A widely reported press release by the Local Government Association tells us of the “top unusual Freedom of Information (FoI) requests submitted to local authorities”. Here, for your delectation, is that very top 10:
1. How does the council plan to help the brave soldiers of our infantry if and when Napoleon and his marauding hordes invade the district? (West Devon District Council)
2. What preparations has the council made for an emergency landing of Santa’s sleigh this Christmas? Who would be responsible for rescuing Santa? Who would be responsible for rounding up the reindeer, and who would have to tidy the crash site? (Cheltenham Borough Council)
3. How many drawing pins are in the building and what percentage are currently stuck in a pin board? (Hampshire County Council)
4. What preparations has the council made for a zombie attack? (Bristol City Council and Leicester City Council)
5. What plans are in place to deal with an alien invasion (Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service)
6. How many holes in privacy walls between toilet cubicles have been found in public lavatories and within council buildings? (Cornwall Council)
7. How does the council manage to cope with the vagaries of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle? How does it function given the inherent unpredictability? (Wealden District Council)
8. How much money has been paid to exorcists over the past 12 months? (Cornwall Council)
9. Provide details of uniforms worn by Civil Enforcement Officers including descriptions of embroidered logos and markings, as well as any difference between summer winter wear. (Allerdale District Council)
10. What is the total number of cheques issued by the council in the past year, and how many did it receive? (Scarborough Borough Council)
The first thing to note here is that not all of these are stupid. The last one, about cheques, is entirely pertinent given the banks’ proposals to phase cheques out. Number 6, about holes in toilet cubicle walls, may seem rather strange until you discover that it’s actually a very real problem. And, while it may be somewhat arcane, if a local council is paying exorcists (number 8) then it’s entirely reasonable to ask how much they’ve spent doing so.
As a silly season story, this may seem rather harmless. Some of the questions are clearly intended as jokes, and in some cases the FOI office has responded in the same vein. But there is a serious side to this. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is unpopular in many sectors of officialdom and there are a lot of people who would like to roll the clock back to a culture of secrecy and lack of openness. And press releases such as this, which give the impression that public money is being wasted by frivolous requests, only serves to support that view. As one MP put it,
May we have a debate on the Freedom of Information Act? In my area, public bodies have been asked a range of questions, including on witches, werewolves, wizards, ghosts, vampires, zombies and demons. Even the star signs of local car thieves and the chief constable’s lottery choices have been asked for. It is a waste of time and money, and may we review it?
The reason this matters is that the Ministry of Justice has recently published a document titled, rather drily, “Post-Legislative Assessment of the Freedom of Information Act 2000” in which it looks at how effective the FOIA has been since it was introduced. The purpose of the review is to see whether or not the FOIA needs to be amended in the light of experience, and any proposals for change will follow on from this.
Now, there clearly are some flaws in the FOIA and its implementation, so a measured review is to be welcomed. There may well be some things which are currently subject to FOI that, in restrospect, should not be. And there are certainly things which ought to be that currently are not. Equally, it’s not unreasonable that some means of discouraging frivolous or vexatious requests should be considered. But the danger here is that the strongest opinions, and the loudest voices, will be those calling for the FOIA to be more restrictive than at present (or even abolished entirely).
Any changes to the FOIA which makes it more restrictive, other than clearly justifiable minor tweaks, would be a bad thing. The most important change the FOIA needs is to bring more authorities into its scope. We need more openness in public affairs, not less.