What’s the best way to get an authority to take the Freedom of Information Act more seriously? Report them to the Information Commissioner? Shout about them in the newspaper?
How about showing them how the Act can uncover information in their favour too?
Admittedly, that wasn’t the aim Liverpool Post and Echo city editor David Bartlett will have set out with when he put an FOI request into the Department for Transport asking about government grants given to projects in and around Southampton docks over the years.
But the effect was still the same – and hopefully a bit of a kick for Liverpool City Council, an authority with a patchy record when it comes to dealing with FOI requests.
Liverpool City Council and Southampton have been at loggerheads in recent months over a cruise terminal which has been built on the banks of the Mersey right in the heart of Liverpool’s historic waterfront. When public funding was secured for the project, it was only ever intended to be used as a stopping point for cruise ships, not for cruises to begin or end journeys.
Understandably, Liverpool spied an opportunity to get more visitors in and requested permission to change the use of the cruise terminal so that cruises could start and end there. Currently, a cruise which wishes to begin on the Mersey has to do so in rusty old docks down the road which, to be frank, don’t exactly set you up for a happy holiday.
Southampton, in turn, objected, arguing it was unfair to use public money to create a rival port where cruises could begin and end. I believe Port of Tyne has also objected.
David’s FOI request to the DfT resulted in the release of details which showed how £50million of public cash had been used to improve reliability on roads to access Southampton docks, which in turn puts a rather different spin on Southampton’s line that the use of public money to support a port is unfair.
It will also be prove to be a handy weapon for Liverpool City Council as it continues to plead with the Department for Transport to put economic prospects ahead of red tape.
Hopefully, too, it will demonstrate to the city council the value of FOI. Liverpool City Council’s track record on your right to know is patchy at best. Last year, it emerged it was asking people to provide birth certificates to prove who they were before dealing with FOI requests while back in 2009, the council’s register of hospitality was tweaked before being issued to David following an FOI request.
This case should prove to authorities that FOI is a two-way street – sometimes you have to give out information you’d rather not, but there’s plenty of scope to get the answers you want from elsewhere too.