Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the National AIDS Trust

A. Introduction

1. NAT is the UK’s leading charity dedicated to transforming society’s response to HIV. We provide fresh thinking, expertise and practical resources. We champion the rights of people living with HIV and campaign for change.

2. We welcome the Justice Select Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). This submission addresses the three questions posed by the post-legislative scrutiny providing evidence based on our experiences of requesting information under the FOIA. Overall we have found the FOIA to be a very effective resource, increasing the transparency of public bodies and assisting us in our policy and campaign work to support people living with HIV. We would be happy to provide further information if the Committee should require it.

B. Does the FOIA work effectively and what are the strengths and weaknesses of the FOIA

3. NAT feels that the FOIA is working effectively, enabling us to access information held by public bodies that would not otherwise be made available.

4. NAT has used FOIA requests to gain information in several recent projects. In December 2011 we used the FOIA when a number of local authorities failed to respond to NAT’s survey on local authorities’ use of money allocated to them to fund HIV social care. The majority of local authorities responded without the need for a FOIA request. However, some of the local authorities with the largest financial allocations did not respond. Without the FOIA process we would not have been able to find out how the money is being spent in these areas. NAT will now be using this information to develop a national picture of how this funding is being used; where the money is not being spent on HIV social care we will work with people living with HIV in these areas to hold local authorities to account. We have also been able to collect examples of best practice which we will share with other local authorities to encourage improved service provision. We would have struggled to get a high enough response rate to the survey without the FOIA.

5. In another recent project NAT used the FOIA to find out how many people have been affected by the Ministry of Defence’s policy of redeploying armed forces personnel diagnosed with HIV. This was very helpful, particularly as we had found it difficult to get information directly from the Ministry of Defence through traditional correspondence. Access to this accurate and up-to-date information helped us shape our policy and campaign response to this current occupational exclusion.

6. Finally NAT is currently seeking information from Police Constabularies about their blood borne virus (BBV) policies and training. Of course it is important that police have appropriate occupational health policies in place to protect themselves from BBVs at work. However, disproportionate and inappropriate policies can stigmatise people living with HIV and other BBVs and unnecessarily alarm police staff. NAT is reviewing police OHPs and related training to ensure police staff have the information they need to protect themselves at work without wasting police time and resources. Although NAT has found some police bodies to be very supportive and helpful, we have met some resistance to this work from some constabularies. We are now submitting FOIA requests to the police constabularies who have refused to share information. Without the FOIA NAT would have had no means of retrieving this information from the public bodies that are refusing to assist us.

7. When using the FOIA in these projects we have, overall, found the system to operate very effectively. The FOIA clearly defines the relationship between the requester and the public body and sets parameters and expectations for both parties to adhere to, making the process straightforward and accessible. In addition it is very helpful that every local authority has at least one person specifically responsible for dealing with FOIA requests. This publicly available point of contact encourages accessibility in organisations which can often seem impenetrable.

8. However, we have experienced problems with some local authorities not providing the information requested within the 20 day response period and not providing information as to expected timescale beyond this. Whilst we understand that 20 days may not be sufficient time for some information to be collated, there should be a greater onus on public bodies to keep in communication with the requester and advise them on timescales as soon as the likelihood of delays becomes apparent. The FOIA works most effectively when it is used to provide a framework for further communication and dialogue between public body and information requester.

C. Is the FOIA operating in the way that it was intended?

9. The FOIA was intended to increase openness, transparency and accountability (two of the four stated objectives of the Act). From NAT’s experience it has done this. It provides a vital mechanism to gain access to information which should be available to the public but which public bodies often do not proactively publish. It is important that we are able, for example, to hold local authorities to account for the decisions they make about the level and nature of the social care support they provide for people living with HIV, particularly if they operate within a high prevalence area. In order to do this in a meaningful way we need to have access to information about how the funding from central Government is being spent and how local authorities are assessing the needs of people living with HIV. The FOIA has given us a process through which we can do this.

10. NAT also believes that when local authorities and other public bodies can be compelled to provide information on the decisions they make they are encouraged to make better decisions (the third aim of the Act). If this power were to be removed or reduced we think it would have a negative impact on decision-making.

11. Finally, we believe that the FOIA has an important role in improving public trust in decision-making and increasing participation by the public in the decision-making process (the fourth aim of the Act). Through the information NAT receives via FOIA requests we can work with people living with HIV and give them the information and tools they need to participate in decision-making at a local and national level.

January 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012