YORK council officials are falling far short of national targets for providing information to the public, new figures have revealed.
Last year, City of York Council failed more than 300 times to meet the legal deadline for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiries.
It met the deadline of 20 working days on only 919 of the 1,283 queries it received, a rate of 71.6 per cent. The national watchdog, the Information Commissioner's Office, says at least 85 per cent of queries should be answered on time. It will often monitor organisations failing to hit that target, and can take further action if figures do not improve.
Liberal Democrat councillor Nigel Ayre said he had encountered long waits and called the statistics "deeply concerning".
He said: "There is a process problem but there is a wider problem of a complete lack of openness and transparency under Labour. This is forcing residents to put in the requests in the first place."
He said Labour had introduced a "culture of secrecy".
The Freedom of Information Act became law in 2005, enshrining people's right to access information held by public authorities and to improve the accountability of public-sector organisations.
York-based governance advisor Gwen Swinburn said: "I have submitted around ten FOI requests to City of York Council, almost all on the most basic democracy issues. Almost without exception, the council has delayed and gone to great lengths to avoid answering in part or in full."
Council leader James Alexander recently said in a public meeting that Ms Swinburn's usage of the FOIA and complaints about responses were costing the council money.
Ian Floyd, council director of customer and business support services, said York, as a unitary council, had more functions and responsibilities than neighbouring district or county councils.
He said the council was committed to open government and welcomed "ongoing support from our very engaged citizenry" but said the number of requests under the FOIA had risen by 72 per cent in the past two years.
He said: "Recent improvements have been put in place to strengthen our performance and to ensure requests are dealt with in the agreed timescales."
Mr Floyd said each FOIA request costs £700 on average to complete, but did not clarify how or why.
Many authorities now publish online all information they disclose under the FOIA. Mr Floyd added: "York is one of the only authorities in the country to publish FOIs online and webcast all public meetings, allowing members of the public to view previous requests and important public decisions at their leisure and as a result help cut the cost of collating future FOIs.”
He said the council's "on-time" response rate for 2012/13 as a whole was 75 per cent, and said it had since risen to 81 per cent for 2013/14.
How local councils compared in 2013
- City of York Council completed 919 of its 1,283 requests on time (71.6%).
- Scarborough Borough Council's rate was 82.4% (482 out of 585).
- Selby District Council's was 87.3% (420 out of 481).
- Harrogate Borough Council's was 88.3% (470 out of 532).
- East Riding of Yorkshire Council's rate was 93.5% (985 out of 1,054).
- Ryedale District Council's was 94.8% (477 out of 503).
- Hambleton District Council's was 94.2% (293 out of 311).
- North Yorkshire County Council's was 96.9% (1,211 out of 1,250).
All councils provided the information in response to FOIA requests submitted in January, although City of York Council took 74 working days to respond.