Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Freedom of Information Act > and 'generating stories'

In East Devon, there are dozens of FOI requests still being considered.

For example:
Futures Forum: Knowle relocation project: the promise of 'hubs' and putting the cart before the horse
Futures Forum: Redeveloping East Devon >>> of 'income streams' and 'regeneration'
Futures Forum: The 'regeneration' of Exmouth seafront

It has to be asked how endemic this is:
Futures Forum: The Freedom of Information Act and East Devon >>> Deep State East Devon?

This is all happening within the context of central government 'reviewing' the FOI Act:
Futures Forum: The Freedom of Information Act >>> consultation on proposals to charge fees >>> deadline Friday 18th Sept

The Campaign for FOI released this today:

Stop FOI restrictions

stop-foia-restrictionsThe government has announced a new Commission to examine the FOI Act and consider what further restrictions should be imposed on the right to know.
In a letter co-ordinated by the Campaign, over 140 media bodies and campaign groups and others  have written to the Prime Minister expressing concern about the Commission’s composition and terms of reference.
After sitting for 3 months, the Commission has now finally invited the public to submit evidence to it. The consultation paper suggests that it is considering sweeping restrictions to the legislation, including:
  • imposing charges for requests
  • making it easier to refuse requests on cost grounds
  • making it more difficult to obtain public authorities’ internal discussions, or excluding some from access altogether
  • strengthening ministers’ powers to veto disclosures
  • changing the way the Act is enforced.
The case for strengthening the Act is not on the agenda.
The Campaign together with ARTICLE 19 held a briefing meeting on October 21 for organisations proposing to respond to the consultation. The meeting was attended by nearly 60 organisations. A copy of the slides from the meeting are available here.
How you can get involved
There are 4 ways you can help (click to expand):
Respond to the consultation drawing on your own experience of the value of the FOI Act
Write to your MP
Submit your FOI stories to saveFOI.uk
Sign a petition
Key Issues
The Campaign has produced an explanation of the key changes to the Act being considered.
Internal discussion
Ministerial veto
The 'cost limit'
Tribunal fees
What the Campaign has said
What others have said
Press coverage

The press is very concerned.

This is from the Independent from last week:

Freedom of Information: Limiting journalists' ability to investigate just keeps the public in the dark

What we know about government is a tiny fraction of what ministers and civil servants are doing with our money

Jane Merrick Saturday 31 October 2015

There was a time when the government loved the Freedom of Information Act. Back in November 2002, I went to a press conference led by Yvette Cooper, then a junior minister in Tony Blair’s Lord Chancellor’s department, and as a result responsible for FOI. The 2000 Act was being implemented gradually, and as an example of how wonderful the opening up of Whitehall was, Cooper highlighted the release of a secret Ministry of Defence file of a UFO “sighting” in 1980. But that was 1980, I remember thinking, what are you lot up to now?

What we know about government is a tiny fraction of what ministers and civil servants are doing with our money. To use the analogy told by someone who went from journalism into government, it is a gigantic iceberg of information, with the media and the public aware of just a small amount above the surface.

This makes Chris Grayling’s comments about FOI all the more extraordinary. The Leader of the Commons may have said the Government is “committed” to the FOI Act. But for a Cabinet minister to accuse journalists of “misusing” freedom of information as a “research tool” is pretty disturbing and has all the chilling hallmarks of a government desperate to cover up more ice.

Making an FOI request this past decade and a half has been difficult as it is. Trying to find out information is tortuous because there are so many criteria to fill. Repeated requests come back with get-outs such as finding the information could only be done at disproportionate cost, or the deeply suspicious claim that the government or official body does not hold the information (usually because the question has not been asked in exactly the right way). It took several years for journalists and campaigners to squeeze out a tiny amount of information on MPs’ expenses, and the full details of that scandal only emerged because, in the end, the only way this was going to come out was through a whopping leak. It took five years, from the original request by The Guardian, for Prince Charles’s “black spider memos” to be made public.

Grayling’s comments are hypocritical because, while he was in opposition, he made political capital out of information gleaned through FOI requests, including on immigration, welfare and knife crime. And for him to accuse “the media” of trying to dig up stories is odd, because as a former journalist he should know that the media is exactly that – the interface between government and the public. If you try to limit our ability to investigate, it is the public you are keeping in the dark.

The commission which is looking at FOI laws is chilling – not least because one of its members is Jack Straw, the former Labour minister who brought in the Act and later said he regretted its scope. There is the possibility of charging for requests, which will penalise individual campaigners who are unlikely to have much money, and limiting further what we can ask.

At the same time, the police use the Terrorism Act to seize the laptop of Newsnight journalist Secunder Kermani, who had interviewed Western jihadists, while next week Theresa May will introduce a Bill allowing the security services to snoop on the internet activities of ordinary citizens. The iceberg is being pushed further beneath the water, and it is the public who will lose out.

Osborne’s credit rating

At least we have the proceedings of Parliament, which are always going to be public. Last week, while the Government was being humiliated in the Lords over tax credits, MPs were voting against a bid to scrap the “tampon tax” which charges 5 per cent VAT on female sanitary items. Shortly after the vote, the Treasury put out a statement from one of its ministers saying that the UK government would try to work with the EU (who are responsible for levying this rate) to agree to reclassify tampons as zero rated. While Britain isn’t exactly in credit with Brussels as David Cameron tries to renegotiate our membership, this would be a great opportunity for George Osborne, severely damaged by the tax credits row, to claw back some support by scrapping VAT on tampons in his Autumn Statement later this month.

He would win over women and Eurosceptics, which is not a bad aim for someone wanting to be the next Conservative Party leader, and I bet he is already drawing up the plans.

Harman to pick up her pen

Harriet Harman has announced that she is writing her memoirs, and they have the potential to be pretty explosive. No other politician has worked closely with all five successive Labour leaders, from Neil Kinnock to Ed Miliband. She says publishers want her to spill the beans on as many “big beasts” as possible, but she doesn’t see things like that. While I’m looking forward to a “political memoir devoted to the angst of being a knackered working mother”, I would love her to dish the dirt on all those swaggering male egos in Westminster.

Labour’s laughter lines

Andrew Fisher, a senior adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, has apologised for tweeting support for a Class War activist who was standing against Labour candidate Emily Benn in Croydon South at the general election. Some think Fisher should be expelled from Labour. But he claims his “support” for Class War was misinterpreted and was a joke. Here is the tweet from August 2014: “If you live in Croydon South, vote with dignity, vote @campaignbeard” (@campaignbeard was the Twitter account of the Croydon South Class War parliamentary candidate). It seems the Labour leader’s famous sense of humour is shared by his inner circle.

Freedom of Information: Limiting journalists' ability to investigate just keeps the public in the dark | Voices | The Independent

This is from the Western Morning news:

Chris Moncrieff: 

Is Freedom of Information Act frightening our MPs?

By Western Morning News | Posted: November 03, 2015

By Chris Moncrieff

Comments (2)

Fleet Street has declared war on the Government over what is beginning to look like subversive plans to put the shutters up by curbing, or even abolishing, the Freedom of Information Act.

Chris Grayling, the abrasive Leader of the House of Commons, says it is wrong for journalists to use this legislation to create news stories.

What arrant and arrogant tosh.The newspapers in particular, and the media in general, have done more than any Opposition party in the Commons to unearth scandals, wrong-doing, greed and even corruption among our so-called ruling classes. And that, in part at any rate, has been helped along by the Freedom of Information Act – although not entirely.

Whitehall mandarins claim the existence of the Act actually inhibits ministers from going about their legitimate business.

That, too, is absolute nonsense.

What have they to hide? And if Members of Parliament, ministers or not, are up to some skullduggery – as has been clearly evidenced in the past – then we, who actually pay their wages (they are our servants, after all) have a total right as employers to know what they are up to.

In fact, the Act has helped to unearth so much political scandal that politicians are running scared they will be caught out again.

Basically, the only information which should not see the light of day is material connected with the security of the state.

MPs have been calling for years for “transparency” in political affairs, but when they get it, they don’t like it. They are behaving like cowards.

So, unless the ideas of Grayling and his henchmen can be crushed, the electors of this country – the paymasters of Westminster and Whitehall – will once more be cast into the darkness.

And that would be scandalous.

Chris Moncrieff: Is Freedom of Information Act frightening our MPs? | Western Morning News

This is from the Evening Standard:

The Freedom of Information Act should be extended not curbed

Is this Government really going to prevent citizens from knowing what is being done in their name?
I fear it is, because it seems set on watering down the Freedom of Information Act (FoI).
With a commission already reviewing the scope of the law, a cabinet minister decided to go public with his opinion last week.
Chris Grayling, the Leader of the House of Commons, had the cheek to say that journalists were misusing the Act. Why? Because they used it to “generate stories”.
Well I never — journalists seeking stories. How bad is that? May I respectfully inform Grayling that that’s what we do. It is our job.
And the Act has proved to be an excellent way of discovering facts that would otherwise remain hidden.
"The cost of FoI obligations would shrink dramatically if those who fielded requests weren’t so eager to withhold information."
Roy Greenslade
He believes it costs too much to service inquiries made under the Act. But the misguided minister is seeing things the wrong way round.
The cost of FoI obligations would shrink dramatically if those who fielded requests weren’t so eager to withhold information that should rightfully be in the public domain.
Indeed, there would be no cost at all if public bodies — such as central government, local councils and police forces — published routine information without prompting.
This newspaper has published several stories after FoI requests that were in the public interest.
In February, figures obtained from the Metropolitan Police revealed that 6000 offences, including murder, robbery and rapes, had been committed by London rioters since 2011, thereby raising pertinent questions about the effectiveness of rehabilitation policies.
In April, Southwark Council was forced to reveal that it had spent £140,000 building a “Berlin Wall-style” metal-spiked fence around one of its housing estates that residents regarded as an eyesore.
In July, the Standard prevailed on Ofcom to reveal that 400 pirate radio setups had been shut down in London in a two-year period.
It was not an earth-shattering revelation, but that, of course, is the point. Why should such information not be available as a matter of course?
Grayling believes the FoI Act should be used for “those who want to understand why and how government is taking decisions”. Fair enough — up to a point.
That sounds suspiciously like an attempt to narrow the Act’s parameters in order to render it meaningless. 
The only way to know whether taxes are being properly spent, authorities are acting appropriately and government is behaving wisely is by winkling information out of public bodies.
The “knowledge is power” cliché is hugely relevant to this argument. Yes, there will be misuse. But in the vast majority of cases, inquiries have been justifiable.
Aside from diluting the Act’s ambit, the other threat is to introduce charges.
This would likely choke off the number of requests because of the cost to local newspaper journalists and freelancers, not forgetting concerned citizens.
The major loser, however, will be the public.
In truth, the provisions of the FoI Act need to be extended. The Government should really think again about this illiberal attempt to stifle investigative journalism.
Roy Greenslade is Professor of Journalism, City University London, and writes a blog for The Guardian

The Freedom of Information Act should be extended not curbed | Business | London Evening Standard

And this is from yesterday's Guardian:

Press freedom

Government's FoI review threatens to damage democracy, says PA

Proposal to charge for Freedom of Information Act requests would limit news organisations’ ability to inform the public, says editor-in-chief Peter Clifton

Former home secretary Jack Straw is on a member of the government’s commission reviewing the Freedom of Information Act. Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage

Jasper Jackson Monday 9 November 2015 

The government’s review of the Freedom of Information Act threatens to further undermine trust in politicians and damage democracy, according to the Press Association.

In July the government appointed a commission to consider changes to the act including charges for requests, making it easier to refuse requests on cost grounds and plans to strengthen ministers’ powers to veto disclosures.

In a submission to the commission, PA said it was clear the government was trying to reduce transparency and that members of the commission had “been chosen to increase the likelihood of further restrictions being placed on” the act.

Government accused of trying to water down Freedom of Information Act

Former home secretary Jack Straw, who has previously said he wants the act to be restricted, and Lord Carlisle who accused the Guardian of a “criminal act” in publishing the Snowden leaks, are both on the commission.

PA editor-in-chief Peter Clifton said the act helped the public scrutinise policy makers and had contributed to a large number of important stories that served the public interest.

He said: “We are unshakeable in our support of the Freedom of Information Act and any plan to limit its reach by extending secrecy in relation to the workings of government, extend the veto, or introduce charges would severely damage democracy.”

He said PA was particularly concerned about plans to charge for requests, which “would almost certainly deter us seeking information and limit our ability to inform the public for good”.

He added: “Under a charging system, requests, or appeals, would almost certainly deter us seeking information and limit our ability to inform the public for good, as they would for all but the wealthiest news organisations.”
PA’s submission cites stories on missing sex offenders, local council abuse of anti-terrorism laws and increasing incidences of revenge porn being posted online as examples of issues which would not have come to light without the act.

It also claims the commission is an attempt by the government to circumvent constitutional principles after the supreme court overturned a government vetoon the release of correspondence from Prince Charles to ministers, which followed a 10-year legal battle by the Guardian.

It says: “Changing the law to enable such a thing to happen again would be a serious incursion on the principles of both the rule of law and the separation of powers – it would introduce a divine right of ministers to echo the divine right of kings so beloved of Charles I.”

The submission echoes statements from the Society of Editors accusing the government of a “cynical and dangerous” attempt to water down the Freedom of Information Act.

The SoE has joined forces with trade publications Press Gazette and HoldtheFrontPage for a campaign called called Hands Off FoI.

Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has called for the act to be strengthened, and the party has set up a working group to examine ways it can be improved.

Government's FoI review threatens to damage democracy, says PA | Media | The Guardian

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