Back in October 2010 my esteemed Colleague, Cllr Glen Miller asked the Council's leader about the matter of opening up the Council's expenditure to public scrutiny. Essentially, we are looking to join Hillingdon, Windsor & Maidenhead, Worthing and other local councils in publishing on-line all items of expenditure in excess of £500.
However, our leader demurs, choosing to hide behind lawyers. In the formal written answer he said:
There are over 9,000 records detailing expenditure over £500 that need to be published. Whilst we are technically ready to publish (the website page and extracts are complete), legal advice says that unless we can be certain that all records do not form part of a Commercial Confidentiality clause in the contract then the Council could face a legal challenge until the request becomes law, which is expected in January 2011.
So the Council's lawyers are worried that we might be sued for being honest about our spending. One does wonder how those other authorities have managed! However, Cllr Greenwood - for he is our leader - elaborated further (after a load of waffle about protecting women's refuges) in a verbal response to Cllr Miller's supplementary question:
Supposing we breach commercial confidentiality then we are subject to being sued so I looked at it. In principle I think we should do it. If the law comes in then you have got the defence of the law.
This is of course complete nonsense - even after the requirement to publish comes in, Council's have to protect commercial cofidentiality. And let's be very clear, saying that we paid Bloggs & Co three grand to do some groundworks at a park - or indeed paid anything to any company - is not a matter of commercial confidentiality. It is right to either aggregate or redact names in the case of payments to individuals (for example, a discretionary grant for someone to attend a dance school) but, as already noted, other local authorities have managed this without complaint or mishap.
This is a case of hiding behind lawyers - the leadership and senior officers simply don't want to publish the full information about how they spend our money. Even though we could publish the information tomorrow.