Fight Secrecy! Say Campaigners

Cllr Alan Hall has joined bloggers, campaigners and other journalists supporting the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s crowdfunding initiative to close a funding shortfall.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information played a key part in persuading the Labour government headed by Tony Blair to make and then honour a manifesto commitment to introduce the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2000 and in improving what started out as an extremely weak bill.

However, in his 2010 memoirs Blair took the diametrically opposite view, declaring his earlier support to be that of an “idiot” and a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”. The legislation has faced attempts to weaken it by Governments ever since.

Indeed, Freedom of Information and transparency has hit headlines recently as the tory Government has proposed that the new Health and Care Bill that will establish a Health Services Safety Investigations Body to investigate medical scandals will be exempt from the Freedom of Information legislation.

Campaign for FOI assessment of current threats include:

  • The Health Service Safety Investigations Body is being set up to investigate and help prevent serious patient safety incidents but would be banned from disclosing information under the FOI Act or passing information to a Parliamentary select committee. It would be a criminal offence for a whistleblower to disclose information about its work. Read our briefing for MPs.
  • A new funding body to promote ‘high risk, high reward’ research, with a budget of £800m over four years, will be excluded from FOI altogether under the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill. Read about our campaign here.
  • Home Office proposals to revise the Official Secrets Act will make it easier to convict those who disclose information without authority and substantially increase prison sentences for convicted whistleblowers or journalists. Astonishingly, it says the maximum penalty for leaking, currently 2 years imprisonment, should be the same as that for espionage – 14 years. 

The CFOI are also working to:

  • Close the FOI loophole that prevents the public finding out about public services delivered by contractors. So if, for example, an NHS body uses a private contractor to provide ambulances the public’s right to know how well the service operates will be severely undermined.
  • Ensure that time limits for responding to FOI requests are rigorously enforced.

The Freedom of Information Act gives individuals the right to ask for any recorded information held by a government department, local council, NHS trust, police force or other public body. 

Together with the Environmental Information Regulations these form part of the crucial rights to have access to information from Government bodies.

The United Nations states that work to enhance freedom of information, thereby supporting transparent and accountable institutions, is also important to the rule of law.

It should be remembered that the Aarhus Convention grants the public rights and imposes on signatory countries including the UK and public authorities, obligations regarding access to information and public participation. It backs up these rights with access to justice provisions that go some way towards putting teeth into the Convention. In fact, the preamble directly links environmental protection to human rights norms and expressly recognises that every person has the right to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being. The EU has based legislation on the Aarhus Convention however, the responsibility to implement the various provisions remain in the UK unless the Government propose to leave.

“The Aarhus Convention’s twin protections for environmental and human rights, and its focus on involving the public, provide a mechanism for holding governments to account in their efforts to address the multi-dimensional challenges facing our world today, including climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty reduction, increasing energy demands, rapid urbanization, and air and water pollution” – Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations

Local Authorities are subject to the Aarhus Convention. Cllr Alan Hall asked a Member Question to the newly elected Lewisham Mayor Damien Egan who had taken personal responsibility for the planning portfolio at a full Lewisham Council meeting in July 2018.

The first question posed to Mayor Damien Egan at a full Council meeting in July 2018
Basis for public participation in environmental including planning matters

During the Covid-19 pandemic the Campaign for Freedom of Information has said that there is a severe backlog of FOI requests in some areas. Complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can take a year before it starts investigating some freedom of information complaints.

“Unless the backlog is reduced quickly, both the operation of the Act and the public’s confidence in it will be severely damaged. Regular reporting on the real size of the problem and the time it is taking to carry out substantive investigations is essential to an effective right to know.” – Campaign for Freedom of Information

New challenges face public scrutiny of decision makers with the use of private emails and messaging services like whatsapp. Elizabeth Denham CBE the Information Commissioner wrote in the Municipal Journal that the five key recommendations that anyone handling FoI requests within a public authority needs to bear in mind:

1) Make sure your staff, relevant public officials and elected representatives understand how they can securely access official IT systems and equipment. This should minimise the need to use private correspondence channels.

2) Train staff to recognise which communications relate to official business and which relate to non-official information, across all channels. In the context of local government, you should have a way of distinguishing between official business and an elected official’s work on behalf of their constituents.

3) Review and communicate your records management policy. You should regularly tell staff what they need to do to ensure information related to public authority business is transferred to official systems as soon as possible.

4) When handling FoI requests make sure you consider whether communications held on private correspondence channels, such as WhatsApp, may be relevant to the request.

5) Ensure staff correctly adhere to the relevant policies and procedures and regularly review them to ensure staff knowledge remains up to date. Remember, erasing, destroying or concealing information with the intention of preventing disclosure after a request is received is a criminal offence.

To support the Campaign for Freedom of Information with their crowdfunding please click here.