Freedom of Information – when the minister has access to the information the public can’t see

Minister for Social Development Nelson McCausland rang into the Nolan show on Radio Ulster on Tuesday morning to respond to the debate around the cessation of the Laganside Events Grant scheme.

He had figures – from across departments – at his finger tips to explain the public funding that was being granted to events. In particular, he was able to rattle off the different public funding streams for the Festival of Fools.

My query into the DSD communications team seven days before that was unable to be answered and is now being dealt with as a Freedom of Information request. The request was deliberately kept simple to ease the bureaucratic burden and increase its chance of being answered “promptly, but not later than 20 working days after receipt”.

Should I be surprised that the minister had a comprehensive list of figures available, while my request for just his department’s grants is still unanswered?

And should I be surprised that last week whenever one of the arts organisations asked another part of DSD for the same information they were told to get in touch with me since I had been asking about it … rather than answering the request directly or logging it as FOI?

Northern Ireland generally lags behind the rest of the UK in terms of active ‘open data’ policies. Yet this is one instance when there is already an online tool that is intended to hold this kind of information – the Government Funding Database. If only it was kept up to date! Its records for the Festival of Fools only cover DCAL’s direct contributions in 2009 and 2010.

The Detail are logging their FOI adventures, one of which now involves Executive Information Services investigating a complaint against itself!

Will Chamberlain from Belfast Community Circus School and Festival of Fools responded on this morning’s Nolan Show to Monday’s intervention by the minister.

Maybe Nolan should ask the Minister for Social Development back onto his show on Wednesday morning and see if he can cough up the grant amounts for the other organisations supported by Laganside Events?

UpdateTwo MLAs have tabled written questions for the Minister for Social Development about the Laganside fund.

10 February 2012 – AQW 8075/11-15 – Conall McDevitt – To ask the Minister for Social Development (i) why he has closed the Laganside Events Grant; and (ii) why local organisations were not consulted before this decision was made.

14 February 2012 – AQW 8215/11-15 – David McIlveen – To ask the Minister for Social Development to detail his Department’s reasons for closing the Laganside Events Fund; and whether he has any plans to replace the fund with a similar scheme.

Further update – some of the figures requested have now been released.

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  • cynic2

    Look if its funding for hospitals or to subsidise bars and clubs in the Cathedral Quarter the hospitals win. If its t6hat valuable then let the commercial businesses in the area subsidise it

  • Local Government Officer

    Cynic, have you missed the point of this post? (Quite possibly…)

    I remain shocked, but not surprised at the lack of transparency across all wings of the public sector about spend. It’s inexcusable. Every single aspect of the service has access to a website. Spend should be actively detailed online when funding is accessed, a programme is initiated or completed, a service runs, whatever. Budget headings, with sub-levels should be posted no later than the end of the first month of the financial year.

    None of this is difficult, even for the smallest council or civil service department, if the responsibility is delegated to someone. I just don’t understand the fear factor that leads public sector people to hide behind the FOI act. What, do they think you’ll just go away…??

  • Rapunsell

    It’s not only government that needs to be more transparent. The website of the Belfast Community Circus School which runs the festival of fools doesn’t as far as I can see have any annual reports and accounts for the organisation . The information on the funding of the event should surely be also made available by the organisation in receipt of the funds.
    Actually from the Belfast Community Circus School website – as far as I can see it’s not that clear what sort of an organisation it is – private sector or a voluntary organisation.I might be wrong but I can’t find a charity or company registration number.

    More transparency all round I say. the festival of fools should have nothing to fear from total transparency given the claimed successes for the event.

    I’ve been to a few events in the past with my children btw – totally brilliant – and yes the festival made me venture into Belfast when I wouldn’t have otherwise

  • Rapunsell, they’re both limited companies – “Private Limited By Guarantee without Share Capital”.



  • Mr Angry

    It would be more correct to say that there are limited companies in both names.

    Just because there is a “Ltd” company registered in the same name does not mean that you are dealing with that ltd company.

    A limited company and a trading entity with the same name (minus Ltd) are two very distinctly different entities.

    Indeed neither of the sites referenced sport a Company registration number which, were they the official sites of Ltd companies, they are required to do under Companies law.

    That would suggest they are, indeed, separate trading entities.

  • Mr Angry

    Actually, having just checked the historical funding records of ACNI all of the funding they’ve provided has been to the “Belfast Community Circus School” and not the Ltd company.

  • cynic2

    No I haven’t missed the point at all. Every time you ask for information it costs money. the Bel Tel today had a list of about 10 questions itw as demanding answers to on this issue. One was ‘where did you spend the money that was to be given to the Cathedral Quarter Arts Events. There was a total lack of recognition that finding needs to be cut. There is no more money.

    Ironically the Paper then asked (teeing up another shock horror expose no doubt) how many Press Officers do you employ? Answer – too many because we have to answer so many inane question from lazy journalists

  • willchamberlain

    Dear Mr Angry and Rapunsell and anybody else who is curious about our companies and accounts and status etc. I shall explain later in this post.
    I have to confess I was surprised but not shocked to hear Nelson McCausland reel off a list of public funds which were received by Festival of Fools May 3-7. I was surprised because the figures he gave out were contained in an application form and not in the monitoring return. This means that he asked one of his officials to dig out an historical application form rather in order to try and rubbish a decent, honest not for profit event. Yet when I asked for information from DSD it was not forthcoming. This is not about the cost of FOI, this is about information which can inform better decision making and better strategy. As a member of CQSG which has been working in partnership with Belfast City Council and DSD as members for the past 3 years and agreeing with them that a desirable aim was to assume responsibility for drawing up criteria for Events Funding, it is thoroughly illogical and obstructive to withhold such basic and instructive information. I have been campaigning for years to reform this Fund because I believe that some decisions have had considerably more impact than others. I am not stuck with an immoveable vision of the past. Quite the contrary. I have invested literally thousands of hours of voluntary time trying to support the evolution of Cathedral Quarter from derelict area to beacon of arts and cultural activity driving a thriving economy in a shared space enjoyed by people from all backgrounds and income levels.
    Now onto the issue of the nature of the businesses and thee accounts etc. Apologies for stuff not being downloadable on our websites – we are just emerging from 18 months of IT nightmare to get these sites built and online on a shoestring budget. We have an upload limit of 10mb on any publications and our Annual Report, which I really would love to put on the site, is 22mb. Our full annual accounts are circulated to members at our AGM. This year we combined the AGM with a Bizarre Bring and Buy Bazaar to raise finds and also to increase attendance at what is otherwise a dull affair. This meant that we had around 70 members attend and we also raised more than £500 on the day.
    OK, the companies and status. We actually have 3 companies limited by guarantee -Belfast Community Circus School (also known as Belfast Circus School, Belfast Community Circus and BCCS) Festival of Fools and Premiere Circus. All three companies’ full accounts are available from companies house online service, but they don’t really tell you much because they are simply figures without activity described.
    Festival of Fools and Belfast Community Circus School are also recognised by HMRC as charitable and have Inland Revenue numbers issued in accordance with current legislation in Northern Ireland.
    Premiere Circus is a social economy business which sells the service of circus and street theatre performers based primarily in Belfast. Any proceeds would go to BCCS.
    Festival of Fools is, I believe, the most accessible and ‘lean’ festival in Northern Ireland. With tens of thousands of audience members attending shows at no cost which are held in Belfast City Centre and Cathedral Quarter and the only core costs being a part time coordinator, insurance and audit fees. In the world of the arts, as far as I know from my time on the Arts Council, we have a very good record of income generation and diversity if funding. At the moment, we are running a full time circus arts for employment course and 100% of costs have been secured from non-government sources. 19 students are getting a free education which will lead to employment offers.
    Festival of Fools and Belfast Community Circus School both submit to an annual audit in the name of transparency and good governance.
    As for me and Festival of Fools, I don’t get paid a penny, I love it passionately and have seen it make a massive difference to both individuals, businesses and spaces. Most of my work on Festival of Fools is done late at night on my laptop (not unlike this post).
    I am very open to any cynics, critics, supporters or interested parties coming down to meet with me to have a tour and thorough open discussion about any concerns you have. I make this offer to most critics, but nobody ever takes me up. Feel free because I love a good debate and am very proud of our work across all companies. That’s why I don’t hide behind false names.

  • Drumlins Rock

    without going on too much of a tangent, most charities when they get to a certain size, or obtain property these days become Ltd. companies, it is preferable to appointing Trustees, but obviously they must be for clearly defined charitable purposes, don’t make profits as such, and in return do not have to, nor is it reccomended that they include Ltd. in their name, therefore the two are more than likely one and the same, but remain entirely charitable. I am a “director” in one such charity/company and have went throught the process with others, I would reccomend you look into it of you are on the board of any charitable group.

    As for funding, I would hope that BCCS would have their accounts available to view somewhere and any journalist can with a bit of work look them up, or simply ask for them. Sometimes good old back scratching and back stabbing is preferable and cheaper that protecting each others backs!

  • Drumlins Rock

    That last sentence was in reference to civil servants not BCCS! sorry guys its late. Thanks for the post Will, had written mine before you posted, just one think to ask, and this is where you can often seperate the “wheet from the chaf” in charities, what proportion of your budget roughly goes to pay people with fancy titles?

  • willchamberlain

    Hi Drumlins,
    Not sure what you mean by fancy titles. I am the Director and that’s the fanciest title we have. Across the three organisations in the current year we are looking at 20-25% being spent on staff. 2 of these are directly involved in delivery and someone like me is involved in all aspects from writing strategy, fundraising applications, monitoring and working with participants. We have 6 staff and our annual turnover across the family of businesses is around £700,000 a year – that’s why staff and freelanceers are perpetually knackered. Just for the record BCCS was registered 22 years ago as a limited company and charity. Once the new Charities Commission comes into force, we will make any changes to be both compliant and lean.

  • Mr Angry

    Will, many thanks for that, much appreciated.

    I’m not really interested in your company status or your accounts – I was merely trying to explain the differences in trading entities to Nevin, Rapunsell and any others who might be interested.

    They’re not all out to get you.

  • Mr Angry

    By the way, I liked your pop “That’s why I don’t hide behind false names.”

    Somewhat ironic don’t you think given the obvious legal protections afforded by trading as one entity whilst maintaining a Ltd by guarantee protection in the same name.

    Each to their own I suppose.

  • I go to bed and wake up to discover Business & Charity Registration 101 has broken out on the thread!

  • Drumlins Rock

    Will, that sounds pretty fair, in fact more than fair, it would be good if all charities worked to the same ratio’s. Hope it all works out for your group, must try to make it up to some of your events!

    Mr. Angry, your explaining is totally off the ball, the Ltd. Company & charity are the one entity, but charities do not include “Ltd.” in their titles. It is not hiding anytihng whatsoever, but is the legal, proper and correct way to run a charity. If you don believe me try this website.

  • Mr Angry

    Thanks for the interjection Drumlins Rock.

    I should, of course, point out that nowhere did I mention charities.

    As such my explanations as to the differences between incorporated and non incorporated business entities were entirely valid.

    That said I’m well aware of the Act and the fact that charities can opt not to include the word Limited (or ltd) in their title.

    On that point – according to the Charity Commission NI – it is the Belfast Community Circus School Ltd and not simply Belfast Community Circus School which is registered on the list of deemed charities.

    If you don’t believe me try their website.

  • willchamberlain

    Mr Angry, I have to say that I have no idea what you are talking about. The inclusion or omission of Ltd makes absolutely no difference to anybody that I have ever met. It is not using an alias or hiding behind a made up name. It is simply the real world and you are welcome to enter it any time you want by simply calling yourself by a name that people who know you would recognise. If you really think that people are too thick to figure out the connection between Belfast Community Circus School and Belfast Community Circus School Limited you do them a great disservice. They are the same entity and there has never been any attempt to disguise that or pretend otherwise. Our own bank simply puts Community Circus on our statements, would you accuse them of creating an alias? You are missing the point, but you have annoyed me by trying to pretend that anything is being obscured. By the way, the Minister is the one who continues to obfuscate and this is detrimental to the public good. He should publish the figures requested rather than be selective and try and embarrass Festival of Fools, which wont work since we are hiding nothing.

  • Mr Angry

    Will, I’ve implied / accused you of nothing.

    Irrespective of whether the inclusion or omission of Ltd makes absolutely no difference to anyone you have ever met is irrelevant. They are, as you know, different in law.

    Sorry to have annoyed you by, as you put it, my “trying to pretend that anything is being obscured” but here’s a thought…. I’m not responsible for how you represent your business or how funders reflect their dealings with / funding of your business (in whatever guise) – that’s up to you / them.


  • Drumlins Rock

    “They are, as you know, different in law.”

    are you thick man? read the charity commission web site, hire a solicitor, talk to a judge, but they all will tell you the BCCS and BCCS Ltd. are identical, one and the same in law, reality and any other dimension you look at them. This applies to virtually every charity in the country with staff or property, it is legal, open, fair and right, so quit spouting off and showing your complete ignorance for all to see.

  • Mr Angry

    Drumlins Rock,

    It is you who is showing their ignorance.

    In law there is a difference between a company Ltd by guarantee and one which is not. Were there no difference there would be no need for a registrar of companies and the various legislations thereunder.

    As I mentioned earlier in this very discussion I’m not particularly interested in Wills company status or accounts. It is you, with your fury goggles clearly on, who is assuming that I am referencing his company only. I’m not.

    Go and have yourself a wee lie down.