All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.
Here in the UK, two names are particularly linked to FOI: Professor Heather Brooke, the investigative journalist who is responsible for the publication of MPs’ expenses, and Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI correspondent.
Today we hear from Heather about the importance of FOI and how she’s used it, and tomorrow you can read Martin’s views.
I took two important FOI cases through the legal appeals process: one seeking the minutes to a BBC Board of Governors Meeting after the Hutton Inquiry1, and my notable legal victory against the House of Commons for details of MPs’ expenses2.
This victory in the UK High Court fundamentally changed law and policy, and for the first time in its history Parliament had to account to an outside body over how MPs’ claimed expenses. The court ruling and subsequent leak of the data led to a number of high-level political resignations as well as full-scale reform of the parliamentary expense regime and passage of the Recall of MPs Act 2015. A new government was elected in May 2010 on a mandate of transparency in part due to the scandal
I made extensive use of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, filing about 500 FOIs and writing some 60 newspaper and magazine articles about the law and its impact on democracy from 2005-2010. I used the law to map and monitor public bodies for the first time in a citizen-friendly way in Your Right to Know. Through FOI I was able to flag up current and future problems such as secrecy in food safety regulation, the postcode lottery for criminal justice, the amounts police spend on public liability claims and propaganda.
Freedom of Information, rooted in Enlightenment values, contains within it a key principle of democracy that there must be access to information (and knowledge) for all equally. My approach in my 25-year journalistic career has been to use FOI as a means of testing the promise and practice of democracy. By their responses to FOI requests, we see how agencies truly think about citizens’ rights to access and participate in the political system.
Read the next installment to learn how Martin Rosenbaum’s use of FOI has underpinned hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories at the BBC.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
1Guardian Newspapers Ltd and Heather Brooke v IC and the BBC (2007) EA/2006/0011; EA/2006/0013
2Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v Information Commissioner & Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman, Jonathan Michael Ungoed-Thomas  EWHC 1084 (Admin) (16 May 2008)
Images: Cameramen at the Hutton Inquiry by Ben Sutherland CC BY-2.0; Heather Brooke by Paul Clarke CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
mySociety has today emailed (and in one case, posted) a set of 3 Principles which we believe it is important that all candidates for Speaker endorse, before the election of a new Speaker by MPs.
1. Voters have the right to know in detail about the money that is spent to support MPs and run Parliament, and in similar detail how the decisions to spend that money are settled upon.
2. Bills being considered must be published online in a much better way than they are now, as the Free Our Bills campaign has been suggesting for some time.
3. The Internet is not a threat to a renewal in our democracy, it is one of its best hopes. Parliament should appoint a senior officer with direct working experience of the power of the Internet who reports directly to the Speaker, and who will help Parliament adapt to a new era of transparency and effectiveness.
We will be posting the status of requests on the likely candidates web pages where we expect large numbers of people to see them before the vote in late June. We have also taken the unusual step of allowing possible candidates to leave a statement of up to 150 words on the principles.
(NB no candidates have actually declared at this stage, so we are starting with the BBC’s list of possibles)
mySociety helped lead the campaign back in January to prevent the last ditch attempts to conceal MPs’ expenses. We did so not because, like the newspapers, we wanted to revel in embarrassment and scandal, but because we believe that in the Internet age, the only way for our democracy and government to thrive is if they are open and connected to the net as the rest of us expect them to be. The dramatic events seen in Parliament in recent days vindicate the view that secrecy breeds poor policies and seeds untrustworthy behaviour in the weaker willed.
Furthermore, more than a simple attitude of openness is required of the new Speaker: the public needs a genuine will to push for technological reform using the power of the Internet that will take both open-mindedness and a willing to tread on toes, especially in some parts of the unelected establishment.
Case in point: Over the last two years we have been trying to persuade Parliament to acknowledge that the way it publishes its Bills online is hopelessly inadequate for the Internet age. The campaign has faltered, despite multi partly endorsement from 140 MPs and a campaign membership of thousands. To see why, just take a look at this colourful and error-crammed internal email that we uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act, published for the first time today.
The new Speaker will have a tough job on their hands to overcome resistance of this kind. The best thing we can do is help the new Speaker, whoever they are, assume their new job with a clear mandate from the public, as well as from members.
That is why, as a final part of this call, we are asking you, our community, to write to your MP today to let them know that you expect them to vote for a candidate that has endorsed the principles above. Your voices to your own constituency MPs can resonate in a way that no blog post or newspaper article ever can. Go to it.
You may have seen a few months ago that mySociety led the campaign to stop the Freedom of Information Act being changed to conceal MPs expenses. And we won, which was nice.
Given the wall-to-wall revelations about taxpayer funded moats and bathplugs, and the new wave of resignations and repayments, we want to exercise a little accountability by reminding readers of the arguments that were used to conceal this information twice in the last two years. These helpful examples should assist mySociety’s friends in keeping an eye out for similar dubious logic in the future.
First, in 2007, a concealment bill was tabled by a backbencher, but which oddly made it all the way to the Lords before failing (it would normally have been struck down by the government). The argument used then was that private mail sent by constituents to MPs would end up in the hands of unscrupulous characters, even though there was already another law to prevent this, and even though hardly anyone appears to have complained to the Information Commissioner about what the proposing MP described as a ‘vexed problem‘.
Then, back in January this year, a different and bold explanation was given: none. Instead, a strange pretence was played out in Parliament, in which the fact that MPs were being given the opportunity to vote to overrule a court-mandated order to publish was simply not mentioned: Watch the video of the Leader explaining what’s going to be voted for – any idea why people might be laughing as she stands up? Can you spot where she explains why the court needs overruling? The only explanation I could find anywhere for this reversal of openness was an anonymous quote in the Guardian.
So here we are after both attempts to hide expenses were defeated, watching as the rules around expenses change substantially and as MPs reach deep into their own pockets: all things that would not have taken place if either of the above proposals had passed. Simply the fact that the rules are changing and that the leaders of parties are apologising must make it clear that the excuses and non-excuses given above were, even if unintentionally, blocking better government.
Despite the obvious pain for MPs this week, and the fact that the whole act is doubtless being cursed across Westminster, we must shout from the hilltops that this week is a great success for the Freedom of Information Act, and a clear justification for why it is worth having on our books.
Bad policies that both wasted money and eroded public trust are being swept away, and it is entirely down to the Act and its supporters. More Freedom of Information will mean more such improvements, and people of good will should support its defence and its extension.
Note: When can the rest of us have the data, please?
UPDATE: If you approve of what we did this week, and what to help make sure we can still do it in the future, please pledge to support us: http://www.pledgebank.com/supportmysociety
The vote on concealing MPs’ expenses has been cancelled by the government!
In other words – we won!
This is a huge victory not just for transparency, it’s a bellwether for a change in the way politics works. There’s no such thing as a good day to bury bad news any more, the Internet has seen to that.
Over 7000 people joined a Facebook group, they sent thousands of emails to over 90% of all MPs. Hundreds of thousands of people found out about the story by visiting TheyWorkForYou to find something they wanted to know, reading an email alert, or simply discovered what was going on whilst checking their Facebook or Twitter pages. Almost all of this happened, from nowhere, within 48 hours, putting enough pressure on Parliament to force change.
Make no mistake. This is new, and it reflects the fact that the Internet generation expects information to be made available, and they expect to be able to make up their own minds, not be spoon fed the views of others. This campaign was always about more than receipts, it was about changing the direction of travel, away from secrecy and towards openness.
Today we stopped moving in the wrong direction. Tomorrow we start moving the right way. Sign up to our news mailing list (box on the right) to get updates on what mySociety gets up to.
7,000 members on the Facebook group, over 93% of MPs contacted. Lots of news coverage: BBC, Daily Mail, Guardian, Telegraph, Times. John Mann MP makes a good point in a letter to the Guardian: “Few of my constituents care about the detail of how I spend their money as long as I do a good job, but nearly all of them care that they have the right to find out if they really feel the need to.”
Tom has updated the main blog post with a quote from President Obama’s speech that I thought was worth repeating, on why this is a much bigger issue than some bits of paper and some minor embarrassment: “And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
If you haven’t already, do write to your MP, and pick up the phone and call your local radio and TV news stations to let them know about this.
We’ve been shown or seen a few responses from MPs, after people wrote to them, saying that they are worried about their addresses being made public. If this is their main barrier to voting No on Thursday, they have nothing to worry about: they voted to exclude their residential addresses (and expenses on security, and future/regular travel) from the Freedom of Information Act in July 2008.
In fact, one of the reasons it is costing so much money to collate and edit these expenses is staff have been going through and making sure precisely that such information would not be released.
It is sad that MPs don’t seem to know what the law is, and I hope someone will stand up in the debate on Thursday and make this point.
A few moments ago the team rolled out changes to our biggest and best known site, TheyWorkForYou.com meaning that every visitor to any page of the site will be greeted with a call to arms on the issue of some MPs voting this Thursday to conceal their expenses. And after the vote, we’ll be prominently publishing who voted which way – there should be a couple of million visitors at least before the next election.
Our explicit goal is to have a lot of constituents from around the country let their MPs know they won’t be impressed with a ‘yes’ vote or an abstention (the same thing in this case), and to build our Facebook group to the point where the mainstream media starts to take notice of this Net driven discontent.
Please do everything you can to get as many people as possible writing to their MPs and joining that Facebook group. We’re doing our bit – please do yours. Together we can stop the encouraging trend of more openness in our Parliament scrunching into reverse.
Update: WE WON! [the following is now for historical interest]
Uh oh. Ministers are about to conceal MPs’ expenses, even though the public has just paid £1m to get them all ready for publication, and even though the tax man expects citizens to do what MPs don’t have to. They buried the news on the day of the Heathrow runway announcement. This is heading in the diametric wrong direction from government openness.
You can help in the following three ways:
1. Please write to your MP about this www.WriteToThem.com – ask them to lobby against this concealment, and tell them that TheyWorkForYou will be permanently and prominently noting those MPs who took the opportunity to fight against this regressive move. The millions of constituents who will check this site before the next election will doutbtless be interested.
2. Join this facebook group and invite all your least political friends (plus your most political too). Send them personal mails, phone or text them. Encourage them to write to their politicians too.
3. Write to your local paper to tell them you’re angry, and ask them to ask their readers to do the above. mySociety’s never-finished site http://news.mysociety.org might be able to help you here.
NB. mySociety is strictly non-partisan, by mission and by ethics. However, when it looks like Parliament is about to take a huge step in the wrong direction on transparency, we’ve no problem at all with stepping up when changes happen that threaten both the public interest and the ongoing value of sites like TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Update: Every page on TheyWorkForYou, our biggest site, is now strongly encouraging people to join the protest.
Update: We’ve sailed past 1000 members to our Facebook group. Onward and upward!
Update: And now past 3000 members! Also, some MPs are claiming that they need to vote for this Order to protect their addresses, even though they already changed to law to do this. Doh!
Update: Now we’re past 6500, and our supporters have mailed their constituency MPs in over 90% of the constituencies in the UK. And rather helpfully, President Obama has just given us a concise explanation for MPs why this is a much bigger issue than some bits of paper and some minor embarrassment:
“And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”