As you may remember, the government recently set up an independent commission to examine whether this country’s Freedom of Information laws should be made more restrictive.
Back in November, we explained the changes, showed how similar legislation had had undesirable effects in other countries, and urged you to tell the commission how you felt.
It seems that almost 30,000 people and organisations responded to the consultation — a tremendous number, and testament to the strength of feeling around the matter. The commission announced that it would invite some of the respondents to provide oral evidence, in sessions that happened at the end of January.
Transcripts and videos from those sessions are now available on the gov.uk website. They make for fascinating, if somewhat lengthy, perusal. Attendees are from a variety of organisations, including bodies who deal with incoming FOI requests, and those who campaign for our rights under the Act.
If you don’t fancy trawling through all 286 pages, here are a few of our own highlights — the points which really vindicate a service like WhatDoTheyKnow, with its system of publishing responses in public.
Requesting and responding in public saves money
A number of different respondents made the case for the savings that can be made through transparency in FOI. First there was Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner:
If you’ve actually concluded that, under the Freedom of Information Act, you ought to make something available, it makes common sense to make it generally available because then that gives you a reason for not having to publish it a second time, you just refer people to the lot.
Some time that is spent answering these responses would be addressed if there was just a much more open approach to data that is often not particularly controversial, it just adds to people’s understanding about the organisations that help to run their lives and I think we should have a more consistent approach.
Ian Redhead, from the National Police Chief’s Council did have a different opinion:
I always try to convince my colleagues […] that the more we put on a publication scheme, the less questions we’d receive and that’s proved to be absolutely not correct. In year one, we had 15,000 requests. Last year, we had just under 50,000 and we put a huge amount of information into the public environment. So it doesn’t in any way reduce the level of applications we receive.
I suspect they are publishing the wrong information. I don’t think they are looking what the requests are. They are getting requests for what software they are using and when the contracts come up for renewal, that is what they should publish.
Requesting and responding in public increases accountability
The benefits of Freedom of Information can’t always be counted in pounds and pence. What price tag can you put on accountability? Lord McNally had a great example from last night’s paper:
Last night in the Evening Standard it’s revealed that Westminster City Council have spent £90,000 on a new Rolls Royce for their Lord Mayor.
It might be embarrassing for Westminster City Council but why shouldn’t the good burghers of Westminster know how much Westminster City Council is spending on their Rolls Royce.
Well, when you talk about cost and benefit, it’s very difficult to get the full cost benefit, but I suspect, both at national level and at local government level, there’s many a pound being saved by people saying, well, if we do this, it will be FoIed and we’ll have hell to pay.
There were some objections to commercial usage of the FOI Act, where a company, for example, requests information about existing contracts from every council in the country. But here was the counter-argument, put a couple of times by the Right Honourable Lord Howard:
After all, if that information enables the service to be provided more economically or more effectively, isn’t that a public interest?
Requesting and responding in public exposes vexatious requests
There were many mentions of ‘vexatious’ requests — that is, requests which have been submitted with ill intent, whether that be malicious or mischievous.
When requests and responses are published online, one person’s activities become very easy to see, and vexatious behaviour is much more easily proven.
We were interested to see the Police Chief’s Council put a rough figure on the proportion of this kind of request:
IAN READHEAD: Oh, I would think vexatious requests are easily less [than] 3 percent of all requests.LORD CARLILE: So it’s a very smart [sic] proportion?MARK WISE: It’s very small.
Several witnesses mentioned the types of vexatious requests they receive, and the ways in which a requester may make requests within the letter, but not spirit of the law.
It is the vexatious questioner who sends in a request saying: how many members of staff do you have whose first name begins with A, how many whose first name begins with B?, and when challenged says “I am entitled to ask this information under the Act”.
As I understand it, it refers to the individual request and not to requests, so the authority would not be entitled to refuse the request on the basis that the person had submitted many hundreds of like requests for no obvious purpose in recent times.
A final word
Just always remember that data, open data, is what government wants to tell you, Freedom of Information is what we want to know.
There’s no word yet as to when the commission’s findings will be released, but we’ll be sure to let you know when they are.