We are surprised to see an attack on our work at Loch of Shining Waters, and two of our volunteers, by Councillor Mark Hood on the Central Fife Times website (6th October 2016 – ‘Hood seeks meeting in bid to try to save taxpayers’ money‘) for our use of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. This, he says, is a waste of taxpayers’ cash, with costs allegedly approaching £18,000.

Councillor Hood bases this figure on a claim that two individuals associated with Loch of Shining Waters made almost 100 FOI requests to Fife Council, costing an average of £185 per request.

The public record at www.whatdotheyknow.com shows that over the past six years we have made a total of 76 FOIs to Fife Council. Using Councillor Hood’s figure for the average of £185 per request, this produces a total of £14,060. This equates to £2,343.33 per year, which is a very modest sum for ensuring improved transparency in local government.

We would like to ask Councillor Hood what monetary value he places on improving and protecting local transparency, accountability and democracy?

Councillor Hood says our FOIs are “simply a waste of time and money” because “they do not even seem to be used to make a case for policy change“.

Councillor Hood, however, seems to be afflicted with a severe case of amnesia. If it wasn’t for the diligent work of our volunteers, the full extent of the debacle surrounding Lomond Homes’ Section 75 Agreement 1 2 3 4 5 6, for example, would never have came to light. As a result, Fife Council held an internal review and future procedures for handling Section 75 agreements were tightened up.

Another example: exposing details of local councillors and community councillors taking corporate gifts from Mossmorran 7 led to calls from the public as well as his fellow councillors to stop this practice 8. FOI has been instrumental in bringing to public attention numerous details about the plant including operational procedures 9, accident & safety reports 10 11 12 13, noise reports 14 and pollution 15. This wasn’t just important for residents to know, but also supported the LOSW’s ongoing campaign for time-based air quality monitors. Mr Hood was happy to grandstand about the campaign in the press a few years ago but seems to have forgotten about it since.

FOI has been invaluable in allowing volunteers to access 104 documents relating to the operations of Lochgelly Community Council and associated groups, and to make these documents widely available online 16. By contrast, the Lochgelly Community Council has only published a meagre 32 documents online 17. It goes without saying that had the remaining 74 documents been made publicly available by Lochgelly Community Council, we would have happily spared ourselves the effort of making FOIs.

Our work through FOI helped to publicly expose the illegal operations of the 4 Winds Trust for the past 3 years 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25. The existence of FOI is also a powerful tool to ensure that the 4 Winds Trust now keeps its promise to the regulator to operate in the open and transparent way expected of charitable organisations. In particular it means that people will be able to see that funds are being distributed fairly and according to proper criteria.

Likewise the FOI process has recently revealed emails showing how Councillor Hood has been operating in the background with Labour activists on Lochgelly Community Council 26 where he has orchestrated a so-called community campaign for a new health centre for party-political purposes 27. They used it to attack the SNP government and raise the public profiles of Councillor Hood, MSP Alex Rowley and possible future Labour council candidates from the community council. The health centre campaign was very visible in the press in the run-up to May’s Holyrood elections. The FOIs show Councillor Hood setting up the campaign’s Facebook page, posting on it and designing and paying for the banner, all under the guise of Lochgelly Community Council, while MSP Rowley gave political advice about how to spin the campaign to the press to Labour advantage. Needless to say neither Councillor Hood nor the five Labour activists on Lochgelly Community Council disclosed these activities in the health centre campaign or declared their political interest.

Councillor Hood has claimed that ‘Many of the requests were for minutes of the community council…”. Again this is false because our records show only 3 FOI requests for Lochgelly Community Council minutes. The council against all accepted good practice had failed to make minutes available electronically, and FOI was the only means of making sure the public could see what its representatives had been doing in its name.

Indeed institutions are legally allowed to bat back FOI requests if the information asked for is already in the public domain, or if the request is deemed trivial or vexatious, or to charge the applicant where the cost of complying would exceed an ‘appropriate limit’. Councillor Hood is presumably not aware that such stringent checks on unreasonable or unnecessary FOIs already exist.

Councillor Hood has also claimed that he has contacted our chairperson Terry McLean and secretary James Glen, but his short-term memory seems to be letting him down as well. Twenty-three hours after the Central Fife Times published his statement that he had written to these volunteers, neither has heard a peep from Councillor Hood.

Councillor Hood also raised concern that the money and time spent answering FOI requests is a distraction from addressing the fuel & child poverty in the Central Fife area. The disturbing implication here is that by exercising our legal and democratic right to information about the actions of those who represent us, we are somehow preventing councillors and Fife Council from addressing issues of multiple deprivation in Central Fife. This is offensive nonsense, as anyone who follows Loch of Shining Waters will know. We have constantly drawn attention to these issues 28 29 30 so that they can be better addressed by people like Councillor Hood.

We have very few pieces of legislation which let us hold our public institutions to account. The Freedom of Information Act is one, so it should come as no surprise that politicians of all stripes have an aversion to it when it allows information to be revealed which makes them look less than straight.

It was through the Freedom of Information Act and the work of Heather Brooke that the MP expenses scandal saw the light of day 31 32. Complaints about costs are part of the standard attack adopted by those threatened by FOIs, and they were dismissed four years ago by a cross-party parliamentary Justice Select Committee 33. It concluded:

Evidence we have seen suggests that reducing the cost of FOI can be achieved if the way public authorities deal with requests is well-thought through. Complaints about the cost of FOI will ring hollow when made by public authorities which have failed to invest the time and effort needed to create an efficient freedom of information scheme.

In fact, FOI saves money in the long run because by enabling us to find out what the various branches of the state are spending and how effectively they are doing, it drives down costs. It is natural that those responsible for public spending might not welcome FOI, but it is the taxpayers’ best friend 34.

Cosy cultures of secrecy and croneyism are profoundly anti-democratic. They are a major reason why people are so turned off Fife Council 35 and politics in general. So we very much hope that Councillor Hood’s offer to help us find a way of having to make fewer FOI requests is sincere.

We would therefore be delighted to take up his offer of a meeting, which in the interests of openness and transparency we will film and make available online. By way of saving us and Fife Council the bother and expense of the next two FOI requests we are planning, we would be grateful if he could bring along the following information with him:

  • Details of all gifts and hospitality, including dates and values, he has been offered, accepted and declined from the operators of Mossmorran since he began representing the area
  • Detailed breakdowns of costs, and analysis showing what tests were carried out to ensure value for money, for (1) the £39,200 spent on grassing the red ash area and (2) the £80,000 or so spent on the MUGA court in Lochgelly Public Park

References

  1. FOI to Fife Council for details on Section 75 Agreements – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/all_section_75_agreements_for_th#incoming-59942
  2. FOI to Fife Council for details on Section 75 Agreements – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/lomond_homes_section_75_agreemen_5#incoming-301336
  3. FOI to Fife Council for details on Section 75 Agreements – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/lomond_homes_section_75_agreemen_4#incoming-210341
  4. FOI to Fife Council for details on Section 75 Agreements – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/lomond_homes_section_75_agreemen_3#incoming-179393
  5. FOI to Fife Council for details on Section 75 Agreements – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/lomond_homes_section_75_agreemen_2#incoming-168016
  6. FOI to Fife Council for details on Section 75 Agreements – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/lomond_homes_section_75_agreemen#incoming-150902
  7. Corporate Hospitality from Mossmorran – https://lochgelly.org.uk/2012/05/corporate-hospitality-from-mossmorran/
  8. Gifts, Corporate Hospitality, Mossmorran and the Councillor Code of Conduct – https://lochgelly.org.uk/2013/11/gifts-corporate-hospitality-mossmorran-and-the-councillor-code-of-conduct/
  9. FOI to Fife Council – Mossmorran & Emergency Plans – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/mossmorran_emergency_plans#incoming-89377
  10. FOI to SEPA – Safety Reports for ExxonMobil and Shell at Mossmorran – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/safety_reports_for_exxonmobil_an#outgoing-280544
  11. FOI to SEPA – Accident/Incident Rates for Mossmorran – hhttps://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/accidentincident_rates_for_mossm#outgoing-273886
  12. FOI to Fife Constabulary – Mossmorran June 11th – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/mossmorran_june_11th#outgoing-143561
  13. FOI to SEPA – Mossmorran flaring incident – 11th June 2011 – https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/mossmorran_flaring_incident_11th#incoming-252302
  14. FOI response from SEPA – Indoor Assessment of Environmental Noise at South Street, Lochgelly From 15th August to 5th September 2014 – https://jamesglen.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/141105-FINAL-Noise-Report_Redacted.pdf
  15. Air Quality – Petition & List of pollutants – https://lochgelly.org.uk/projects/air-quality/
  16. Unofficial public archive for Lochgelly Community Council – https://lochgellycommunitycouncil.org.uk
  17. FifeDirect – Lochgelly Community Council documents – https://fifedirect.org.uk/orgs/index.cfm?fuseaction=display.PUB&orgid=224A221C-24EE-48CE-9FDC74BFD865629C&contentid=8035
  18. FOI to OSCR – OSCR Communications & 4 Winds Trust Expenditure: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/341323/response/840986/attach/2/2016%2007%2014%20released%20info%20combined.pdf
  19. FOI to OSCR – Email communications between OSCR and Trustee Steven Murray: http://files.whatdotheyknow.com/request/communications_between_oscr_and/2016-03-08%20COMBINED.pdf
  20. 4 Winds Trust breach charitable regulations – https://lochgelly.org.uk/2016/02/4-winds-trust-breaches-charitable-regulations/
  21. 4 Winds Trust investigated by charity regulator – https://lochgelly.org.uk/2016/04/4-winds-trust-investigated-by-charity-regulator/
  22. OSCR blasts 4 Winds Trust – https://lochgelly.org.uk/2016/07/oscr-blasts-4-winds-trust/
  23. The Courier – Probe finds weak governance in wind farm cash charity – https://www.thecourier.co.uk/fp/news/local/fife/231502/probe-finds-weak-governance-in-wind-farm-cash-charity/
  24. Fife Today – Windfall trust fails test – http://www.fifetoday.co.uk/news/windfall-trust-fails-test-1-4194121
  25. Scotland Against Spin – VINDICATED FORMER LOCHGELLY COMMUNITY COUNCIL CHAIR CALLS FOR RESIGNATION OF CHARITY TRUSTEES GUILTY OF POOR GOVERNANCE – https://scotlandagainstspin.org/2016/08/vindicated-former-lochgelly-community-council-chair-calls-for-resignation-of-charity-trustees-guilty-of-poor-governance/
  26. FOI Email communications between Councillor Mark Hood, Community Councillors, MSP Alex Rowley – https://ia601504.us.archive.org/4/items/13436RedactedBlack/13436%20redacted%20black.pdf
  27. James Glen – The politics of Lochgelly Community Council – https://jamesglen.org.uk/2016/08/the-politics-of-lochgelly-community-council/
  28. Poverty levels in Fife as charities warn Scotland faces a Humanitarian crisis – https://lochgelly.org.uk/2014/03/poverty-levels-in-fife-as-charities-warn-scotland-faces-a-humanitarian-crisis/
  29. Central Fife Poverty Rates & Food Banks – https://lochgelly.org.uk/2014/11/central-fife-poverty-rates-food-banks/
  30. Child Poverty Rates – Fife – https://lochgelly.org.uk/2016/01/child-poverty-rates-fife/
  31. My Society – Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: UK – https://www.mysociety.org/2016/09/26/journalists-celebrate-freedom-of-information-uk/
  32. The Guardian – Unsung Hero https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/may/15/mps-expenses-heather-brooke-foi
  33. Liberty – The Freedom of Information Act – like our HRA – is under attack – https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/news/blog/freedom-information-act-our-hra-under-attack
  34. Conservative Home – Welcome signs that the Government is abandoning its attack on Freedom of Information – http://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2015/12/welcome-signs-that-the-governments-abandoning-its-attack-on-freedom-of-information.html
  35. Fife Council – Our Place – Living in Fife 2016 (page 17) – http://publications.1fife.org.uk/uploadfiles/publications/c64_OurPlace2016.pdf
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