If you believed many of the public sector submissions to the Government’s Freedom of Information review, this country is blessed with a public sector which is passionate about transparency but gets bogged down by FOI being abused by people who just want to waste time.
And, you know, we’ve got budget cuts, so something needs to give, so how about you just trust us to be open with people.
That sums up the thrust from many councils. Some, like Manchester City Council, want to see the cost limit on FOI requests reduced, thus keeping more information secret.
Others, like Newcastle, even propose a geographical limit. That’ll be the Local FOI for Local People Act, then.
This is the second in a series of posts between now and the end of the year looking at key themes I think will emerge during the course of 2016. The first, about social journalism, can be found here.
The danger in writing posts predicting trends for 2016 is that it can become a wish list rather than a look at things which evidence suggests are going to happen. To that end, there’s no doubt I’m passionate about Freedom of Information, and angry at the threat it currently faces from the Government’s rather one-sided (sorry, open-minded) review in the 10-year-old Act.
And there’s also a danger that I could try and crow-bar an issue into a digital trends blog post just because it means a lot to me. But as print, TV, radio and internet news providers all find themselves converging in the same digital space, it should be abundantly clear that our old challenges are as relevant as ever – and never more important than now.
I can predict with some confidence that a good chunk of 2016 will be spent fighting off further threats to the access journalists enjoy – and indeed, would take for granted if they weren’t always under threat – from various government initiatives.
You don’t need Freedom of Information to expose a politician as a hypocrite. The Daily Mail proved that when it took a matter of hours to call out Chris Grayling after he attempted to ‘shame’ the media for using FOI to get stories!
Grayling, it turns out, was a serial user of FOI when in opposition, using FOI for perhaps the grubbiest purpose of all: Not to get information into the public domain, but to throw bricks at Labour. But who am I to call into question the motives that lie behind an FOI request? Exactly – no-one. Motive shouldn’t matter when it comes to FOI, it’s just about the right of any member of the public to ask any question of authority and having a reasonable expectation that they’ll get an answer.
But while the Tories in Westminster may loathe FOI as they continue to plot their stitch-up to effectively close the Act down, it continues to be a very useful tool to Conservative campaigners elsewhere in the country.
Take the Welsh Tories for example. A quick search of the Conservatives Wales website shows as recently as last month the Tories were pushing FOI-based stories at the Press, such as their outrage at NHS redundancy payouts. They also had no qualms providing attention-grabbing quotes to WalesOnline to support an FOI-based story on redundancies pay outs in councils – the irony of the Tories locally blaming councils for cuts foisted on them by a Conservative government clearly lost on them.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the Scottish Tories remain huge fans of FOI – although it’s worth noting the current review in Westminster wouldn’t impact the FOI Act in Scotland. Only last week, the Tartan Tories used FOI to claim the gulf in educational attainment between children from wealthy families and children from poorer families was now wider than ever. And to reveal the number of homes 999 crews won’t visit. It doesn’t take long to find many more.
So while it’s clear the Tories at the top in Westminster loathe FOI, there are many within the party who continue to make the most of it. Which rather begs the question: Who is driving the plan to axe the act?
The FOI request about theft of petrol from petrol stations is hardly a new one, but that doesn’t alter the fact it sums up why FOI trumps the principle of open data, from a journalistic perspective at least.
The St Helen’s Reporter used FOI to find out how many petrol drive-offs there had been. Answer (see below): lots.
One of the government’s current arguments against FOI is that it can be far more transparent if it just makes departments and public bodies release more data.
The argument, to some extent, has merit. Being more open with data is very welcome, but the problem comes when you only want part of the data, or a level of detail that isn’t available in the data.
The reporters at the St Helen’s Reporter wouldn’t have been able to get this data using police.uk, the crime stats which website which is a huge leap forward on what we had before (ie nothing) but still very limited in the data it shares.
The main point of FOI is to give people the right to know – even journalists, despite Chris Grayling’s obtuse outburst this week. Open data alone puts the decision on what we get to know back with the people who hold the data. FOI is the opposite. The two need to co-exist. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the notion of open data is much more popular with those who hold the information.
If ever there was any doubt about the motives behind the Conservatives’ review of Freedom Of Information, leader of the Commons Chris Grayling has surely set the record straight.
Speaking in the Commons this week, he said:
The irony is that the person who said that he regretted the Freedom of Information Act 2000 most was the former Member of Parliament Jack Straw, who introduced it. He said that he looked back on it as one of the things that he had got wrong. This Government are committed to the Act, but we want to ensure that it works well and fairly, and cannot be abused or misused. It is, on occasion, misused by those who use it as, effectively, a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable. It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how Governments make decisions, and this Government do not intend to change that.
His comments have been widely reported. The fact his comments are recorded in Hansard mean Grayling – who previously fell out of favour after announcing that he felt hotel owners had the right to turn gay couples away – can’t complain about being misquoted this time.
You can only speculate as to why he’s said what he has said. Being charitable, maybe he was just being honest. More likely, however, is the fact that the fervour in Whitehall to reign in the the FOI Act means it’s all but a given in many minds that it will be.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Government is planning to deliver what could be a devastating blow to the Freedom of Information Act. It probably should be a surprise, however, that it has taken so long.
This lunchtime, the Government, still in the first flush of ‘oh, so we really are in charge, aren’t we!’ thinking, announced a ‘commission’ to look at the Freedom of Information Act.
The Government’s position is pretty plain. Michael Gove, the former FOI-dodging education secretary who tried to claim sending emails via gmail and not government accounts meant they weren’t covered by the Act, set out the government’s view pretty clearly shortly after becoming justice secretary.
At the heart of this commission is the concern that civil servants don’t feel they can speak freely for fear of what they say, or more aptly write, ending up becoming public via the Freedom of Information Act. Call me a cynic if you wish, but I spy a smokescreen aimed at making it harder for those in power to be held accountable by those who ultimately pay their wages – you and I.
Why do I think that? Some reasons:
There’s a saying that a pint and a fight are the ingredients to a great British night out, but an investigation has unearthed the shocking crimes committed in Scarborough’s pizza shops and curry houses by rowdy revellers after they’ve sank one too many.
Scarborough’s ‘kebab crimes’ include bloody beatings, callous charity box thefts and staff being racially abused.
And in one incident, a woman was attacked with a doner kebab.
Our probe found out that 19 crimes were committed in takeaways, restaurants and chippys over the past 12 months.
CCTV and a heavy late-night police presence have helped officers nab the majority of offenders, but North Yorkshire Police have now revealed details of the takeaway offenders still on the loose.