Freelance takes council to court over accounts access

By Dominic Ponsford

A freelance journalist is taking Lincolnshire County Council to a judicial review in a freedom of information battle.

It follows problems encountered by Richard Orange, owner of Orchard
News, in viewing the council’s accounts last year. He declined to go
into details of the case pending the hearing, but he has revealed a
catalogue of problems in trying to view this year’s accounts.

Under the 1998 Audit Commission Act, journalists have the right to access council accounts for 20 days every year.

But according to Orange, in the electronic age this is proving far easier said than done.

He
said: “You don’t get hundreds of filing cabinets stuffed full of
invoices where you can walk in and say you want to go through them from
A to Z.

Lincolnshire County Council’s accounts are stored in 851 locations.

“Journalists
and members of the public may have the right to access accounts, but if
they are not in paper form and they are all over the place, how do you
do that?”

He added: “There’s an argument about whether
confidential information appearing in accounts should be disclosed to
the public or to journalists.

But I can’t even be told the names of contractors or people who do other work for the council.”

Starting
from day one of the statutory 20-day period when Lincolnshire County
Council’s accounts are supposed to be available to the public, Orange
has been keeping a web log of his problems in trying to access them.

He has been dealing with private contractor HBS, which has the job of looking after the council’s accounts.

With the 20-day period due to runout this week, he says he has still yet to see all the accounts he asked for.

After
requesting a list of names of people paid £901,000 by the council for
“legal and arbitration expenses”, Orange found that a thick marker pen
had been run through most of the entries because they related to “child
protection cases”.

Orange pointed out that these are doctors and
barristers and said: “Have the nameplates outside their offices been
painted out yet? Are they to reprint their letterheads in invisible
ink, because they happen to work for social services from time to time?”

Orange
is due to appear at the High Court on 12 September for a preliminary
judicial review hearing regarding his attempt to see last year’s
accounts.Obstructing a member of the public who wishes to see a
council’s accounts is a criminal offence, but next month’s civil
hearing is likely to centre on whether councils have the right to
withhold information from public accounts which they believe to be
confidential.

Lincolnshire County Council treasurer Pete Moore
said: “We are meeting our obligations in relation to disclosure of
information under the inspection of accounts legislation, including
those detailed requests from the Orchard News bureau.

“Some of
these are being dealt with in stages in order to collate source data
from a number of different parts of the council and to ensure we are
compliant with our other legal obligations under the Data Protection
Act.”

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