Public bodies need to take Freedom of Information more seriously

September 16, 2011 6:07 PM

Freedom of Information (FOI) laws help expose wasteful spending. They have also helped to put pressure on public bodies to publish spending data. Organisations subject to the Act are obliged to respond to requests within 20 working days of receiving them.

However, such laws continue to be ignored by a number of bodies, and they sometimes deliver incorrect or late information.

Most FOI officials are helpful, and do their best to send the correct information out on time. But our friends at Big Brother Watch wrote about some frustrations they encountered earlier this year, citing the example of Northamptonshire Police.

In late 2010, the Information Commissioner’s Officer named and shamed more than 30 public bodies, including the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, for their continuing lack of adherence to FOI rules.

I recently submitted an FOI request about a local GP surgery in Crawley which is due to close over the next few weeks. I wrote to the local Primary Care Trust, as well as the surgery itself. It was public knowledge that the surgery had building work done on it over the last few years, so I asked the PCT how much money they had given the surgery for this – making it crystal clear the building I was referring to.

At the same time, I asked the surgery how much money they had spent refurbishing their building. The request was submitted on 1st August, but to date, I have not received a response. What was more interesting was the reply from the PCT. They said that they over the last three years, they had given almost £55,000 to the surgery for building work, which is now due to shut.

However, when this figure was questioned by a local newspaper, it turns out that the PCT had actually given the money to a nearby surgery operated by the same group. With seemingly little contrition, they issued a statement seeking to clarify the matter. But such errors can cause confusion and misinform debate.

It is disappointing that many organisations funded by taxpayers still do not take their Freedom of Information responsibilities and obligations as seriously as they should do. Mistakes happen, and it's good that they explained their error, but in the interests of the transparency which public bodies speak of, this situation must improve.Freedom of Information (FOI) laws help expose wasteful spending. They have also helped to put pressure on public bodies to publish spending data. Organisations subject to the Act are obliged to respond to requests within 20 working days of receiving them.

However, such laws continue to be ignored by a number of bodies, and they sometimes deliver incorrect or late information.

Most FOI officials are helpful, and do their best to send the correct information out on time. But our friends at Big Brother Watch wrote about some frustrations they encountered earlier this year, citing the example of Northamptonshire Police.

In late 2010, the Information Commissioner’s Officer named and shamed more than 30 public bodies, including the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence, for their continuing lack of adherence to FOI rules.

I recently submitted an FOI request about a local GP surgery in Crawley which is due to close over the next few weeks. I wrote to the local Primary Care Trust, as well as the surgery itself. It was public knowledge that the surgery had building work done on it over the last few years, so I asked the PCT how much money they had given the surgery for this – making it crystal clear the building I was referring to.

At the same time, I asked the surgery how much money they had spent refurbishing their building. The request was submitted on 1st August, but to date, I have not received a response. What was more interesting was the reply from the PCT. They said that they over the last three years, they had given almost £55,000 to the surgery for building work, which is now due to shut.

However, when this figure was questioned by a local newspaper, it turns out that the PCT had actually given the money to a nearby surgery operated by the same group. With seemingly little contrition, they issued a statement seeking to clarify the matter. But such errors can cause confusion and misinform debate.

It is disappointing that many organisations funded by taxpayers still do not take their Freedom of Information responsibilities and obligations as seriously as they should do. Mistakes happen, and it's good that they explained their error, but in the interests of the transparency which public bodies speak of, this situation must improve.

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