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Pickles looks to tighten transparency rules

Ministers have moved one step closer to making transparency guidance binding for councils in a bid to ensure members of the public can access the same data wherever they live.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles looks set to make good on earlier promises to make the existing code of recommended practice legally binding as the Department for Communities & Local Government published a consultation on the creation of new regulations.

However, while the government argues the regulations will improve the ability of citizens to hold councils accountable, the LGA has argued that a “box filling approach” will produce “masses” of data but little help for members of the public concerned with local authority performance.

Mr Pickles said: “We are ending an era of bureaucratic accountability and replacing it with a more open era of democratic accountability. It is right that taxpayers get to see how town halls spend their hard earned taxes so they can properly hold local politicians to account.”

“Finally all councils have taken up the £500 transparency challenge but publication is only happening in fits and starts. By writing town hall transparency into law we can make certain every citizen gets open and equal access to information about local public expenditure.”

But a spokesman for the LGA said: “Local government is the most open, transparent and directly accountable part of the public sector. Local authorities are required by law to open their books for public scrutiny and publish all councillor allowances and senior salaries on their websites. They also publish details of all individual payments of more than £500.

“The most important thing for residents is not the amount of data that’s published by how useful it is. An overly prescriptive box filling approach is likely to generate loads of data without giving residents a clear way of judging whether or not their council is performing well. We are very keen for the result of this consultation to prioritise knowledge over data.”

A spokesman for the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors described the move as “unnecessary” and warned it could lead to legal action against councils. “Local authorities are already well out in front in the public sector on transparency,” they said. “Regulations would involve creating a substantial bureacracy in local authorites to demonstrate compliance with legal requirements. Legal requirements create the added risk of legal challenge for technical non compliance. I think these added burdens are unnecessary and a step too far.”

The existing code advises councils to publish data in open formats and in a timely fashion, including data on senior salaries and workforce structures. The consultation published on Thursday also asks for opinions on what additonal data streams could be included in the code, including those relating to contracted out services and surplus local authority land.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • I'm absolutely delighted that Eric is concerned about transparency. Perhaps he could now apply that concern to his own performance. I'm still waiting to receive answers to the FOI requests I made to DCLG in April 2011.
    And, it isn't as though he doesn't know the answers or that it needs a lot of research. The answer is either 'Yes' or 'No'.
    And, it isn't that he or Sir Bob aren''t aware of the 18 month delay, as:
    (1) confirmation was received a year ago that the SoS's and Perm Sec's offices were involved in DCLG's failure to respond;
    (2) the Information Commissioner published a Decision Notice in February 2012 stating: "The Information Commissioner does not accept that in the circumstances of this case it is by any measure reasonable to have taken such an extended period of time to consider the public interest test. Accordingly he has determined that DCLG has failed to comply with its obligations under FOIA. This is a breach of section 17(3) of FOIA."
    (3) this month, the Information Commissioner's Office has advised me that it was on the point of issuing an Information Notice to DCLG, because of its persistent failure to provide information requested by the Commissioner.
    So, come on Eric. Have a go at being the sinner who repents, rather than the hypocrite who demands transparency from others but persistently refuses to comply with his own legal obligations.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • Yes Eric while you are thinking about Howard's concern could you ensure that Commercial in Confidence and Data Protection are no longer a defence against FoI requests for information about large executive pay offs and the financial aspects of contracts with private enterprise.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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