ENOUGH: It’s time we prioritized saving lives over frivolous FOI requests


We are facing a pandemic and the public sector are in the frontline but surprise surprise one organisation hasn’t got the memo.

To date, the BBC covid-19 death toll running total records 3,600 people have died in the UK and 38,000 have tested positive.

Nurses, doctors, paramedics and NHS support staff are taking daily risks as are social care people, bin collectors, police, fire, teachers and many others. In the private sector shop workers and those in the food and transport supply chain are working around the clock.

To be clear, the public sector is what is going to save us from this mess.

However, the one organisation that appears to have missed this.

Step forward the Taxpayers Alliance.

If you haven’t come across them before, The Taxpayers Alliance are a secretive pressure group who decline to name their backers and have links to US groups who believe in low taxes.

They specialise in spoon-feeding depleted newsrooms press releases with highly selective data.

Rather than watching the news, it appears the Tax Payers Alliance have carried on business as usual sending out freedom of information requests to local government on arcane corners of public sector spending.

This week, while public sector people are risking their lives the Tax Payers Alliance have been asking how much has been spent on alcohol.

Let that sink in.

This tweet from Polly Cziok summarises the disbelief.


Let’s be quite clear, this is offensive

Should public sector people stop what they’re doing to calculate answers on trivial subjects in a time of crisis?

This is a question broader than one pressure group.

The question of whether or not to divert resources is offensive.

It’s as vile as asking firefighters at Grenfell Tower to stop what they are doing and audit what they’ve spent on pens.

Or a passer-by at a road accident demand the fire crew stop cutting the injured family out of the car and instead come and tell them how much they spent of teabags in the last 12-months.

Or asking social care to stop looking after frail people and fill in a form about sandwiches.

It is knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Enough is enough

Happily, it seems as though the public sector has had enough.

Step forward Glasgow City Council’s media team for responding to a media enquiry thus:


Credit: @carolyntweeting on Twitter.

For accessibility, it reads:

“This spending is not about pens, but every bill and statement, every letter, every envelope and every drop of printer ink uses to support the delivery of universal services to more than 600,000 people over five years.

“To try and present it as biros for staff is as childish as it is grimly predictable – particularly at a time when those staff are doing everything in their power to maintain critical services in the face of a global pandemic.

“To be clear, the Taxpayers Alliance is a private company and political pressure group that refuses to disclose its financial backers – which people, unaccountably insist on presenting as a campaign representing ordinary people.”

The Glasgow Times story online is here.

And frankly, the Glasgow City Council approach is long overdue.

Even the ICO’s office know there’s a pandemic going on

The good news is that the arbiter of data protection and freedom of information knows the world has been turned upside down.

In a useful set of guidance, the ICO’s office says they won’t be going after organisations that have diverted resources to combating the pandemic.

So, there is an argument for prioritising saving lives over FOI requests.

It’s about time journalists became journalists

Full disclosure, for 12 years I was a daily new reporter who specialised in local government. I’ve worked in and with public sector comms for 16 years. I know the pressures depleted newsrooms are under and know that’s got worse.

When a reporter, the tag ‘sloppy and lazy copy’ was one of the worst insults a news editor could shout down the phone.

As a general point, cutting and pasting Taxpayers Alliance press releases – or any press releases – unchallenged is not great journalism in peace time.

If only there was a brave and fearless reporter who would ask the Taxpayers Alliance who funds them and when we’re through all this put in an FOI request to see how much time and effort has been spent answering them.

And its about time public sector bodies stepped up on this

It’s fine for civil servants and media to grow tired at being asked to stop covid-19 work to process frivolous FOI requests.

At some point, they’re going to look for some leadership from organisations such as the Local Government Association, Improvement Service in Scotland, Government Communications Service, the National Union of Journalists and the Chartered Institute for Public Relations.

This isn’t a debate about transparency.

There is a role for FOI from all quarters.

This is a debate about saving lives.

There are many questions to be asked as part of a functioning democracy about how prepared the UK is. But asking about alcohol and paper clips when people are dying for me really isn’t one of the top questions.

I’m a member of society. I’m the director of my own company. I pay tax. If it helps fund a public sector that can respond in a crisis I don’t mind.

Every week, hundreds of thousands of British people open their doors and applaud for a minute the carers and frontline people who are risking their lives to save the lives of others.

Maybe we can hold a minute’s slow hand clap for the Tax Payers Alliance five minutes after the clap for carers.

Any takers?

No, I didn’t think so.

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