Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Laying the ground for an assault on Freedom of Information

Reading the opinions of "civil servants" in the RearGuardian today, I see the ground is clearly being laid for an attack on the current status quo on the Freedom of Information legislation. Moreover, the complaints being made are coming from those with a direct conflict of interest (remember they were said to be "shit scared" at this proposed development previously).

It should be noted that a full on assault on FOI is in progress in Scotland (which has its own FOI commissioner).

Their claims deserve nothing less than a complete fisking:

"The Freedom of Information Act has failed to increase understanding of government"

- Utter crap. The majority of journalists and researchers may have failed to have used it, but the minority who have managed to use it to great effect and have pulled the curtain back on all sorts of issues. I think what the "civil servants" mean here is that it 'failed to increase a general appreciation of *their* understanding of government.'

"may have reduced trust"

- Well yes. Because it has served the essential role of exposing you - exactly as it was intended to do.

" and has done little to improve decision-making in Westminster"

- This at least may be true. Our Parliamentary Muppets certainly act as if they don't fear the outcome of a FOI request - I recently had one returned from the Cabinet Office that confirmed there was no 'draft treaty' for the Boy Cameron to have vetoed. It hasn't stopped the Tories repeating the lie continually. However, this is an issue of exposure as much as anything. They most certainly do fear exposure on Guido's site for example and there's no reason FOI responses could not contribute to some of his exposes.

"Civil servants are also calling for the introduction of higher fees for users of the act. The ministry suggests that the costs do "not adequately reflect the total amount of time spent in practice in compiling the information".

- OK so now you're trying to close this valuable tool down by pricing people out. If you kept better records it wouldn't be so onerous would it. Why do you keep such bad records? Because you know you're unlikely to be held to account for them. Oh.

"Research commissioned by the Ministry of Justice also found civil servants believed freedom of information was not being used to increase accountability, but instead by journalists fishing for a story."

- Fishing for a story? Really? For god's sake. Why is this considered illegitimate? It's not as if the journalists who submit FOI requests are the paparazzi.

"The report found: "It was well recognised by most that journalists have started to use other email accounts in requesting information as a way of masking the origin of the request."

- Diddums. I failed to read the part of the FOIA legislation that stated those making requests were obliged to identify themselves and their interests. You guys have got that Public servant <--> Public relationship the wrong way around again haven't you? Mendacious idiots.

"The chairman of the justice select committee, Alan Beith, said he was a supporter of the act, but added that he was aware some ministers and civil servants wanted to rein in what they regarded as a costly burden on the government."

- It's that relationship confusion again here isn't it? You're already a frighteningly bloated bureaucracy (not to mention increasingly redundant as the EU continues to encroach further). It is frankly offensive that being expected to be transparent and accountable is seen as a "costly burden".

"The report says: "Most officials agreed that the same issues would have been discussed and the same decisions reached had the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] not been in place."

- Indeed. Because you don't actually care what we think. You'll go ahead anyway with your own plans. The way you administer (not to mention completely fail to publicise) "consultations" as pathetic exercises in  confirming what you were going to do anyway, is regular proof of that. At least with the FOIA us Proles get to see some of the inner workings you would rather not were exposed to sunlight.

"The memorandum finds a "very small proportion of the public requests information, whilst media coverage of FOI requests is rarely on policy-decision topics (ie it is far more likely to cover a topic like expenses, crime statistics and so on)".

- Given that you have already admitted you can't always identify journalists amongst the requests, how on earth do you provide this estimate? And yet again you cry like spoiled brats that the media narratives don't necessarily go your way. "Policy-decision topics"? Piss off!

"Overall, the ministry claims, there "is little evidence to suggest the FOIA has increased public participation in government. The number of individuals making requests is insignificant in terms of the UK population. Those who make requests are normally already engaged with government: campaigners, journalists and politicians for instance."

- Again. How in hell do you measure this? It has certainly increased my participation - and the participation of many people I know. And if the number of requests is "insignificant" relative to the population then STFU about how "onerous" it is. And the fact that most requesters are likely to be "already engaged with government" is not only redundant but also no surprise.

"The survey also revealed a frustration at the way in which "serial or vexatious requesters waste time and money by pushing their request through the internal review process and up to the information commissioner". Some believed that such cases should incur a higher fee at a lower threshold of civil service time."

- They just don't let up do they? Poor them, eh? The review process was in place to serve people who want the information, not those who have to provide it. And of course they generally only become vexatious if you stonewall them in the first place.

"The memorandum also suggests the cost of censoring documents for public consumption is so costly that more documents should simply be deemed to be too expensive to publish."

- What? You folks do have the use of computers, right? And aside from personal contact details, perhaps you should just censor *less* in the first place. It's not as if you have anything to hide. Is it?

"The report also cites evidence that some charities and non-profit service providers are holding back from using FOI requests out of fear that it will antagonise the public authorities they rely on for funding."

- Oh really? Is it ANY surprise at all given all the whining already cited above? I've actually wondered the same thing myself when submitting more than one FOI request to the same entity, despite the fact that I am fully within my rights to do so regardless of all other factors.

"Civil servants also claimed their internal discussions were being hampered by the act, saying "some people were recording less information and … internal communications had become less detailed and informative" than before freedom of information."

- Uh huh. And WHY would you want to avoid taking note of certain details?

"Ministry of Justice statistics show that central government departments currently receive a total of about 2,000-2,500 FOI requests a year,"

- W-what? 2-2.5 thousand? That's it?

"Nearly 700,000 requests had been made to local authorities between 2005 and 2010, with the number now reaching 200,000 a year."

- Ah. That's more like it. Quelle surprise - requesters are more interested in their local government. I suspect part of the reason is that Council Tax provides one of the government's few weakspots for collecting revenue (which is why their powers to claim it are so draconian). People might - just might - think they have legitimate reasons for with-holding payment given the multiple spending clusterfucks that Local government is famous for. This is something Richard North has been heroically chronicling for some time. They also - probably rightly - perceive that their local representatives are potentially more accountable and accessible unlike those in the Westminster bubble (and let's not mention the even more distant Brussells bubble, eh?)

After that torrent of Bilge, the top rated comment by davidabsalom at the RearGuardian does at least summarise it best:

"Well they would say that, wouldn't they."


Dick Puddlecote said...

"It was well recognised by most that journalists have started to use other email accounts in requesting information as a way of masking the origin of the request"

Funny they should say that. I've had to do the same as they have started to refuse FOI requests on the grounds that I intend to publish the information.

Heaven forbid!

Dick Puddlecote said...

Forgot to say that it's interesting Tony Blair mentioned in his autobiog that the FOIA was one of his two biggest regrets (the other was the hunting ban!).

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john in cheshire said...

Will us plebs be allowed a say in the future of the FOIA, or has it already been decided by those who want to see it eventually repealed?

Ian R Thorpe said...

It's only a matter of time till they say "Anyone who does not have a degree in politics is not entitled to comment because they can't possibly understand the business of government.

Dol said...

Unrelated: any thoughts on Canada's centralised "protocol" for researchers communicating with the media? Actual, concrete example of government control of scientists' free speech...

"The protocol requires that all interview requests for scientists employed by the government must first be cleared by officials."

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farmland investment said...

A little bit like the poll tax really. Don't abolish FOIA, just make it harder to implement your rights under it.