The Government’s right to keep us in the dark

The Government’s right to keep us in the dark
The Independent, 23 March 2005
By Heather Brooke

In a modern democracy we should not have to go begging for scraps of information

Yesterday’s publication of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) farm subsidies in England marks one of the first major successes for freedom of information. The public pays £4billion toward this system, so it might seem obvious that the public have an interest in knowing how this money is spent.

I campaigned for the release of these figures in my book Your Right to Know, but it wasn’t until formal requests were filed under Freedom of Information Act and the new Environmental Information Regulations that government departments took seriously the public’s right to this information.

The Rural Payments Agency, responsible for doling out cash to farmers in England, is releasing the names of subsidy recipients and the annual amount paid to them in the last two years. It will be supplemented in a few weeks time with information broken down by region.

This is admirable but the Scottish and Welsh agricultural departments are refusing to release even these basic details, citing the privacy rights of individual farmers. Without names, the subsidy information is neutered. Names are essential for gauging the fairness of the system. Are the richest landowners getting the biggest handouts? In England at least, the answer is ‘yes’. Is this the way we want our tax money spent?

The other problem is availability. If you want to look at the raw data you must contact the Rural Payments Agency (email [email protected]) and they will post a disc to your address. There are no plans to put the data on their website or make it widely available. The Agency says it is ‘looking into solutions’ but let’s be frank, in this day and age it is not rocket science to put two 8.7MB Excel spreadsheets online.

Detailed data on farm subsidies has been public in the USA since 1996 when the Washington Post, after being turned down on a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals, won a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture. Since then, the USDA has released whole databases on farm subsidies to the public. Non-profits such as the Environmental Working Group have taken this raw data and put it on their website in a way that is accessible and easier to search. (http://www.ewg.org/farm/).

Could we see Oxfam or Friends of the Earth doing something similar? Possibly, but Crown Copyright presents another obstacle in the way of freedom of information that the Americans don’t have to worry about. In the United States the people are deemed to own all the work created or paid for by taxpayer money so it cannot be copyrighted. Copyrighting government information stifles both democracy and business development.

If Oxfam, or anyone else, wants to use the farm subsidy data, or any similar type information, they first have to ask the UK government for permission.

The differing levels of openness between England, Wales and Scotland also highlights the flaws of the UK freedom of information law, based as it is on numerous, vague and mostly subjective opinions about what the public have a right to know.

The Data Protection Act has become one of the most oft-cited reasons for refusing information to the public. Remember this is the law that led police in Humberside to destroy records of sexual allegations made against Soham murderer Ian Huntley. British Gas believed it would have been a violation of DPA to notify social services when they cut off the gas supply to an elderly couple (both of whom subsequently died, one of hypothermia). More recently the law is being cited as the reason for removing the names of patients’ names from hospital beds and local councils are finding it a convenient way of hiding the names of staff from the public for whom they supposedly work.

As early as 2002, the European Ombudsman warned that the EU data protection rules (on which our Data Protection Act is based) were ‘being used to undermine the principle of openness in public activities.’

And so it has come to pass. The DPA was meant to protect the rights of private citizens going about their private business from powerful organizations such as the Government and corporations. Instead, the powerful have hijacked the law using it as a shield to hide from public accountability. With no hint of irony, the Government is now introducing more ways of collecting, storing and sharing information about us, the private citizen going about our private business, while we are left in ignorance about how billions of pounds’ worth of public money is spent by Scottish and Welsh agricultural departments.

These are not small sums, either. One farming business in Scotland received more than £950,000 in subsidies in 2003, and in total, 64 businesses, received more than £250,000.

Farmers are private individuals but when they accept such huge chunks of public cash they cannot expect to remain anonymous. This is called accountability. In the United States, the USDA made exactly the same argument for withholding subsidy data to protect farmers’ privacy. The courts were not convinced that ‘this relatively generic information about thousands of similarly situated businesspeople could lead to clearly unwarranted invasions of their personal privacy. Indeed, it is precisely because the list is so large and the information so generic that the individual privacy interests are so small.’ (The Washington Post Company, Plaintiff, v. United States Department of Agriculture et al., Defendants. Civil Action No. 95-0656 (PLF)

Too often, politicians and bureaucrats view information they collect and pay for with taxpayer money as their own, utterly failing to appreciate the people’s right to know what their government is doing in their name and at their expense.

Battles are currently raging for the release of the thousands of food safety inspections that local councils conduct on supermarkets, the food industry and restaurants. After BSE, foot and mouth and the Sudan-1 food dye scare, it boggles the mind how public authorities can persist in their arrogant belief that they know best. Clearly they don’t, yet they are putting up a fight to keep secret such important public health documents.

Such secrecy shows a profound disrespect for the British public. In a modern democracy we should not have to go begging for information scraps from the table of government.

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One Response to “The Government’s right to keep us in the dark”

  1. Roy Benford says:

    Unfortunately, this only applied to information under the old agricultural subsidies arrangements. Under the new subsidy arrangements, defra has promised farmers that their details will be protected by the Data Protection Act because they related to private individuals. This is misapplying the Data Protection Act because the overall majority receiving subsidies are businesses and not individuals.

    Under Commission Directive 2002/4/EC, all egg-laying establishments with 350 or more birds are required to register for traceability purposes. This has resulted in identification numbers being printed on all Class A eggs. Unfortunately, defra consider this information to be confidential under the Data Protection Act and have, so far, refused to release the data claiming that it is personal data. Again, they are misapplying the Data Protection Act claiming that private individuals are operating establishments of 350 egg-laying birds.

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