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Feb 09 2013

How to Scrutinise How Harrow Council Spends Your Money

Information1-150x150We’re a big fan of the Freedom of Information Act. It gives residents the chance to scrutinise public organisations, such as your local council, and find out how they’re performing, where they’re spending your money, and, indeed, where they’re wasting it.

Harrow Council’s Head of Legal, Hugh Peart, would agree. In an interview with The Lawyer in February 2011, he said, “I want us to move away from the defensive position of keeping everything to ­ourselves. I want to say that everything’s public except for a few obvious areas.”

He continued “Harrow Council is an ­exciting example of a public authority showing what you can do when you think of the FOI as an opportunity, not a burden…”

We’d argue those comments, but, as always, actions speak louder then words. So, here’s a quick run down on how you, or any resident in any council, can find out more about what your council is doing:

Most forward-thinking councils make this easy – they have a page or a form on their website where you can submit requests under the Freedom of Information Act. We’d advise you to ignore this, and use the well-known whatdotheyknow.com website to submit your request. Many councils are listed there, and your request and the response – when it finally comes – will be public for others to see.

To paraphrase whatdotheyknow.com’s site, you pay taxes, and then your council does things with the money. All sorts of things that affect your life, from health care through to national defence. Some it does badly, some it does well. The more we find out about how your council works, the better able we are to make suggestions to improve the things that are done badly, and to celebrate the things that are done well.

Key points:

  • It’s free. So long as your request doesn’t exceed some pre-defined cost limits, it won’t cost you a penny. If your council argues that your request will cost too much, you should be given the chance to amend it – perhaps specify a shorter time frame, or limit your request to a smaller area.
  • They should respond within 20 working days (note: Harrow Council is particularly bad at this, adding extra days to the time that they believe they have to respond). There are, again, some exceptions, but generally, whatdotheyknow.com will remind you that the response is overdue so that you can chase it.
  • If they don’t respond with the information you expect, you can ask for an internal review. Again, it’s free. But as it’s probably provided by the same team who wrote the original response, don’t be surprised if you get the same answer.
  • If they don’t have the information, they have to tell you. They might tell you who has, or where you can get it, but that’s not often the case.
  • Expect them to get annoyed. Quickly. Most organisations – schools, for example, see FOI as an intrusion – and will provide all sorts of excuses to prevent the release of information that you’re entitled to have.
  • It’s not about personal information. If you want to find out what your council knows about you, personally, you should do this under a Subject Access Request. This, however, isn’t free – it costs a tenner – and you have to do it in person. Harrow Council’s link is here, but even if your Council doesn’t provide a link, you can still request it in writing, and it doesn’t need to be on any special form.
  • If you do use whatdotheyknow.com – and we highly recommend it – everything you do is public, so don’t include any personal information in your request.

That’s it! Try asking your Council how much they pay their Chief Executive, or how many hours he works. Ask for a copy of the restaurant menu, or the number of sexual assault allegations against teachers. Ask if they’ve got an incident plan to deal with a Zombie invasion [1], or how much they spend on catering for breakfast meetings.

You can see all the requests that Harrow Council has responded to on whatdotheyknow.com here – but remember, you don’t have to use the site to make your requests.

[1] Yes, really. Some Councils have a sense of humour…

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2 comments

  1. Morepowertothepeople

    Hugh Peart and less defensive position in the same sentence……you jest surely? From personal experience this man and other Council officers will do all in their power not to release information under the FOI act that could unearth failings within his beloved Harrow Council. I know this from personal experience, having been lied about, villified on a grand scale, and having been treated worse than you would treat your own worst enemy! A politician told me a while ago that the legal team is there purely to protect and deflect any bad press or failings of Harrow Council that anyone should uncover along the way! If that means threatening a tax paying resident just because they are trying to uncover the truth, and making many changes along the way as I did, some legal, then that is what they will do to cover up their incompetence! I urge anyone who has taken on the Council to request a subject access request, it makes for interesting reading, and may as in my case be full of lies about you, and cover ups internally!

  2. MouthAlmighty

    You will no doubt then be impressed to learn that harrow Council is expanding its legal team and advertising for a further 11 people. Goes without saying that Harrow Council is so busy defending itself that there isnt time to run the Borough properly. Thanks for the info on Subject Access request. This should be useful for all of us.

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