Do you want to know a secret?

The Journalist
September 2004

by Heather Brooke

The UK’S Freedom of Information Act is proving its worth even before it comes into force.

All public authorities are under a duty to provide outlines of the information they will be making public. Some of this will be quite enticing: in the next couple of months, for instance, Parliament is to publish a list of every MP’s and Lord’s expenses and allowances.

The Commons list should reveal whether Speaker Michael Martin claims a £20,000-a-year housing grant despite living for free at Westminster, but it won’t reveal details of the public funds going to his wife and daughter.

“The figures will be mostly meaningless,” says investigative journalist Michael Crick, who investigated the employment of Ian Duncan-Smith’s wife Betsy. “What we really want to know are the number and names of each MP’s staff, and that still is not available. It’s an absolute scandal that the Speaker won’t reveal what his wife is taking from the public purse.”

Currently, if reporters ask who is on an MP’s payroll, they are unlikely to get the answer. But after January 1, Parliament, along with 100,000 other public authorities, will have a legal duty to provide information — subject to some exemptions. Those reporters who know how to use the law will ask for this type of information and the answers will lead to some very good stories.

If you don’t know how to use the Freedom of Information Act and the other new access laws then you could be missing the opportunity for some juicy exclusives. When I interviewed reporters for my book Your Right to Know, I realised that only a handful of journalists in the UK know how to use access laws to get information. Few have a good understanding of where to find public records or of what to do with this information once they get it.

In the past there may have been good reason: after all, what were the chances of getting anything useful from official channels? But reporters like The Guardian’s Rob Evans and David Hencke have shown that the rewards from filing access requests, even under present laws, can be huge, breaking exclusives about slush funds, arms deals and ministers’ conflicts of interest.

Reporters need to be able to produce enterprising and informative stories and to do this they need a knowledge of public records as well as an understanding of how to use the new laws. Journalists will have an important role in using and expanding these new rights — but only if they know how to use the laws and what questions to ask.

The FOIA allows anybody to make a request for information. This must be in writing – which includes email. The authority has a legal obligation to assist you with your request; they cannot just say: “We can’t find those records”. They must answer your request within four weeks, unless they give you a written reason for the delay and an estimated date for their answer. If your request is denied then you can appeal to the Information Commissioner. The Act is retrospective so you can ask for information from any time. It will also be an offence to destroy or alter requested records.

The Act’s fundamental strength is that it changes the balance of power between the government and the governed. As the then Home Secretary Jack Straw said when he introduced the bill long ago in 1999, it would “transform the default setting from ‘this should be kept quiet unless …’ to ‘this should be published unless …’”.

Exemptions may allow an agency to withhold information, but most will have to pass a “public interest” test to do so. An agency can also avoid compliance if the costs are too great or the application is considered “vexatious”.

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