Posts Tagged ‘FOIA’

Skye Bridge: a scandal of secrecy

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

Guardian columnist and activist George Monbiot used his column in yesterday’s paper to draw attention to the cost of secrecy in relation to Scotland’s Skye Bridge. The cost of building the bridge went from £25m to £93m and the public authority has refused to disclose its contract to the very people who paid for it, namely the taxpaying public.

Last week the people of Skye won their nine-year battle to remove the tolls on the bridge to the mainland. The bridge was Britain’s first privately financed public project. Monbiot asks whether the new Freedom of Information Act will be strong enough to get these contracts released into the public domain:

A scandal of secrecy and profligacy
The Skye bridge contract allowed private firms to fleece the taxpayer
Tuesday December 28, 2004
The Guardian

So what was in the contract? I have no idea, and nor does anyone who was not involved in negotiating it. Though it was giving away our money, though there was no possible security argument for keeping it secret, both the Tory and Labour governments have hidden the contract behind the excuse of “commercial confidentiality”. Unless an inventive challenge can be launched, governments will continue to do so, using the loophole in the act. The lesson of the Skye bridge fiasco is obvious. If we are not allowed to see what’s being done in our name, there’s a pretty good chance we are being ripped off.
Full article here, or at www.monbiot.com

The only thing I would add to this piece is that the exemptions likely to be used by public authorities to withhold these types of contracts require a public interest test. Both section 43 for commercial interests and section 42 for legal professional privilege are qualified exemptions, meaning information can only be withheld if an authority can prove that disclosure is not in the public interest.

There is also an absolute exemption for breach of confidence (section 41). However, within the law of confidence there is an in-built public interest test. Judges have not always viewed the public’s right to know as important enough to override confidentiality claims but this is starting to change.

The Information Commissioner has publicly stated that PFI contracts should be made public as a matter of course. It is doubtful that public authorities will proactively do this, but with sustained public pressure and demand we should start seeing more contracts made public. The publication of the Tube contracts shows that refusals can be successfully challenged. More info on my Tube campaign is here.

FOI on You & Yours

Monday, December 13th, 2004

You & Yours picked up the topic of Freedom of Information today. They focused on my favourite campaigning issue – restaurant inspections. A discussion followed with Baroness Ashton, Information and Rights Minister; Phil Boyd, Assistant Commissioner at the Information Commissioner’s Office; Kelly Mannix, Corporate Records Officer at Southwark Council, and Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

You can listen again to the programme here. The FOI segment begins at minute marker 30.00.

Do you want to know a secret?

Monday, November 1st, 2004

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”.