Despite improvements over the past three years, a new London Assembly report says City Hall and its agencies are still failing to provide Londoners with enough information to properly understand how public money is spent and key decisions are made.
In 2013 the Assembly published a wide-ranging report highlighting systemic transparency failures within the Mayor’s empire and making specific recommendations on how each needed to open themselves up to Londoners.
The most dramatic improvement came from Transport for London which now routinely publishes contracts, including sponsorship deals, has significantly boosted the amount of information available on its website and recently launched a new transparency code committing it to further improvements.
In today’s report AMs acknowledge the organisation’s efforts, saying it’s made “good progress” in improving its accountability to Londoners, but say more work is needed to ensure the information released is consistent across all of its areas of operation.
AMs highlight the TfL-backed Crossrail project as one area where improvements could be made and have called for its contracts and Board and committee papers to be routinely published.
In addition, AMs are seeking assurances that the recently established Crossrail 2 delivery company “will be transparent and open to scrutiny” from the outset.
While TfL has won praise from the Assembly, members say they are “particularly concerned” about the poor performance of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime which oversees the Metropolitan Police.
They accuse the organisation of only publishing “the bare minimum” of information and of providing only limited details about its decision making.
Although the agency publishes notes of its meetings, AMs say “they contain so little information they are virtually useless”. One record of a meeting between Mayor Boris Johnson and Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe contained only the following information:
Mayor Met Commissioner Bilateral 7 December 2015 22
RECORD OF MEETING
1. OPERATIONAL UPDATE 1.1 The Commissioner updated the Mayor on operational matters.
2. PERFORMANCE UPDATE 2.1 The Commissioner updated the Mayor on Police performance in London.
3. POLICE FUNDING 3.1 There was a discussion around police funding following the Comprehensive Spending Review.
Although it’s promised to embrace greater transparency in 2016, AMs says the “lack of progress since 2013 suggests that MOPAC does not recognise the importance of transparency regarding its decision making, and the Mayor has been unable or unwilling to exert any influence over it.”
The Assembly has also expressed concern at MOPAC’s tendency to answer publicly posed questions, including those submitted via Mayor’s Question Time, through private correspondence which is often marked “confidential”.
They say this places members “in a difficult position where information has been provided in confidence, but they feel it would be in the public interest to publish.”
AMs want the next Mayor and their designated policing deputy to review the information MOPAC publishes and propose improvements to the Assembly by 1 August 2016.
Other improvements suggested for the whole Greater London Authority is the development of searchable FOI logs to make it easier for Londoners to find information which has already been provided.
Assembly Members also want the mayor’s development corporations to ensure they place the maximum amount of information possible in the public domain and that contracts do not contain confidentiality clauses.
TfL’s bike hire sponsorship contract with Barclays contained such a clause which prevented its publication and the organisation routinely claimed that to put the contract in the public domain would impede its ability to achieve the best deal for London.
However replacement sponsors Santander are paying more, despite the original Barclays contract eventually being released to this site under FOI and the new sponsor knowing details of its deal would be automatically published. Enhanced transparency around the scheme’s funding means Santander has benefitted from additional positive publicity as it’s sought to improve the scheme’s appeal.
John Biggs AM, the report’s author, said: “If an organisation is funded by the public – it is accountable to the public. Hiding behind reasons of commercial sensitivity won’t wash.
“We learnt from the Barclays cycle hire sponsorship deal that the eventual contract publication did not affect Santander from getting on board.
“If there are good reasons for a GLA body to keep information confidential – those reasons should be explained. Improvements have been made but we need the momentum to continue, as new organisations like the Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation join the GLA Group. Transparency must be more consistent across the entire GLA Family.”