Local authorities are refusing to let the public access key information on how their money is being spent, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has claimed.
The Bureau said its investigation had found that authorities were:
- 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 Bureau said 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 added: “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.”
The Bureau said that in one case, it 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”.
The research involved Bureau Local volunteers submitting 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.
The Bureau said 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”.
The Bureau also claimed that many councils also had more rudimentary obstacles for the public to overcome. “Councils are required to advertise that their accounts are open for inspection, but some posted these notices on obscure sections of their websites. Others did not include contact details. Some requests ended up in the hands of council staff with no knowledge of the LAAA.”
The research found that few people were making use of the law. In 2015-16, the 11,000 eligible public bodies received 65 inspection requests. “Several of the Bureau’s volunteers were told they were the first people to ask to inspect their authority’s accounts for decades.”