Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from Newsquest Somerset

Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?

Broadly speaking we are satisfied with the way the Act works. To avoid calling the Act unnecessarily into play, reporting staff are advised to check with the relevant press office whether the information they seek can be obtained more simply—for example by a normal press query or if the information is already available on the authority’s website. We also encourage a constructive working relationship between journalists and FOI Officers at local authorities to minimise time wasted by both parties. If similar relationships were encouraged and fostered as a matter of course around the country the perception that journalists use them as a fishing exercise could be countered.

In some cases journalists have reported that the designated time period for responding has not been met but in general, our local authorities are effective in replying to FOIA requests.

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

The Act has been an invaluable tool in helping us fulfil our watchdog role, a duty that has been increasingly hard to fulfil in an age when more and more decisions being made behind closed doors under delegated powers. With more services outsourced by local authorities, the FOIA has been a way of holding them to account—but an extension of its scope to include companies contracted to local authorities would be welcome. We would view extending its scope to schools which have become Academies as an essential way of keeping them accountable to the public that funds them—especially as head teachers/principals are given more freedom to run the schools as they wish.

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

There is an impression that many local authorities’ starting position is to try to find a reason for not carrying out an FOIA request when they receive one. This has led to journalists having to be specific and careful in the wording of a request to ensure it is reasonable and that exemptions do not apply. In this way, broadly speaking, we would agree that it is operating as it should.

Other Comments

We have published a number of stories following FOIA requests which have been in the public interest.

An FOI request by the Somerset County Gazette to uncover the number of councillors on a district council who had been chased for not paying their council tax on time revealed that the figure was eight over five years. Understandably, readers were shocked at the situation as they expect the highest standards from their representatives.

However, the council refused to name those concerned claiming doing so would breach the Data Protection Act. Our legal advice is that this argument is not valid and therefore stands as an example of how we would have had to have used the appeal process to get the information we believe we were entitled to. Interestingly, a neighbouring authority was happy to deal with a request for the same information as a straightforward press enquiry, although they too declined to name the individuals.

Another example of a successful FOIA request was made to Avon and Somerset Probation Trust. It revealed that nearly two out of five community sentences handed out in one district go uncompleted. The disclosure led to a healthy debate about the validity of such sentences.

The Act has also been used effectively by our readers who have taken it upon themselves to request information and then send us it—this would indicate that it is working effectively.

We have encouraged reporters to submit a FOIA request once every six months—this is to strike a balance between obtaining agenda-setting information and not being seen as time-wasting by the relevant authorities.

The Act is, broadly speaking, right for the age in which we live and any attempt to limit its scope or make requests for information more difficult goes against the principle of open government in a modern democracy.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012