Regional press joins fight against proposed FoI curbs

Regional newspapers are lobbying the Government over proposals to change the Freedom of Information Act.

The Justice Select Committee is set to begin a post-legislative inquiry into the act this month when it will consider plans to reform the law, with a Ministry of Justice study finding that requests from journalists are considered a ‘drain’on public resources among some public bodies.

Other authorities that come under the remit of the act have questioned whether it is fair to devote resources for those ‘looking for the next news story’and suggested that journalists and the public should be charged for making requests.

In response the regional press has put forward its own proposals, with the Newspaper Society also highlighting concerns over delays, exemptions and costs.

Here is a round-up of the responses:

Newsquest Midlands South

The Worcester News publisher said that FoIs were an important tool for newspapers in their role of holding public bodies to account and that it was opposed to any change to the law that would make it easier to reject a request on cost or time grounds.

‘We take our responsibilities as local newspapers seriously and do not make spurious requests or overuse the system,’it said.

Stories uncovered by FoIs include:

  • The £3m a year pension bill for retired local police officers who were still working for the force in civilian roles
  • The fact that 60 Community Support Officers in south Worcestershire had not issued one fixed penalty notice in an entire year
  • The growing cost of translation fees for dealing with immigrant crime in the county
  • The number of threats to health in ‘serious untoward incidents’ in local hospitals
  • Details of duplicate expense claims made by a councillor.

The company said: ‘In many cases the FoI Act has helped to improve openness from some public bodies but, sadly, there remain others who see the role of the PR department as news management rather than helping the Press carry out their independent role on behalf of local people and communities. This is where the FoI plays an important part.”

David Higgerson, FoI specialists and Trinity Mirror digital publishing director

In his submission Higgerson said that for regional journalists FoIs had become an ‘indispensable tool’but highlighted several areas for improvement, and warned about the growing number of cases where councillors or other politicians have become involved in FoI decisions.

He said it was not uncommon for reporters to submit a request only to be asked about it by a press officer. ‘This goes against the spirit of ‘applicant blind’ and could encourage a culture where reporters have to use fake names to get information,’he said. ‘Press officers should have the same access to all FOI requests, and not treat press ones differently.”

The use of cost limits was another concern and Higgerson believes that a breakdown of how the cost limit breach was worked out should be mandatory.

He also points to an ‘active misunderstanding of questions”. He said: ‘One example involves a reporter asking about bed-blocking and being told the hospital trust in question did not suffer bed blocking. When asked under FoI about ‘delayed discharges’ a full breakdown followed. It is unfair to expect members of the public to be experts in terminology when submitting FoI requests.”

Herald & Times Group, part of Newsquest

The Herald & Times called for the act ot be improved by expanding it to cover arms-length organisations and other publicly-funded bodies which at present do not come under the terms of the act.

It argued: ‘Basically, any freedom of information legislation should apply to organisations which rely on public funds, in the interests of transparency.”

It also expressed reservations over the act’s commercial confidentiality clause, which it said can ‘mask important spending decisions which should be exposed to public scrutiny”.

The group also believes the onus should be on public bodies to prove that ‘commercial confidentiality is a real issue”.

‘We make FoI requests on a highly-targeted basis where we believe matters of genuine public interest are at stake. We believe that the benefits to public accountability and transparency outweigh any burden that public bodies may feel in meeting requests, many of which come from non-media members of the public.”

Stories uncovered by FoIs include:

  • An illegal donation made to Scottish politician Wendy Alexander’s campaign to become Scottish Labour Party leader which led to her resignation
  • Questions over the expenses of Labour MP Jim Devine, who was later jailed.

KM Group

The KM Group, whose political editor Paul Francis is considered an expert on FoI matters, said the act had ‘improved transparency and accountability, particularly in the area of greater openness about how public money is being spent”.

But one of its weaknesses, the group argued, were the delays involved in receiving information requests. ‘Our experience is that many requests either are not responded to within 20 days or, if they are, the response comes on day 20 – even relatively straightforward ones,” it said.

It also argued that the public interest arguments can be ‘flawed’and that some authorities were unaware of guidance surrounding time extensions, and criticised the ‘time consuming’appeals process via the Information Commissioner’s Office and questioned whether public bodies ‘always consider requests neutrally”.

It is also against any plans to beging charging fees were for information requests. ‘We do not accept that FoI places a disproportionate burden on bodies, not that the media are responsible for a greater number of requests than any others,’it said, producing the following evidence:

  • ‘In 2010, Kent County Council – the largest English county council – dealt with 1,539 separate requests – about three times as many as when the Act first came into force in 2005. It estimates that the hours spent dealing with these requests was 4,779 and the average cost of dealing with a request was £78 – compared to £71 the previous year.
  • “The bulk of requests did not come from journalists. The media accounted for 16 per cent of all requests; private individuals accounted for 58 per cent and companies 18 per cent.
  • “The cost of dealing with 246 requests from the media was £19,188. In the context of KCC’s annual £2.4billion budget, that represents 0.00007995 per cent of its total spend. It’s far less, for example, than the £1.7m KCC has to spend on members allowances and expenses each year which accounts for 0.07 per cent of its budget.”

York’s The Press

The Press also insisted that FoIs were used ‘pointedly and with consideration’in its newsroom and that most of its reporters had undertaken dedicated training to use it as a means of ‘trying to corroborate and verify stories on which they are already working”.

It said: ‘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 FoI has been invaluable in ensuring that a press officer’s reluctance to divulge such information does not prove decisive.

Stories uncovered by FoIs include:

  • “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.
  • “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.”

Perry Austin-Clarke, editor of the Telegraph & Argus

Austin Clarke said that while the ideal would be local authorities, health trusts and police forces to be more open with information, the reality was that is seldom the case.

‘The political nature of local government in particular – although this can apply equally to all public bodies – means that information tends to be released with a degree of ‘spin’designed to shield unpleasant facts or difficult situations from the public glare,” he said.

‘So the FoI Act can help to highlight issues which have a genuine public interest by drawing out facts that public bodies often do not want brought to the fore.”

Stories uncovered by FoIs include:

  • The issue of asbestos in schools, exposing the extent to which teachers and pupils may have been exposed to the deadly substance.
  • The revelation that £2.5 million of a local council’s maintenance bill was spent on paying out compensation for people who tripped on pavements, that Bradford Council paid out £3 million in overtime despite the ongoing financial cuts, and the fact the council spent almost £500,000 on mobile phone bills – a figure subsequently reduced by £100,000 as a result of the pressure generated by public exposure.
  • The roads with the worst accident rates, the cost of emergency cover for teachers taking days off, the number of CCTV cameras in the district, the bonuses provided to a private company that ran Bradford’s education services.

Austin-Clarke said: ‘All of these stories are of a clear public interest and none of these requests could in any way be interpreted as frivolous. It could be argued that all the information above should be readily available to the public without recourse to the FoI Act but it clearly is not, so an FoI request is the only way to get it.”

He added: ‘In terms of issues with the current legislation, one point that can cause us problems is when a public body which has been issued with an FoI request comes back to us very close to the 20-day deadline asking for clarification of a detail, often a very minor detail, in the request.

“By replying within the 20 days, they have met their deadline but that then restarts the 20 day period in which they have to respond. In some cases this is a genuine attempt to seek clarity but it can be, and we believe is, also used as a delaying tactic.’

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