Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust

1. Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?

1.1 The Act is effective in that it has facilitated a much more open public sector culture, and has improved public accountability. The Trust is fully supportive of the aims of openness and transparency and operates its Freedom of Information functions in that spirit.

1.2 It is also an effective means of obtaining information with minimum burden placed on those making requests (eg a request only needs to be submitted as a single e-mail).

1.3 The required process for applying qualified exemptions is not effective and (in most cases) is an additional exercise for a public sector organisation with little value gained for the requester.

2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?

2.1 The strengths of the Act are the ways in which it is working effectively (see section 1).

2.2 It has engaged the public in some important current affairs and to some extent has increased public awareness in how public sector organisations operate and can serve as a means for public engagement with the public sector.

2.3 A significant weakness in the Act is the level at which the time/cost exemption can be applied (18 hours). This means that a member of staff could potentially be required to spend over two days away from their day job in order to assist with a single Freedom of Information Request.

2.4 Given the very challenging financial landscape it is difficult to justify this time and expense, especially where (for an NHS organisation) clinical or operational staff are involved. It is difficult to conceive that this kind of resource benefits the Trust or the wider public in any way—particularly where the information disclosed is of very limited public interest.

3. Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the way that it was intended?

3.1 In the main requesters can expect to receive a response to their request within the timeframe and is therefore in line with the Act’s intentions.

3.2 If the Act was only intended to improve openness and transparency in the public sector then it is operating beyond of this intention.

3.3 If the Act was also intended to stimulate the “information industry” then it is operating largely in line with this intention.

3.4 If the Act was also intended to stimulate competition for public sector contracts then it is operating largely in line with this intention, although disclosure of contractual information does not always favour competitive tendering or benefit the public sector organisation.

3.5 The Act encourages use in certain ways where requesters disregard personal responsibility for the overall public interest and the burden of administration:

3.5.1The Act is used largely by the media in uninformed anticipation of story generation.

3.5.2The Act is also used largely by commercial organisations in anticipation of sales and marketing communications to public sector staff and for tendering services provided (as above, disclosure of contractual information does not always results in competitive tendering). The public sector’s formal tendering process often makes direct marketing irrelevant and therefore ineffective.

3.5.3The Act has been used by students requesting information in support of their studies.

3.5.4The Act has been used by industry colleagues from around the country as a way of identifying (for example) organisational policies, practices etc., as opposed to building networks and making direct contact with colleagues.

3.6 The Act is frequently used in ways that were not intended. The main issue with the Act is that the current burden of administration and the financial and resource costs placed on the public sector means that there is a finite limit to its public interest.

January 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012