Yet Another Local Government Transparency Code – A Gift for Armchair Auditors?

SwordThe Coalition Government likes “armchair auditors”.

Within weeks of coming to power in 2010, it released all items of local authority expenditure over £500. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, said at the time that the move would “unleash an army of armchair auditors and quite rightly make those charged with doling out the pennies stop and think twice about whether they are getting value for money”.

Section 3 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 gives the Secretary of State the power to issue a code of practice about the publication of information by local authorities relating to the discharge of their functions. Back in May, Eric Pickles used this power to issue (what was then) a new Local Government Transparency Code. (See my earlier blog post.)

Now, an updated version of the Code , dated October 2014, has been issued. It applies in England only and replaces the previous version. The code requires councils (as well as, amongst others, National Park Authorities, Fire and Waste Authorities and Integrated Transport Authorities) to proactively publish certain categories information (in Part 2 of the code) whilst also recommending that they go beyond the minimum (in part 3 of the code). It follows last year’s consultation on Improving Local Government Transparency: “Making ‘The Code of Recommended Practice for Local Authorities on Data Transparency ’ enforceable by regulations.”

Ministers will imminently make and lay regulations (The Local Government (Transparency Requirements) (England) Regulations 2014)) to make it a legal requirement for local authorities to publish the data specified in Part 2 of the code. Subject to Parliamentary processes, Part 2 should become mandatory by 7 November 2014.

Part 2.1 of the code sets out information, which must be published at least quarterly. This includes:

  • Each individual item of expenditure exceeding £500 e.g. invoices, grant payments, expense payments, rent etc.
  • Government Procurement Card transactions
  • Procurement information which includes details of every invitation to tender for contracts to provide goods and/or services with a value that exceeds £5,000, together with any contract, commissioned activity, purchase order, framework agreement and any other legally enforceable agreement, also with a value that exceeds £5,000.

Part 2.2 of the code sets out nine sets of data which must be published annually. This includes local authority land, grants to voluntary bodies , trade union facility time, parking information and senior salaries. In relation to trade union facility time, authorities should publish the amount spent on providing support and facilities to trade unions within their workforces, and specify which unions. In relation to parking charges, categories include the number of off-street parking places and the revenue raised from them; the number of on-street parking places and the revenue they raise; as well as the revenue from parking fines and the number of free parking spaces available.

The main difference between the May and October codes is that the latter has added three datasets to the list of information which must be published: namely information about how the authority delivers waste services, uses the parking revenue it collects and tackles fraud.

On salaries the code requires publication of more information than is currently required under the Accounts and Audit (England) Regulations 2011. Local authorities must now place a link on their website to these published data or place the data itself on its website, together with a list of responsibilities (for example, the services and functions they are responsible for, budget held and number of staff) and details of bonuses and ‘benefits in kind’, for all employees whose salary exceeds £50,000. The key differences between the requirements under this new code and the Regulations referred to above is the addition of a list of responsibilities, the inclusion of bonus details for all senior employees whose salary exceeds £50,000 and publication of the data on the authority’s website. What effect will this have on FOI requests for salary information? Certainly senior figures will find it hard to claim that they have an expectation of privacy when it comes to FOI requests for similar information. (More on salaries here.)

Part 3 of the new code sets out the information, which is recommended to be published, but there is no requirement to do so. This is about providing more detail to information already published under the required category in Part 2, e.g. more details about expenditure, procurement, grants etc. For example instead of just publishing details of expenditure over £500 on a quarterly basis, local authorities are encouraged to publish expenditure over £250 on a monthly basis or better still in real time.

Existing restrictions on disclosing information still apply though. Paragraph 14 of the code states:

“Where information would otherwise fall within one of the exemptions from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community Regulations 2009 or falls within Schedule 12A to the Local Government Act 1972 then it is in the discretion of the local authority whether or not to rely on that exemption or publish the data.”

However where a qualified exemption under FOI applies, the appearance of the requested information in one of the categories set out in the code will have a big impact on the public interest in support of disclosure.

How should data under the new code be published? The code states that it should be in a format and under a licence that allows open re-use, including for commercial and research activities, in order to maximise value to the public. The Open Government Licence, published by the National Archives, should be used as the recommended standard. Where any copyright or data ownership concerns exist with public data these should be made clear. Data covered by Part 2 of the code must be published in open and machine-readable formats.

The DCLG has also published an accompanying FAQ Guide which gives further guidance on how to practically apply the new code.

Despite Part 2 of the code being legally enforceable soon (see above), does the code have any teeth? The code does not have an enforcer like the Information Commissioner under FOI. Indeed the DCLG has pointed out in the FAQs that it is not the Commissioner’s role to enforce the code. It does though suggest that complainants can issue a judicial review claim in the High Court (unlikely with public funding of such cases being virtually ceased) or complain to the Local Government Ombudsmen. It also suggests they make an FOI request for the same information!

It will also be interesting to see how this new code works with the new dataset obligations under the FOI, which came into force on 1st September 2013 via the Protection of Freedoms Act.

On 10 March 2014 the Government launched the consultation on a draft transparency code for parish councils with a turnover not exceeding £25,000, which will act as a substitute from routine external audit. The Government published its response to the consultation on 6th August and intends to lay regulations to make the code mandatory later on this year. (More for those advising Parish Councils here.)

The Government believes that transparency about how local authorities spend money and deliver services, and how decisions are made within authorities, gives local people the information they need to hold their local authority to account and participate in local democratic processes. It claims that the availability of data can also help secure more efficient and effective local services and open new markets for local business, the voluntary and community sectors, and social enterprises to run services or manage public assets.

Will armchair auditors make use of this new information? Time will tell but readers would be right to be sceptical.

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This entry was posted in Freedom of Information, Transparency, Transparency and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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