Nationals urge MPs to strengthen FoI not weaken it

The Freedom of Information Act is a ‘mere hand chisel picking away at a rock of secrecy’and its powers need to be strengthened, according to the Telegraph Media Group.

Alongside the Financial Times, the Evening Standard and The Independent newspapers, TMG is lobbying the government against any proposed changes to the act.

In a written submission to the Commons Justice Select Committee, which is launching an inquiry into the act this month, TMG said there needs to be a ‘fundamental cultural shift’among public bodies toward further transparency and that legal changes alone were not enough.

But it also warned it would strongly oppose any proposed changes to the act, adding that many of its journalists already found it a ‘tortuous’process

Yesterday Press Gazette reported on how a key theme that emerged from a Ministry of Justice study into the act was that public bodies felt it was a ‘drain’on resources.

TMG responded to the claim by saying: ‘Obviously, there is a cost to the operation of the FoIA across public bodies. But public bodies should not be given new powers to reject requests nor allowed to make subjective judgements about which sorts of requests are worthy of answering, or given the power to inquire into the reasons why the information is wanted.”

It added: ‘Some of our journalists feel that FoIA is being abused to worsen the amount of information available to the public. Before the FoIA a phone call to a press office would be sufficient to clarify or obtain information. Today a practice has developed whereby many press offices ‘brush off’ requests from journalists.

‘Nowadays journalists are often informed that they should make an FoI request for that information. This is an unwelcome development, and does nothing to enhance transparency.”

TMG said it was also aware of a culture of conversations ‘being taken offline (ie not on email or paper memorandum) so that there is no record of a conversation, discussion or debate, for fear that information with emails could, at some point, have to be released”.

The group is calling for statutory limits on the time allowed for an internal FoI review and opposed any form of introduction of fees.

Expand the scope of FoI

In a separate submission The Sunday Telegraph’s deputy news editor Ben Leapman, who was a key figure in exposing the MPs’ expenses scandal, said the introduction of the act had led to a ‘less secretive’culture at Whitehall.

He added: ‘However, there is still a vast amount of information which would be liable for disclosure under FOIA but is not routinely proactively published.

‘When asked to release such information, organisations often respond from a starting‐point of reputation management rather than the public’s right to know.

‘If they perceive that the release would damage their reputation, they often seek to delay and to find reasons to refuse, even when they have no legal grounds to do so – for example, by citing exemptions which do not in fact apply.”

Leapman called for an extension to the scope of the act to cover private sector and voluntary organisations that are performing public services on contract for public sector organisations funded by the taxpayer, as well as housing associations.

He also suggested that public bodies could cut the cost of dealing with FoIs by ‘proactively publishing more information, so there was less need for requests to be made”.

‘I think requests from the media to public bodies for information, whether through FOIA or the traditional press office route, need to be seen as a vital element of democracy – potentially exposing the failings that public bodies do not want the public to see.

‘The cost should be held up against the sum that public bodies spend on marketing, promotion and advertising to put across the message they do want the public to see – which I suspect is much higher.”

Stories obtained by Leapman under the act include:

  • Police forces rated among the worst by the Home Office pay bonuses to their chiefs constables, while some of the best‐rated forces pay no bonuses.
  • Two million crimes a year are ‘screened out’by police and deemed unsolvable within hours of being reported.
  • Convicted criminals commit 10,000 new offences per month while on probation.
  • Asylum seekers who accept free flights home under a Home Office voluntary repatriation scheme subsequently return to the UK and do it again.

‘Empowering the press-handlers’

FT editor Lionel Barber warned that constraining those that make FoI requests ‘will empower press handlers at the expense of enterprising journalists”.

In the FT’s experience junior officials are comfortable with the act but resistance comes from senior officials, special advisers, press officers and ministers.

There were also issues surrounding the misuse of exemptions and only ‘meagre penalties’for breaches of the act by public bodies, with claims that one acting director at the Department of Education destroyed all his emails at the end of every month.

But the FT’s biggest concern was that journalists’ requests were handled differently to members of the public.

‘Press officers are informed about journalists’ inquiries who monitor them for newsworthy returns. At the very least, this means that our replies come later than others. We also know that they also attract more scrutiny (and delay).”

He added: ‘These concerns have a cost: the time and cost-intensive use of the act by journalists identified by the MoJ memo may be exacerbated by their attempts to disguise what they are doing from officials.

“Requests which look like ‘fishing may, in truth, be drafted to retrieve specific documents while not showing the real objects of their interest. This tactic is sometimes necessary because reporters have little confidence that data of interest will not simply be destroyed.

‘An innovation worth consideration would be to make requests genuinely requester-blind. Only the civil servant who filed the request (which, in most cases, will be a communications unit official) should know the requester’s identity.”

FoI a ‘hugely significant step’

Doug Wills, group managing editor of the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers, said that while some public authorities observe the spirit of the act, other ‘grudgingly observe the letter only”.

‘The Freedom of Information Act has been a hugely significant step towards enabling proper scrutiny of public life. The easing of current justifications for the non-release of information would improve matters further, as would a change in approach by some of those who are subject to the act but resist the spirit of openness.”

Wills went on to list several stories obtained under the act including:

  • Details about the number of people with diplomatic status arrested in London, which revealed two people had been arrested on suspicion of rape and that several had committed offences including drink driving, robbery and shoplifting.
  • An investigation by The Independent revealed the frequency of contacts between banking executives and the Chancellor of the Exchequer after Sir John Vickers published proposals to reform Britain’s banks.
  • The Independent on Sunday revealed that some staff at UK universities were claiming thousands of pounds of top of their basic salaries.

Wills added: ‘We believe there are extremely good grounds for believing that wrongdoing, malfeasance and corruption have not, in certain situations, taken place because certain activities could become the subject of disclosure.”

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