Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Northumbria University

Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?

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

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

Executive Summary

I have serious reservations as to the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act as a means of accessing information held within the Higher Education sector. Many of the requests made and the information sought (and the underlying motivations of the requesters) often do not appear to fall within the original spirit and intent behind the introduction of the Act.

I also question the continued applicability of the Act to a sector which has changed radically since the Act came into force in 2005, particularly in light of the new student funding reforms due to take effect in September 2012:

1.It is considered by many that from September 2012, when the radical change in home student funding takes effect, universities’ gradual move from the public to the private sector will finally be completed. The Freedom of Information Act was introduced in order to make public sector bodies more open, transparent, and accountable to the taxpayer who funds them. From September 2012 the direct public funding for universities from the public purse is slashed to a minimal level. Accordingly the question of whether or not universities should continue to be covered by the Act needs to be urgently addressed. There are very strong arguments why universities should be removed from the coverage of the Act (in a similar way to the coverage of the EU public procurement rules).

2.If it is decided that the Act should continue to apply to universities, the increasingly competitive environment in which universities now operate must be recognised and take account of in the application of the Act, and particularly its exemptions. Intense competition is not something with which most public sector bodies (eg central government departments and local authorities) have to contend. Some clarity on where that leaves the HE sector in terms of using “Commercial Interests” as an exemption to prevent the disclosure of core University assets, such as course materials, would assist greatly in ensuring future compliance.

3.The Freedom of Information Act was passed with the intention of making public authorities more transparent, accountable and effective by allowing members of the public access to information. In practice the majority does not submit requests for information that could be seen to challenge the accountability or effectiveness of the University, but rather they request information to fulfill personal or professional curiosity.

4.An Act designed to provide the public with a right to access information is in practice rarely used by the vast majority of the public. For many the Freedom of Information Act is associated purely with controversial and/or newsworthy information published by the media. While the Act has allowed journalists to expose a number of high profile cases of misuse of public funds within government and local authorities, experience within the education sector has shown it to result in sensationalist headlines and misleading articles from cherry picked segments of the disclosed information.

5.The actual costs of responding to requests can often be greater than those costs covered under the FOI fees regulations, but the current regulations and guidance offered by the Information Commissioner’s Office do not take into account “real world” requests. Redaction of information can often take up the bulk of the workload. A common FoI request of late is one asking for copies of bank and credit card statements. Locating the statements can take only a couple of hours, but the statements themselves may contain account numbers, card numbers and in some cases home addresses of the card holders. When you are dealing with 600+ individual statements, all of which need to be checked and redacted, this can often take a lot longer than the actual searching for the documents but the guidance for the fees regulations direct that this may not be taken into account when calculating fees.

6.Whilst a good idea in theory, in practice the publication schemes have become relatively redundant in organisations that already publish everything listed within the scheme to their websites. A website which utilises a decent search facility should be able to find the information on the site quicker than an individual can navigate through a publication scheme containing titles that are only descriptive to the people who compiled the scheme. In some cases the publication scheme can be a hindrance to people searching websites as the publication scheme page will show higher in the search results than the actual page containing the information the page it links to. This means people are taken to the publication scheme page and instructed to click on a link, which wastes their time. In most organisations the publication scheme is a flat set of webpages with manually entered links. This means that a lot of time is spent chasing updates to redundant links.

7.The publication scheme has an advantage over webpages where the information is not already published on the site by virtue of it informing the applicant how they can access it (eg by asking for hard copy) and how much it will cost. However, since 2005 the University has only been asked once for a non-published item and there was no charge. Perhaps publication schemes are better suited to councils and government departments who do not already publish much of their content?

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012