I’ve written an article on the threat to the Freedom of Information Act ahead of the conclusion of a Justice Select Committee’s inquiry.
As a reporter, freedom of information laws often offer the best route when investigating matters which are not in the public domain.
Many topics, from expenses to disciplinary procedures, are often kept private and details can be difficult to obtain. Even though FOI requests are not infallible, they are a valuable tool for every journalist, and to me it is unthinkable that the rules could be watered down.
Stories I have found through FOI requests include John Bercow’s chauffered car habit, the BBC boss who was paid off then rehired, and the council that used terror law to catch a carrot thief.
Full text is on the Telegraph website here, or read on.
What price freedom (of information)?
The future of the Freedom of Information Act has been cast into doubt by an inquiry by a committee of MPs this month.
The Daily Telegraph, 22 Mar 2012
The Prime Minister David Cameron told the committee last month that FOI was “furring up the arteries” of government, adding that the current question-and-answer format could be superceded by regular publications.
Paul Gibbons, a FOI officer and blogger, worries that the inquiry could see the end of FOI as we know it. He has teamed up with fellow campaigners to create the Save FOI campaign.
Gibbons said: “Many politicians like FOI while they are in opposition but find it an irritant when they are in power. Watering down the act or introducing a charge would be a backwards step.
“Freedom of information is particularly important during the cuts. People have the right to understand how these decisions are being made and where money is being spent. Do we want to be seen as a secretive state?”
But at a time when public sector budgets are being slashed, it can be difficult to defend the costs of freedom of information.
Ken Thornber, leader of Hampshire County Council, said: “We spent £365,000 in 2010 answering freedom of information requests. What else could I do with that money? More social workers, more school inspectors, more spent on road maintenance.”
Although the majority of requests are borne of genuine concerns, a small but significant number are vexatious or frivolous, often cited by FOI’s critics as an example of wasted resources.
Thornber added: “We were asked how many drawing pins the council owns, and how many of those are presently installed in pinboards. Others have asked how much we have spent on biscuits for council meetings or on bottled water in a year.
“It’s a waste of staff time to answer these questions, and every response has to be researched, written and checked by a senior officer before it goes out. We need some mechanism of deterring frivolous requests – such as a £25 charge.”
A 2010 survey of local government by UCL’s Constitution Unit estimated the cost of FOI at £31.6m, and that civil servants spent 1.2m hours responding to nearly 200,000 requests.
Central government received 27,294 requests during the same period. If every request costs an average of £293 and takes 7.5 hours to process – figures calculated by Frontier Economics – the total spend across central government would total £7.9m, and take an estimated 200,000 hours.
It is this money – and time – that could be put to better use, claim many in the public sector, especially when frontline services are being cut back while 270,000 jobs have been lost over the past year.
Nevertheless, it is important to keep these figures in context.
In the NHS, one recent estimate put costs at £30m, roughly equivalent to the NHS annual spend on chaplaincy.
The £31.6m spent by local authorities is divided between more than 400 councils, who together share total spending of £172bn. A single council, Newham Borough Council in north east London, has recently spent £111m on new council offices, almost four times the annual cost of FOI across all councils nationwide.
In central government, £7.9m represents 0.0016% of yearly expenditure. It is roughly in line with the £8m budget set aside for the ‘Happiness Index’, one of David Cameron’s pet projects, and MP’s expenses last year came to more than twice that figure at £19m.
3145 requests to the Department of Work and Pensions in 2010 cost an estimated £921,500 to answer – a sobering figure, until one learns that in 2009/10 the same department spent £956,000 on ‘search engine biasing’. Eight departments, including the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Education spend more on ministerial cars than on FOI.
When the Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell retired last year he received a lump sum payment of £300,000 – just short of the £316,700 estimated to have been spent on FOI in the Cabinet Office.
The estimated £34,800 spend in the Wales Office is not far off £30,000 – the annual charge of renting twelve fig trees for Portcullis House, a building for MP’s offices.
So while many are struggling to cut costs, FOI should not be seen as an easy target.
Not only is there value in transparency and openness, but there are economic benefits of the Act which are harder to measure.
Maurice Frankel, chairman of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: “Some requests flag up real examples of wasteful spending. Some requests have found that councillors were being sent overseas at public expense to visit flower shows, and all sorts. As soon as that was disclosed, it was stopped. Now people think twice about that sort of spending in the first place.”
FOI has also been used by the press to reveal some of the biggest stories.
In recent months it has been used to investigate the tax arrangements of senior officials and the close involvement of consultancy firm McKinsey with the NHS reforms. In October this paper revealed how government procurement cards had been used to fund a lavish lifestyle of five-star hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants and retreats at exclusive golf resorts and spas.
The Justice Select Committee is expected to publish their report this summer.