“Local authorities are refusing to let the public access key information on how their money is being spent, research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found.
redacting documents to “protect commercial interests”;
setting up council-owned companies that are removed from scrutiny;
failing to respond to members of the public who try to exercise their right to inspect council finances
The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 (LAAA) gives citizens and journalists the right to inspect the accounts and related documents of councils, police, fire and other local authorities, and to object to them if they believe something is amiss. It is an especially important right at a time when public bodies are under unprecedented financial pressure.
However, when Bureau journalists and volunteers attempted to exercise that right, some authorities withheld or heavily redacted the information. There was often little evidence that the public interest had been considered and no way of challenging the decision short of a costly court battle.
In one case, the Bureau was prevented from reading a contract because a council officer believed the company involved would sue. Another council refused access to the accounts of a company it had set up to manage a large property portfolio, raising concerns about transparency and accountability.
Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said: “It’s critical that the public and press are allowed access to key documents about the finances of local authorities to ensure there is no place to hide for the misuse of public money.
“The law is clear that this financial information should be out in the open, so it is imperative that those failing to comply do not continue to withhold it from public scrutiny.”
Commercial interest over public interest
To test the law, Bureau Local volunteers submitted requests to nearly 50 local authorities asking to inspect documents — such as contracts and invoices — relating to the use of private consultants during multimillion-pound property deals, a subject the Bureau is investigating.
Some authorities gave only restricted access to the information, or refused altogether, often on grounds that releasing the information could cause financial damage to the councils and their business partners. …”