Why are MPs being forced to use FOI?

Hospital cuts are likely to be a common theme in newspapers across the country for the next couple of years – regardless of what the main political parties say about protecting the NHS now.

So perhaps there is something to be learnt from the case of Kingston Hospital, where accident and emergency and maternity services are said to be under threat.

Up until now, knowledge of the alleged cuts is based on conversations politicians have had with un-named senior NHS staff, and leaked pages from a health strategy document.

So local MP Susan Kramer found herself using FOI to find out what was actually going on.

The response is reported in the Hounslow Chronicle this week:

The MP for Richmond Park submitted a request under the Freedom Of Information Act for ‘all correspondence, from August 31, 2009, onwards, discussing, analysing or referencing the future of maternity, A&E and any other services threatened with closure at Kingston Hospital’.

But officials blocked the request, saying it would take too much time and cost too much money.

Under national guidelines, Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests should take no longer than 18 hours and £450 per investigation.

A Healthcare for South West London spokeswoman said Ms Kramer’s request far exceed this, adding: “We would be happy to consider a more specific request that can be handled within the 18 hour limit, which is set to safeguard public money from unduly expensive FOIs.”

This might be a little bit old fashioned, but I can’t help but think that, as a local MP, Susan Kramer shouldn’t have had to use FOI in the first place.

There three possible conclusions to draw from the argument about the FOI request. Either the local NHS trust has far too many documents about this issue (from which people can draw their own conclusions; or they are very disorganised about filing, or they are just trying to be obstructive.

Whichever one is the right answer, surely it would be much cheaper and more effective for the local NHS to just tell MPs what’s going on?

Every week, when doing FOI Friday, I stumble upon dozens of stories based on information MPs had to resort to FOI to find out about. Maybe these organisations moaning about volumes of FOI requests also need to remember the role of MPs as representatives of the citizens who pay the wages of these bodies, be they councils, health trusts or police authorities.

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