Forty things you would not have known without the Freedom of Information Act
08:27 20 November 2015
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000 has made a massive difference to the public and press’ ability to shine a light on matters that are in the public interest.
For the past 15 years it has helped to establish the principle that information relating to public bodies should be available for public scrutiny if the public interest in doing so outweighs the public interest in it remaining secret.
However, a new government consultation, which closes today, threatens to detract from this principle of openness by clamping down on the release of internal discussions at local and central government level and introducing new veto powers and charges.
This paper is against these proposals and believes it will seriously threaten society’s ability to hold public bodies and individuals to account.
Even the Information Commissioner’s Office themselves have criticised the plans, while an online petition has more than 40,000 signatories.
Today, investigations editor David Powles looks at 40 things in the region we would not have known about were it for the act.
You decide whether you agree with the plans or not...
If you want to, sign the petition here
1 More than 150 breaches of the Data Protection Act at the region’s hospitals, police forces and councils were uncovered through the law in 2011.
2 New figures in January 2013 showed that an increase in babies being born in Norfolk was putting a major strain on maternity services in the county.
3 Shoplifters had snatched 14,500 items from Norfolk premises from 2010 to 2014. As well as shops, schools, colleges and hospitals were among those targeted.
4 Thieves stole three road rollers worth more than £50,000 from the A11 construction site, which were later found on a container headed for China and recovered.
5 A document obtained through FOI revealed the government knew of the risk posed by sheep dip to farmers, some in Norfolk and Suffolk, but had not warned them.
6 Viagra was among an array of items that were stolen from RAF Marham prompting MPs to say they would be urgently raising the subject of military security with ministers.
7 A Norwich pub was spied on by council officers almost 40 times to establish if it was letting customers flout the no-smoking ban in return for contributing to a fund to pay any fines.
8 The manager of budget hotels in Norwich pledged to either close or upgrade the properties, as several FOIs revealed a string of complaints.
9 An otherwise secret report detailing the scale of staff problems at Norfolk and Suffolk’s mental health trust was only revealed after we submitted an FOI request.
10 The act has also been used to reveal staggering increases in the number of mental health cases being dealt with in the region.
11 Police in Norfolk and Suffolk were using far-reaching spy powers, Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), in their day-to-day investigations.
12 Norfolk schools spent almost £500,000 over a year on settling employment disputes with teachers.
13 The Norwich Evening News found that high schools in Norwich were employing a growing army of unqualified staff to look after lessons.
14 Officials feared King’s Lynn’s flood defences would be overwhelmed as December 2013’s storm surge tore down the North Sea towards Norfolk.
15 Fears over the misuse of restorative justice measures were raised after the revelation that Norfolk Police had used informal agreements to deal with more than 7,000 crimes since 2010.
16 A £65,000 pay-off to former chief executive Becky Hellard when she mysteriously left Breckland Council in 2006.
17 Despite what county councillors had said, the University of East Anglia had made a “predatory approach” for the playing fields land at Norwich’s Blackdale Middle School.
18 How an airliner narrowly avoided a collision with a microlight plane on its final approach to Norwich Airport, prompting calls for tighter controls on hobby fliers.
19 Former Norwich MP Ian Gibson was one of a number of parliamentarians whose expenses were exposed. He stood down after it emerged he spent almost £80,000 of taxpayers’ money on a west London flat that his daughter shared with her boyfriend.
20 Details about the financial difficulties of a £6m free school – the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form College – which opened two-thirds empty.
SUFFOLK AND NORTH ESSEX
21 A spike in the numbers of fines being issued for unauthorised absences from the classroom or irregular attendance levels.
22 A catalogue of failings at the East of England Ambulance Service Trust (EEAST) were exposed through Freedom of Information laws. It led to new leadership at the trust.
23 Some suspects in police investigations had been on bail for almost two years, the EADT exclusively revealed with an FoI to Essex Police.
24 A string of requests highlighted how Abellio Greater Anglia’s Norwich to London service is the region’s poorest performing train service.
25 Meanwhile, train operator Abellio received millions from Network Rail in compensation for delays, only a fraction of which went to passengers.
26 During 2010/2011, the Ipswich Evening Star (as it was then named), sent in a large number of FoI requests to Suffolk County Council to reveal the amount of spending on training, business travel, and photography commissioned for or on behalf of then chief executive Andrea Hill.
27 An “unacceptable” average of 15 drivers had been caught speeding every day through the roadworks on the A12 between Stratford St Mary and East Bergholt.
28 Suffolk County Council was forced to reveal funds it had invested in the tobacco industry had doubled to more than £30 million – despite the authority’s new responsibility for promoting public health.
29 The number of crimes committed against disabled people in Suffolk rose by 60% in 12 months in 2010.
30 The ambulance service had received more than 600 hoax calls – 100 of these for the most serious types of emergencies – from people in Suffolk and Essex since 2013.
31 More than 800 operations at Ipswich Hospital were cancelled on the day of admission between 2012 and the end of 2014.
32 Bed blocking at Ipswich, West Suffolk and Colchester hospitals led to 38,000 bed days being lost between 2012-2015.
33 The battle to rid Ipswich of long-term empty homes, which blight neighbourhoods and cause crime, was being won after a Star investigation found the number has now plunged to under 300.
34 Council tax payers in Ipswich owed the council more than £3m in unpaid taxes, it was revealed in 2013.
35 There was a shocking rise in fly-tipping incidents in north Essex, as well as the associated clear-up costs and lack of prosecutions for the offence.
36 In 2011 we learned hospital chiefs had spent £23,000 on maintenance for a private finance initiative (PFI) building.
37 An FOI in June 2015 revealed Suffolk County Council had spent almost £970,000 on its flagship education programme, Raising the Bar, to revolutionise school performance.
38 How around 5,000 more children do not speak English as their first language compared to 10 years ago in Suffolk – with a large proportion of linguistically diverse speakers in Ipswich.
39 How fewer than 6% of car crimes (theft from vehicles and criminal damage to vehicles) resulted in an arrest, and only 2.5% resulted in anyone being charged.
40 That £2.3million had to be shelled out by Abellio Greater Anglia in one year in delay compensation – almost doubling from the year before.
Government says review needed to ensure system works effectively
West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock – a cabinet office minister – set up the five-person commission in the summer to look at whether the Freedom of Information Act is too expensive and overly intrusive.
His statement to parliament came just days after Freedom of Information laws revealed British pilots had been involved in bombing Syria and months after the government failed to block the publication of the so called “black spider memos” from the Prince of Wales to ministers.
Among the independent commission’s members is Jack Straw – a former foreign secretary – who has already called for the act to be rewritten, Dame Hodgson, Lord Carlile and Lord Howard. It is chaired by Lord Burns.
We approached Mr Hancock’s office to request to speak to him about the proposals and were instead given the following statement.
A cabinet office spokesman said: “This is the most transparent government ever, publishing an unprecedented amount of data on a regular basis on everything from ministerial meetings to the money we spend.
“We are fully committed to freedom of information, but after more than a decade in operation, a review is needed to make sure it’s working effectively.”
“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.” These are the words of former prime minister Tony Blair addressing himself in his memoirs when discussing his government’s decision in 2000 to introduce the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr Blair believed his government had effectively handed the public, and the press, a stick with which to beat it.
It is clearly a view shared by his successors in government, judging by the latest proposals, which could almost go as far as to render the act useless to all bar a few.
But rather than regret the decision, Mr Blair and his government should be proud they were not afraid to introduce such a measure, for the very fact that it has sometimes been a stick to beat them with.
All over the world there are examples of leaders and governments which are able to act freely away from the scrutiny of the public they serve.
The act was an acknowledgement from Mr Blair’s government that such secrecy is not acceptable and that the people who pay their taxes week in and week out have earned a right to full and frank disclosure of what the cash is spent on. That is something for a government to be commended for.
Of course, secrecy still exists. We wouldn’t be naive enough to suggest the act means every public body is open and accountable.
However, the act has made it much easier for the press and public to shine a light on corruption, money wastage and bad decisions.
Surely the government can see that is a positive for society and something it can earn credit for?