Struggling for information

THREE out of Scottish Borders Council’s 34 elected members have used Freedom of Information legislation to uncover facts about their own council, arguing that using this route was the only way to guarantee a speedy answer from council officers.

Councillor David Paterson topped the poll for FoI requests with 14 over that period, followed by the SNP’s John Mitchell with 11 and Lib Dem Catriona Bhatia with seven.

Defending his decision to use FoI legilsation, Councillor Paterson claimed to have had no choice.

“I feel it cannot be right for me or any elected member to have to make such requests,” he said.

And this week, Councillor Bhatia, a member of the ruling administration, also defended her decision.

She said: “I really must take issue with the inference that the information I sought was available from other sources and that I have been wasting public money.

It is one thing being able to request information from departments and quite another to actually receive it.

“With the greatest respect to officers of this council, you often have to email them many times and are unlikely to get the answer you want within the 20 days set down in the FoI legislation.

“For instance I recently made a request on behalf of the Peeblesshire Agriculture Society in my ward regarding the title deeds for Hay Lodge Park following a dispute over parking at the annual show.

“If I had not used Freedom of Information, I expect it would have taken six months.

“It is my job to represent constituents and, with an FoI request, it is properly logged and you know the timescale in which you will get a response.

“In fact, I am surprised more councillors do not use the legislation to more effectively get the answers that the people who voted for them deserve.

“However, I agree with Mr Paterson that there should be a better system in place whereby elected members can get the information they want without recourse to FoI.”

Meanwhile, Mr Paterson has been given an answer to his FoI query about the corporate credit card spending of senior officials, having been informed in a recent FoI response that as well as the chief excecutive,the directors of education, social work, resources and environment/infrastructure (formerly planning and technical services) also had cards, theirs having a £3,000 annual limit.

Over the same period the personally-incurred card transactions by the most senior officials were as follows: director of education £90; former director of planning £590; director of resources £651; director of social work £3,906; former director of technical services £20.

The total spend via credit cards for “directors and departments” over the last three financial years was £97,000, the council statement saying: “Like many other public and private sector organisations, credit cards are used by SBC to provide a more streamlined, more efficient and less costly way to pay for goods and services.”