In the press there has been some concern that the move towards transparency either in £500 spend lists or specific requests for disclosure of information, has led to increased fraud. However, I would argue that neither FOI nor the transparency agenda are at fault, although they are often held up as the culprit.
The reasons for disclosing the £500 despite the recent concerns about fraud, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-15660029 , is related to the same principles used to uphold the Camden decision about squatters and void property information.
In that decision, the Information Tribunal was saying that if Camden had the systems and procedures in place to cut the number of voids or empty properties, then the risk of squatters would be reduced. The information and its disclosure was not the issue. The issue was the system and procedures in place to deal with the empty properties.
In this sense, one can see FOIA and the transparency agenda as a service improvement tools. Because of the FOI disclosure, Camden will have to do more to cut empty properties or voids. [None of this is intended as a criticism of Camden Council. It is only that their appeal to the tribunal provides the context within which to consider the Information Tribunal decision as well as the context for understanding the Transparency Agenda as exemplifying a service improvement tool.]
The Council may not want to do this because it conflicts with their spending priorities. They may have other pressing priorities on other issues. However, that decision is not related to the information. Indirectly, the Council is being held to account for its spending and service priorities in relation to the issue of empty properties. This is not to say that Camden does not take the issue seriously. Rather it is to say that the disclosed information only reveals a gap within the Camden system. See for example, this report on void in 2007, which recognized it as an issue. http://democracy.camden.gov.uk/Data/District%20Management%20Committee%20-%20Hampstead/20070621/Agenda/$Report-Item%2016%20%20%20Housing%20Management%20Improvement%20Project%20Proposals%20for%20Change.doc.pdf
More recently, a report shows the concern about the empty property rates in 2011. http://democracy.camden.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=4552 All of which may explain why there is now a job advert for voids manager for a housing association in Camden. http://www.jobsgopublic.com/jobs/service-improvement-manager-voids-planned-and-cyclical-works-n-a?cf=rss The question to ask is whether an authority should refuse to disclose information that shows gaps in service provision. Imagine if the request and the information were about sub-standard kitchens for nursery and infant schools, would the response be the same?
In other words, if voids were reduced to 1% and all empty homes were attended to within 10 working days, then the opportunity for squatting or other activity would be reduced. In that case, disclosure of the information would have no tangible effect on the situation. The information is only problematic because empty properties or voids need to be addressed.
In the end, the effect of the squatters only appears because of the volume of empty homes. To put it differently but directly, the squatters were already an issue *before* the request was made. The disclosure of the information now makes the issue tangible it did not create the issue.
From a political judo perspective, the council could then use this disclosure to enhance its work on voids and empty properties. For example, it could say, “If you do not re let quickly it could be ripe for a squatter.” It could also be used to let the public know to report squatting or an empty property to the council more quickly.
The transparency agenda offers Council a way to leverage certain activities or explain to the public why they have
prioritized topics. I would suggest that the benefit from the transparency outweighs the costs or problems that are associated with it. In the case of the fraud claims, fraud existed before the transparency agenda. Moreover, the transparency agenda can be used as an incentive to make the anti-fraud systems and procedures more robust. The transparency agenda is only making the issue tangible; it is not creating it. Then again, the best fraud is the one that never gets detected.
- U.K. Government Considers Ban on Squatters (foxnews.com)
- Do ‘Squatters’ Have Rights? (femaleimagination.wordpress.com)
- More home owners face squatters occupying their properties (money.marksandspencer.com)