Rob Waugh: Act that shines light into darker corners of society

Westminster has seen intense debate about the need for, and operation of, the Freedom of Information Act.
Westminster has seen intense debate about the need for, and operation of, the Freedom of Information Act.
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“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.

Yet it wasn’t until 2005 that the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was fully implemented in the UK, the culmination of a long campaign to establish the public’s legal right to information from public bodies and services they vote for, pay for and use.

The Act was initially passed in 2000 under a Labour administration led by Tony Blair, who had championed the cause in opposition but who later, in his 2010 memoir, 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”.

The former prime minister’s assessment is not one shared by countless campaigners, ordinary members of the public or those pesky journalists who have been able to subject more than 100,000 public institutions – from government departments, councils and police forces to hospitals, universities and schools – to a hitherto unknown level of scrutiny.

And there have been many examples of FOI shining a light into some dark corners. The disclosure of wide-scale abuse of MPs’ expenses began with FOI requests. Regionally The Yorkshire Post has used the Act to uncover cavalier spending at Leeds Met 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.

At the same time there has been some limited abuse of the Act, with a sprinkling of conspiracy theorists and obsessives spotting an opportunity to exploit.

Then there are those requests for the weird and wonderful; like what plans Wigan Council had in place for a dragon attack, how many times Rossendale Council had paid for the services of an exorcist and Scarborough Council being asked how many people had licences to own a tiger, lion, leopard, lynx or panther as a pet.

The oddball requests were cited by the Local Government Association in the summer as part of a wider grumble about the burden FOI was putting on councils in financially stricken times.

A snapshot of the numbers of requests received by some of the public bodies in the region does illustrate how the FOI burden has increased. Leeds Council recorded 1,203 in 2010/11 and 1,881 in 2013/14; Sheffield Council had 929 requests in 2011 and 1,367 in 2013; Hull Council’s figures showed 212 requests in 2005 and 1,287 so far this year while North Yorkshire Police recorded 232 in 2005/06 and 1,090 in 2013/14.

It is a theme the Ministry of Justice, which has responsibility for FOI, has warmed to by airing proposals to make it more difficult to ask for more in-depth information and to limit the number of requests an individual or organisation can make.

It is also a theme bluntly rejected by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, whose efforts did much to secure the new legislation in the first place.

Director Maurice Frankel believes the Act has generally been a success – and sees increasing usage as a positive demonstration of its value – but he is wary of attempts to use spending cuts as cover for scaling back hard won rights of access to information.

“We have seen the Local Government Association campaign to highlight absurd FOI requests,” he said. “But that’s highly misleading. No rational FOI officer is going to spend time looking up the policy on wizards.”

There are also concerns about increased outsourcing of services to private contractors, potentially putting large tranches of information beyond the reach of FOI.

And although public authorities are obliged to comply with the law, some still don’t. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which holds public authorities to account over FOI, acknowledges budget restrictions mean it cannot apply as much pressure as it would like. Public bodies with something to hide know they can play for time by not responding to a request within the statutory 20 working day limit.

Given the value of information often diminishes with the passage of time, it’s a card some public bodies are willing to play.

Steve Wood, ICO head of policy delivery, said: “It’s often down to a number of reasons. Perhaps their processes aren’t very good, lack of training, lack of senior support, records management isn’t very good. Some organisations are not putting the right level of resources into it. In the worst cases, all of these are present.”

Whatever the reason, dodging the sunlight sells the public short.

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