A decade of Freedom of Information: Despite shortcomings, it's still a powerful tool for journalists

Ten years after it came into British law the Freedom of Information Act has has prompted some 400,000 FoI requests, with the Act helping bring to light thousands of stories – from the disclosure of MPs' expenses, to the publication of individual cardiac surgeons' death rates.

FoI now covers more than 100,000 public bodies across the UK and earlier this year the Government announced that the Act will also be extended to Network Rail in 2015.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says: “The FoI Act has been responsible for a new generation of official data showing where standards of public services are falling short, targets are not being met, regulators are failing to keep up, policies are not having the promised effect, reckless spending is tolerated and politicians say in private what they publicly deny.”

But despite the progress, their remains widespread concern among journalists about the way the Act is working.

The percentage of requests granted in full has fallen by 6 per cent since this time last year and speed of responses remains a common area of complaint.

Public services, meanwhile, are increasingly being devolved to private organisations putting them outside the reach of FoI.

Frankel says more bodies need to be covered by the act.

“There are various bodies that aren’t covered, starting with people like electoral registration officers and returning officers. Safeguarding Boards, which look after children at serious risk, are not subject to the Act, so these gaps in the legislation need to be sorted out. We would like to see the scope of the Act extended to bring them in, as well as contractors.”

Heather Brooke, a journalist who played a key role in exposing the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal, says that whatever its shortcomings FoI is still a powerful tool for journalists.

She says: “I’ve heard a lot of views that people have on FoI. 'It's a waste of time’ is the main thing that people and journalists will say. That’s just wrong. It certainly takes a lot of time but it is still a powerful legitimate mechanism to get information you would never see."

On the MPs' expenses story, she says: “Not all of [the requests] gave me the results I wanted, but I felt like I got a window into the British state – and certainly you would have never have seen the things we did without FoI.”

MPs’ expenses claims were being compiled for limited release as a result of an FoI request from Brooke when the full unredacted expenses claims were leaked to the Telegraph.

Brooke believes more open access to information would lead to higher standards of journalism.

She says: “The way that British journalism is based on a patronage system, it’s not an even playing field.

"It’s about knowing people and it’s about favours, it’s a quid for a quote system, which I find really problematic.

"That’s what has been revealed with the phone-hacking, how the whole economy of information between journalists and politicians and police was about favours, money and knowing people.

“That is what corrupts British journalism, that collusive nature. Which is why I have always advocated: if you want a more responsible press, you have to make information public. Because journalists always need information, it’s our commodity and we have to have it.

“You can either make it public or you try and suppress it, so people have to find other ways of getting it. That’s why journalists start having these collusive relationships.”

Academic Tom Felle is co-editor of the new book “FoI at 10: Freedom Fighting or Lazy Journalism?”.

He says: “National security, commercial sensitivity and data protection are the big three areas of refusal and they are being way overused.

"Of course there are things that should be nationally kept a secret or that are commercially sensitive but it’s the way in which these are being used in a blanket way by far too many public bodies to evade answering FoI requests.

“We should have a situation where FoI is hardly ever used. In an open society, why would you need a law to say, ‘you must be open’? You wouldn’t. In a truly open society you’d expect to see FoI use quite low and that isn’t the case in the UK. We’re probably seeing too many FoI requests and not enough proactive publication of information or spirit of the act assistance.”

The reluctance of public bodies to co-operate with FoI is another significant problem, according to Felle.

“Ten years on we still have a situation where up and down the country it is seen as a pain and a chore for public services. It’s seen as extra to their work when in actual fact FoI is legislation.”

Matthew Davies, journalist and editor of FoI News, feels particularly strongly about government obfuscation in the face of FoI requests.

“The case that still irks me is a story that I was never able to write. I must have put in about 15 or 20 requests over a period of time asking various questions about the electronic tagging contract that the Ministry of Justice had with G4S and Serco. From other documents I could see and general chatter I could pick up on the internet, you could tell there was something going badly wrong with this contract.

“I would put in requests that seemed fairly straightforward and get responses that were just civil service gobbledygook. I appealed some of them and got nowhere. As a freelance journalist you can’t pursue something like that to the point of distraction because you would never make any money.

“When it was all revealed that the contract was a complete mess it came as no surprise to me whatsoever. Somebody dealing with my requests must have known that I was on to something and decided: ‘Let's give him a load of flannel rather than admit to what is going on.’ It still riles me now.”

But Davies is optimistic about the future of FoI: “More organisations are slowly coming around to having a lot of data on their website that people can trawl through. From a journalist's point of view that means you need to acquire a different skillset. You need to be able to look at a huge excel spreadsheet and decipher a story from that.”

Steve Wood, head of policy at the Information Commissioners Office, agrees that proactive publication is one way to reduce the FoI workload for public authorities.

“Clearly the increasing number of complaints we are receiving reflects the fact that nationally public authorities are receiving more requests: they have been going up in line with each other.

“Certainly when a public authority has got a lot of intelligence about a particular issue and they are continually getting requests around that area, if they can see a way of packing that information up and publishing it makes sense. It’s a good way of generating more trust in the public and it can in certain areas reduce numbers of requests.”

He sees part of the challenge for the ICO in the years ahead as persuading public authorities that freedom of information is a positive thing.

“The continued challenge is making sure that public authorities see the wider case for freedom of information and don’t just see it as a burden, but an important way, even when times are hard, to ensure they communicate with citizens.”

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