A new year, and it would seem, a new threat to Freedom of Information. If 2012 was about pushing back on calls for charges for making Freedom of Information requests, then 2013 looks to be the year we fight attempts to introduce other ways of blocking access to the same information.
The Justice Select Committee spent many hours digging into the impact of FOI before delivering a lengthy report last summer. The Government responded in November and, generally, was quite positive: They kicked the idea of charging for FOI requests into touch.
But they did insist they’d keep on looking at way to reduce the alleged burden FOI is causing public authorities. I’ll come back to this burden a bit later on.
In a debate at the end of last month, justice minister Helen Grant said:
“Despite the many benefits that the Act has brought, we cannot ignore concerns about the burdens that it imposes on public authorities. That is especially important in the current challenging financial climate and at a time when more freedom of information requests than ever are being received. Central Government received 47,000 initial applications in 2011, at a cost of £8.5 million in staff time alone. Local authorities and other public bodies are also affected. We aim to focus our efforts on the disproportionate burdens placed on public authorities by what we call industrial users of the Act.”
That should set an alarm bell ringing in any newsroom which makes regular use of the Freedom of Information Act to hold public authorities to account.
Anything which allows an organisation to target ‘industrial users’ of the Act can only serve one purpose: Turning the FOI Act from what it was intended to be – your right to request information – in a selective access-to-information mechanism controlled by those with a vested to keep their secrets, well, secrets.
But how would the Government determine an ‘industrial user.’ Here’s where things get very worrying:
We will also consider other ways to reduce burdens fairly and proportionately, including addressing where one person or group of people use the Act to make unrelated requests to the same public authority so frequently that it becomes an inappropriate burden.
How could this manifest itself? Well, if you’re a local newspaper reporter, might your tricky FOI request be refused on the grounds they’ve already answered others from your colleagues? Could Salford Council reject a request about how much they’re paying their spin doctor Matt Finnegan – it works out at £66k a year at a time when they’re making dozens of low-paid staff redundant – because they’ve answered less controversial requests, such as the most ticketed street for parking offences? You could argue that forces newsrooms like the Manchester Evening News to think before they submit FOI requests – but anyone who argues that doesn’t understand FOI – all journalists think before they use it … because it’s so damned slow.
There are already many press officers who kick tricky questions into the long grass by telling reporters to submit FOI requests. That’s a bit of a gamble for the press office at the moment – but under this Government scenario, it becomes a way to kill the story off. Tricky story? Tell them to submit FOI request, safe in the knowledge it’ll be rejected because the newspaper is likely to be an industrial user.
But what if the ability to group people together goes beyond just one organisation? Imagine if the council could group all journalists together. That could be very appealing if you have a campaigning grassroots news organisation like the Salford Star, which has a strong track record in sticking with a story and taking FOI requests all the way to tribunal if needed.
Throw in the BBC – increasingly making good use of FOI for programmes like Inside Out and the Sunday Politics and all of a sudden, local authorities have a brilliant way to put their secrets back under lock and key, managing the news agenda at a time when Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, is accusing authorities of operating ‘secret states’ around budget processes.
The very fact the Justice department is looking at this area at all tells you that government departments aren’t speaking to each other. Pickles has long talked about the idea of ‘armchair auditors’ holding local government to account, primarily through reading opaque local government spending reports. We live in a country where voter turnout often fails to top 30% in local elections – and it’s a safe very few of those will have the time – or inclination – to become armchair auditors.
Those who do should be encouraged. Newsrooms should provide advice on how to access information, and it’s critical that the would-be armchair auditors have the ability to request information, not just rely on what the Government or the local authority is happy to release. Yet these armchair auditors could be the very people who find their requests rejected under this Government’s alleged determination to tackle the so-called burden.
This burden, according to Grant, costs £8.5m a year in central government – set against a budget of £676bn according to one set of figures. That number makes me that FOI isn’t a burden at all – it’s just that some vocal people have chosen to see it as a burden. FOI isn’t a financial burden when stacked against things public authorities choose to spend their money on above and beyond the services they are expected to provide. It is, however, a nuisance because it does mean they are held to account.
For a government led by a prime minister who is facing such fierce criticism for refusing to support the free press-restricting aspects of Leveson, it seems remarkable he has a minister determined to make it harder to hold authorities to account in the future. Time to get ready to fight again.