10 years on, are you making the most of the Freedom of Information Act?

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

Two press releases dropped into my inbox today. One was from the Campaign for Freedom Of Information, the other from the Ministry of Justice.

Both sought to draw attention to the fact that at midnight, as fireworks go off on the River Thames and people around the UK struggle with the second verse of Auld Lang Syne, the Freedom of Information Act will turn 10.

A press release from Government celebrating the Freedom of Information Act does seem a little ironic, given the constant threat the legislation appears to be under from both Tory and Labour ministers when in office. But at least in Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem minister, we finally seem to have a fan of the Act.

Ironies aside, both press releases sought to draw attention to the positive impact the FOI Act has had on public accountability.

Examples from the Campaign include a story about 300 NHS Trusts failing to comply with Patient Safety Alerts in 2010. The FOI, put in by the Action Against Medical Accidents charity, found that few Trusts could demonstrate they’d taken steps to prevent predictable accidents from happening. By the time the request was repeated in 2011, most hospital trusts showed they could take action.

More recently, FOIs from Unison and the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity found most councils in the UK were commissioning care of old folk and the disabled in blocks of 15 minutes. That’s 15 minutes to get them out of bed, wash them, feed them, help them in their house and maybe provide a bit of company. In October, the Department of Health issued new guidance saying that 15 minutes were not appropriate.

Just two cases of how someone, somewhere thinking of something they’d like to know about from the public bodies they help fund, and then helping to drive change based on the information they get.

FOI has also helped make the release of other information more frequent. Heather Brooke’s long campaign for access to MPs’ expenses was the trigger for someone to leak the information MPs had fought to keep secret. Constant FOI requests for data around speed cameras in theory became obsolete when Government ordered police forces to release the information as standard. The principle of the public having a right to know made it much easier for the Government to demand councils release spending data for all transactions over £500 too.

At a time when trust in politicians is at an all-time low, and turnout in elections is in danger of dropping into single figure percentages in some parts of the country, you’d think politicians would welcome engagement from the public asking questions about what was going on.

If you did think that, you’d be wrong. Jack Straw, who masterminded the FOI legislation through Parliament, now sees it as one of his biggest mistakes in office, which given he also played a key role in getting Britain involved in the Iraq war seems quite remarkable. David Cameron isn’t a far either, claiming it ‘furs up the arteries of government’ and we never seem to be more than a few months away from another review of legislation with an aim of tightening up what can be asked for.

Many local councils, supposedly the closest public servants to the public, have also done their best to limit the impact of FOI. From one council leader determining what gets answered through to various councils complaining that FOI is just to expensive to be justified, and the Local Government Association on a tax-funded crusade to belittle the impact of FOI, it seems many of those in power in town halls would rather the Act went away altogether.

Few, if any, make it easy to submit FOI requests. Even fewer bother maintaining an up-to-date disclosure log the single biggest trick to keeping costs down if done right.

All of which makes it vitally important that journalists continue to lead the charge in using FOI to hold authorities to account. In the months ahead, we’ll see a clamour of local politicians demanding, and getting, more power from central government. Their argument is they can do a better job for their local areas than civil servants in Westminster. That might be the case, but it’s the job of journalists to make sure someone is checking that out to be the case. After all, if only 20% of people can be bothered to turn out and vote in local elections, there’s no obvious ringing endorsement from the public that local politicians have won the faith of their electorate.

There are many public servants who approach FOI from a ‘How do we say no to this’ point of view, but that doesn’t mean journalists should stop using the Act. Yes, a story written for the sake of reporting the results of an FOI request without any context, colour, background or – to be frank – journalistic merit looks poor. But that’s not a reason to use the Act any more than ignoring a great story in a press release just because other journalists cut and paste rubbish press releases into page leads.

Looking through my email inbox, the Trinity Mirror data unit has recently broken exclusives about the rise in university students seeking counselling, the number of over 65s being arrested, the ethnic breakdown of people subject to stop and search by police, the number of ‘frequent flyers’ turning up in overstretched casualty departments, children under 10 being accused of crimes they can’t be prosecuted for, hospital staff caught stealing drugs, councils universally admitting that introducing Ipads for councillors saved no cash, and police arrests for begging rising sharply.

All of those stories help inform people about the world they live in, through information we otherwise would struggle to get access to in a country which has traditionally worked on the assumption that the public shall receive the information the authorities wish them to have.

In a country where council secrecy is at an all-time high, where hospitals convinced Labour ministers that they should hold their board meetings in private and where police forces hide behind Lord Leveson’s inquiry as an excuse not to talk to the Press, a piece of legislation which has at its core the assumption that we have a right to know is something to be cherished.

As journalists, we need to make sure we continue to make the most of it, and make sure as many people as possible in the wider community know about it and make us of it too. A request for the streets where the highest number of parking tickets were issued might seem like old hat to many newsrooms, and prompt rolling eyes at a council, but to a reader who sees it and remembers not to park there again, it’s proof that our right to know is also our right to make informed decisions.

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