FOI: The minister who had to use FOI to find out about his own department

An interesting line from James Forsyth in his Spectator column this week:

It is difficult to understate the depth of ministerial frustration. One secretary of state is so fed up with his department’s refusal to answer his questions that he has asked a friend of his, an MP, to put in a Freedom of Information request. In all departments, the civil service is refusing, point blank, to discuss details about what the Labour government did — so Tory and Lib Dem ministers cannot even find out which mistakes they should avoid.

So, to put it another way, a minister is having to get a mate to FOI his own government department to get information.

Sounds absurd doesn’t it? On one hand, we hear mutterings about journalists abusing FOI ‘just to get stories’ (the shame!) and suggestions every FOI request should carry a fee to deter troublemakers, yet on the other, public sector bureaucracy is also creating a heavier-than-needed FOI workload.

I regularly spot instances where politicians have had to use FOI to get information which you’d assume they would have easier access to than the rest of us.

The problem seems particularly acute at the Welsh Assembly. Do a search for ‘am Freedom of information’ (the AM standing for Assembly Member) and a whole string of stories based on information assembly members obtained under FOI.

Councillor FOI requests to their own councils aren’t unheard of, either. Neither are FOI requests between councils.

Of course, the tale cited by Forsyth could have been exaggerated to prove a point – but it doesn’t sound unbelievable. It’s an extreme example of an issue which crops up at every level of the public sector.

If organisations are finding FOI too expensive, the answer is surely to be more open. It surely costs less to be open than to spend time trying to make people jump through hoops.

2 thoughts on “FOI: The minister who had to use FOI to find out about his own department

  1. In theory Councillors have greater rights to information under both Common Law and statue. The problem is the only independent appeal mechanism is a Judicial Review of the Council’s decision to withhold the information which will potentially cost you tens of thousands of pounds. With an FOI request you have a fair and independent appeal process.

    1. It doesn’t always work that way though.

      Our Parish Council asked a County department for a copy of an engineering report that had been quoted at a Council meeting. Their request was refused.

      I heard about the refusal and used FoI to get a copy of the report (arrived within 14 days) and handed it to the Parish Council (it contained information that had not been revealed to the Council and that was crucial to their position).

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