Friday, 13 November 2015

The Freedom of Information Act > plans to restrict citizens' right to information would “severely damage democracy”

The media is getting more and more angry about the proposals to water down the FOI Act 
- but then, as observed by some, the media have seen the Act as a nice 'source of stories':
Futures Forum: The Freedom of Information Act > and 'generating stories'

But the media is not going to give up, with more and more angry pieces appearing regionally:

Oxford FoI
Freedom of Information: Join our campaign to safeguard your absolute right to know (From Oxford Mail)
Oxford Mail devotes 15 pages to campaign to save FoI - Journalism News from HoldtheFrontPage
Back the Telegraph & Argus' fight for your right to know (From Bradford Telegraph and Argus)
Grant Woodward: We’ll no longer know the stuff they don’t want us to know - Yorkshire Evening Post
Why we need the Freedom of Information Act | East Devon Watch

The media nationally are concerned:

Press Association says FoI charge would ‘severely damage democracy’

FOIThe Press Association has joined the campaign to save the Freedom of Information Act saying plans to charge for requests would “severely damage democracy.” The agency has submitted its response to evidence to the Independent Commission on Freedom of information, which is currently reviewing the Act. It voiced “serious concerns” at the manner in which the review is being conducted, the composition of the Commission and the impact of diluting the Act.
The Society of Editors’ is currently running a HandsOffFoi campaign with the backing of HoldtheFrontPage and Press Gazette.
In its submission, PA editor-in-chief Peter Clifton described the possible introduction of charging for requests as a “major concern”. He cited an example in which PA sent each of the UK’s 45 police forces FoI requests asking how many registered sex offenders were missing. Were charges introduced at the rate of £25 per request, then PA would have faced a bill of £1,125 for asking each force to detail the number of sex offenders of whom it had lost track. Responses from 39 forces revealed police had lost track of 396 convicted sex offenders. The story prompted Labour to call for an “urgent review” into the way registered sex offenders were monitored.
Said Peter: “This is just one example. 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. 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.”
Peter added: “PA firmly believes that the FoI Act is a major benefit to a democratic society, bringing greater public understanding of the workings of national and local government and ensuring that the public can scrutinise the work of those who devise and administers policies, and hold them to account. The public pays for these institutions and the FoI Act gives them a valuable insight into how they are performing. They deserve nothing less. PA has produced a wide range of stories that have been in the public interest, uncovering waste and maladministration, and helping to bring about changes in the law. Without the use of FoI, these would not have been possible.”
PA says FoI charge would 'severely damage democracy' - Journalism News from HoldtheFrontPage

This is from today's Mail:

Sir Cover-up: Our expose of public-sector fat cats would have been impossible without the Freedom of Information Act. No wonder Whitehall's most cynical mandarin wants to get rid of it

  • Mail used Freedom of Information Act to uncover taxpayer-funded excess
  • Has allowed the media to shine a light into the murkiest areas of public life
  • But Sir Jeremy Heywood, Britain's top civil servant, wants to limit the Act 
Sir Jeremy Heywood, known as Sir Cover-up
Sir Jeremy Heywood, known as Sir Cover-up
The Mail's devastating investigation this week into public-sector fat cats would never have been revealed without the Freedom of Information Act.
It took more than 5,000 requests under the Freedom of Information (FoI) rules for the Mail and the TaxPayers' Alliance to uncover the extent of taxpayer-funded excess, from the hospital chief pocketing £1.26 million while facing a budget crisis, to the NHS boss paid £850,000 in one year (yet still claiming £1.40 expenses for a bus ticket).
Despite this, only last month Tory Cabinet minister Chris Grayling joined Whitehall officials in trying to muzzle our right to know, accusing reporters and campaigners of using FoI laws to find news stories in a way that 'isn't acceptable'.
The Leader of the Commons was rightly accused of 'staggering hypocrisy', as it emerged he had regularly praised stories uncovered by FoI requests while in Opposition, using them to embarrass the previous Labour government.
This depressing episode perfectly illustrates how, instead of working to rebuild public trust, the Establishment is trying to make its activities still more opaque.
It is Sir Jeremy Heywood, Britain's top civil servant, who wants to limit our Freedom of Information Act, though his plans have been greeted with incredulity and derision even within government.
Sir Jeremy, Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service claims officials are 'less candid' with ministers in their advice for fear their views may be made public as result of the legislation; legislation designed to help expose government waste, incompetence and threats to public safety.
Since it became law in 2000, the Act has allowed the media to shine a light into some of the murkiest areas of public life, to the embarrassment and discomfort of governments and the civil service.
But now Sir Jeremy has set up a commission composed of former ministers and civil servants to review the Act. They are supposedly 'independent', but, as a long-time observer of the workings of government, I can tell you the panel is compromised from the start.
Indeed, one of our most senior former mandarins says: 'I laughed out loud when I saw who they were. They're all excellent people, of course, but they don't exactly come without baggage, do they? It's a case of once you see who's on the panel, you know what its conclusions will be.'
For what is plain is that the panel has been hand-picked by Sir Jeremy to recommend that there should be curbs on the public's right to know. Although all are eminent individuals, there is more than a suspicion that they are perfect Establishment stooges who prefer secrecy to openness.
Among them are commission chairman Lord Burns, a former top Treasury official, former Tory leader Michael Howard and ex-Labour Cabinet minister Jack Straw. It is Mr Straw's inclusion that gives the game away. As a Cabinet minister, he fought tooth and nail to water down the original Freedom of Information Act. He even wanted to leave it to Ministers to decide whether or not disclosure would be in the public interest.
As Lord Wills, who was Information Minister in the last Labour government, told me: 'I'll eat my hat if this panel concludes that Freedom of Information is working well and needs no changes.
Lord Burns
Jack Straw
Lord Burns, left, and Jack Straw, right, are among those chosen to be part of the commission to review the Act
The Government has deliberately chosen a panel that includes not a single advocate of greater transparency.' So why is Sir Jeremy trying to limit our freedom laws and are his concerns justified? The truth is that the Freedom of Information Act has been crucial in revealing a range of scandals, notably MPs' abuse of Commons expenses and a host of other shocking cases such as senior public sector figures being paid off and then re-hired at even more generous salaries. It has exposed many scandals about the NHS, such as the fact that the chances of having a limb amputated because of diabetes are twice as high in Somerset as in London.
Unsurprisingly, then, such a vital tool for open democracy has been opposed not only by many top civil servants and Mr Straw, but his then boss, Tony Blair, lamented in his memoirs that he had been a 'naive, foolish, irresponsible, nincompoop' for allowing the Act to be passed under his government.
How very wrong he is. The fact is politics needs openness, honesty and genuine accountability — not more secrecy. But Sir Jeremy seems to agree with Blair, arguing confidentiality is more important when it comes to policy-making.
Secrecy plan: Sir Jeremy Heywood
Secrecy plan: Sir Jeremy Heywood
Admittedly, such confidentiality is crucial when it concerns areas such as the intelligence services and matters of national security but these are exempt from FoI.
Also, the law is deliberately flexible and offers Whitehall officials and ministers a 'safe space' in which to debate domestic policy plans. Only if the public interest in disclosure outweighs the need for confidentiality are details of discussions revealed — and then only after a policy has been decided and publicly announced.
In any case, Sir Jeremy's claim that officials will be too scared of disclosure to give ministers honest advice suggests that we now have a civil service where the wimps have taken over.
No, I believe the real reason some politicians and officials want to curb FoI is simply to cover their backs.
They want to stop the public knowing when there are disagreements between ministers, or between ministers and officials. They also want to stop the public knowing about any risks and potential downsides from policy decisions. Their fear is that these might be exploited by opposition politicians and the media.
But as any insider will tell you, the most embarrassing details about policy discussions are more likely to emerge thanks to leaks from politicians rather than through FoI disclosures.
As that great fictional mandarin, Sir Humphrey Appleby, of Yes Minister fame, once observed: 'The ship of state always leaks from the top.'
Worryingly, it appears that Sir Jeremy has gone to some trouble to launch his counter-attack. Until July, FoI laws were the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice but that has now been transferred to the Cabinet Office, where Sir Jeremy can keep control. I'm told that behind the scenes there were concerns that Dominic Raab, the fair-minded junior minister in charge of FoI, might take an even-handed view!
In public, of course, the Cabinet Office is keen to stress that it favours open government. In July, it announced: 'We are committed to being the most transparent government in the world.'
It said it was making available to the public a record 20,000 pieces of data. It also claimed: 'The World Wide Web Foundation's Open Data Barometer and Open Knowledge's Global Open Data Index ranked the UK as the world's leading country on open government.'
Except that is not true. The foundation, set up by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the internet), issued a statement saying this claim was 'misleading the public', and added: 'The prospect of restricting citizens' right to information following the commission's review [into FoI] sends the wrong signal to developing and young democracies.'
Of course, it is good that the Government is making more data available but as the foundation points out, sets of facts and figures are not the same as transparency when it comes to government.
Indeed, in the second quarter of this year, the Cabinet Office granted in full only 17 per cent of requests for information under the Act. The same Cabinet Office has also consistently had the highest rate of 'fully withheld' responses to FoI requests.
So what is behind Sir Jeremy's thinking, which critics fear will curb democracy?
He is thought to have three aims: to have all advice to ministers given a total exemption from FoI; to make it easier for the authorities to turn down FoI requests, perhaps by introducing charges, including for the media; and to give the Government much stronger powers to veto FoI requests, without tribunals or the courts being able to over-rule ministers. No wonder the review commission has its critics. I have been told that Harriet Harman, who was acting Labour leader at the time of the appointments, did not want Jack Straw to be a member.
What is certain is that Labour is insisting Mr Straw will be acting in his personal capacity only. A party spokesman said: 'The Commission's terms of reference clearly invite a change in the terms of the Act. Our FoI laws are a crucial check on the power of the executive and the Government should not attempt to restrict them by the back door.'
With such opposition, the Government will have a hard time getting FoI changes through the Commons and even greater difficulties with the Lords.
Yet this is an issue that is much more important than merely one of parliamentary arithmetic.
As Lord Wills says: 'At a time when there is such public disillusion with Whitehall and Westminster, the Government should be seeking to improve transparency instead of butchering the one piece of legislation that seeks to increase it.'
By opening up government and bringing to light some of the genuine difficulties in reaching decisions instead of indulging in the yah-boo-sucks exchanges that the public hates, our rulers could start to redeem themselves in the eyes of voters.
Sir Jeremy Heywood is rightly admired in Whitehall as a strong Cabinet Secretary, but he has a deeply worrying blind spot when it comes to openness in government.
Local government: How to make a FOI request
Loaded: 0%
Progress: 0%
Current Time0:00
Duration Time0:00
Need Text


The MPs’ expenses scandal would never have been exposed if not for the Freedom of Information Act. Disks containing receipts and submissions from MPs to the authorities were only made following FoI requests from a journalist. They were being redacted — edited to disguise the details — when they were leaked.
Half the cash paid to victims of the Mid Staffs hospital scandal has been pocketed by their lawyers, the Act was used to reveal. One patient who suffered botched surgery was paid just £6,500 compensation — yet his solicitors picked up £221,000.
The so-called ‘spider letters’ from Prince Charles to Government departments, in which he lobbied in favour of homeopathy, and which led to the revelation that Tony Blair had acknowledged there were ‘limitations’ to our military helicopters in Iraq, would have remained hidden.
More than 1,100 care home deaths were linked to dehydration over a nine-year period, according to documents obtained under the Act. Some 1,158 residents had dehydration recorded as the cause of death or a contributory factor between 2003 and 2012, and 318 died from starvation or while severely malnourished.
A Daily Mail FoI request revealed a prisoner was given the right to taxpayer-funded IVF treatment while behind bars by using human rights laws. The convicted burglar’s access to fertility treatment was quietly signed off by ministers.
A secret Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and U.S. on the treatment of prisoners captured in Iraq — and their potential ‘rendition’ (being moved to another country where Western laws on torture do not apply) — was released under FoI. After a three-year delay, the Ministry of Defence handed over documents to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Rendition.
More than 240,000 patients were sent home from hospital in the middle of the night to relieve pressure on NHS beds in a single year, FoI requests revealed.
A 2013 release showed ambulances having to wait hours at busy A&E departments. A report detailed NHS trusts routinely missing the 15-minute target. In Wales, one ambulance waited six hours 22 minutes.
The Mail was able to reveal how NHS hospitals had been paid millions to hit targets for numbers of seriously ill patients who died on the Liverpool Care Pathway (which dictates that all care should be withdrawn to hasten death), which has since been scrapped.
More than 10,000 criminals escaped prosecution for serious, violent assaults by saying sorry in a single year. FoI requests showed police using ‘community resolutions’ which involve an apology or compensation, and which do not result in a criminal record for GBH, malicious wounding and other attacks.
Some £360 million was written off by the Department for Work and Pensions after it was paid to claimants because of administrative errors.
Disgraced Labour peer Lord Janner made three secret official visits to Parliament several months after police were told he was too ill to be questioned over historic child abuse allegations — raising new doubts over the decision not to prosecute him.
  • Sue Cameron is author of The Cheating Classes: The Disempowerment Of The British People.

Sir Jeremy Heywood wants to limit our Freedom of Information Act | Daily Mail Online

No comments: