillor expenses.

Personally, I have long been calling for complete openness at the Council - the default should be that all information is publicly available (unless there is a good reason not to, such as publishing would put the Council at a commercially disadvantageous situation, or for classes of information like personal emails that would require so much editing for data protection, they should only be available through a specific Freedom of information request). But in the areas the motion dealt with specifically, I think the Council should certainly be publishing (almost) all Freedom of Information requests, and all of the Council's responses, as well as detailed information about all allowances, expenses and benefits to Councillors. Apart from the fact that allowances are generally too high in local government - we don't want to create a new class of professional or semi-professional politicians locally - I don't think the expenses claimed in Cambridge City would be a cause for great controversy, but we should publish everything and let the public decide.

You would have thought the Lib Dems would also be in favour of this, but a few of them were decidedly luke warm (I had one Lib Dem criticise me privately for supporting calls to publish Councillors usage of car park passes...), the original motion was far too woolly, and didn't commit the Council to enough action.

I did have an amendment prepared, but unfortunately you need a seconder, and there is only one of me. As Labour had a similar amendment, we combined the text and Labour presented it as their amendment. Remarkably, the Lib Dems agreed with the amendment, and then setout making minor changes to the amendment to allow it to go forward. Full Council doesn't pass motions requiring significant financial resources - they would need to be accompanied by budget amendments, so the output of motions is usually to get a report brough back to committee outlining how the principles can be implemented. In this case however, I think we may have gone much further than usual, and could have come up with something that genuinely changes the way the Council operates. As I see it, the amendment I helped draft in the final agreed motion commits the Council to:
  • Aspire to make information available online by default.
  • The Council will publish all Freedom of Information requests and responses online (unless there is reason not to like a request being libellous etc) (similar to
  • The Council will publish details of all Councillor's allowances, expenses, benefits in kind etc
I think when the officers sit down to work out how they are going to implement all this, they may have kittens, but overall I think last Thursday will go down as a good day for Freedom of Information at the City Council.

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