Shropshire Council is busy transferring many of its staff and services to its wholly owned company, ip&e. This company still must respond to freedom of information requests, in almost the same way that Shropshire Council does even if those requests are ‘bizarre’ in the eyes of council leader Keith Barrow.
Every organisation subject to freedom of information and environmental information laws must publish a ‘publication scheme’ describing what information will routinely be made available. Because ip&e is a separate organisation from Shropshire Council, it must publish a separate publication scheme. This scheme has recently been updated but has never been made publicly available on the internet. You can read it here:
The publication scheme gives a basic overview of what ip&e is doing as a business and of its management structure.
It reveals that the company made a pre-tax profit of £31,000 on a turnover of just over £1 million in 2014/15. The company is expecting to boost its turnover twentyfold to approximately £20m by the end of financial year 2015/16. The workforce employed by ip&e will expand from around 30 to over 500 members of staff during the same twelve months. All ip&e employees will be on the same pay conditions as Shropshire Council staff “at present”.
The ip&e publication scheme lists policy documents that can be requested: these include staff management policies and how the organisation will communicate.
It is not just the publication scheme that is different. Shropshire Council currently publishes details of all its expenditure over £500. ip&e will regard much if not all of that information as commercially confidential. It will also not reveal how much income it is receiving from contracts or forecasts of profits. It says:
Information such as a list of contracts and values, and forecast sales and profits are withheld from publication under the exemption for prejudice to commercial interests.
The business plan is also confidential, though given its generality I don’t really see the need for it to be so.
This restriction on information made public could make it very difficult to see how ip&e is performing as a teckal company. Teckal is crucial to the success of the company because UK legislation limits how much business a publicly owned business can conduct for a profit. It will make it very difficult to see whether ip&e is viable as a business. This matters because it provides public services with public money for the public good.
Since its introduction in 2000, freedom of information (FoI) has become a vital cornerstone of our democratic process. Unfortunately, council leader Keith Barrow doesn’t seem to understand this. In an interview with the Shropshire Star, he said:
People just seem to misunderstand what [ip&e] is about. We have had a Freedom of Information request asking how much I get paid as chairman of the company? The answer is nothing!
I think it also asked do I have any interests in any companies that might be bidding for work with ip&e and the council. I don’t have any companies the council will be getting involved in, it is all a bit bizarre.
These FoI requests are not at all ‘a bit bizarre’ as Keith suggests. I know that the directors are paid nothing other than their council or ip&e salaries, or their council allowances – but I don’t know any public source from which members of the public can obtain this information except by FoI. I am not aware of any public information that tells people that none of the directors have any financial interest in ip&e contracts. I am sure that none of the directors have acted in their personal interests or that of any companies with which they may be associated but I don’t see how the public can find this out other than by FoI.
None of these ‘bizarre’ requests for information would need to have been made if the information has been provided beforehand by ip&e or Shropshire Council. That is the essence of a good FoI regime – providing information that the public wants to know before it is requested. If the council and company do not publicly explain what is happening, how do they expect to electors to know?
ip&e is beginning to raise its game on public information but it has some way to go. Freedom of information requests will always be an essential part of the process of ensuring that this company – which is owned by all of us – is publicly accountable.
Making a freedom of information request
ip&e has produced a guide to making FoI requests. But once again, it is not on the company’s website. You can read it here:
. The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 give access to environmental information held by public bodies. They are the result of an EU directive. This directive arose from the Aarhus Convention, an agreement by members of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe which guarantees access to environmental information and justice. The more familiar Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives access to a wider range of information held by public bodies. In practice, you need not worry about this difference. If you make a request under freedom of information and it relates to environmental information, the receiving organisation will answer it under the environmental information regulations without requesting a resubmission.
. The ip&e publication scheme refers to the company’s articles of association. Again they are not on the company’s website but they can be found as an appendix to a 2012 cabinet paper. The scheme also says copies of the company’s audited accounts are on its website. They are not, but you can read them here.
. According to cabinet papers, ip&e is projected to make a profit of £90,000 in 2015/16.
. This information was not included in the 2012 Questions and Answers on ip&e.