Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


MEMORANDUM 11

Submitted by Rob Evans, The Sunday Telegraph

  I have been working as a journalist with the Sunday Telegraph newspaper since April 1997. I am employed to carry out reasearch/investigations for the newspaper.

  In the past two years, I have used the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information regularly. As a rough estimate, I have submitted around 200 or so requests during that time. Awareness of the Code among journalist is low. It is rare to come across many reporters who know about the Code or have even used it. There appears to be at least two reasons for this. Firstly, the media perceive the Code to be weak and not worth using. Secondly, the media does not have the time to use the Code, since the process can take a while—identifying the required information, assessing that the likely answer will be newsworthy, drawing up the request, chasing government officials if a reply has not been received, and formulating an appeal (and complaints to the Ombudsman) if the request has been refused.

  Many media organisation do not seem prepared to commit time and money to take reporters away from chasing and writing the immediate stories of the day, and instead do longer-term research and investigations. This may change however if the media begin to see that the proposed Freedom of Information Bill has real teeth, and requests under the act pay off with stories which have an impact.

  The Code represents an opportunity to squeeze information out of government. It is just one of a number of ways in which journalists can collect information. Although limited, the Code can be a handy way of extracting information out of government departments. It is probably more effective than many in the media believe it to be, if it is used in certain ways. The Code will not give you the papers from the Ministers' private office, but it can give you worthwhile information which has not been published. My requests under the Code have produced a string of stories for the Sunday Telegraph, mainly concening the Ministry of Defence. Other requests have returned answers which are a stepping stone to later stories, or are just interesting background information.

  One major failing of the Code is that it does not give the public a specific right to obtain official documents. Government departments will in effect answer questions which are put to it under the Code about, say, a particular decision, but they will not release the internal documents which underlay that decision. However departments have decided to release actual documents in response to some of my requests. For example, the Ministry of Defence released a private opinion poll which it had commissioned on the image of the army. According to this poll, the public believed that the discipline of the army was "repressive and robotic", while its culture was "low-tech, old-fashioned and class-based".

  Originally under the Code, officials were supposed to summarise documents and release these summaries to applicants. Inevitably this is time-consuming and some officials have realised that it would be quicker and easier to release the actual document. This itself helps a little to increase public confidence in government, since many people believe that officials would unfairly summarise documents by selecting the most favourable bits for release and suppressing the rest.

  Request under the Code by the public helps to change the culture of official secrecy. Faced with a particular request, officials may often be forced to rethink their attitudes towards releasing information. The higher the number of requests, the greater the challenge to officials releasing information. The higher the number of requests, the greater the challenge to officials and the greater possibility of transforming their culture.

  The British government is notorious for silly examples of secrecy. These unfortunately still exist. I have come across two examples in particular in recent years.

    —  Following an initiative in 1993 to open up the government, departments were required to review their closed files at the Public Record Office to see if any documents should really be released. I wanted to find out how many of these files had been opened by individual departments and see if the new files had any interesting material. Departments are required to submit their progress on releasing records to the Cabinet Office which then compiled a monitoring report every six months. Under the Code, I requested copies of these monitoring reports. The Cabinet Office refused to disclose these reports, citing exemption two of the Code and arguing that they contained "internal opinion, advice and recommendations". The Cabinet Office even refused to disclose the numbers of files which had been released by individual departments. It seems perverse not to release information about the government's progress in opening up shut files at the Public Record Office.

    —  For years, the Ministry of Defence regularly wrote off millions of pounds owed by foriegn governments whose military personnel had been trained by Britain. I submitted a request to the Ministry of Defence about this policy of—in effect—giving free training to countries (in the hope of fostering good international relations). Among other questions, I asked for the total number of countries whose debts had been waived by Britain for a certain year. The Ministry of Defence refused to give this total because it would "harm international relations". I appealed on the grounds that this refusal was inconsistent since the equivalent total for an earlier year had been disclosed in a Parliamentary Question. The Ministry of Defence took the point and backed down with an apology.

  On the whole, it often seems as though officials resort too readily to relying on exemptions to deny requests under the Code. It appears that exemption two of the Code (protecting "internal opinion, advice and recommendations" etc) is trotted out in a blanket fashion to keep secret a wide range of information. It would be profoundly disappointing if the same exemption (in clause 28 of the proposed Freedom of Information Bill) was interpreted too harshly by officials to suppress information which should reasonably be published. This clause displays a kind of defensiveness by officials. There is good evidence that openness improves the quality of advice offered by civil servants, rather than inhibiting their frankness and candour. Kevin Murphy, the Information Commissioner for the Irish Freedom of Information Act, has commented that "much of what passes for frankness and candour is subjective and impressionistic comment which is made only because it will never become public. The experience abroad is that freedom of information has not had a detrimental effect on frankness and candour and, on the contrary, has improved the quality of advice and recorded information. There has been less recourse to subjective opinion."

  The Freedom of Information draft Bill has been criticised for extending the deadline for answering requests from 20 working days under the Code to 40 days. In one sense, this clause seems to betray a lack of serious intent on the Government's behalf to implement an effective Act. However the stipulated deadline is meaningless if government departments do not fund their Freedom of Information units properly. Possibly the biggest bugbear of the United States Freedom of Information Act is delay. Some US departments take several months and even years to reply to requests. This is particularly so of departments such as the CIA and the FBI which are inundated with sackfuls of requests. If these departments do not employ enough people to deal with such requests, then there is little that requesters can do other than sit and wait.

  In general, I have found that many British officials have worked conscientiously to respond to my requests under the Code. More often than not, simple requests are fulfilled within the 20 day limit. Some of the more difficult requests may take a little longer. In such cases, officials have written or rung to inform me of the latest progress. However, sometimes, departments have taken an age to respond to requests which have appeared to have needed minimal work. For instance, the Home Office failed—for more than six months—to send me two reports which the department acknowledged were not secret in any way. Indeed both reports had already been made available to MPs. After several phone calls and letters to the department, there was still no movement and so I complained to the Ombudsman. Three weeks later, the Home Office sent me the reports. In this case, it was difficult to see what had caused the intransigence.

June 1999





 
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