Not for the first time the Local Government Association (LGA), an almost entirely public-funded association of first- and second-tier local councils in England and Wales, has produced a press release bemoaning the fact that its members have to deal with “wacky FOI requests”. Peter Fleming, of the LGA’s Improvement Board, is quoted as saying
While the majority of requests to councils are for details of council policy and expenditure, some of the FoI requests received do not relate very closely to the services they are focused on providing every day of the year. Councils are working very hard to keep local communities running as efficiently as possible during these challenging financial times and anything which distracts from that can affect the value for money that taxpayers receive
Examples of “wacky requests” are given, and the implication is very much that the requesters were wasting public money by making them. So let’s have a look at them:
Please list all the types of animals you have frozen since March 2012, including the type and quantity of each animal?
How many times has the council paid for the services of an exorcist, psychic or religious healer? Were the services performed on an adult, child, pet or building?
Please can you let me know how many roundabouts are located within your council boundaries?
What precautions, preparations, planning and costings have been undertaken in the case an asteroid crashes into Worthing, a meteorite landing in Worthing or solar activity disrupting electromagnetic fields?
How many holes in privacy walls between cubicles have been found in public toilets and within council buildings in the last 10 years?
How many bodies are there in mortuaries that have been unclaimed for ten years? How long have these bodies been in the mortuary? How old were they when they died? Is it possible to have the names of these people?
How many people in the town have a licence to keep a tiger, lion, leopard, lynx or panther as a pet?
How many requests were made to council-run historic public-access buildings (e.g. museums) requesting to bring a team of ‘ghost investigators’ into the building?
How many children in the care of the council have been micro-chipped?
I’m not saying that my speculations about the reasons behind these requests are right. Maybe some of the requests were made for entirely frivolous purposes, or to waste councils’ time and money, but I’m far from convinced that is the case. And, of course, if the requests were entirely frivolous the Freedom of Information Act 2000 contains a provision which enables the authority to dismiss them forthwith. Truly frivolous requests should not cost a council more than a few minutes’ work, and, in my experience, they are rare.
Careful readers will note that I haven’t mentioned the first of the LGA’s examples:
What plans are in place to protect the town from a dragon attack?
There are many serious threats to councils’ revenues, but I don’t accept that FOI is one of them. FOI costs, but it costs relatively little and it has big societal benefits, as the Justice Committee recognised in 2012 when it called it a “significant enhancement of our democracy”. Truly “wacky requests” can be deftly deflected by using the “vexatiousness exemption” of the FOI Act, but let’s not assume that all requests with apparently wacky themes have unserious motives. And – digressing somewhat – let us not forget the LGA is not subject to FOI.