Rob Waugh: Freedom of information and its value to public life

“SUNLIGHT is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

The evocative phrase, depicting the value of public transparency, was coined by a celebrated American judge, Louis Brandeis, in 1913, and has carried echoes far and wide ever since.

I used those opening two paragraphs in a feature marking the 10th anniversary of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act at the turn of the year – and they bear repeating amid fears the Government is aiming to curtail the right all of us have to scrutinise and hold our public authorities to account.

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FOI requests famously led to the disclosure of wide-scale abuse of MPs’ expenses. Regionally, The Yorkshire Post has used the Act to uncover cavalier spending at Leeds Metropolitan University, abuse of power at Cleveland Police, financial and managerial chaos at Rotherham Hospital, financial excess at Wakefield-based Outwood Grange Academy Trust and a crisis of staff morale at West Yorkshire Police.

And, since writing the anniversary feature, The Yorkshire Post has used the Act to reveal how chief fire officers in South Yorkshire were paid tens of thousands of pounds in overtime for working during strikes – payments not even known by members of the local fire authority who employ them or initially recorded in the annual accounts.

FOI was also used recently to uncover the rapid increase in fines dished out to parents for taking their children on holiday during term-time – with penalty notices totalling £1m in Yorkshire alone last year.

That the Act does what it set out to achieve is undeniable. The public has learned valuable information about the public bodies and public services they use and pay for. If it is working, why is the Government consulting on whether the Act’s powers should be reined in and whether the public should have to pay for information?

It is hard to draw any conclusion other than those in positions of power don’t like being discomfited by the kind of scrutiny that the Act can bring to bear. It has the power to embarrass politicians and highly-paid public officials, to question decisions they’ve made and how they’ve spent money, to show policies are not working and, in the worst cases, to reveal outright wrongdoing.

The drumbeat for changes to the Act perhaps began with some memorable comments from Tony Blair, whose administration introduced the legislation.

In his 2010 memoir, the former prime minister colourfully described himself as “a naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” for introducing legislation he believed allowed the public – or more specifically journalists – to use as “a weapon” that was “utterly undermining of sensible government”.

Two years later, one of Mr Blair’s closest colleagues – Jack Straw, the former Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Justice Secretary – called for changes to the Act to allow for greater protection of information surrounding decisions taken at Ministerial level.

Controversially, Mr Straw is now a member of the ‘independent’ panel currently overseeing the FOI consultation. He has insisted he has an open mind on potential changes – a claim many have questioned, including Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Concerns about the make-up of the panel extend beyond Mr Straw. A letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, signed by 140 campaign and media groups including the Society of Editors, highlighted that the Commission on Freedom of Information included another former home secretary (Michael Howard – now Lord Howard of Lympne), a former high-ranking civil servant (Lord Burns) and the chair of a body subject to the Act (Ofcom chair Dame Patricia Hodgson).

Far from being independent, the letter, sent in September, said the Commission’s make-up and its terms of reference made clear the purpose is to consider new restrictions and pointed out there was no indication it would consider how access to information could be improved.

The Commission has been asked to consider the financial burden the Act puts on public bodies that have to deal with large numbers of FOI requests – an issue that is often accompanied by reference to absurd requests such as the plans a local authority had in place for a dragon attack and how many times another had paid for the services of an exorcist.

Yet the reality is that no time would sensibly be taken up on such requests and the Act already allows for public authorities to refuse requests considered as vexatious, would seek too much information and would take too much time.

If Government departments, councils, NHS bodies and the many more public organisations covered by the Act record and maintain information efficiently, they should not have to spend inordinate amounts of time looking for it.

And how many times has something uncovered by the FOI Act led to a public body reforming its practices and resulted in a saving?

If potential changes to the Act get as far as consideration in Parliament, MPs might be advised to recall how the Act helped to rein in expenditure close to home.

* Rob Waugh is an award-winning investigative journalist and the Yorkshire reporter of the year.