Don't backtrack on our right to know, ministers

JON WELCH A change in the law is not always cause for celebration. Hardly a month goes by without new legislation of one sort or another being added to the statute book, and to say it is not always very exciting would be an understatement.

JON WELCH

A change in the law is not always cause for celebration. Hardly a month goes by without new legislation of one sort or another being added to the statute book, and to say it is not always very exciting would be an understatement.

That was not the case with new, far- reaching laws that came into force two years ago.

On January 1, 2005, the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) gave us all the power to find out information about public bodies that would previously have been impossible or, at least, extremely difficult.

Since then, the act has been used to reveal an incredible range of information in the public interest.

Take the case of two care assistants in Cornwall, for example.

Most Read

They tried to expose colleagues who, they said, were mistreating and assaulting residents. The care home took no action, and neither did the regulatory body.

The care assistants resigned and sued for constructive dismissal. Only after they made a request under the act did they discover that the regulator had privately criticised the home for failing to report allegations made by seven other members of staff.

An employment tribunal found in their favour, and the home has since improved.

We have learned that the government considered weakening money laundering controls to encourage US-style super casinos in the UK and discovered the cost of contracts, consultants and expenses claims within the National Health Service.

The EDP has made good use of the act, too, using it to break many important news stories.

Last November, we revealed that hundreds of suspected criminals, including accused rapists, robbers and violent offenders, were walking free because police had failed to enforce arrest warrants.

Figures uncovered by the EDP showed that 1,692 people in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire remained at large after skipping bail. About 100 of them were classed as "category A", wanted for serious offences.

Last September, we revealed how police had been called to schools in East Anglia up to 12 times a day over the past year.

Police officers in Norfolk alone were called to 1,737 incidents in school during 2005-06, including 558 thefts, 315 assaults and 43 drug offences.

We revealed the £35,000 cost to taxpayers of dealing with the violence that flared at Thetford after England's exit from the Euro 2004 football tournament.

During the violence, a mob of 300 people besieged a pub containing Portugese fans, including women and children. Up to 70 officers, a police helicopter and at least 14 vans and patrol cars were needed to bring the situation under control.

Behind-the-scenes discussions concerning a museum project in Sheringham were also revealed, thanks to the act.

The EDP obtained papers detailing the minutes of behind-closed-doors meetings about the plans.

The EDP also pressed Norwich City Council to reveal details of its food hygiene reports on cafés, restaurants and takeaways.

The council initially refused to provide the information, claiming it would be too costly and could jeopardise potential prosecutions against failing establishments. Now, the council publishes the information on its website.

In March, 2005, we revealed that local health officials had forecast a cash crisis affecting the NHS in Norfolk two years before it materialised and had tried to prevent it.

The information was unearthed under the act by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb.

Although it is far from perfect, the act has been an important tool in opening doors and discovering information that would otherwise have remained outside the public domain. It has helped to uphold the spirit of openness, transparency and accountability in public life.

Now, however, it is under threat. Proposals under the planned Freedom of Information and Data Protection Regulations 2007 could drastically reduce our ability to use the act.

At present, requests for information can be refused if the cost of searching for that information exceeds £450 or,

in the case of government departments, £600. Ministers want to change the rules, taking into account the cost of considering whether the information should be released to be counted as part of the cost.

While simple requests would be unaffected, any queries that were complex, controversial or just unfamiliar could quickly reach that threshold and be rejected. There is scope, too, for the rules to be manipulated easily by the authorities. Lawyers and other specialists could be called in unnecessarily simply to scupper an unwelcome request.

Authorities would be able to aggregate requests by the same individual or organisation and refuse them all if the total cost exceeded the £450 or £600 thresholds.

Applicants' identity and past record could also be taken into account, with those considered "unco-operative or disruptive" being penalised.

Paul Durrant, assistant editor of the EDP, said: "The Eastern Daily Press has used FoI time and again to uncover stories that otherwise would have been left untold. Hiding behind the new cost regulations would severely curtail what we believe is an important principle of openness and transparency."

Consultation on the proposals ends on Thursday, and the government has said it intends to introduce the new regulations on March 19. An Early Day Motion (EDM) opposing the proposals has been signed by hundreds of MPs from across the parties.

Mr Durrant has written to all the MPs in the region urging them to sign it, with many agreeing or saying they will take up the case with ministers.

North-East Cambridgeshire MP Tory Malcolm Moss, for example, wrote: "My concern is that the government might now be attempting to deter public scrutiny by introducing, in effect, a new stealth tax for information."