Saturday, October 15, 2005

 

Freedom of Information and Block Grants to the Regions

This posting is purely to record my frustrating experience with the government machine in attempting to elicit some very simple facts, all of which incidentally, are already in the public domain. I write textbooks on British politics and have been updating my chapters in Politics UK, the big book I do for Pearson Education and first up was the one on devolution. Not too much to do apart from Prescott's disastrous attempt in November last year to interest Geordies in an elected assembly but the figures on block grants to Scotland Wales and Ireland for 1999 were a bit too much out of date. So I rang the Scottish Office. The young lady who answered took my query surprisingly seriously-I had assumed such data would be easy to hand within the nerve centre of Scotland's London HQ. It seemed it was too serious for her so I was passed onto a series of other phone voices, none of which could help me. First blank drawn.
So I tried the Welsh Office in London where I spoke to a nice sounding young, this time with a pleasant Welsh accent. 'Is that the Welsh Office?' I asked. 'No, it's the Wales Office', she rather peevishly replied. She again seemed surprised I should be seeking such arcane information-'It's only the grant made by British taxpayers to keep all the services in Wales running' I explained. But this simple, supposedly lapidary fact was unavailable and I was advised to try the Treasury. Second blank drawn.
'What's this block grant thing then?' asked another female voice at HM Treasury. Surprising lack of familiarity given that she was employed by the source of such grants but she at least helped me to navigate the baffling Treasury website-shouldn't it be easier for taxpayers to find how their money is spent?- through several sections and subsections until I found the relevant list of grants to the regions. However they were also outdated- 2000-2001. So third blank, though maybe this time semi drawn.
So, in a mood approaching despair, and nom little irritation, I rang the Northern Ireland press office who promptly passed me on to the Minister's office. 'I'm afraid you'll have to apply for that information in writing' said the Belfast accented aide. 'But this is information in the public domain' I insisted, 'I'm a taxpayer helping to pay that block grant and there is such a thing as the Freedom of Information Act which your website says you are governed by'. But I might as well have been an IRA suicide bomber planning to blow up Belfast for all the help I received. Fourth blank drawn. I was ready to give up.
What have I done? I've had no alternative but to leave the figures for 1999 in place until I can find a government servant brave enough to tell me what is supposed to be a foundation fact of their devolved government operation.

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