Understandably, the proposed closure of coastguard stations has been a much-reported issue in various parts of the country. The West Briton is one of a number of newspapers which has turned to FOI to try and find out what the government has planned for the coastguard station it is most interested in – Falmouth.
The reason for refusal from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will be familiar to many: They wouldn’t release the information because it could “inhibit free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views for deliberation”.
I know the FOI officers involved are only using a tried and tested exemption under FOI when reaching this decision, and in the eyes of the law, they have done nothing wrong.
But I can’t help but think the law is wrong here. Ultimately, the people being asked to come up with ideas around controversial matters such as coastguard station closures are being paid by the public purse. The ideas they make should be made public. A much better system would be to say what the ideas were, and maybe to redact the names of those behind the idea. This would at least ensure that there was a transparent view of the discussions which lead up to decisions.
The idea that a public view of discussions on sensitive matters will lead to controversial ideas being sidelined because of a fear that they might be disclosed doesn’t make sense. After all, if the controversial idea is accepted as the best way forward, it becomes public anyway.
The response to West Briton goes on, according to the paper:
The MCA said disclosure of the documents would “inhibit free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views for deliberation”.
Among the arguments against releasing the information, it said: “Ministers and officials need space to develop their thinking and explore options in light of the responses from the public and shareholders. Release of the information risks diverting the focus of consultations responses away from the published proposals.
“There needs to be a free space to test scenarios and evaluate unpopular decisions.
“This involves making assessments on which centres should be closed, how many posts remain and what technology is utilised. This needs to be undertaken without fear that decisions will be held up as not credible.”
It also said “premature disclosure” of “preliminary thinking” could close off options because of the adverse public reaction.
Some of this seems understandable, but the last line defies belief. After all, the adverse public reaction to the preliminary thinking will be just as adverse if the discussions become the full plan. Only then, it’s much harder to go back on the plans without performing a U-turn.
If you follow the logic of the last line, they’d be more than happy to release information which they thought might get a positive reception.
The Government is very quick to push councils to be more open and transparent about their decisions. Tweaking FOI legislation to enable campaigners to get access to information as decisions would help create a more transparent environment and one in which the public can shape thinking, rather than simply fight a rear-guard action against it.