Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Packet Newspapers

Executive Summary

(1) The FOI is an effective tool.

(2) With it we have become a much more open society.

(3) Authorities and public bodies should honour bound to respond to FOI requests.

(4) The act has forced public bodies to be more open and honest since its introduction but there is still room for improvement.

(5) Councils need to be more open and not obstructive.

(6) The FOI act should be extended to other private sector contractors who submit for Government contracts.

(7) There should be strict adherence to the rules by public bodies over FOI.

(8) The Information Commissioner is under-resourced and ineffectual.

Submission

(1) The FOI act is an incredibly effective tool to hold authorities and other public bodies to account and to facilitate stories in the genuine public interest.

(2) Since the act was introduced in 2005 we have become a much more open society with issues in the public interest exposed which would previously have been swept under the carpet.

(3) Authorities or bodies should be honour-bound to provide information and should be up to them to prove why newspapers shouldn’t have it rather than reporters having to prove why they should.

(4) The act has forced authorities to be more open and honest. One example of this has been the appointment of a transparency and honesty officer at Cornwall Council. However this does not always make a reporters life easier.

(5) An example of this at the Packet newspaper:

An FOI request by this paper to uncover the number of councillors at Cornwall Council who had not paid their council tax since its formation and the dates and venues where the hearings were held was submitted by this paper. Under the terms of the local government finance act of 1992, any councillor who votes to set budgets while behind on their council tax faces prosecution and a maximum fine of £1,000.

Initially the request was refused under the data protection act. This was challenged and it was eventually revealed that four councillors had not paid their tax, although the venues and dates of the hearings were not revealed.

Every single councillor in the council was then asked if they had paid the tax but only one came forward (It later turned out he was not one of the four).

After five months of successive FOI requests and a trawl through magistrates court records the councillors were exposed by the Packet, along with the local BBC news which had also taken up the story. They included the deputy leader of the Lib Dems who had been taken to court three times over non-payment of council tax and had lied about it.

Throughout this process journalists met with nothing but obstruction by the county council and if it hadn’t been for their determination and doggedness of the reporters, this would never been revealed.

(6) Currently the FOI act only applies to public bodies. It should be extended to other bodies as some organisations are finding ways to opt out.

For example schools moving to become academies are no longer covered by the act.

Examples of FOI request to schools in the public interest could include:

Number of exclusions and why.

Number of children receiving free school meals.

Costs to the taxpayer in defence of actions by the school, such as exclusions.

It should also be extended to private sector contractors who secure government contracts to ensure transparency.

(7) Currently the relevant body is able to refuse an FOI requests on the basis of cost. The onus should be on the authority or body to break down the costs to prove why it is too expensive rather than the other way round. There should be strict adherence to the rules as not doing so increases costs.

(8) Relevant departments in bodies can delay and make promises they don’t keep with seemingly no censure.

A simple FOI request to find out the most viewed websites by council staff at the county council took around five months rather than 20 days, despite constant pressure from Packet reporters and apologies and false promises made by the council. The Information Commissioner while knowledgeable and extremely helpful is under-resourced and took too long to sort the situation out. Changes to the legislation needed to ensure this does not happen

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012