You may not have heard of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, but for the last decade it has radically altered the way the public find out information about how government runs – and how public money is spent.
Media organisations like ours have used the act to ask questions of local authorities, central government, the police, the NHS and many other public bodies. Many stories and investigations you have seen in your local paper and news website would not have been told if the act had not been passed.
Now, the government has appointed a commission to consider how the act works. It has appointed people like former Home Secretary Jack Straw, a critic of the act, to be part of it. The commission may recommend authorities charge for Freedom of Information requests and charge fees for appeals when someone disagrees with a ruling by the Information Commissioner. It may also consider restrictions to the act – limiting the types of question which can be asked – and guaranteed an answer – by journalists and members of the public.
Johnston Press, our publishers, and many other media organisations across the UK have deep concerns over the commission’s remit and membership. As the commission considers evidence, we will be publishing a series of articles on FOI and its importance to you. Here is the first piece by Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The campaign is an independent organisation which,. Over the past 430 years, fought for the introduction of the act and has sought to defend and improve it since 2005. www.cfoi.org.uk
How curbing Freedom of Information will make life easier for politicians who conceal the truth
By Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information
When complaints about aggressive policing of a climate change protest were made in 2008, a minister defended the police pointing out that 70 officers had been hurt at the event. The police injuries were later uncovered by a freedom of information (FOI) request. They involved toothache, diarrhoea, heat exhaustion, a cut arm caused by an officer climbing over a fence and ‘possible bee stings’. No officer had been hurt by protesters. The minister had to apologise for misleading Parliament.
In February 2015, Parliament was told that there had been no serious incidents of self-harm over the previous two years at the controversial Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre. An FOI request revealed that there had been 74 such incidents requiring medical attention in 2013 alone.
The Act also helps identify shortcomings in public services. It has shown that patients with conditions such as diabetes in the south west of England are twice as likely as those in London to have a leg or foot amputated. Variations in the quality of health care are the cause. FOI requests have shown that the number of patients left waiting in ambulances outside accident and emergency units almost doubled in 3 years because of staff or bed shortages. More than 30,000 patients had to wait in an ambulance for over an hour in 2013-14. The longest waited over eight hours.
The Act has revealed the increasing numbers of elderly and vulnerable people whose care is limited to a 15-minute ‘flying visit’ by staff who acknowledge that they cannot provide the help needed in the time. Eighty three per cent of Welsh councils and 69 per cent of English councils used such visits in 2014. Some provided 75% of all care this way.
The manufacturer of the Taser, which police use to deliver powerful electric shocks to potentially dangerous people, advises police not to aim at the chest area because of the risk of heart attack. A 2013 FOI request revealed that almost 60 per cent of all Taser shots have hit the chest area. These examples show why the FOI Act is such an essential tool for holding public authorities to account and improving public services. But it is under threat.
The government has set up a Commission to consider restricting the Act. It wants to provide greater protection for public authorities’ internal discussions and reduce the ‘burden’ of FOI requests.
The case for improving the Act, for example to cover contractors providing public services, is not on the agenda.
The result will be the opposite of what we need: less chance of finding out when things go wrong, more protection for incompetent decisions and an easier life for politicians who conceal the truth.
What is the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
The Act became law in 2005 and allows public access to information held by 100,000 public authorities in the UK (Scotland is covered by a similar act from 2002).
Everyone can request official information from councils, government departments and agencies – and they have to tell you.
Public authorities of all levels are covered by the act – the police, the armed forces, regulators, the BBC, the Houses of Parliament, NHS bodies and many more.
The act does not cover personal data (that falls under the Data Protection Act) and some information is exempt. But it does allow ordinary people, journalists and campaigners the right to know how public money is spent
Access to information helps the public make public authorities accountable for their actions and allows public debate to be better informed and more productive.
More than 400,000 information requests were made in the first ten years from the act becoming law in 2005.
Journalists in all types of newspaper routinely make FOI requests to uncover information for stories.