Posts Tagged ‘The Guardian’

Guardian publishes censored policy report

Tuesday, July 5th, 2005

The Guardian newspaper today published the full contents of a government report on drug policy. Only the first half of the report was released last Friday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The other half of the strategy unit study led by the former director general of the BBC, Lord Birt, was withheld but was subsequently leaked to the newspaper.

The report showed that low drug seizure rates give traffickers vast profits from a business that nets £4bn a year. The report was presented in its full form to Tony Blair in June 2003 but even under the Freedom of Information Act, only 52 of its 105 pages were published. The first 50 pages deal with drug consumption patterns and drug-related crime, but the second half of the report delivered a scathing verdict on efforts to disrupt the drugs supply chain.

The government yesterday defended its decision not to publish the second half citing the exemptions for information supplied by law enforcement agencies dealing with security matters, the formulation of government policy, and information that if published that would be prejudicial to the conduct of public affairs. These exemptions are qualified by a public interest test.

There may be an argument that effective law enforcement policies must be kept secret for them to remain effective, but how is the public interest served by keeping failing techniques secret? That only allows for their continued use.

The Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten, called on the information commissioner to order full disclosure. “What this report shows and what the government is too paranoid to admit is that the ‘war on drugs’ is a disaster. We need an evidence-led debate about the way forward but if they withhold the evidence we can’t have the debate.”

Danny Kushlik of the Transform drugs policy foundation, which campaigns for legalisation, said the government was using the act to hide the parts of the report which demonstrated that, far from reducing production, trafficking and supply, prohibition spawned the business.

Read the full article on the Guardian’s website.

Article: Sunshine Week

Monday, April 4th, 2005

In Sunshine Week, US papers test FOI laws and uphold the public’s ‘right to know’. Heather Brooke reports

Information is power
Monday April 4, 2005
The Guardian

The first national “Sunshine Week” has just come to an end in the US – seven days in which newspapers across the country published stories, columns and cartoons about freedom of information laws and why they are vital not just to the press but to every citizen in every state.

American newspaper editors feel under threat – reporters from local government to Capitol Hill are finding it tougher to get information.

“We were very blasé about secrecy before, but now it’s on the tip of every editor’s tongue,” says Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center.

An Associated Press survey found the number of documents marked “classified” by the federal government has increased 60% in 2003 compared to 2001. And seven in 10 Americans are concerned about government secrecy, according to a poll by Editor & Publisher magazine.

In the UK, the position is very different. The public have more rights to information than ever before with the implementation in January 2005 of the Freedom of Information Act. Even so, secrecy in the UK’s new age of openness is more endemic than an American editor’s worst nightmare. A list of six “basic” public records that US journalists often use to gauge their community’s compliance with openness laws shows the chasm between the two countries.

Only one of these records – minutes from local government meetings – is publicly accessible in the UK. The rest – police incident reports, jail rosters (who is booked in and out of jail), court records, property taxes and public officials’ salaries – are not available to the British public.
(more…)

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.

Guardian victory in arms bribe case

Thursday, December 9th, 2004

One of the most shocking things about the UK is the secrecy of its courts. True, you can still go along to most courts in person and watch a trial but as our ability to do this decreases (most of us have work to do) the courts have done nothing to provide alternative means for us to see what is going on in the courtroom.

Cameras in courts are one solution. Making the court record public is another. Today the Guardian succeeded in getting a judge to open a court record.

The openness of court records is such a basic element of democracy that it beggars belief how suppression is still allowed to continue in this country. Even the judge, though he pays lip service to the idea of open justice, seems reluctant to hand over records which should automatically be public. He only does so, it appears, because he views the Guardian as a serious newspaper.

The quality of the newspaper is irrelevant. It is the public who have a right to see justice done, not just the Guardian and not just a serious newspaper.

Making court records public is important because it helps people see who has been in court, what happened and the quality of the evidence used. It is also helpful in civil trials to expose patterns of wrongdoing.

For example, a Canadian producer told me that his team uncovered the single largest fraud committed by a taxation consultant against the government of Canada. Her clients – no less than 250 of them – were left helpless, owing millions of dollars to the Canadian government, when they thought they had been paying taxes properly for years. The foundation of that story was documentation provided by available and detailed court records.

A great injustice is being done to the British public with the continued suppression of court records. The starting point for any decision on court records should be that openness is always best as it encourages open justice.

Transport for London complaint

Friday, November 26th, 2004

My complaint to the Information Commissioner resulted in an article in today’s Guardian by Hugh Muir: Secrecy rebuke over contracts for tube.

See the full article here.

The complaint involved TfL’s failure to make public its controversial public-private partnership contracts and funding formula for the Tube, which it had committed to doing so by January 2004 in its legally binding Publication Scheme.

While it is admirable that TfL agreed to publish these contracts (many public authorities are still refusing to do so) the fact remains that a commitment to openness is not the same as actual openness. The public faces the ultimate burden of funding this controversial way of running London’s tube and we have a right to know how our money is being spent.

I first asked for these contracts last spring. My requests were ignored for several months. Finally, the Freedom of Information Officer wrote back apologising for the delay. “It’s been partly caused by ill health and a handover to a new FOI Publication Scheme Coordinator,” he said. He couldn’t give me the contracts, but helpfully informed me that, “This issue has been escalated within General Counsel for resolution.” I’ve no idea what this means but it certainly doesn’t mean quick action. By July, I still hadn’t received an answer.

I then filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner who is the watchdog for the Freedom of Information Act, Data Protection and soon the new Environmental Information Regulations. It took four months, several chasing emails and telephone calls before I received the result of their investigation on 5 November.

Frankly this is unacceptable. If this is the kind of time-period on offer when there are almost no cases, what can we expect after 1 January 2005 when the Information Commissioner begins receiving the suspected “onslaught” of cases?

I asked Information Commissioner Richard Thomas about this delay on Thursday at a Parliamentary meeting and he told me he was surprised at the length of time the investigation took and would look into it.

Meanwhile, Transport for London is now quite helpful, and I am scheduled to look through the contracts next week. I will post the results here.