Sunday, 30 November 2014

Perks for SBC staff: where's the press release?

I'd been tempted to pen a few lines about Scottish Borders Council's largesse towards their own hard working, dedicated staff who are to receive an attractive range of perks, including discount cards, as a reward for having to suffer an outrageous pay freeze - part of the 'savage cuts'.

But I thought it better to keep my powder (and ink) dry until the Council had time to cobble together a press release explaining to cash-strapped taxpayers how they had managed to find £18,550 hidden down the back of the proverbial sofa in such straitened times.

Alas the spinners from the well staffed media team at the Newtown St Boswells HQ have (so far) failed to produce the goods. No doubt they were fully occupied with the usual selection of positive propaganda which finds its way into our media outlets with alarming regularity.

Unfortunately too many of our newspapers and broadcasters fall for the daily supply of positive guff and pass it on to readers and listeners without bothering to ask questions. The fact that these hand-outs are often far from newsworthy doesn't seem to matter as long as they fill space or time.

You see, everything in the municipal garden is always rosy. There's no room for negativity, and anything which might attract public criticism or threaten a council taxpayers' revolt receives very short shrift.

The failure to issue a release on the 'discount deals' means we have had to rely on direct coverage from inside the council chamber. This is why we need robust, inquisitive journalists to hold our councillors and senior officers to account.

The fact that the new range of perks received the unanimous backing from elected members seems to suggest everyone concerned believed the rewards were justified.

No doubt they agreed with the sentiments expressed by Councillor Michael Cook, the deputy leader, who apparently told the meeting: "It hardly sends a positive message that we value our staff if we are quibbling about spending £18,550 over three years. Let's not be so damned miserable and get on with this".

In the same week that Mr Cook and his colleagues were proving they were not going to be 'damned miserable' so far as their workforce was concerned, we were told that vulnerable clients of the Borders social work department will have to find an extra £464,000 to pay for essential services..

Even the press release on this topic, which will be bad news for those who pay for the support they rely on, carried a positive spin. The sizeable increases for the services were being levied following 'a review conducted with care and attention.' This resulted in : "A much fairer system based on solid principles of equity, transparency and consistency, in line with national guidance".

Just a thought. At the next council meeting perhaps a member of the administration could outline plans for a discount card for the elderly and disabled clients of their social work department. After all there must be a few more unused wads of our hard-earned cash concealed in the well upholstered Newtown sofa. Every little helps!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Tenth anniversary of FOI...nothing to celebrate

Ten years after the introduction of Freedom of Information legislation, an Act of Parliament allegedly devised to make public authorities more accountable, we are told that Scottish Borders Council is putting "new procedures" in place to ensure requests are handled more efficiently. Probably not before time, given the council's abysmal track record in the field of FOI.

Time after time SBC has failed to respond to requesters within the 20 working days allowed, and like most other councils, health boards and Scottish Government departments, our local authority frequently uses the long list of exclusions available within the confines of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (FOISA) to keep sensitive or embarrassing stuff under wraps.

At the same time council leader David Parker complains that the 1,000 requests his officials receive each year represent a "significant burden" on council resources. Apparently more staff are being taken on to resolve the problems within the FOI system, and this will undoubtedly ramp up costs still further.

Perhaps our councillors could consider a cheaper option....publish more information and statistics as a matter of routine without having to be asked.

Why should publicly funded bodies only have to release information after receiving a specific request? Unless your question is tightly and precisely worded they usually manage to avoid telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Let's have regular disclosures of credit card spending by senior officials, numbers of assaults on teachers and other council staff, and a host of other topics which regularly feature in FOI requests. That should cut the workload on hard-pressed administrative staff.

SBC's Information Management Team (IMT) is being transferred to the council's legal services department which means qualified lawyers will scrutinise FOI requests from now on. Is that likely to increase the flow of information when far too much council business is already conducted in private?

Meanwhile, according to the Scottish Information Commissioner's (SIC) website, a conference to "celebrate" the tenth anniversary of FOI will be held in Edinburgh next month. Speakers will include First Minister-in-Waiting Nicola Sturgeon, Lord Jim Wallace, and the Commissioner Rosemary Agnew.

It is to be hoped the conference does not issue a communique declaring that FOI has been an unqualified success. For given the number of failures by authorities to abide by the rules, and the equally depressing failure of the SIC to prosecute or even pursue the miscreants, the only people with anything to shout about are the public officials who enjoy a relative level of protection under FOISA.

Commissioner Agnew recently expressed her concern at the growing number of FOI requests which are not attracting responses within the statutory time even though the 20 working days allowed appears to be more than generous.

Unfortunately none of the authorities which break the law are ever hauled over the coals. So there is no incentive for these cavalier organisations to get their acts together and respond to the council taxpayers who keep them in business. Instead of "celebrating", the forthcoming conference would serve a more useful purpose if it considered how FOI might be improved for the benefit of the general public.