By Martin Rosenbaum
The Freedom of Information Act came in 10 years ago. It’s led to the unearthing of a trove of facts.
Ten years ago, thanks to the actions of a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”, the British people acquired an important new legal right.
That anyway is how Tony Blair castigates himself in his memoirs for allowing his government to proceed with introducing the Freedom of Information Act. The law, which came into force on 1 January 2005, gives everyone the right to obtain much of the information held by public authorities (with numerous substantial exceptions).
FOI has become a well-established tool for finding out more about the workings of central and local government and the rest of the public sector. So after a decade of freedom of information, what have we discovered that we might not know otherwise – and what does that tell us about the impact of FOI?
1. MPs’ expenses
The scandal over expenses that erupted in 2009 led to prison terms for five Labour MPs and two Conservative peers. A slew of others had to repay money.
Arguably the most famous of the claims revealed was one which Commons officials had ruled “not allowable”. Sir Peter Viggers tried to claim £1,645 for a floating duck house in the garden pond at his constituency home.
The whole episode was exposed as a direct result of a series of FOI requests.
After losing a lengthy legal battle about how much detail they would have to release under FOI about MPs’ expense claims, the Commons authorities were forced to collate millions of invoices, receipts, letters and other documents going back over several years to prepare them for disclosure.
This raw material was then leaked to the Daily Telegraph, which in May 2009 ran story after story about highly embarrassing, greedy, unjustifiable and sometimes criminal behaviour by politicians.
It led to numerous resignations and retirements, the repayment of significant sums, the creation of a new parliamentary pay and expenses system, and a reputational disaster for Parliament and the political class generally.
Some British diplomats initially ridiculed suggestions that the accession of Poland and other east European countries to the European Union in 2004 would lead to widespread immigration into the UK.
One message, for example, from the British Embassy in Warsaw reporting back to the Foreign Office in London had stated: “One month after succession and the tumbleweeds are not yet blowing down the streets of Poland. As experts had predicted the country has not yet moved en masse to the UK.”
Much internal government discussion is still kept secret despite FOI, on the basis that disclosure would harm the frankness of the policy formulation process. But sometimes such material is released.
3. A&E ambulance delays
Some patients taken by ambulance to accident and emergency departments are kept waiting in the vehicle for much longer than the recommended 15 minutes, with people having to wait for several hours in some cases.
This report from 2013 is one of numerous FOI-based surveys which have explored different aspects of the pressures on hospital A&E departments and their consequences. It exemplifies how FOI can often be used to monitor how public services are performing, whether targets are being met in practice, and how badly they may be missed in some cases.
The longest waits for ambulances were in Wales, with a record of 6hrs 22mins and an average waiting time of 20 minutes.
4. Unanswered 101 calls
Hundreds of thousands of phone calls to the 101 non-emergency police number have been going unanswered annually, suggesting that callers hang up rather than wait a long time for an answer.
The data for nine months of 2012 covering 30 out of 43 English and Welsh police forces showed nearly half a million calls were unanswered. For six particularly poorly performing forces the average waiting time exceeded the target of 30 seconds. In some areas the worst waits approached half an hour or even longer.
FOI makes it easier to obtain this kind of performance data for public services, helping members of the public who have a frustrating experience of calling 101 to discover whether their case is isolated or all too common.
5. Knife amnesty
In 2006 widespread concern about knife crime and some particularly horrific cases led police to arrange a highly publicised knife amnesty. Tens of thousands of knives that could have been used as weapons were handed in.
A Metropolitan Police statistical evaluation of the amnesty in London concluded that a few weeks after this operation rates of knife crime were running at pre-amnesty levels. The amnesty appeared to have no long-term impact on reducing this form of violent crime, a fact which only came to light as a result of an FOI request for the report.
Thus freedom of information helped to reveal whether or not a particular public policy was actually having the desired impact.
6. MOT failures
Figures comparing how different makes and models of cars fared in MOT tests were released in 2010.
This followed an 18-month dispute between the BBC and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, part of the Department for Transport. VOSA argued that disclosing the data would breach commercial confidentiality, but were forced to concede by the Information Commissioner, who backed the BBC’s request for the data.
It’s one of a number of cases where FOI disclosures have only happened after requesters persisted in taking their case to the Information Commissioner or the Information Rights Tribunal, which can overrule public authorities who refuse to supply information.
7. Policing the Old Firm
This might be the area where FOI has probably had the most far-reaching impact – discovering how much public money is being spent on what. The circumstances in which it can be argued that releasing this would be against the public interest are limited.
8. Restaurant hygiene
Food hygiene ratings for hundreds of thousands of restaurants, cafes and shops are now publicly available thanks to FOI.
In the early years of freedom of information, Bridgend Council in south Wales refused an FOI request for a copy of a food hygiene inspection report for a local hotel. But it was then overruled by the Information Commissioner, whose decision effectively set a precedent that such reports should be in the public domain.
Now food hygiene scores are routinely disclosed (and many outlets display their own ratings themselves). Most of the information is easily available on the website of the Food Standards Agency.
It exemplifies how information which was once secret first went through a phase of being accessible only via FOI and has now become open data, routinely published by public authorities without anyone having to ask for it.
9. Older police
Whether or not police officers look younger to you, they’ve actually been getting older on average.
In 2013 it was revealed that the number of police officers under 26 in England and Wales fell by nearly half over a period of two years. In contrast the number of officers over 40 stayed roughly unchanged. In other words the fall in police numbers has affected the younger age range, at a time when there is concern about the fitness of police officers.
The Home Office went to the trouble of collecting this information from individual police forces. But it didn’t publish the figures until an FOI request asked for them – an example of how freedom of information can bring into the open data that is already being collated centrally.
10. Exchange rate crisis
The Treasury calculated that the cost to the UK government of the dramatic but futile attempt to keep the value of the pound tied to European currency exchange rates in 1992 was about £3bn.
If that sounds like a lot of money, it’s a fraction of the estimates involving tens of billions that were previously being made. The exchange rate crisis became the defining political disaster of John Major’s period as prime minister. But there are many who argue the result of the crisis was a boost to the British economy.
This was one of the earliest high profile FOI disclosures, coming out in February 2005 only a month after the new law came into force. It illustrates how FOI can shed new light on recent political history, years before the standard timing for the release of historical government records would have applied.