Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from NHS Bassetlaw and NHS Doncaster

1. Executive Summary

The following outlines NHS Bassetlaw’s and NHS Doncaster’s response to the Freedom of Information Act—Select Committee Review.

The organisations listed above support the principles behind the Freedom of Information Act, which ensures we are as open and transparent as possible. However we have all identified areas that demonstrate how the Freedom of Information Act is not fully operating in the manner that it was intended, including:

Media/Commercial Business requests.

Time limits.

No Differentiation of requestee.

2. Introduction

In the current climate of NHS restructuring NHS Bassetlaw and NHS Doncaster are working closely together, with integrated teams for Finance and Primary Care. To this effect the following information has been submitted jointly by both PCT’s.

3. Factual Information

NHS Bassetlaw:

Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?

Each organisation has on it’s website a copy of the Information Centre’s Publication scheme which outlines what information the organisation will publish. However, very few requests actually fall into this category where you can re-direct the requestee to the relevant section of the website.

The majority of the requests ask for very specific items, either before they get finalised for inclusion in website material or would not be intended for routine publication.

The act is effective in the sense that it ensures public sector organisations are open and transparent; however there should be more “protection” for public sector organisations in terms of how requests can be made. Too many requests are very vague in nature which then entails extra work for the identified lead as they have to try an interpret the request, and by this very nature, if all PCTs were asked for the same thing, and all interpreted the request differently then the data captured would be useless for comparison purposes.

There should be a more structured way in which requests could be made, which would involve the requestee putting a bit of thought into what it is they require. We are not suggesting creating onerous bureaucracy as this defeats the principle of being open, but some form of structure into how requests are made could help to improve the system. At the moment, this can be in any form of writing, and does not have to mention the Freedom of Information Act in the request.

Exemptions are also quite technical in nature, which we understand they have to be, but it would be useful to have a more user friendly exemption list and real life examples where they could be applied.

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

Strengths:

Act ensures public sector organisations are open and accountable.

Publication Scheme ensures we publish some information on our web site.

Allows for research opportunities from public sector organisations that would have previously been unable to be carried out, ie local people can use the act to find out how a certain decision was derived etc.

Weaknesses:

Current protection for organisations on time limits and costs of answering the questions. The time taken to review the material and considering whether or not is exempt and then actually redacting the information cannot be included in the estimation of the time it would take to comply with the request.

The Act can be used by private companies to “fish” for contacts and other information, where the only purpose appears to be to further their own business interest.

Requestees do not have to disclose why this information is required. As part of an amended request process categories could be used so that the intended use is asked for, with a clear message about the Re-Use of public sector information.

Each organisation has to have its own Re-use of Public Sector Information rules in place. If there was a standard policy and charges attached for re-using the information for commercial purposes, then it would help organisations.

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

From the PCT’s perspective we would say no it isn’t fully operating in the way it was intended. Again we think it is fair and right that we are open and transparent, but the resource implications for dealing with requests are high. As mentioned in the first question, the publication scheme is in place and we publish information on our website, however the majority of requests that are received are not usually covered by the information already published.

Also journalists are able to send one email off to all NHS organisations without necessarily doing any of the ground work themselves. The FOI Act doesn’t differentiate between the senders of requests, which under the principles is fine, however journalists requests account for approximately a quarter of all requests, and if the same requests is sent to all NHS organisations then the resource required to answer these soon adds up.

Please note NHS Bassetlaw received approximately 80 journalist requests in 2011.

NHS Doncaster:

Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?

The intention of the Freedom of Information Act was to provide accessible information to the public. The requirement for a Publication Scheme has absolutely supported our public sector organisation to provide more information to the public in an accessible format and has encouraged us to put more information into the public domain.

However the opportunity to make very specific requests has not encouraged the high numbers of members of the public as intended. Instead, it is predominantly used by commercial organisations and journalists and managing the very specific requests made by these groups is a burden on our organisation in a climate of reducing staffing levels.

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

Strengths:

more information available in the public domain, which supports us to better engage with our population on commissioning priorities etc.

Weaknesses:

it feels like the specific request system is being over-used by commercial organisations, journalists, and also by students for their dissertations. The number of requests from members of the public is low compared to these three groups. There is a cost attached to each request, and in 2011 alone we responded to 389 requests, several of which had further follow-up questions.

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

No, for the reasons outlined above.

4. Recommendations

Consider the time limits organisations have before the exemption applies

For Health Organisations, consider differentiating between a member of the public requesting information as compared to a journalist or commercial company.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012