Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Perry Austin-Clarke, Group Editor Newsquest Bradford and Editor of the Telegraph & Argus

The Freedom of Information Act is an invaluable tool to journalists on regional papers, helping to expose, for example, public spending excesses, highlight health issues and provide a deeper insight for our readers into reports by public bodies which often don’t go beyond the very basic bare minimum details they need to present.

It would obviously be much better if public bodies like local authorities, health trusts and police forces were more open with the information they make available but, as they often are not, the FOI Act provides a safeguard that allows us to acquire and publish information they might be reluctant to provide.

The political nature of local government in particular—although this can apply equally to all public bodies—means that information tends to be released with a degree of “spin” designed to shield unpleasant facts or difficult situations from the public glare.

So the FoI Act can help to highlight issues which have a genuine public interest by drawing out facts that public bodies often do not want brought to the fore.

Recently, the Telegraph & Argus highlighted the very important issue of the dangers to aircraft of widely-available laser pens being aimed from the ground into aircraft cockpits but it was only through the use of an FOI request that we were able to get figures demonstrating the extent of the problem, which allowed us to develop the story. The issue has subsequently been raised in the House of Commons.

The true cost of alcohol-related treatments in hospitals was also only made public after an FOI request. Showing the real extent of the damage alcohol is doing to the district in social and economic terms could act as a wake-up call for some people, but again, without an FOI request, those figures would not have been revealed.

A surge in the increase in attacks on parking wardens, and the type of abuse they have to endure, was again only revealed through an FOI request. It gave a human interest angle to the work of parking wardens and may even have made one or two people think twice before losing their temper in the future.

The issue of asbestos in schools was also highlighted thanks to an FOI request showing the number of schools known to have asbestos in them, exposing the extent to which teachers and pupils may have been exposed to the deadly substance and bringing a very important health issue into the public domain.

FOI requests have also allowed us to highlight instances where public money may have been spent wastefully, or where a particular issue has cost council tax payers a great deal of money.

For example, we were able to reveal that £2.5 million of the council’s maintenance bill was spent on paying out compensation for people who tripped on pavements, that Bradford Council had paid out £3 million in overtime despite the ongoing financial cuts, and the fact that the council was paying out almost £500,000 on mobile phone bills—a figure they subsequently reduced by £100,000 as a result of the pressure generated by public exposure to the issue.

Highlighting these figures allows us to act as an unofficial auditor, making sure the public are aware exactly where their money is being spent and allowing them to have their say on it if they are unhappy about it.

Other stories the T&A has obtained via FOI requests recently, in no particular order, include the large number of drivers escaping bans despite being over the mandatory points level, the number of teenagers missing from home in the district, the roads with the worst accident rates, the cost of emergency cover for teachers taking days off, the number of CCTV cameras in the district, the bonuses provided to a private company that ran Bradford’s education services, the number of so-called shisha lounges in Bradford, and the outstanding amount of money (£174,000) owed in fines to the city’s libraries.

All of these stories are of a clear public interest and none of these requests could in any way be interpreted as frivolous.

It could be argued that all the information above should be readily available to the public without recourse to the FOI Act but it clearly is not, so an FOI request is the only way to get it.

The FOI Act provides a valuable safeguard to prevent public authorities hiding information which could prove embarrassing in some way or may portray them in a bad light, or which is simply something they don’t want to see in the public domain.

The T&A does not make an excessive amount of requests under the FOI, and as I have already said, none of them could be deemed to be frivolous and all have a public interest justification.

In terms of issues with the current legislation, one point that can cause us problems is when a public body which has been issued with an FOI request comes back to us very close to the 20-day deadline asking for clarification of a detail, often a very minor detail, in the request.

By replying within the 20 days, they have met their deadline but that then restarts the 20 day period in which they have to respond. In some cases this is a genuine attempt to seek clarity but it can be, and we believe is, also used as a delaying tactic. One suggested improvement would be a shorter deadline for any clarification requests to avoid any abuse of this

In short, the Freedom of Information is, and has been since its inception, a force for good. We believe its remit should be extended and we would urge members of the Justice Committee to reject any and all attempts to reduce its scope.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012