FOI gamechanger – Bolton Council loses court appeal over senior officers’ outside interests

Regular readers may remember the story of the battle between transparency campaigner John Greenwood and the bureaucrats at Bolton Council to force the authority to make public the register of interests of Council Officers, so the business dealings of senior town hall staff are a matter of record.

As we said in a blog post about the matter in June last year, John Greenwood won what amounts to a game changing battle when the Information Commissioner ruled that the details of the register of interests should be released.  Imagine for a moment what would happen if Council Officers – and by extension civil servants in other branches of government – had to release the details of business dealings with developers, or reveal relationships with organisations such as Common Purpose.

Undeterred by the Information Commissioner’s ruling, Bolton Council has used thousands of pounds of council taxpayers’ money to appeal the decision so it could continue hiding information about the outside interests of its officers from the public.  That the elected councillors in Bolton have let this happen is not only shocking but should also raise alarm bells about what might be being concealed.  As various branches of government keep telling us, if there is nothing to hide there is nothing to fear.  So what is it Bolton Council’s public servants fear?

The story returned to the fore last week with John Greenwood kindly contacting AM to point us to this news in the local Bolton press.  In Court it has been ruled that the council’s appeal will be partly allowed, in that lower-paid staff’s privacy would be protected.  But the outside interests of senior officers – the real decision makers in the local authority –  must still be made public as per the Information Commissioner’s earlier ruling.

This really is the gamechanger in Freedom of Information we hoped for last year.  The outside interests of senior council officers must by law be made public.  FOI requests about these interests cannot be refused.

However, the story in the Bolton News omits a number of important points that put matters into proper context and should, once again, cause the residents of Bolton some concern.  Although there were around 1,000 council officers who were paid at Grade 8 and above, only about 70 of them bothered to to submit a declaration of interest to the Council register.  So it is estimated there are more than 900 council officers who have failed to comply with the requirements to declare their outside interests.  Also omitted from the story is that while the lower paid council officers will now have to declare they have outside interests, they won’t have to say what those interests are.  This is a very odd state of affairs and one which will only serve to raise more doubts in the minds of the public about their probity than before.

As John Greenwood observed to AM, what will now be interesting to see is what Bolton Council Director of Legal Services (and standards monitoring officer) Alan Eastwood does personally.  He is due to retire in May but Greenwood is wondering if Eastwood will now decide to go earlier in order to keep any outside interests he has out of the public domain.

5 Responses to “FOI gamechanger – Bolton Council loses court appeal over senior officers’ outside interests”

  1. 1 Katabasis 07/03/2012 at 11:50 am

    Excellent! Time for me to try the same thing with Tower Hamlets council now…

  2. 2 meltemian 07/03/2012 at 12:53 pm

    So they spent over £13,000 of council taxpayers money trying to fight this?
    Exactly whose interests are they working in………silly question.

  3. 3 Katabasis 07/03/2012 at 2:10 pm

    OK I’ve submitted a FOI request for the same for all Tower Hamlets council employees.

    To my surprise they already have made public the members interests for councillors:

    However, given the various incidents of corruption at the council I’m expecting much of the important information to be linked to senior non-councillor employees. I also note that Lutfur Rahman isn’t included on the above list.

    He’s the primary reason I’m so concerned about my council:

  4. 4 don wreford 08/03/2012 at 6:13 am

    Surely, so many writers having a commitment and input to Autonomous Minds, this democratic and enlightened fraternity of above average intelligence, one would expect a solution to be found, with regard to the nefarious activities and affairs of Local Councils.

  5. 5 katabasis1 04/04/2012 at 2:54 pm

    So Towere Hamlets council left their response to the very last day. They don’t appear to be aware of what happened in Bolton. Here’s their refusal:

    Dear Katabasis,

    Further to your request dated 7 March 2012 for a register of employees interests, the Council does not hold the information in a format that would allow us to provide this to you.

    The information is held on individual personnel files, and to extract the information from all employees would take in excess of the appropriate limit of 18 hours afforded under the Act. Some of the information you require may not be held by the Council though I can confirm that staff are obliged to declare the following (with the section taken from the intranet) :

    Declaring an “interest”
    An “interest” includes, but is not limited to:

    • working outside of the council (either paid work or as a volunteer)
    • renting a property to the council or any other public body
    • owning a property for which benefit is in payment to the council, or another public body
    • personal relationships, for example, where a partner or relative works for the council, or contracts via goods or services with the council
    • company directorships and meeting the European Working Time Directive (working less than an average of 48 hours per week)
    Additionally, the information would be exempt under Section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The placing of this information into the public domain would contravene the first data protection principle regarding processing being fair. I do not agree that it would be appropriate for the interests of Council employees to be placed into the public domain in a manner similar to the way Councillors have to declare their interests at public meetings.

    This email, therefore, constitutes a Refusal Notice under Sections 12 and 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

    Tim Rodgers
    Deputy Complaints and Information Manager
    Legal Services
    Chief Executives Department
    London Borough of Tower Hamlets

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