Firms’ Freedom of Information requests cost St Albans taxpayers thousands of pounds

FOI requests are costing St Albans residents

FOI requests are costing St Albans residents - Credit: Archant

St Albans’ taxpayers have inadvertently paid £150,000 for businesses to snoop on each other through Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

Cllr Julian Daly, leader of St Albans district council, has criticised firms for using the legislation at such a huge cost to taxpayers, and called upon the Government to tighten up FoI rules.

The Herts Advertiser understands that some firms are seeking information from the council about its suppliers, tenders, tender timescales and even details of its social media management tools.

According to a recent council report, there has been a 273 per cent increase in information requests from October 2012 until October 2013.

During 2013/14, the authority received about 1,000 such queries - considerably more than neighbouring councils in Watford, which had 529 requests, Dacorum, which received 726, and the 633 FOI questions submitted to Welwyn/Hatfield.

An analysis of information sought from the district council shows that in a typical quarter almost 60 per cent of requests come from businesses, 15 per cent from the national media, 13 per cent from the Metropolitan Police and just nine per cent from members of the public.

And with the average cost in staff time spent responding to an FoI request the equivalent of £255, about £250,000 in total was spent dealing with those queries in 2013/14.

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Cllr Daly said he was “annoyed” that businesses are using the legislation to get detailed information for commercial gain, instead of paying for independent market research.

He added: “It lays a heavy financial burden on local residents. If it was just members of the public or media holding us to account, the cost would be reasonable. But it isn’t.”

Cllr Daly said that the quarter of a million pounds spent in responding to FOI questions was the equivalent of about 2.5 per cent of council tax raised from a typical home: “I’m all for transparency but this is an enormous sum.”

Cllr Daly said legislation needed to be changed to limit questions which are not “in the spirit of FoI legislation”.

Between April and June this year there were 23 requests about business rates alone, and these usually take an entire day of a member of the council’s finance staff to respond to.