The Freedom of Information Act has led to the media publishing more than 1,000 stories based on disclosures by public authorities in just two years, according to a new report.
The disclosures, made under the UK and Scottish legislation, demonstrated the enormous range of information being released, said the report, published by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
“They include significant disclosures about the Iraq conflict, the possible cause of Gulf war syndrome, assaults on public service staff, the state of civil service morale, compensation paid to victims of medical accidents, schools’ efforts to inflate their exam results, hospital techniques for deflating waiting lists, the universities teetering on the edge of financial collapse, police officers with criminal records, government efforts to encourage gambling, lobbying by multinational oil, pharmaceutical and food companies, nuclear safety and other hazards, crimes committed by offenders on parole, unpublicised prison escapes, the expansion of the national DNA database and innumerable reports about high expenses claims and dubious public spending,” said the report, researched by Jon Matthew and Robin Robinson.
The disclosures also cast new light on the government’s approach to many issues, as well as identifying shortcomings in public service delivery, highlighting other problems which had not been addressed, and illustrating where policies had succeeded.
“They reveal the substantial contribution to accountability made by the FOI Act,” the report said.
In 2006 the Government attempted to impose restrictions on the use of the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that journalists were making excessive use of it, and that a large number of requests for information were trivial. But those proposals were dropped when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister.
Stories featured in the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s report include:
- Daily Telegraph, March 13, 2006: The number of paratroopers qualified to parachute fell dramatically following the invasion of Iraq because the RAF’s air transport arm was unable to provide enough aircraft.
- The Times, December 11, 2007: The merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor, which was sunk by two Exocet missiles, with the loss of 12 men, while carrying helicopters to the Falklands conflict was unarmed and unprotected because Ministry of Defence lawyers feared that it was illegal to fit a commercial vessel with weapon systems.
- Daily Express, April 26, 2007: A police officer is attacked every 20 minutes in Britain. At the country’s biggest force, assaults have more than doubled in the past five years – and officers in some areas can be set upon at least three times a year.
- News of the World, May 13, 2007: Alcoholism can now be given as a reason for claiming incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance and other payments, like housing support and child related benefits. It can all total up to £20,000 a year – and at the last count there were 49,720 claimants, at a cost of £1 billion.
- Sunday Mirror, December 23, 2007: Lotto chiefs have paid out £10,000 in charity cash – to boost beekeeping in Africa.
- Sunday Times, March 11, 2007: Figures released under the FoI Act show that in recent years sentences for rape have been getting shorter.
- York Press, January 8, 2007: Thousands of children in York are being fingerprinted by their schools, including one school that is acting without parents’ knowledge. :
- The Guardian, August 10, 2007: Spotted on the MoD’s FoI disclosure log: “You asked how many pianos have been destroyed by fire or so called ‘high spirits’ at each RAF station since January 2000 … I can confirm that we do not hold any information that indicates that pianos have been destroyed by fire or so called ‘high spirits’ … That said, I am aware from anecdotal evidence that this activity does occur on occasion. However, I can reassure you that any pianos which may have been destroyed in this manner would have been paid for privately.”