Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from NHS North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire Care Trust Plus

1. It is important to state that organisations providing public services and including those working in the healthcare sector should be open and honest with the public about the way they conduct their business. However there are real concerns about the level of resources that are being taken up by having to comply with the legislative overheads imposed by the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA). It is interesting to note that prior to the introduction of FoIA the NHS operated under a Code of Openness which was overseen by an independent ombudsman. The code included this clause on information requests which could be refused:

Requests for information which are manifestly unreasonable, far too general, or would require unreasonable resources to answer.

2. It is clear from an analysis of the type of requests being received that the FoIA is not always being used in the way in which the government intended it to be. The two Primary Care Organisations in North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire received almost 500 individual requests for information under FoIA in 2011 (with many of these containing multiple questions), a task that requires the almost full time attention of a member of staff simply to administer the system. We estimate that less than 5% of the requests received are from members of the public exercising their legitimate right to scrutinise the organisations business activities. Instead the overwhelming majority are from; businesses seeking commercial information; press agencies and journalists (particularly large areas of the Health Press who routinely ask the same questions month after month); and research students. The size and complexity of many of these requests pose an increasing burden upon organisations at a time when staff numbers and resources are reducing.

It is the view of NHS NL and NEL CTP that the FoIA has a positive intent but is too open to misuse by entities such as businesses seeking commercial advantage and the press. Managing these requests diverts significant resource from supporting access to information for individual citizens.

The strength of the FoIA has been putting into legislation the rights of individuals to be able to gain access to information held by public bodies. There are undoubtedly cases where individuals have been able to get access to data which they would not otherwise have been able to, and we would wish to see this continue through a more focussed process and right of access.

The weakness of such a wide scale legal right is the overwhelming number of cases where the right of access is misused and the subsequent waste of public resources that is needed to be put in place to deal with these requests.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012