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.