A POWERFUL illustration of the difference FOI can make came in 2010.

A request revealed that 75 per cent of NHS trusts had failed to act on at least one official safety alert, designed to protect patients from dangerous drugs or equipment. A staggering 80 trusts had each failed to comply with 10 or more alerts. A storm of publicity resulted.

A follow-up request in 2011 showed that most had significantly improved their performance.

A university deliberately lowered the pass mark for pharmacy students in 2004 because 50 per cent were failing the exams. For one module, the pass mark was reduced to a feeble 21 per cent.

Staff who objected were warned that student drop-outs threatened their own jobs. The university’s attempts to block disclosure of key minutes were overturned by the Information Commissioner, because of the public interest in seeing that potential pharmacists were properly trained.

Another FOI disclosure showed that the police recommended prosecuting Cyril Smith for sex offences against boys in 1970, before he became an MP. A separate request revealed that he challenged their investigation and had to be warned against making contact with witnesses who had given statements against him.

Disclosures revealed a significant increase in the number of safety incidents at the Ministry of Defence’s nuclear submarine bases on the Clyde in 2013.

Some involved nuclear weapons and reactors and about half had the potential to cause nuclear contamination if not properly contained.

The Act’s contribution to revealing the MPs’ expenses scandal is well known. But most authorities have felt the pressure of the FOI Act over perks, unjustified spending and contracts that carry on paying even when services are not being provided. One council was recently revealed to have forked out £2,368 a month for its chief executive to drive a Porsche.

The prospect of the public finding out under FOI is a significant deterrent against such spending.

But the Act is now under attack. The Government has set up a commission to examine restricting it. The case for improvements, for example to ensure that public service contractors are properly covered, is not on the agenda.

The commission is considering making it harder to obtain public authorities’ internal discussions to encourage ‘frankness’. The Act already protects them.

Information about possible options is not normally revealed while decisions are being considered. If disclosure is likely to inhibit future discussions they are not disclosed afterwards either, unless the public interest justifies it. The commission is considering removing the public interest test here.

Secrecy would be guaranteed even when critical mistakes had been made, inconvenient evidence ignored or poor decisions taken to satisfy powerful lobby groups.

The Government also has a ministerial veto, which can be used to block disclosures made on public interest grounds.

The Supreme Court has recently made the veto harder to use – the Government wants to reverse the effect of that decision.

Oxford Mail:

  • Cyril Smith MP who was not prosecuted for abusing boys

Many public bodies would like to see charges for FOI requests to deter less ‘serious’ enquiries.

But when a €15 charge was introduced under Ireland’s FOI law in 2003, the volume of requests crashed to 25 per cent of its previous level.

Anyone who has to make a series of requests to find out about a particular problem, or to compare the policies of different authorities in the area, would quickly find cost a deterrent.

Another option would be to make it easier for requests to be refused because of their cost. The commission is considering whether this test should be easier to meet, allowing many more requests to be refused on cost grounds – regardless of the importance of the information.

All these changes would make it easier for authorities to conceal information, weakening the public’s ability to understand and influence decisions and hold them to account. That must not be done.

See the Campaign for Freedom of Information, cfoi.org.uk, for more information.

Maurice Frankel