Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Newsquest Midlands South

I write to submit evidence on the Freedom of Information Act to the Justice Select Committee Inquiry.

I do so on behalf of Newsquest Midlands South, particularly the 15 paid-for and free newspapers based at our Worcester and Stourbridge offices. These include the daily Worcester News, the Malvern Gazette, Evesham and Cotswold Journals; Kidderminster Shuttle; Stourbridge News, Bromsgrove and Redditch Advertisers; and the world’s oldest newspaper, the Berrow’s Worcester Journal.

FoIs are an important tool for newspapers carrying out their job of holding public bodies to account and it would be damaging to local democracy and accountability if more restrictions were placed on the media’s use of FoIs.

We are opposed to any change that would make it easier to refuse an FoI request on the grounds of cost and time.

We take our responsibilities as local newspapers seriously and do not make spurious requests or overuse the system.

Most of our titles have used FoI over the years, although the most common is the Worcester News.

In the last two years the paper has submitted an FoI request every two months, on average.

Requests have been made to Worcestershire County Council; West Mercia Police; The Crown Prosecution Service; Worcestershire NHS.

The majority were made to the police. Most requests are made after the body has refused to answer a routine Press inquiry.

Examples of information gathered and publicised through the use of FoIs include:

The cost to taxpayers of legal aid in local courts.

The amount of money from developers that the county council had stored away.

The £3 million a year pension bill for retired local police officers who were still working for the force in civilian roles.

The fact that 60 Community Support Officers in south Worcestershire had not issued one fixed penalty notice in an entire year.

The growing cost of translation fees for dealing with immigrant crime in the county.

Drug arrest figures.

The number of threats to health in “serious untoward incidents” in local hospitals.

Details of duplicate expense claims made by a councillor.

As can be seen from the above, our FoI requests are on issues of considerable public interest (in the true sense of the phrase) and sparked considerable local debate.

In the case of legal aid, it led to one Worcester solicitor arguing for he and his colleagues to take a 50% pay cut for handling legal aid cases.

In many cases the FoI Act has helped to improve openness from some public bodies but, sadly, there remain others who see the role of the PR department as news management rather than helping the Press carry out their independent role on behalf of local people and communities. This is where the FoI plays an important part.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012