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 whileidentifying
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 ofin
effectgiving 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 failedfor
more than six monthsto 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.