The Mail on Sunday splash which proves the value of FOI fishing trips

Just before Christmas, I blogged about a question posed by Roy Greenslade, regarding a Freedom of Information request sent by the Mail on Sunday to a hospital in Norwich.

The Mail on Sunday had asked Norwich Hospital the following question:

Please 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.

For each case, please release the age, nationality and job title of the person involved, when they were discovered and describe what action was taken. For each case please also describe whether the Trust was censured in any way (eg, a fine).

To which the hospital replied:

We can confirm that there have been no illegal immigrants employed by the Trust, or by associated parties, in the last four years.

Greenslade then asked:

Is this a classic example of a fishing expedition (at a dried-up waterhole) or did the paper really have some prima facie evidence of the hospitals employing illegal immigrants?

Then again, I wonder whether the paper has made the same FoI request at every NHS trust throughout England. If so, that would be a trawling expedition, would it not?

As I suggested at the time, it struck me as an odd thing for a media commentator to be asking. After all, what’s wrong with a fishing trip based on a hunch?

On Sunday, the Mail on Sunday published the findings of the investigation. It had, indeed, asked every NHS trust in the country. It also had asked every council and government department, with the following opening paragraphs:

Illegal immigrants have been working at some of the most sensitive Government offices in the country – including the headquarters of the UK Border Agency – a Mail on Sunday investigation has discovered.

Following our enquiries, the Home Office admitted employing a dozen illegal foreign staff over the past four years – 11 Nigerians and a Ghanaian.

Ten of them secured cleaning jobs at Becket House, the headquarters of the UK Border Agency, which vets immigrants. The building in Croydon, South London, also serves as an immigration detention centre, holding up to 270 people awaiting deportation.

Ok, so that’s the sexy top line. But what of the FOI requests sent across the country? Well:

Three Government departments, 34 local authorities and 54 NHS trusts admitted hiring a total of 349 unlawful foreign workers. The list featured 37 nationalities, including migrants from Kazakhstan, Zambia and Venezuela.

Disturbingly, several bogus entrants managed to secure jobs in sensitive positions. Councils admitted hiring six illegal immigrants as teachers in secondary schools and ten got jobs as social and care workers, working with some of the most vulnerable in society.

Health trusts revealed four became doctors and 13 secured nursing work in NHS hospitals.

To me, that suggests this fishing trip was very worthwhile. Not just because it delivered a very strong story, but because it also reveals the failings of many public bodies – public bodies which wouldn’t release this information otherwise.

People often get a bit sniffy about the Mail titles and their often tough stance on issues such as immigration. But if they choose to use FOI to pursue stories which fit their agenda, then so what? The Taxpayers’ Alliance does the same, as do the Tories and the Lib Dems.

I’m sure there are many authorities who have spent time finding out they had nothing to report, such as Norwich Hospital, and may well grumble at what they see as “wasted time.” But that’s not the point – it’s the fact we now know which organisations were failing in their duty to uphold the law which justifies both the existence of FOI and such fishing trips.

Or, to put it another way, how else would we know?

2 thoughts on “The Mail on Sunday splash which proves the value of FOI fishing trips

  1. I agree that FOI rules are vital for transparency and accountability. But the assumption here is, of course, that illegal immigrants are, a priori, more “risky” than either legal immigrants or British natives.

    This is not necessarily the case. The 7/7 bombers were not illegal immigrants. Many illegal immigrants spend a blameless lifetime working to support themselves and their families. Many UK citizens live a lifetime of low-key crime and indolence on sink estates.

    A more useful metric would be to compare the criminality of illegal workers with that of legal ones. Are illegal immigrants more likely to indulge in criminal or subversive behaviour than others (apart from their immigrant status)?

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