Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from The Press newspaper in York

POST-LEGISLATIVE SCRUTINY OF THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT 2000

We are aware that the committee is scrutinising the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As a local newspaper that has long prided itself on its investigative and campaigning role within our community, we feel it is appropriate for us to highlight our experiences of the legislation.

Since the FOIA came into force in 2005, it has allowed our journalists to uncover stories of significant public interest that would otherwise have remained hidden. We believe that the Act has been a great force for good, in holding public authorities to greater account and allowing the public unprecedented access to information of public interest.

We have read with interest the memorandum by the Ministry of Justice, which has been presented to the committee. We are concerned with the suggestions that FOIA requests from journalists may be perceived as a “drain” on resources, and that it is perhaps not “fair” for public money to be spend answering such questions. (page 104 of the memorandum). We are concerned also by the suggestion that requests are submitted with the overarching aim of obtaining “a “good” media story or to irritate organisations”. (page 127 of the memorandum). It is our view that the FOIA was a long-overdue recognition of the public’s inherent ownership of public information, and of its right to see that information free of charge (certain exemptions notwithstanding).

It is correct that any news organisation is always keen to source “good” news stories. However we believe it would be a mistake to believe that FOIA requests by the media are, by and large, speculative or frivolous.

Within our newsroom, the FOIA has been used pointedly and with consideration, to unearth information that we believe to be in the public interest, and which would otherwise not have been made available to our readers. Most of our reporters have undertaken dedicated training in the FOIA and use it carefully and as a means of trying to corroborate and verify stories on which they are already working.

Public organisations are increasingly keen to manage their reputations, meaning that official statements in response to media inquiries are invariably polished responses by professional communications experts. They are routinely loath to provide information that reflects poorly on their organisation. The FOIA has been invaluable in ensuring that a press officer’s reluctance to divulge such information does not prove decisive. Used well, the FOIA is a way to prove, or disprove, an existing line of journalistic inquiry.

It is perhaps useful to detail some examples of where the Act has proved beneficial, to us and to our community:

(1)In 2005, City of York Council considered, before ultimately shelving, proposals to move a homeless hostel known as Arc Light to a new location, in a busy residential area. Many local residents were unhappy about what they perceived as a lack of open-ness. In December 2005, through the FOIA, we obtained council minutes and correspondence showing that the proposal was being discussed five months before local people were told, and were able to show the level of concern within the council itself, about the lack of consultation.

(2)In 2006, a woman was killed crossing the A64 in North Yorkshire, after alighting from a bus. Documents released under the FOIA allowed us to reveal that a safety audit carried out previously had already identified the dangers to pedestrians at the site.

(3)In November 2006, before the Home Office policing website was enabling detailed crime-data to be easily accessed by the public, we ran a three-day investigation based on FOIA requests, showing the varying crime patterns across every council ward in York.

(4)In late 2006, we were told that fingerprint scanners were in use in York schools. In January 2007, using information obtained under the FOIA, we revealed that 12 York secondary schools were using such scanners in their libraries or canteens, including two without parents’ knowledge. Privacy campaigners and local politicians raised concerns over the practice. As a result of our story, one of the schools suspended use of the scanners, the two schools that had not informed parents wrote to all parents to explain the system, and local politicians lobbied the Government for clear guidance on the propriety of the practice. Such guidance was issued later that year.

(5)In 2008, City of York Council was planning a move to new headquarters at a site known as Hungate. The move caused great controversy, including due to the unpopular design of the proposed building and the cost involved. In July 2008, after English Heritage objected to the council’s planning application, the council abandoned the proposal. Using the FOIA, The Press was able to obtain an internal memo from the council’s conservation architect, which warned the planning department even before the proposals were tabled that the building was inappropriate. We also used the FOIA to obtain correspondence between English Heritage and the council, showing that the former had indicated support for the scheme before performing a late U-turn. In essence, the Act allowed us to give crucial detail to our readers about how the project had collapsed.

(6)In 2008, City of York Council hired external consultants to advise them on a cost-cutting programme, but a dispute meant the consultants walked off the job before it was finished. The council leader had declared that they would be paid only if they achieved savings but we discovered they had been paid £600,000. In 2011, using the FOIA, we were able to prove that they had then been paid a further £211,000 of public money to settle a legal dispute. Council expenditure on external consultants is now considerably lower than in past years.

(7)In 2008, we were informed by a source that several council laptops had been stolen. The FOIA enabled us to ascertain that 12 had been stolen and to reveal that confidential data was on some of the machines. A few weeks later, the council announced it was to improve security on its computers.

(8)In 2010, we were made aware of concerns over data management at North Yorkshire Police, particularly over suggestions that the force was effectively harvesting callers’ information for its database as an end in itself. We had a lengthy FOIA wrangle with the force, which initially refused to answer many of our questions. Eventually, after we appealed, we were given enough information to reveal that tens of thousands of people who had never been accused, nor suspected, or an offence were being kept on the force’s “niche” database; that police staff had been told to routinely ask callers for their ethnicity and date of birth, as well as their contact details, so they could be added to the database.

(9)We were informed that, in 2010–11, City of York Council had paid a PR consultant, Jim Knight, to help present the case for its “community stadium” project. Such expenditure was criticised by opposition councillors but the council would not detail the consultant’s involvement. Through information released under the FOIA, we were able to show how many days’ work he had done for the council, and what his remit was. We are in the process of trying to ascertain how much he was paid. The council has since confirmed that it will not spend public money on Mr Knight’s services again.

(10)In 2011, North Yorkshire Police merged its two control rooms into one. We were informed that the move had not gone smoothly. The force would not voluntarily give any detail about the problems, but under the FOIA, we were able to reveal that the force was taking twice as long to answer 999 calls as it was 12 months earlier. Response times have since improved.

In our experiences, the Act generally works well. Most public authorities are aware of the legislation and, with rare but notable exceptions, they usually meet the time limits.

Our most consistent concern with the legislation is that many public authorities, when not disclosing information, rarely adhere to the obligations in Section 16 of the Act, namely the duty to advise and assist the applicant. Our local police force is particularly poor in this regard, consistently failing to offer assistance on how a request could be amended, or on which information similar to that requested could be released. More often that not, we receive a response far later than the 20th working day and with a straight refusal, devoid of any assistance.

Many public authorities have embraced the FOIA by publishing online all information they disclosed under the Act. We regard this as good practice, and believe it may be beneficial if more authorities were encouraged to follow suit.

We do believe that the imposition of charges to any applicant would be a retrograde step, in that it would deter applicants and therefore potentially prevent information that should be made public from being disclosed. Similarly, we believe that the reduction of the cost threshold for public authorities, without a corresponding duty on them to provide a cost breakdown, would enable authorities to withhold information without first giving adequate consideration and deliberation to the case.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012