Why do public organisations lay down obstacles on the route to information that should be accessible to all?
Why the deflections and inaction when faced with questions about money collected from residents and spent on our behalf?
Reluctance to give a straight answer when faced with a probing question normally implies, rightly or wrongly, guilt.
Perseverance normally results in embarrassing information being revealed eventually, so why not save time and fess up straight away?
At least then you can’t be accused of making things worse by trying to hide something.
This little rant is dedicated to Hackney Council, which has made the extraordinary claim that the borough’s residents are not entitled to know how much of taxpayers’ money certain senior officers are trousering.
The Hackney Citizen asked for details of payments made to one senior council officer and was told that to give out such details would be in breach of the Data Protection Act.
We made our request in the course of inquiries into the council’s remunerations to Carl Welham, who has been filling the role of interim Assistant Chief Executive of Communications and Consultation from 2009 until the present time.
Putting aside the question of how someone who has worked for the council for three years can rightly be called an ‘interim’, the way in which Mr Welham is paid seems complicated.
The council has no contractual relationship with him.
He is contracted through an agency, Randstad Managed Services. We understand that they pay monies to his company, Carl Welham Communications Ltd.
The latter, while completely legal, is an example of the kind of ‘tax efficient’ arrangement questioned by some in HM Treasury as well as campaigners such as UK Uncut. Having payments made to a limited company allows individuals to pay as little as 21 per cent corporation tax rather than the higher rate of income tax.
The Hackney Citizen has offered Mr Welham an opportunity to clarify the matter. He has not responded.
But however he is paid, the council’s refusal to respond to our simple question about how much he earns makes it look like figures at the Town Hall are blushing.
Their argument is that it works out cheaper for them for some workers to be employed via an agency.
The counterargument is that it is disadvantageous to the public purse, and therefore to society, if those workers then make legal use of the tax regime to their own advantage.
When asked how much Mr Welham was paid annually for his services to the people of Hackney, a spokeswoman for the council said: “Although numbers have decreased over recent years, in times of organisational change it makes financial sense for the council to use interims as they carry no liabilities for redundancy or severance pay when posts are changed or deleted.
“The council also ensures that when it uses the services of interims the costs to the council do not exceed that of a salaried member of staff in the same position. It is not appropriate for the council to comment on the contractual arrangements of interims as it would be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.”
But whether someone is an interim or not is surely irrelevant. This is our money. We are entitled to know how it is spent.
This is just one example of how councils up and down the land have entered into overly complicated arrangements with private companies and arms length management organisations that bamboozle journalists and may seek to claim exemption from scrutiny.
This is self evidently wrong. Public bodies should be public.