Are Freedom of Information ‘fishing trips’ acceptable?

Tucked away in his latest batch of posts, Roy Greenslade appears to take issue with a Freedom of Information Request made by the Mail on Sunday, which was brought to his attention by one of his journalism students.

According to his post the Mail on Sunday asked Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Trust to “release the number of illegal immigrants found to be employed directly by the Trust, or agencies employed by the Trust or agencies that come under the Trust’s control in each of the last four years.”

It also asked for as many details of each case possible. The Trust replied by saying it had had no such cases.

Greenslade assumes, reasonably, that the Mail on Sunday would have asked this question of every Trust in the country – and posed the question whether the FOI request was just a fishing trip, or did it have evidence of illegal immigrants being employed by the Trust?

To me, it doesn’t matter either way. This sort of information is material which hospitals will know the answer to quite quickly, because they’ll have it filed away somewhere.

I suspect if the Mail on Sunday did put in requests to every NHS Trust and each reported a clean bill of health, it wouldn’t run a story which said ‘no illegal immigrants employed by NHS Trusts.’ But does that make it wrong for the Mail on Sunday to put in such an FOI request in the first place?

I’d say no – because there’s a law in place with entitles anyone to ask these questions. And the same law also carries far too many opt outs for authorities not to release information, one of which relates to vexatious requests, and another of which entitles an authority to say it would cost too much to collate the information.

Earlier this week, there was a bit of discussion on Twitter about the value of FOI – and whether journalists were using it too often and therefore putting a burden on resources at local authorities and public bodies.

Sure, we live in tough times for the public sector, but that’s not a reason to start questioning the value of FOI, or questioning the value of fishing trips. At one level, the most famous FOI of all, Heather Brooke’s fight to see MPs expenses, could have been seen as a fishing trip? There was a moral principle at stake – that such information should be open for all to see anyway – but no-one knew what stories would be in there, other than the journalistic hunch that something would be in there. The rest – duck houses, church towers and porn films – are all history.

Perhaps the question should be: Wouldn’t it be cheaper just to make more information available in the first place?

3 comments

  1. All this debate about ‘acceptable’ use of FOI ignores the key point which is that in a democracy this is the people’s information and as such we have a right to see it. We shouldn’t even have to file an FOI and most public officials seem to go out of their way to make the process as bureaucratic and inefficient as posisble.

    A better focus of concern is the way officials obstruct and hide information which the public paid to create in the first place. This whine from public bodies is just so tired that it doesn’t even deserve to be debated. These people need to get with the 21st century and understand this is a democracy we’re living in not a feudal manor house.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Heather, and I agree with everything you say there. My main concern is that, as the squeeze hits the public purse, the argument that FOI questions are causing un-needed expenditure will start gathering momentum – especially among those MPs who have been particularly stung by the expenses revelations.

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