Assembly Members call for greater transparency within City Hall agencies

A new London Assembly report into the Greater London Authority (GLA) group’s transparency says Londoners should have greater access to information held by City Hall and the Greater London Authority’s agencies.

The GLA group includes Transport for London, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, the Metropolitan Police Service, the London Fire & Emergency Planning Authority and the London Legacy Development Corporation, all of which are led or funded by Mayor Boris Johnson.

Assembly Members are calling on the Mayor to drive through reforms to deliver greater transparency, ensuring the various bodies adopt more consistent approaches to publishing information.

A new report published by the Assembly’s GLA Oversight Committee says agencies must move away from the practice of publishing the most minimal amount of information possible and adopt an approach where “as much information as possible is published at the earliest opportunity.”

Documents and reports should normally be published in full with redactions made where they contain “a limited number of sensitive items”.

Where a large number of redactions would required, AMs say documents should be split into public and private sections with as much information contained in the public section as possible.

They also say GLA bodies should “avoid altogether withholding or delaying the publication of papers in their entirety” as doing so means the public cannot even know the document exists or a decision has been taken.

The report also condemns the routine use of ‘commercial confidentiality’ as a reason to limit the release of information to the public.

Transport for London has repeatedly claimed exemption from releasing information on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, using the tactic as a means to limit scrutiny of its sponsorship contracts with Barclays and Emirates.

In some cases the body has delayed providing information by claiming the exemption, only to later release the same information.

In August 2012 TfL denied an FOI request from this site asking for “The total sum received so far from Barclays for sponsorship of the cycle hire scheme”.

The body claimed it was “not obliged to supply this information as it is subject to a statutory exemption to the right of access to information under section 43(2), which relates to Commercial Interests.”

However four months later it provided the exact same information, revealing the bank paid £13.43 million “up to the end of Financial Year 2012″.

The report calls for an end to such inconsistent releases of information and recommends the Mayor set up a register of all GLA Group contracts with links to the contract itself.

It also calls for the routine inclusion of transparency clauses in all contracts signed by the group to ensure that Londoners and Assembly Members can see how the GLA conducts its business and understand any obligations it has to commercial partners.

All decisions by group bodies should also be routinely published and where any information is kept private, AMs say there should be a clear public explanation provided.

The report also calls on the Mayor to establish uniform and clear standards for the timeliness and quality of information provided by his agencies to the Assembly, its committees and individual Assembly Members.

Assembly Members have also raised concerns that decisions within TfL are being taken within informal gatherings which fall outside existing transparency guidelines and Access to Information rules.
 
John Biggs AM, who led the report on behalf of the Assembly’s GLA Oversight Committee, said: “This may appear a rather technical matter but transparency and the disclosure of information about and the background thinking behind decisions is a fundamental requirement in a democracy. It is hard to hold people to account if their decisions are made in secret.

“This is why virtually all politicians promise greater transparency when they come to power. Mysteriously, they then often have to be reminded of their promises.”

Mr Biggs said although some parts of the GLA had “taken great strides to improve their openness”, progress in other bodies “has been patchy and at times slow”.
 
He added: “It is time the Mayor made good on his promise to lead the way on transparency in the public sector and ensure a consistent approach to making the maximum amount of information available in the shortest time possible.
 
“Achieving such a culture change will not only allow the public greater access to the information about how their taxes are spent, it will also have the potential to help squeeze more value out of GLA contracts and reduce the costs of responding to Freedom of Information requests.”

Commenting on the report a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said: “The Mayor has delivered his pledge to make City Hall an exemplar for transparency. Under the current Mayor City Hall publishes expenses and salaries of senior staff, lists all GLA expenditure over £250 and full details of all spending decisions over £5000.

“Far outstripping his predecessor and government standards in terms of transparency and governance, the Mayor introduced in 2010 a free online Datastore, which contains over 500 data sets giving access to members of the public to facts and figures from across London and the GLA Group and it is a well-used online tool.

“Building on the Datastore in 2012, he introduced the City Dashboard which makes performance statistics easier to follow. Boris Johnson welcomes this report and its praise for increasing the amount of information made public by the Authority under his leadership and he remains committed to providing Londoners with more access to information on performance and value for money.”

The Committee will discuss the report’s findings and recommendations with the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Sir Eddie Lister at a public meeting on July 18th.