What use is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 was a major landmark in requiring public bodies to share information which they might otherwise chose to withhold. It has been used by thousands of individuals, journalists, researchers and others.
Some have said it’s an undue burden on public bodies, answering questions from obsessive individuals, “fishing” requests from journalists or doing the work for lazy researchers. There are also temptations to delete records so they cannot be discovered. But generally, it’s seen as a force for greater openness and the public sector is coping.
But it has severe limitations.
PACTS has cited it recently to try to force the Department for Transport (DfT) to publish four reports on road safety – completed long ago but held back. These are:
- The Summary of responses to the Roads Policing Review call for evidence which closed in November 2020. Does it really take two years to summarise 159 responses?
- A research report on the effectiveness of road safety targets, delivered January 2021. Are the findings too inconvenient for the DfT who commissioned it but dislikes targets?
- The e-scooter rental trials monitoring report. Long completed by the consultants, ministers said it would be published in September 2021. Other data on the number of trips, distance, by whom etc are routinely published the DfT? What is so special about e-scooters?
- Research by BritainThinks into road safety semiotics. This would provide useful guidance to communication practitioners. What is so scary for the DfT about publishing it?
Most of the content of these is factual, unremarkable, and of the sort that is routinely published elsewhere. We can see no good reason for withholding it. In fact, putting it into the public domain would allow much more informed public debate about the issues and, we believe, assist the government to make decisions.
Despite repeated requests and appeals citing the FOI, the DfT has refused them all. It claims exemption on the grounds that the government intends to publish these reports, even though previous publication dates have been missed and no new timescales for publication have been set. It is evident that the DfT wants to withhold inconvenient news as long as possible and to release it at the point most advantageous to ministers.
To my mind, this is against the spirit of the FOI and puts all the power in the hands of the public authority. It allows the government to publish when it chooses, and to effectively bury inconvenient information until it is out of date and its value reduced.
Is it time that the Act was changed?
David Davies, Executive Director, PACTS