What are the changes next year to the public’s right to inspect documents of public bodies during the audit?
Above is one of the documents I requested under the 2013/14 audit last year, which is a page of a lease that Wirral Council have with Neptune that states that if Wirral Council introduce car parking in the Fort Perch Rock car park, then charges can be introduced in the free car parks part of the Marine Point development.
Each year for the past few years I have exercised a right you get to exercise only for three weeks each year, which is a right under section 15 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 to inspect documents relating to the previous financial year (2014/15) during the audit.
This has in years gone past has been the only way to see such financial information and to give one example of a story that resulted in many interesting stories on this blog (ranging from councillor’s expenses and taxis to an unsigned contract for a million pounds worth of work).
This year I have exercised my s.15 right not just with Wirral Council, but with Liverpool City Council, Merseytravel, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and the Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority.
A couple of weeks before the three-week period when the public can inspect these documents each of these bodies has to publish a public notice in a newspaper that circulates in the area covered by that body. The regulations also require each body to publish this notice on their website. Wirral Council’s notice can be found on their website here.
To save myself trekking off to Birkenhead Central library and spending an afternoon going through back issues of the local newspapers trying to find the public notices, I found this website that has a searchable database of all public notices published by the Trinity Mirror group.
All of the notices (apart from the Merseytravel one) had a name of someone at that public body who I wrote to (whether by letter or by email). In the case of Merseytravel I wrote to the Chief Executive, who passed my request on to the person at Merseytravel dealing with it.
So far the responses have been as follows:
Merseytravel – dates of Monday 27th July 2015/Tuesday 28th July 2015 agreed to come in and inspect the documents. They have a “paperless office”, but will be printing off copies of the invoices/contracts I requested so their legal department can redact parts of them.
Merseyside Waste and Recycling Authority – dates of Friday 24th July and Wednesday 29th July 2015 have been agreed to come in and inspect documents.
Liverpool City Council – email sent yesterday, no reply received yet
Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority – email sent and acknowledged on the 15th July 2015, no further reply received since
Wirral Council – email sent with request for contracts & councillor expenses on 19th July 2015, reply received yesterday, list of invoices sent this morning, no reply received yet or date/s arranged
Next year, any right of access to invoices and contracts will be under the new section 26 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.
The main differences will be next year that a new ground of refusing a request on grounds of “commercial confidentiality” has been added in to the legislation unless there is an “overriding public interest in favour of its disclosure”.
This puts on a statutory footing the Veolia case, see  EWCA Civ 1214 if you’re curious about what I mean.
The new section 26 also means that determinations about what is “personal information” on documents (therefore not open to inspection) will in future be made by the public body themselves and not the situation at present of the public body having to get agreement from their external auditor to this. It does make it crystal clear that the names of sole traders on invoices is not covered by the definition of “personal information” and defines “personal information” as “identifies a particular individual or enables a particular individual to be identified”. The restriction on information about the public body’s staff remains in section 26 next year.
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