The taxpayers are funding a whole industry dedicated to digging up embarrassing information and often using it out of context to create cheap stories about the public sector. The national press are particularly fine exponents of the art, generating stories about the waste within local councils, checking up on when and where they fly flags or if they let their employees watch the World Cup.
The TaxPayers Alliance are doughty, self-appointed fighters on behalf of us taxpayers, hiding their libertarian, Conservative-bias under the thinnest of covers. They have established themselves as the go-to guys for comment on anything regarding waste in the public sector, not least because they keep up a regular stream of press releases berating local authorities and other parts of the public sector for spending money on things that don't match the TPA's narrow agenda.
All of this ties into the new agenda of the small state, supported by lower taxes and providing fewer services. It has provided a climate for the sweeping change led by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.
But ironically, the fuel for these stories does not come from an army of diligent journalists or TPA researchers, it comes courtesy of the taxpayer through the Freedom of Information Act as a handful of journalists or researchers send round robin emails to local authorities across the country.
I asked Birmingham City Council about the impact of these requests and I was shocked at how widespread they are. A fifth of all FoIA requests last year came from national newspapers and it looks like there will be even more this year in a fivefold increase since 2006. Even more shocking is the cost, calculated on an average costing in line with that set down in the FoIA 2000. Servicing the requests from the national media last year cost the Birmingham tax payer £55,250 and effectively required almost 1.3 full time staff. One reporter on a national broadsheet alone cost us £6000 and the overall cost of newspaper requests will top £61,000 this year for Birmingham alone.
When you spread this out across the country's 433 local authorities, the costs become staggering. Most of these requests go out to all of them and we can reasonably assume similar costs, which provide an indicative cost for 2009 of almost £24 million and which is expected to increase to almost £27 million this year. That same reporter looks to have cost the public sector some £2.5 million to answer his requests over the past year.
Each request sent out to all our local authorities sets back the public purse some £108,250, essentially free research for the journalist or the pressure group and which they then use to abuse those who supply it.
In these difficult times, is it right that a pressure group demanding lower taxes keeps spending our money on their own cause? Is it right that journalists use the FoIA act for meaningless research solely to dig up knocking copy at our expense? I don't think that the FoIA was designed for this purpose.