Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Rotherham Primary Care Trust

Executive Summary

Public bodies are currently expected to give up to 2.5 days of staff time in answering any one enquiry. This is proving ever more onerous. Such a volume of time is perhaps merited by only a subset of those that make enquiries. That subset should be those for whom the organisation is responsible.

Freedom of Information Act

Workload for any one enquiry

1. The Act places obliges public bodies to supply (other than for well-documented exceptions) what information it has. To meet a request, they spend time on locating the information and/or assembling it. Only a request that would entail 2.5 days or more of staff time can be denied on the grounds that it is too onerous.

2. This PCT is not alone amongst NHS bodies in receiving a large number of requests from journalists that appear to have also been sent to most/all PCTs in the country. Just one request can entail a couple of days, but the time limit does not apply.

3. The one request to all PCTs in England could amount to 300 days work—the equivalent of one and a half full-time employees employed for a year. There is a similarly big impact on NHS provider trusts if they also receive the same request.

4. The nature of journalism is moving away from researching, following up leads and interviewing. Now, a journalist can simply speculate there is a story and then have a small army of NHS staff dig out the information that establishes if there is one or not. One ploy is to ask each PCT questions which might expose differences in commissioning practice between PCTs ie is there a postcode lottery? The information carefully assembled by so many often appears to go unused.

5. In a very short space of time—say one afternoon—a journalist could send to all PCTs a number of requests on different topics that then generates hundreds and hundreds of days’ work. In the eyes of many, this discredits the Act.

6. It cannot be right that individuals can blanket-request all PCTs in this way. On the other hand, an individual may have a “legitimate” right for time to be spent in answering their enquiry.

7. The solution perhaps lies in the operation of the 2.5 day limit. I’m proposing that we remove that we restrict its application.

8. NHS Rotherham has responsibilities to all taxpayers in England, but arguably has a greater obligation to residents of Rotherham than those beyond. I propose that the 2.5 day work limit is available only to those who can demonstrate they reside in Rotherham.

9. The means by which this could be done is for the requester to supply a Rotherham postal address. (We are currently obliged to supply information even if all we have is an e-mail address.)

10. The corollary to this proposal is that those not within Rotherham’s area should be entitled to a much smaller volume of work on their behalf. Perhaps 3 hours would be sufficient for those who are based outside of the geographical footprint? In this proposal the requester would only have to give their address if they wished the organisation to go beyond the 3 hours.

11. By extension, all PCTs could have the 2.5 days’ obligation available only to its resident populations.

12. This idea is a less easily extended to NHS provider trusts as their served areas are typically “fuzzy” at the edges. But it is only a little less easily extended. What are their served areas could be agreed/publicised and then the 2.5 day limit be only for enquiries coming from within that geographical area. (It would not matter that there were overlaps ie NHS providers’ areas are not mutually exclusive.)

13. The same principle could be applied to most other public bodies. Those which have a national remit would perhaps have the whole nation defined as its served population. The benefits of the change proposed here might be minimal for them. However, there would be substantial benefits for those public bodies with a smaller geographical footprint—such as PCTs and local authorities.

14. I recognise that a journalist could use the addresses of friends in different towns to receive the information and thus enjoy the benefit of the upper time limit . However, do journalists have that many friends?

15. A worthy exception would be Members of Parliament. Any MP—within or outside of the geographical footprint—does merit 2.5 days in handling their request.

16. It could be argued against this proposal that the excess over 2.5 days is chargeable. Firstly, that argument ignores the impact of a large number of requests taking nearly but not quite 2.5 days— see #3 above. Also, NHS bodies face nationally-set requirements about reducing staff numbers. It is not a question of the money. Whilst charging would cover costs, it would not deliver the staff reductions. It is our policy simply to say no if the request entails more than 2.5 days work for us.

17. In future, a large number of high-demand requests could see staff being assigned away from other duties to handle the responses.

18. I ask that consideration be given to introducing:

-introducing a two-tier rule on time to be given (free of charge);

developing the concept of served areas; and

identifying the categories of any additional groups beyond simply “those served” and who merit the higher of the two time limits.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012