When the Freedom Of Information Act first passed from being an idea to something we could all use, it was heralded as a chance to hold government to account.
As we now know, the multiple number of exemptions available makes it relatively easy for public bodies reluctant to release information to, at the very least, place an agonising delay on requests for information.
The new coalition government arrived in Downing Street promising to make government more transparent and accountable. They picked up the baton from where Labour left off, dashing through new rules to make councils and government bodies reveal their spending.
As I’ve mentioned before, while the speed expected by government made a welcome change, it has also led to various problems – not least the latitude the rush has given councils to be vary greatly the amount of spending data they release, along with the format of the release.
What links FOI and the first example of the current government’s commitment to openness is the extent to which both rely on a degree of goodwill from the public body being asked to be open. Sure, there’s the Information Commissioner to turn to if FOI requests are dealt with unfairly, but public bodies also know this takes a long time.
And that’s why the attitude of a couple of public bodies lately should give us cause for concern.
First up, the very department which has been berating councils for not being open enough – the Department for Communities and Local Government. The BBC’s FOI expert Martin Rosenbaum revealed on his blog last week that FOI requests sent to councils regarding forthcoming spending plans.
Given the Government is so keen on making councils reveal how much they have spent, you’d have thought the DCLG would be in favour of revealing where cuts were being felt. After all, it has been quick enough to point out councils where it disagrees with spending (as Manchester knows to its cost).
Yet Martin reports:
DCLG instructed councils not to provide this data, on the grounds that it is intended for future publication by the Office for National Statistics.
The BBC has seen a copy of an e-mail circulated to councils by DCLG’s Revenue Statistics Branch, which told councils to refuse the LGC’s information request in rather fierce terms.
The DCLG e-mail, sent on 27 April, stated: “Normally the stance DCLG takes is that any local authority data that has not been vetted thoroughly and has not been formally released to all members of the public should not be handed to any individual party under any circumstances without clearance from a national statistics authority (which we represent).”
The DCLG tried to pass this memo off as one-off, specific to the case, but Martin also reports that councils are already trying to use the DCLG’s statement above to fend off other FOI requests.
To me, the DCLG’s position goes against the principles of open government, the right to know and the notion that we should be able to hold the public sector to account from our armchairs (a vision conjured by local government secretary Eric Pickles).
A cynic might suggest the DCLG wanted the numbers delayed because it was obvious the story which would be revealed.
But it isn’t the only example of a government department wading in to stop the release of information. NHS North West, the strategic health authority for the North West, felt it was within its remit to tell hospitals in the region not to release the number of patients being treated for swine flue.
Yes, I know I’ve talked about this before, but the idea that an arm of the Department of Health – and that’s all NHS North West is really – felt it could could tell hospitals to sit on information which should have been freely available to either reassure people or alert people to a risk tells its own story.
The Manchester Evening News is one of a number of newspapers which had to use FOI as a result to get the numbers. No wonder the SHA wanted to keep the figures quiet – they were higher than expected. Should the SHA be criticised for swine flu deaths? Maybe not, but when they behave as suspiciously as they did, you can’t help but think someone at the SHA thought they were to blame.
These two incidents are, of course, isolated from each other. But when you consider the number of government departments and other departments which are achingly slow at releasing information, I can’t help but wonder whether the public sector does really acknowledge that we have a right to know, or whether they are just paying lip service when it suits, and games when it doesn’t?