DAVID Cameron is very keen to stress that he wants his government to be accountable. Transparent is a word he has used more than once.
Last week, his deputy prime minister Nick Clegg set out plans to extend the scope of Freedom of Information legislation to cover more bodies.
Great news in general, but there are still signs that work needs to be done with those bodies already covered by FOI, especially Whitehall departments.
Take, for example, this FOI spotted by Will Green, the Newcastle Journal’s political editor. It’s from the Department for Transport in response to a request for the top 20 busiest train routes in the country.
The DfT refuses to release the information, citing a section 43 exemption, which, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office, can be applied when:
Section 43 of the Act sets out an exemption from the right to know if:
• the information requested is a trade secret, or
• release of the information is likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person. (A person may be an individual, a company, the public authority itself or any other legal entity.)
The DfT argues as follows:
These data are commercially sensitive. Most rail services in the UK compete with other public transport services and making rail data available would provide unfair commercial advantage for most of these competitors.
As more data are made public, it is easier to allow analysis of revenue and of the growth in revenue: for example by route; by time of day; by year. Like any commercial organisation, detailed revenue and patronage information is of high value to the operators’ competitors and the release of information should this information would prejudice their ability to compete.
This perception of the idea of competition on the railways goes a long way to explain how the railways are being run at the moment.
For the vast majority of journeys people make on the railways, there simply isn’t any competition at all – hence the overcrowding. The idea that making public information that, say, the 7.12 from Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester was overcrowded would lead to competition from a rival service is a nonsense.
It’s not as if another operator can just turn up at Lime Street three minutes earlier and start running a service to Manchester. That can happen on bus routes, but not on the railways, for very obvious reasons. And to argue about other public transport options is a nonsense too – running a bus service rarely, if ever, will be preferable to a passenger, even if it guarantees you a seat.
It then gets worse:
Train operators were consulted by DfT in March 2009 over the specific issue of data confidentiality and data access/sharing with reference to the passenger count information they share with the Department. It was concluded that permission was not given to share individual operators’ data with any party other than DfT except with express permission. Permission has not been given in this instance.
The train operating companies are separate commercial entities, and although they operate services on behalf of the Government, we are not obliged to release any information that could prejudice a private
company’s commercial interests. At a very general level, there is a public interest in protecting the commercial interests of both the private sector (which plays an important role in the general health
of the economy) and the public sector (whose commercially-related functions need
in any event to be exercised in context of the public interest).
So, we have a situation where train operating companies, some of which receive huge grants from government to run services which they’d otherwise scrap, are picking and choosing which information they are happy to see released. Of course, it’s not in their best interests to see their trains named on a list of the top 20 most overcrowded because it begs the question what are they doing about it.
But does it damage their commercial interests to release that information? Only if a rival can use it to compete against them, and that simply can’t happen. In the few cases where it has, firms such as the Wrexham and Shropshire Railway Company and Grand Central have had to jump through many hoops to get permission to start non-franchised services. They won’t have needed this data to know their services would be viable – they just need to spend time on platforms and on the trains they know are overcrowded. It’s very hard to keep a commercial secret when the numbers are visible on trains up and down the country every day.
Of course, the current coalition government could put this all down to the love-in the previous administration had with train operators, a relationship which has given large firms monopolies on the railways and the ability to drive through eye-watering ticket increases year on year. Oh yes, and given the Association of Train Operating Companies such a distorted view of the world that when challenged about overcrowding, it blames passengers for not travelling off-peak more.
But the DfT then lets slip it is planning to make things worse:
DfT is in the process of procuring a centralised passenger counts database. The database will be a DfT asset used for
transport planning. It is being developed with the voluntary assistance of the TOCs on the condition that the data they make available for the database are not made public in such a way that there could be damage to their financial positions or reputation.
If the train operators feel that the Department is not treating their commercial data with care, there is a risk that they will stop supplying any information that they are not obliged to under the terms of their Franchise Agreements with the DfT. This would have an impact on DfT’s ability to carry out its policy and planning functions, and would limit the information available to the Department when franchises are being let.
So to sum up, the Government will have data on train journeys but it will be a secret because the train companies think it will be a threat to them if we know which routes are the most overcrowded despite the fact that a) it’s night on impossible to set up competition, b) People on the overcrowded routes know they are overcrowded and c) most passengers don’t have a choice about how they will travel.
The Government admits the current franchise deals don’t insist on open data being made available for everyone to see and make informed choices from, and in fact it’s this secret data which the DfT uses to draw up future franchise agreements. Game, set and match to the private sector here, don’t you think?
When you consider how the private sector could soon be providing a fair number of services to the NHS, it’s a worrying sign of things to come. Expecting civil servants to act in the public interest seems a very far-fetched notion.