Debate rages over future of FOI

ESSENTIAL or an embarrassment?The Freedom of Information Act was heralded by Tony Blair as a great breakthrough for people to discover what was going on within publicly-funded organisations.

ESSENTIAL or an embarrassment?

The Freedom of Information Act was heralded by Tony Blair as a great breakthrough for people to discover what was going on within publicly-funded organisations.

Now, little more than two years later, it has become an embarrassment for those in power. So much so, amendments are being considered which would make it more difficult to discover what the public sector does with our money. COLIN ADWENT and GRANT SHERLOCK report.

FREEDOM of Information campaigners told of their concerns today after it was revealed that Suffolk's biggest authority is backing government plans to limit the laws.

Legislation giving the public unprecedented access to information on countless topics at all levels of government and public service has proved so popular in the county that Suffolk County Council says it is buckling under the strain.

After receiving a record number of requests for information toward the end of last year and with the trend continuing in 2007 the county has urged the government to introduce new measures making it easier for some requests to be refused.

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Sue Sida-Lockett, the council's deputy leader, said while she backed the public's right to access information about public bodies there was insufficient funding to help them provide it.

She said: “What we've got a problem with is capacity. This is one of the government's good ideas but there's no money to follow it.

“What I think that we haven't got quite right is we have to do it in a certain number of days.

“Taking people off work to fuss about with FOI requests is not ideal but we have to do it because we are committed to doing it within a certain time.

“If we have to take on extra staff to do this it has an impact on our other services.”

When the FOI laws came into place in 2005 the government, led by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, and campaigners hailed it as a new era for open and transparent government.

Since then people in Suffolk have applied for and received information on all sorts of topics held by councils, hospitals and a range of other public bodies.

But now the government is reviewing the laws and has just finished a consultation process on whether new clauses should be introduced allowing bodies to refuse applications for information because they exceed limits on the cost of gathering the information.

It has now emerged that Suffolk County Council took part in the consultation and backed the government's new proposals.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, argued the changes would block legitimate requests from members of the public for important information.

He said that if the changes go through 15per cent of requests - about 17,500 each year nationwide - would be refused.

“Some authorities obviously feel they've got a workload problem but the consequence of making these changes is not only to remove a workload but also to protect them from scrutiny. That may not be intended but it will be the result.”

THE Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000 became law in January 2005.

It gives the public access to information held by government and other public bodies, as well as strengthening existing rights to environmental information.

At the moment an FOI request can be refused if the cost of dealing with it is more than £600 for government departments and £450 for other public authorities.

Despite Tony Blair being a prime mover behind the act being made law, in October last year the government announced proposals to make in easier for public authorities to manipulate or refuse FOI requests on the grounds of time or cost.

However, there has been a backlash by campaigners and media who believe it is a thinly veiled plot to prevent details embarrassing to local and national bodies being exposed.

Nationally there are many instances of information of public interest which have been uncovered by requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

In Suffolk the act has also proved useful to in helping to bring to the public's attention information which would have remained dormant.

Among the details which have been revealed are;

N In 2005 Suffolk's cash-strapped health trust spent more than £127,000 on financial consultants to help deal with spiralling debts.

N Last October it was revealed Ipswich Hospital was expecting to spend nearly £3million on axing 350 jobs.

N Nearly £110,000 was paid out in motor insurance claims in 2005 after accidents involving Suffolk County Council vehicles.

N Nearly 1,000 more motorists were caught using hand-held mobile phones last year than in 2005.

N Suffolk's health service has made more than £1.17million in redundancy payments over the past two years.

N This year it was revealed 15,600 Suffolk library books were more than three months overdue.

N Do you think it is right for the public to have to pay to discover information gathered by an organisation it already funds? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

WHY we should fight to keep the Freedom of Information Act 2000 the way it is, by Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information

IT'S time for more secrecy, according to the Government. Only two years after bringing the Freedom of Information Act into force, ministers have decided to clamp down on the right to know.

The act may be more a candle than a spotlight, but it has begun to illuminate areas that ministers prefer to keep dark. We have learnt that the Government considered weakening money-laundering controls to encourage US-style super casinos in the UK.

We've had fuller figures about British causalities in Iraq, details of landings at British airports by planes thought to be transporting US prisoners to countries where they may face torture, and the dates on which Tony Blair spoke to Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond.

Elsewhere, the Act has helped to reveal excessive spending on contracts, consultancies and expenses claims - and highlighted failings in the NHS.

Now the Government is striking back. It is no longer content to allow requests to be refused if the cost of searching for the information would exceed £450 or, in the case of government departments, £600.

Ministers want to allow the cost of consulting about the request and considering whether to release the information to also be counted. Simple requests would be unaffected, but if the issue was complex, contentious or just unfamiliar, the cost barrier would loom.

Once the limit was reached, a request could be refused out of hand, regardless of its merits. Perversely, a public interest case for disclosure would only increase the chances of a refusal - the hours needed to consider any public interest arguments would count against it.

Draft regulations now available for consultation propose that the cost of the time spent considering disclosure would be capped at £300 out of the £450 total (or, for Whitehall, £400 out of £600). Although meant as a safeguard, it doesn't go far. The time spent looking for the information, reading it and consulting others about it might easily make up the difference.

The rules could easily be manipulated by authorities. The hours needed to deal with an unwelcome request could be boosted by deliberately consulting lawyers or other specialists or ensuring that meetings involved not just the officials handling the issue but the line managers and departmental heads too.

Meetings wouldn't actually have to take place - an estimate of their likely hours would do.

That's not all. Authorities would also be able to aggregate requests made by the same individual or organisation and refuse them all if the total cost exceeded the £450 or £600 thresholds.

The drafts regulations would allow aggregation if it was “reasonable in the circumstances”, a slight improvement on the original proposal. There is no suggestion authorities would have to consider the public interest in disclosure.

The applicant's identity and past record could also be taken into account. Aggregation would be more likely if the applicant had made large numbers of requests in the past, another stumbling block for many journalists.

One of the Act's central premises, that disclosure should be “applicant blind” and depend on the nature of the information, not the applicant's identity, would be fatally undermined.

The Government claims that these measures are merely an attempt to keep costs under control. But a review commissioned by it suggests that the annual cost of the Act, across the whole public sector, including the cost of the Information Commissioner and Tribunal, is no more than £35 million.

These restrictions would save £10 million a year, a tiny sum compared with the damage that would be inflicted. For comparison, the National Audit Office has just highlighted potential Whitehall savings of £660 million a year from more careful purchasing of office supplies.

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