What can you do if you suspect your local council of financial misconduct?
One solution is to take a good hard look at their books; and thanks to the Local Audit and Accountability Act we all have the right to do just that for a set 30-day period each year.
The People’s Audit is a volunteer-run network of people who are keen to raise awareness of these little-known rights, in the belief that local government spending should be open and accountable to local people.
At the same time, they’re using the Act to good effect themselves, as they probe into spending anomalies in their own borough of Lambeth. They’ve found that the Freedom of Information Act has proved a useful complement to their auditing activity.
Investigating financial misconduct
We spoke to Ben Rymer from The People’s Audit to find out more. What exactly have they uncovered to date?
“Perhaps the most worrying finding was around the Fenwick Estate regeneration project in Clapham. The chosen supplier was almost £6 million more expensive than some others who tendered. This is a massive red flag as the likelihood of this sum being accounted for by quality of work alone is slim.”
There’s plenty more: Ben says they’ve made concerning findings around public housing, procurement and contract management and how major works are overseen, from possible price fixing between contractors to payments for work that was never done.
For example, the group say that a sampling of some of the housing blocks on the Wyvil Estate in Vauxhall indicates that the council paid its contractors for more than twice the number of repairs that were actually carried out.
They also claim to have found evidence of land in Kenningham and Streatham being sold to a private developer at a discount of at least £1m, without any competitive tender.
And another major finding was that costs for Lambeth’s new town hall — originally flagged as a money-saver for residents — have overrun by more than £50 million.
Two Acts working together
So, some substantial discoveries. Where does Freedom of Information come into the picture?
Ben says that the two Acts can be used together, to good effect. “The Local Audit Act requires access to be given to documents relating to costs incurred by the council in the preceding financial year. Once these have been obtained, FOI requests can then be targeted more precisely using the insights gained from such documents.”
But there is a slight snag: with the Local Audit Act offering access only within a specific period of 30 days each year, the FOI Act’s prescription that a response must arrive within ‘up to 20 working days’ does not allow for much wiggle room, especially if the FOI response generates more questions that might be answered through scrutiny of the accounts.
Ben says that unfortunately, responses to both Acts are often delayed, refused on the grounds that they would take too long (despite similar requests to other councils being processed without an issue) or just ignored. “An extreme example is our attempt to obtain the original budget for Lambeth’s new town hall, which we have now been trying to get hold of for 18 months!”.
But all of this notwithstanding, WhatDoTheyKnow has been a useful tool for the FOI side of the People’s Audit’s investigations: “It is an easy way to organise FOI requests, and the fact that it’s all in public means that other people can use the information in the responses — though we do also submit requests directly to the council.”
“One notable success was when one of the team received some emails via WhatDoTheyKnow following the audit inspection period in 2015 which showed that the council had agreed to install gyms in libraries months before any public consultation on the idea.”
So, the group have uncovered plenty of concerning information — but have they actually made a difference?
Ben says that they’ve achieved a good amount of local and national press attention. More importantly, they’ve seen an increased focus on financial issues among the people of Lambeth, especially in the run-up to the local elections in the spring. “Given that we are all volunteers with day jobs and families we think this is a pretty good result!”
And they believe that there’s been some effect within their local authority too, although not as wholehearted as they would have liked. “They have published their responses to citizen audit requests and are making more positive noises about the importance of transparency.
“However, they are also imposing arbitrary limits on the amount of information which citizens can request and have put in place ‘guidance’ around requests which we think may be intended to discourage further requests.”
If the Local Audit and Accountability Act is new to you, you may be wondering whether you should be using it yourself. The People’s Audit think you should consider it:
“Local Government financial scrutiny is really important and these powers need to be used to their fullest to prevent wasteful spending or corruption. Many people don’t realise that councils are often £1bn+ organisations, or that UK councils spend a total of over £92bn a year. Yet since the Audit Commission was abolished there is very little scrutiny of this spend.
“Many local newspapers have closed in recent years so citizen audits and hyperlocal publications have become more important.
“The powers are hugely underused currently. However what we’ve hopefully shown is that a group of committed individuals can use them to good effect.”
If you’d like to do the same, find out more on the People’s Audit website.
When you submit a Freedom of Information request, of course, you’re asking for a defined piece of information; a successful request is one where that information is provided.
Sometimes, though, a response will provide more than has been asked for.
We always appreciate it when a public servant goes above and beyond the call of duty, so when one of our volunteers happened across this response, it was passed around the team for everyone to enjoy. It’s helpful, factual, and fulsome, with far more background detail than was asked for.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this response, though, is that it’s from a body that is not actually obliged to respond to FOI requests at all.
Neighbourhood planning forums
Neighbourhood Planning Forums are defined on the Gov.uk website as bodies which “[give] communities direct power to develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood and shape the development and growth of their local area”.
They came into being in 2012 as a result of the Localism Act, and you can check whether there are any near you on this map.
Neighbourhood planning forums can help set the policies against which applications for planning permission are assessed, so they have a significant potential impact on local areas. It’s even possible for planning permission for a development to be granted proactively if this is proposed by a forum and approved in a referendum.
We’re not aware of any law which would make Neighbourhood Planning Forums subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But so far we’ve included eight of them on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Listing bodies not subject to FOI
Wait — so if they’re not obliged to respond to FOI requests, why are they included on WhatDoTheyKnow?
Well, we often add bodies with a substantial public role when we believe that people ought to be able to make transparent and visible requests for information to them.
For example, we listed Network Rail and the Association of Chief Police Officers on our site before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act (though we’re disappointed that ACPO’s successor body the National Police Chiefs’ Council is not yet formally subject to FOI).
You can see more than 450 bodies which fall into this category (ie, they are not subject to FOI but we believe that they should be) on the site.
In the case of Neighbourhood Planning Forums, in addition to their clear, significant and public role, there are a couple more relevant factors:
First, the Environmental Information Regulations, which allow you to ask for information around environmental issues, cover a wider set of public bodies than FOI and we think it’s likely Neighbourhood Planning Forums are subject to those.
Additionally, many of them are parish or town councils which have been designated as the local planning forum. Parishes and town councils are certainly subject to FOI.
Adding more Neighbourhood Planning Forums
If you looked at the map we linked to earlier, you’ll have noticed that there are many more Neighbourhood Planning Forums than the eight we’ve listed on WhatDoTheyKnow — hundreds, in fact.
Unfortunately, an FOI request that one of our volunteers, Richard, made in 2016 to request details and email addresses of every Neighbourhood Planning Forum was turned down; otherwise we’d have used this information to add them all to the site.
If you’re keen to see these bodies made accessible for requests through WhatDoTheyKnow, there are a couple of ways you can help:
- We’re happy to add any more that are proposed to us — just fill in this form and give us any contact details as you can find. If you want to help us add more than a handful then get in touch and we’ll arrange a more effective way of working.
- If you can’t find any public contact details, you could try making an FOI request to your local planning authority — this is your local council responsible for planning, who are also the ones to designate neighbourhood planning forums in your area — to ask them for any forums’ contact details. If you obtain the contact details we will of course add them to WhatDoTheyKnow.
Back in March, we flagged up the ‘batch request’ feature we’d been working on for the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. Batch requests are now switched on for every WhatDoTheyKnow Pro subscriber, by default.
Batch enables users to send the same Freedom of Information request to several bodies at once, and we spent a substantial amount of time building and testing it because we wanted to be confident that the feature wouldn’t be abused — or if it was, that we could catch irregular behaviour.
Part of that testing has involved making the feature available to a limited number of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro subscribers, and loosely monitoring how it was used. We’re glad to say that during this four-month period, the activity was all acceptable.
However, we also realised that we should tighten up our terms and conditions to reflect our expectations around usage of Batch, and add some advice to our Help pages about making responsible and effective requests, both of which we’ve now done. We’ve also added some automatic notifications that will alert the team when multiple batch requests are made, so that we can check that everything is in order.
If you think Batch might be useful in your own work or campaigning, and you’d like to find out more about WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, you can do that here.
Image: Ankush Minda
Back in February, we postponed celebrations for the tenth anniversary of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, because of extreme weather conditions. Gales and snow had shut down public transport; guests from further afield were unsure they’d make it to our London venue.
Little did we know that our rescheduled event would face its own exceptional circumstances. Not only did we find ourselves at the other end of the thermometer, with the hottest temperatures of the year thus far, but we were also competing with England playing a World Cup match.
All this being so, we were glad to see so many people turn out to help us celebrate — though it was pointed out that the Venn diagram between FOI enthusiasts and football fans might have a fairly small overlap. We’ll get our Research department on to that, at some point.
We’d decked the room with some rather unique — but meaningful — decorations: a selection of information uncovered by WhatDoTheyKnow’s users over the past decade (see photo, above), and screenshots of the many FOI sites running on our Alaveteli software around the world.
Talking of Alaveteli sites, we were delighted to welcome among our guests Andreas Pavlou who previously worked with AccessInfo, the organisation who run Europe FOI site AskTheEU, and Claude Archer from Anticor, who run Belgium’s Transparencia.be.
Claude actually drove, without incident, all the way from Brussels — only to scrape against the kerb right outside Newspeak House and get a flat tyre. But mySociety is not just a collection of weedy developers, you know. Well, ok, fair enough, until recently we were just that — but since Georgie joined our ranks a few weeks ago, it turns out that we now have a highly practical colleague who can change a wheel. And that’s just what she did.
That drama aside, the party went smoothly.
There were cakes, of course.
Then some mingling. It was great to meet many WhatDoTheyKnow users, and especially those who employ the site for their campaigns.
And on to the presentations. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Richard Taylor spoke about what it is like to be a volunteer on the site, and the kind of tasks they deal with in keeping the service available for everyone, not to mention free from litigation. You can read his talk here.
We interviewed Francis Irving, who was one of two people to suggest that mySociety build an FOI site when we had an open call for ideas — and who then went on to help build it. Much as we enjoy mySociety’s current status as an established organisation, Francis’ descriptions of our early days and ‘punk’ attitude were rather beguiling.
Finally, investigative journalist Jenna Corderoy shared her experiences of being one of the first people to try WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for FOI professionals and activists. In a stroke of incredible timing, she mentioned a story which she’d been working on, saying that she knew it would break soon, but it might be weeks or even a year before it did.
We woke up the next morning to hear that this very story was the BBC’s main headline for the day. Watch this space, because we’ll be asking Jenna to fill us in with some more background, and we’ll be sure to share it all here on the blog.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering… we did eventually switch the big screen over to the football, and all those Civic Tech geeks did actually get caught up in watching the penalty shoot-out decider.
I guess the Venn diagram stretched a little bit that night.
Thank you so much to everyone who came along: we hope you had as much fun as we did.
I’m Richard Taylor, a member of the volunteer team which administers WhatDoTheyKnow.com on a day to day basis, and I spoke at the event highlighting the broad range of people who have collaborated to make WhatDoTheyKnow a success, and sharing some ideas for the future. Here’s what I said:
I’m someone who wants to see our representative democracy working; that’s why I support what mySociety does; I support giving tools to people to help people engage with our society, how we make decisions about running our society, how we run our public services, our health service, policing, how we organise our cities, how we plan development of new homes and design, or evolve, our transport systems.
I joined WhatDoTheyKnow as a user on the 22nd of July 2008, so almost exactly ten years ago. My first Freedom of Information requests were on policing, for the local Stop and Account policy – as you can see from those kinds of requests I’m keen on transparency and accountability of those we give powers over us. I looked up my early FOI requests and I was rapidly onto my local councillor allowances, details of which weren’t online, and as I’m from Cambridge and there were some very Cambridge requests in there too – on the running of the river – on the regulation of punting – a perennial local issue, and for the terms and charges for grazing on the city’s commons. One of the things I do is campaign for proportional police use of TASERs, I made requests on that subject too.
Within just a few days of joining the site I was sending in lists of public bodies to add to the system; and shortly after that I was invited on to the administration team so I didn’t have to bug developer Francis Irving, or the volunteers who’d already started to help running the site, including John Cross, Alex Skene, Tony Bowden to do things like add new bodies, but could make changes myself.
The volunteer team
Mine is the same route many of our volunteers took to joining the team running the site in the early years; those making lots of good proposals for bodies to add, or making other suggestions were invited to help out. The way we’ve found new volunteers has changed a little over time, and we have had to keep topping up the pool of volunteers as people have moved on. We started to approach users of the site who were making helpful annotations assisting other users, and who were making great use of the site themselves. We found Ganesh Sittampalam and Doug Paulley that way, both of whom have put huge amounts of time into developing the site, the service. Latterly we’ve moved to advertising for new team members and seeking applications from those who want to join us, and that’s brought us some of our current active volunteers, Michael Bimmler, and Kieran Casey-McEvoy for example.
Volunteers have put in an enormous amount of time into running the site. If you put a cash value on that time I’m sure the volunteers would by far be the biggest donor to the site. The site probably wouldn’t exist, and certainly wouldn’t exist in its current form without volunteer input; so many good ideas for websites get built, often with funding to kick them off, but they don’t do what WhatDoTheyKnow has done, and survive, grow, and thrive. Volunteer input has enabled that.
The site certainly has grown and thrived, we now have around seven million users viewing the site per year; according to Google analytics, and 162,000 signed up users. There are approaching half a million request threads on the site now. An interesting aspect of those statistics is the viewing is not focused on a small handful of requests, but rather visitors are spread broadly across the long-tail of requests and released information. In 2016 17% of requests to central government monitored bodies went via our service; but the vast majority of requests, 88%, go to bodies where central government don’t track FOI request statististics.
The volunteers I’ve mentioned already, plus Helen Cross and Alastair Sloan, have put substantial chunks of time into running the site. There are many others too including Rob McDowell, Ben Harris, Gavin Chait and Peter Williams. The volunteers supporting the service have not just come from the volunteer team, the trustees who’re ultimately responsible for the site are volunteers too, ten years ago mySociety was more of a volunteer based organisation than it is now, trustee Amandeep Rehlon was dealing with the finances on a volunteer basis, we’ve had great moral and policy guidance from Manar Hussain and Owen Blacker, and the chair of the trustees, another volunteer, James Cronin.
We have been amazingly lucky with the volunteers we’ve attracted to the administration team. Doug Paulley is an incredible activist and campaigner on disability rights, and so many of the others are legal and information rights experts, activists and campaigners in their own rights.
Volunteers are only part of the story, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, and what we want to do without the institutional support of mySociety, and the organisation’s brilliant staff. When the initial developer and project manager Francis Irving moved on he was succeeded by a series of great lead developers, Robin Houston, Seb Bacon, and now Louise Crow and other staff team members, currently Gareth Rees, Graeme Porteous, Liz Colnan …(See Github for the full list of contributors to the code!) the site is supported by the whole mySociety team, including designers Zarino Zappier and Martin Wright, Abi Broom, who runs the show, Gemma Moulder – events organiser from our perspective, who also works on spreading services based on WhatDoTheyKnow around the world, and mySociety’s communications person Myf Nixon. Thanks are also due to ten years’ of mySociety sysadmins including Sam Pearson,Ian Chard, and in the early days volunteers who’d keep things running, Adam McGreggor, and Alex Smith.
A key WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer was Francis Davey who was our volunteer legal advisor for many years. Francis Davey’s top piece of advice which I recall was to avoid court. We’ve pretty much succeeded to date-with that. One of the key roles of the volunteer team is to run what is a relatively legally risky site without getting sued and consequently, probably, taking down not just WhatDoTheyKnow but the rest of mySociety too.
We deal with a lot of defamation claims, personal information takedown requests, and an array of more obscure legal challenges.
As well as trying to avoid getting annihilated via legal processes a key aspect of our approach to running the site is we try our utmost to run it responsibly. What those involved didn’t do is find a legally friendly jurisdiction and anonymously just let the system loose to run unmanaged and unchecked. We’re real accountable people who respond to concerns from all comers, individuals, public bodies, our own users, about what’s published on our site.
What are we doing by running our site?
We’re doing a lot more than just helping users make a request for information to a public body. We’re activists, we’re promoting running our society in a transparent, inclusive, accountable, way, not just by lobbying, making speeches, writing articles, but by doing something, by running our site.
Running our service promotes Freedom of Information and other access to information laws; people come across our site when searching for information they’re seeking; we show what can be obtained by publishing requests and responses; others might find the information they’re seeking directly, or see that they can make a similar request, perhaps adapting a request that’s been made elsewhere to their local public bodies..
Anyone can make a Freedom of Information request by private email to a public body. I’d find that potentially a bit of a selfish action, incurring cost to the public for a response only I might see, but making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow to obtain information which should be accessible to the public automatically makes that information accessible to anyone who searches for it, anyone who Googles for the information. Even if a requester doesn’t themselves do something with the information released by making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow.com they’ve enabled others to do so. You’re often doing public good just by making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow.com (though do see our advice on making responsible and effective requests).
WhatDoTheyKnow makes something which would otherwise be quite challenging for many people – getting a FOI request and response online – easy. I’m sure only a fraction of users of our site would have taken the time to write a blog about their request, and update it with the response, if they had to do that manually.
A big benefit of making a request on WhatDoTheyKnow.com is many people are already using our site and watching for responses; if you make a request to a local council on WhatDoTheyKnow.com the chances are your local journalists are tracking requests to the local council and they’ll be alerted to any response.
At WhatDoTheyKnow we’re an independent third party, we’re not the requestor and we’re not the public body. This can be useful when there’s a dispute about a response to a request, if a public body denies receiving it for example. We’d love to work more closely with the regulator, the Information Commissioner’s office, we’d love them to use our service more to help them in their role in enforcing the law. Often just having a request on our site can help people get a response, good public bodies really care about the impression those visiting their pages on our site get. Lots of public bodies will get in touch with us if they don’t like the way a request has been classified by one of our users for example.
A really big advantage having information released via our service is people can cite it when they take action based on it, be that action a blog post, an article in the media, an academic publication, or a letter to an MP. You can show, again using WhatDoTheyKnow.com as an independent third party, where the information you are relying on has come from, giving more weight, more credibility, to whatever it is you’re doing, your lobbying, your journalism, your research. WhatDoTheyKnow, and mySociety more broadly, has been in the business of enabling better informed debate and higher quality journalism well before “fake news” entered our lexicon.
We’re always looking for new bodies to add to our site, the database of public bodies which is behind the site keeps growing, we’re now at over 23,000 public bodies. That compares to about 450 public bodies listed on the Gov.uk website, and just 305 in the latest “Public Bodies” report by the Cabinet Office. The big difference is made up by schools, GP surgeries and NHS dentists, all of which are subject to FOI; we also list groups of organisations like companies owned by local government – public bodies in terms of the Freedom of Information Act but all but invisible to central government.
I said we were in the business of activism; changing society by doing things. One big part of or Freedom of Information law related activism is listing bodies on our site which are not, or not yet, subject to access to information laws. We’ve listed many bodies before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act, showing the demand for information, and showing the kind of information people want, but couldn’t access. One example was Network Rail which we listed before it became subject to FOI in March 2015, another was the Association of Chief Police Officers .. however that’s now become the National Police Chief’s Council and MPs failed to make that successor body subject to FOI – in that case it’s not a huge problem as they realise they need to be transparent and they voluntarily comply, but, significantly, the Information Commissioner can’t enforce a law which a body is not technically subject to.
There are always more public bodies to add, we list Housing Associations for example, they’re a another class of body which are not subject to FOI, even coroners aren’t subject to FOI which you might find surprising given their important public role in ensuring our society is safe, and more people don’t die in the future for the same, preventable, reasons people have died in the past. We list some coroners, and volunteer Kieran is working on making our coverage comprehensive. Local medical committees; committees of GPs are another set we’re hoping to add soon.
Maintaining the body database is a constant task. Government is constantly reorganising, we try to keep up with changes recently for example, recently, in research councils, and keeping track of NHS reorganisations is a challenge on its own. There have already been 17 requests to London North Eastern Railway Limited, the Government rail operator of last resort which we listed when it took over running trains on the East Coast mainline about ten days ago.
Seeking improvements to laws which impact our service, its users, and the accessibility of public information
As well as our activism we have a record of more traditional lobbying; sharing the experience running our service has given us experience of the operation of access to information law. We took part in the Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in 2012 for example, and just a few months ago we responded to a consultation by the Cabinet Office on the Code of Practice which bodies responding to FOI requests have take into account.
In terms of what we’re calling for, we’re not FOI fans specifically, we’d actually rather people didn’t have to make FOI requests, we’re in favour of proactively releasing information and running public services transparently, though that said FOI requests are requests for information people want to know; rather than information which public bodies want to publish so they will probably always have their place.
Why not make public bodies consider proactive publication of information of the sort requested, when dealing with a FOI request? That’s a provision which is in the specialised law on access to datasets but doesn’t apply to access to information requests more broadly.
Timeliness of responses, and timeliness of enforcement action from the Information Commissioner are other key things we campaign on. If you want a copy of a FOI response that’s been made to particular union, lobby group, or journalist and is the information behind the day’s news, surely you should be able to get a copy of it pretty much straight away, and there can be no excuse for a body dithering until the 20 working day deadline. The law requires a prompt response; that aspect of the law needs following and enforcing.
We also want to close loopholes in FOI; one terrible one, is if a public body can think of a class of information and list it on its website with a price for it, it becomes exempt from disclosure for free under FOI. This is clearly open to abuse, fortunately few bodies have misused it too-date, but there are examples – just look at your local council’s list of information they make available for a fee.
Running the Site
Some might be interested to know administration has changed as the site has grown. There’s been a constant improvement of the site’s software to make it easier to run, but that needs to continue so we can cope with it getting bigger without having to increase the volunteer effort exponentially in-line with the site’s growth. We’ve outgrown the team@ mailing list system the site started with; we now separate the support mail from discussions among volunteers, and on top of that there’s a separate discussion of legal matters; so people aren’t overwhelmed.
One challenge we have is the workload, and volunteer input, are both variable. Sometimes there’s a week where you really need someone full time running the site. Sometimes you could firefight the incoming issues in maybe an hour a day, or day a week.
Something we’d like to do is encourage past volunteers to join our monthly calls; join the legal discussion list, volunteers list, drop into the support mailbox and help out on occasion, every little helps, following what we’re doing for a week a couple of times a year might provide some outside, detached, input; help keep us on-track, challenge us, and assist us in spotting drifts in policy / practice.
Ideas for the future
We’re always keen to hear any ideas for what we could be doing better, or differently we welcome input from anyone and everyone who cares about the service in some way. Some of the things we could do improve:
- We could do even better at transparently running the site. We already try to run the site as transparently as we can; if we hide a message, or redact content from correspondence, we make clear where we’ve done so and explain why. We don’t though have a transparency report like Google and Reddit do, reporting on takedown requests, how many there have been, who they’ve come from – individuals, requesters, public bodies, public officials, regulated professionals, and how we responded. Requests for user data. One challenge is sometimes the moral thing to do is not shout about and draw attention to something we’ve taken down too quickly; don’t want to draw attention to taking down something that’s still in Google’s cache for example – if we really believe it shouldn’t be online any more.
- We should do more to highlight excellent, interesting and influential, uses of the site. It would be great to have ways within the system to note when responses have been used by others, cited in Parliament, resulted in a news story, or if someone has analysed responses from a range of public bodies around the country for example.
- We have volunteers, but there is no real community of users around the site, or around our lobbying activities, or, to the extent there has been in the past, a community – around mySociety any more. There’s an opportunity there..
- I think we have a duty to be careful with the way the WhatDoTheyKnow pro-service is used. Anyone can sign up for a Gmail account and make requests; but we are doing more than Gmail to encourage and enable FOI requests, and not least the pro system is built on a largely volunteer built and maintained database. Use to-date has apparently been good, and we have a general principle of not spending time discussing hypothetical situations, but, in running the free site as volunteers we’ve always been mindful of the impact of our actions on our reputation, and the reputation of Freedom of Information law itself. For example we ask those considering bulk requests if they’ve carefully selected the set of bodies to make their request to, if the request could be made to a central body rather than lots of local bodies, if a sampling exercise would suffice instead of asking perhaps hundreds of bodies, and we advise on making clear requests in the first instance to reduce the need for clarifications – saving public bodies and requesters time and effort. [Update: following the event we agreed to update our House Rules to include a reference to our advice on making responsible and effective requests|]).
- Lastly, on sustainable funding for the site, ideally I think this would be though a handful of media organisations, campaign groups, or other bodies paying for a pro-service; which would hopefully give them great value in terms of organising FOI requests, prompting them to chase up late requests, saving time finding contact details and easily making bulk requests. Perhaps as the number of individual users of the Pro service grows organisations will see the value of providing access to all their staff.
Back in February, as you may remember, we announced an evening of celebration in London for WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary.
And then it snowed, public transport ground to a halt, and we made the tough decision to call the party off.
But it was only ever a postponement. Now we’re in a more temperate season and we’re determined to get this milestone celebrated! We’ve rescheduled, and we’re looking forward to an evening of talks covering the project’s past, present and future, not to mention chat, drinks, nibbles and the best FOI-based playlist you’ve ever heard.
If you’d like to come and join us for this event in London on the evening of July 3rd, please email Gemma with more about yourself and why you’d like to come. Spaces are limited so let us know asap if you’d like to attend.
Image: Gaelle Marcel
Controversial loans sold to councils by banks, known as LOBOs (Lender Option Borrower Option), are under investigation by the group Debt Resistance UK (DRUK).
These loans have unfavourable terms, according to a landmark legal case may be untenable, and are resulting in absurd levels of debt repayment: DRUK have found, for example, that in the borough of Newham, the equivalent of 77% of council tax income goes directly into interest payments alone.
DRUK’s campaign, #NoLOBOs, aims to both expose the truth and make the case that such loans are illegitimate — and we were interested to see that they’ve made use of our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, to do so.
We’re always interested to hear how people and organisations are using our services, so we caught up with DRUK’s Vica Rogers, who gave us the whole history.
What are LOBOs? Can you explain a bit about them for the completely uninitiated?
Vica: LOBO stands for “Lender Option Borrower Option” and the name indicates the terms of the loan: on predefined dates, the lender (the bank) has the option to raise the interest rate; if the bank decides to do so, the borrower (the council) can either accept the new interest rate or repay the loan in full; if the bank doesn’t decide to use the option, then the council is locked into the loan and can only exit it by paying an exorbitant exit fee — sometimes 90% of the loan’s principal. With this mechanism some councils are locked into paying up to 11%, which is very expensive in the current climate where interest rates are low.
LOBO loans have been described as a “lose-lose bet for councils” because no matter what happens to interest rates, the one-sided terms of the loans ensure the banks always win. In this way banks are making huge profits and are extracting resources from local government that should instead be going to cover the cost of services for its residents.
How are you using Freedom of Information requests in the campaign?
Vica: FOI was crucial for the development of the #NoLOBOs campaign. We started from the “borrowing and investment tables” for local government published by the then Department for Communities and Local Government. We sent FOI requests to more than 240 councils who from the tables appeared to be borrowing from banks.
We asked each council to provide, for each LOBO loan they had, the original contract and a spreadsheet containing the principal, maturity date, interest rate, etc.
The spreadsheet was easier to obtain, while the contracts were often withheld.
We link any data and documents back to WhatdoTheyKnow so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it. This is very useful when dealing with journalists.
We therefore had to go all the way to the Information Commissioner’s Office for them to rule that the public interest in providing the loan contracts overwrote the commercial confidentiality exemption that councils were relying on.
Once we managed to obtain the contracts from some of the councils it was much easier to argue for the others to release them. This is one of the values of using batch requests.
In a second batch of requests we asked the council to identify the financial intermediaries — the brokers and the Treasury Management Advisors (TMAs) — involved in recommending and arranging the loans so that we could expose their conflict of interests. We also asked for the fees paid to the brokers and any invoices and contracts.
We obtained most of the information related to the companies involved and the fees paid, but most of the original documents requested were missing. This was due to the age of the documents, as councils are not required to keep them for more than a decade.
We have now published on our website most of the information we gathered. On our website we link any data and documents back to the WhatDoTheyKnow site so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it.
This is very useful when dealing with journalists, but it also provides local citizens the opportunity to challenge their council on LOBO loans without having to relate specifically to our campaign.
Our approach to the campaign has been from the start to encourage local residents to take action autonomously, both because we are supporters of decentralised forms of organising, but also because being such a small organisation we did not have the resources to develop a national campaign.
What gave you the idea to use FOI requests, and why did you decide to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make them?
By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.
Vica: Through previous work by one of our members on council reserves it became obvious that some of the most financialised councils were also some of the most secretive — and a protracted FOI campaign would be necessary to unearth relevant practices.
We used WhatDoTheyKnow partially due to the experience of working in small, poorly funded NGOs, where once an organisation closed down, the information was lost unless it was published somewhere on a third party website.
By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.
DRUK believes LOBOs to be illegal: what’s the basis of that?
Vica: There was a ruling in the 80s called the Hammersmith and Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case. At that time, councils had entered into hundreds of swap contracts presenting significant risk to local government finances across the country. The judge then ruled that it was ultra-vires (‘beyond their powers’) for councils to be gambling with taxpayers’ money and all the contracts were cancelled.
Debt Resistance UK is also making the case that such debt is illegitimate. In the current years where local authorities are facing huge cuts with a 40% reduction in grants from central government, interest payments to banks are ring-fenced while funds to essential services are being cut. Debt Resistance UK questions if it is legitimate that human rights of local residents are being put second to the interests of the banks.
There are also other basis on which such loans could be considered illegal:
- In many cases LOBO loans were taken out on advice from Treasury Management Advisors, who should be independent, but in the case of LOBO loans were receiving undeclared commissions from the brokers who were providing the deals. This is a clear conflict of interest that council’s can use to challenge the loans.
- LOBO loans are instruments that were created to engineer around the Hammersmith & Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case by embedding the derivatives in the loan. The banks should be held to account for deliberately creating a loophole to extract public resources.
- The value of LOBO loans is pegged to LIBOR. Since some of the banks and brokers who sold LOBO loans to councils were also involved in rigging LIBOR, there is a case for councils to challenge the banks on the base of this manipulation and the information asymmetry it created.
What’s next for the campaign?
Vica: We designed the #NoLOBOs website so people could understand the overall campaign and then search for the details of their own council. The website also offers suggestions on how people can take action.
We have been collaborating with the cooperative Research for Action to develop two strands of the NoLOBOs campaign:
Objections to LOBO loans across the UK
We are using the 2014 Audit and Accountability Act which provides local citizens with the right to inspect, ask a question about and object to items in their council’s financial accounts.
This right can be exercised once a year during the summer once the draft accounts have been published. Debt Resistance UK, in collaboration with the cooperative Research for Action, has supported more than 50 residents in the use of the Act to either gather more information on the loans, or to challenge their lawfulness through the objection process. All objections link back to WhatDoTheyKnow as evidence of LOBO loan borrowing. We are now starting to receive the responses to these actions.
A citizen debt audit in Newham
Newham, best known for hosting the 2012 Olympics, is one of the poorest local authorities in the country. It is also the largest borrower of LOBO loans and is paying the equivalent of 77% of council tax income only on interest payments. We have therefore decided to focus on the borough and develop an in-depth citizen debt audit. The aim of the audit is to evaluate the social and economic sustainability of the council’s debt, the legality of its LOBO loans portfolio and who should be held to account for it. Through the process we hope to improve the accountability of the council in managing funds in the public interest.
How can people get involved?
Vica: We welcome all contributions to the NoLOBOs project, and are open for people contributing in different ways without feeling they have to become a member of Debt Resistance UK.
If you are a local resident the best way to take action is to submit an objection to the council’s accounts. For most councils, the period to object to the accounts this year runs from the start of June to mid July. If you would like to object to your council’s accounts, do get in touch with Debt Resistance UK and we can support you through the process. You can find a guide on how the process works here.
The #NoLOBOs campaign has been made possible thanks to a network of people with various expertise who have kindly offered their time to unravelling different aspects of the LOBO story. If you would like to contribute based on your expertise, please get in touch. Some of the expertise that we would find useful are: financial analysts, accountants, lawyers, local government finance officers, journalists, developers, data analysts, data visualisers and graphic designers.
To gain further insight, we are also very interested in talking to people who have been aware of LOBO loans while working within organisations involved in the mis-selling, be it a council, a bank, a brokerage company or a Treasury Management Advisory company. We’d also like to collaborate with officers and councillors who want to take action in their own council.
NOTE: Debt Resistance UK is unaffiliated with mySociety, so if you would like to get involved in the NoLOBOS campaign, please contact them directly.
Thanks very much to Vica for taking the time to explain the campaign, and its use of WhatDoTheyKnow. We’re glad to have been one part of this many-pronged approach.
Image: Raw Pixel
The Freedom of Information Act allows us to keep check on authorities — not least, how they are spending public money.
These sorts of requests can be of particular interest to regional press, who perform a vital function in keeping citizens informed about where their taxes go. Journalists might be applauding good spending; equally they could be uncovering waste or corruption — both narratives are highly relevant in times of budget cuts and austerity.
Here are examples of stories arising from council expenditure requests, covering the length and breadth of the UK.
Spending on administration
It’s often worth scrutinising council expenditure on day to day items like office supplies, furniture or computer hardware.
While stories here may be quite mundane on the face of it, they become more interesting when the question arises of how much is reasonable to spend on these overheads.
In North Warwickshire, the Birmingham Mail reported that over £5,000 went on tea, coffee & biscuits (to be fair, over a period of five years). The story goes as far as to detail each brand of teabag. It’s important, said the council, to offer visitors a decent spread.
That’s as may be, but how about the same region’s County Council splashing out £13,700 on furniture for their leader’s new office — and not from Ikea, by the sounds of it. This story was run by the Rugby Advertiser, and just as with the tea and biscuits, the defence was that it’s important to make visitors comfortable.
But how far does such comfort extend? Let’s consider social functions and parties. Dundee was highlighted in the Courier for its awards bashes, into which a round £266,000 was sunk. Perhaps easier to defend was the same authority’s £150,000 expenditure on tablets and computers.
Spending on infrastructure and services
Fixed penalty notices for littering, often farmed out to third party fine collectors, can be highly contentious. Citizens might be somewhat mollified when they see a boost to their councils’ coffers and some expenditure that directly relates to the misdemeanours in question. In Wirral, for example, the Globe tells how £176,000 from littering fines has been spent on CCTV surveillance, anti-rubbish and fly-tipping campaigns, research and clean-ups.
In Borehamwood, money gleaned from developers within the town paid for £1.7M worth of school expansions, crossroad junctions and traffic calming measures, as reported in the Borehamwood Times.
And then there are the oddities, anomalies or outliers of spending that always make a good story, too. The Scotsman found that fees for taxis to take children to schools that offer subjects they can’t study in their own schools added up to £1M across Scotland.
Spending on staff… and disputes
Of course, every council has staffing costs — it’s how they’re distributed that can make a gripping story for a regional publication like Wokingham Today. When does expenditure on temporary employees, for example, start indicating that permanent staff might have been a better bet? We don’t know the full circumstances, but Wokingham’s £7.8M does seem like an awful lot.
In Norfolk and Suffolk, £200,000’s worth of ‘golden hellos’ to welcome new staff to the area were under scrutiny by the Eastern Daily Press. But that kind of expenditure seems perfectly wholesome when contrasted with Wiltshire’s £275,000 on gagging orders and compromise agreements.
The picture can sometimes be a little more complex than first viewing might suggest. In South Gloucestershire for example, the Bristol Post reports that £15M worth of redundancy payments is expected to save the council money in the long run.
In Birmingham, the Mail had a fine old time trying to get their FOI request responded to, and were finally successful in revealing that overtime paid to binmen in the run-up to a strike amounted to over £1M.
Spending on compensation
We mentioned that expenditure stories can be timely in the current age of austerity — well, not only that, but there’s a particular irony to be found in expenditure that’s potentially caused by austerity measures.
Two recent stories looked at the compensation councils were paying out for damage caused by potholes. Authorities everywhere are making cutbacks to their expenditure on roads, but if this results in payouts that are bigger than the savings involved, there’s obviously a false economy at play.
In Lancashire, the Telegraph discovered that the council had paid over £1M in pothole compensation in one financial year, while in Cambridge the local paper went back as far as 1992 to break down the expenditure year by year.
Have we sparked ideas?
If you are a journalist and you’d like to use Freedom of Information to uncover this kind of story — while keeping your research under wraps until it has been published — check out our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. It provides all the tools that you need to pursue your investigations, large or small.
As a regional journalist, you might also find it useful to follow your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow, so you know what information our users are asking for. We’ll send you an email when requests are made to your chosen authority — just click the grey ‘follow’ button on any council’s page.
Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.
Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.
I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.
In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).
It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.
To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.
After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.
In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.
Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.
Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.
Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.
This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.
In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.
Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.
When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.
It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.
In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.
The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.
Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).
I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.
I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.
The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.
Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.
Last year, we highlighted a bureaucratic loophole that allows taxi drivers to discriminate against passengers in wheelchairs.
As WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley discovered through multiple Freedom of Information requests at the time, the lack of a simple piece of administration meant that taxi drivers could refuse to take wheelchair users, or charge them extra, with complete impunity.
New legislation set a fine of up to £1,000 for such behaviour, but it can only be applied if the local council has a list of designated list of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Back in April 2017, Doug’s research indicated that 59% of authorities had no such list, nor a plan to create one.
A year later, Doug has revisited the research, and while that figure has gone down slightly, there is still cause for concern. Doug explains:
As it is now more than one year since sections 165-167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced (the provisions designed to combat taxi drivers’ discrimination against wheelchair users) I have updated my research into its implementation and efficacy.
No driver has faced any enforcement action under S165 of the Act, anywhere in the country. I find it difficult to believe that there haven’t been any offences committed under S165 of the Act. I have experienced several myself. I think that the fact that there have been no such enforcement actions suggests a fundamental problem with the (frankly) clunky implementation of the provisions of the Act.
As of October / November when I submitted my follow-up Freedom of Information requests, only 35% of local authorities had implemented the new provisions in their area, and only a further 16% (total 51%) of authorities intended to do so by now. Given that the Department for Transport’s statutory guidance on such recommended that all authorities implement the provisions by October 2017, this is concerning.
Many of the authorities that have attempted to implement the legislation have failed to comply with the fine print, likely making the provisions unenforceable in their area. As for the government’s good practice recommendations that councils e.g. publish the size of wheelchair each taxi can take — no councils are doing that.
I am sure that when Baroness Deech told the Secretary of State that he was defying Parliament’s will by failing to commence these provisions, she expected to have a much greater impact on discrimination. I’m really disappointed that this has sadly not been borne out in reality.
You can find lots more information about this issue, along with all the facts and figures, on Doug’s website. There’s also an invitation to contact your local councillors if you’d like to draw their attention to this issue.