Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Open government (unless it proves embarrassing)

The keys to the future are... Open, accountable, decentralised governance

The City also needs to be less secretive so people can express their views as to policies that affect them and have real consultation...

Only the most geekish have sought out the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2004 local elections. I'm not even convinced that many of the LD councillors have even read it. Certainly, their behaviour as lapdogs for the Tories suggests that they don't give a damn about ending secrecy. Odd, for a party whose local leader (yes, him) once bravely faced the threat of disqualification as a councillor for leaking commercially confidential information, but attempted a public interest defence.

How times change.

Following hard on the heels of their embarrassing climbdown over releasing the Blunderground report (and my sources tell me that what was released was a cobbled together document combining two reports and thus apparently worth £300,000), the council have refused to release information on the proposed casino on top of the Wheels park in Birmingham despite a Freedom of Information Act request from the Birmingham Post.

Apparently, they've also been sitting on another request from the paper for information on the library since the end of August - a clear breach of the terms of the FoIA and the council's own code of practice. So, perhaps the Post should crack on with the next stage and lodge a complaint with the council before complaining to the Information Commissioner. Just the threat worked last time.

You see, the exemption that the council have claimed isn't an absolute one. Absolute exemptions are simple and are generally confined to national issues - things that would affect national security or the economy, for example. While an appeal to the Information Commissioner can still be made, I'd suspect that very few will get past that particular line of defence. However, there are a number of qualified exemptions available under the Act and they are subject to a public interest test. Simply, this asks if the public interest is better served by release or by the information being withheld.

Whatever the outcome, it would be interesting to see the judgement of the council being tested.

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