Back in February a Freedom of Information request to Transport for London revealed the shockingly poor value of the mobile phone contracts it entered into for its chief officers.
Whereas you and I might buy a £15-20pm month contract and receive a bundle of minutes, TfL is paying hundreds of pounds per month because its tariff offers zero inclusive minutes.
City Hall was keen to distance itself from the contract, with both the Mayor’s spokesperson and Assembly figures stressing that their mobiles were bought in separately and only cost around £15 per month.
A number of people suggested that the waste was replicated at lower levels of TfL so I asked for the amounts spent on the tier of managers immediately below the chief officers, known within the body as its senior officers.
TfL did its usual thing of not answering the FOI on time and when the belated answer finally arrived it contained the news that officers were refusing to provide the information.
To do so, it was claimed, would cost more that the £450 limit above which public bodies can refuse to answer any request, a claim TfL attempts to stand up by the use of Enron economics.
To arrive at the ‘too expensive’ line, TfL’s FOI team – or more likely a chief officer embarrassed about the wastefulness previously revealed – is claiming the right to add the time needed to answer the March question to the time already spent answering the January request.
By counting backwards and co-joining the requests in this manner TfL is able to “estimate” that overall cost breaches the limit.
The refusal notice states:
“To extract and compile the additional information for senior officers’ mobile phone use would involve a member of staff having to identify all devices registered to each person on the organisational chart and locate bills for each month concerned. We anticipate this would take at least 21 hours.”
Yet for that to be true we’d have to believe that Sir Peter Hendy and the other chief officers (or their PA’s) don’t have the work mobile numbers of their own immediate subordinates to hand and that the accounts payable section is in such disarray that pulling up the already signed-off invoices is a massive task.
Either someone is lying or the whole organisation is utterly incompetent.
The FOI team also suggest they’d have been entitled to include “the time taken to provide data for FOI-2136-1314 (costs of telecommunications services at Chief Officers’ homes), and FOI-2143-1314 (senior officers’ expense claims)”.
In effect, any requests made about staff or their spending will be co-joined to ensure the information isn’t provided – even when the groups of staff in each request aren’t the same and the area of spending is different.
This is a blatant misuse of statute to make it impossible for anyone to follow up a previous disclosure.
The template FOI response includes the following line of advice:
“To help bring the cost of responding to your request within the £450 limit, you may wish to consider narrowing its scope so that we can more easily locate, retrieve and extract the information you are seeking.”
Yet it’s clear that any attempt to break down the request into more manageable (and cheaper bites) would be unsuccessful because TfL would simply pull them all back together and class them as a single request which would then become too expensive to answer.
When I previously asked how much it cost to process the expenses claims of its chief officers, TfL claimed it was impossible to calculate a figure, it also pleaded to be incapable of putting a price on the cost of processing complaints about its handling of FOI requests.
Yet magically it is able to cost up the answering of FOI’s – especially when the end figure means it doesn’t have to answer.
It’s worth noting that TfL’s reliance on what it claims is a statutory right to co-join in this way isn’t matched by any effort to live up to its statutory duty to answer FOIs on time – I currently have five separate requests which have either been answered late or haven’t been answered at all despite the deadline having passed.
Why might this be?
As a matter of policy, TfL monitors the FOI inbox for requests from known journalists, politicians and their staff which are then sent to chief officers to approve the release of any information.
Given that these same chief officers are often the staff member responsible for the decisions and spending being scrutinised there’s a clear conflict of interest built into the system.
TfL likes to boast that every penny raised from the fare box is reinvested in the front line.
But as past disclosures have revealed, a considerable amount is actually diverted to the waistlines of its well-paid boss class who love to dine at taxpayer expense and then charge the public for the trip back to the office.
And an awful lot of cash is being wasted on a mobile phone contract which is incalculably poorer value than any you or I could buy on the high street.
It’s hard to believe that the embarrassments such disclosures bring are wholly unrelated to the lengths TfL goes to to delay and refuse answers.