The Freedom of Information Act is an incredibly useful piece of legislation. As long as questions are framed clearly and concisely, the public has the ability to obtain information that is unavailable elsewhere.
In responding to a request, the public sector organisation has a duty to provide accurate information. Apart from being blatantly obvious, it is also the law. Occasionally, of course, errors will creep into responses. Public sector organisations should do absolutely everything to avoid such errors, but when they occur the organsiations should go above and beyond to rectify their fault.
The TPA makes considerable use of the FOI Act. Data obtained through requests is often published. However there is a worrying trend emerging among public sector organisations, as they try to dodge accountability for having supplied innacurate information to FOI requests. Instead of swiftly admitting culpability for providing inaccurate information and then moving to rectify their error, they have decided instead to smear those who make their errors public.
For instance, Daniel Smith - Communications Officer at Cardiff Vale NHS Trust - recently e-mailed us the following:
"This has come my way and I'm afraid the figures cited for Cardiff and Vale are wrong; this Trust's MRI scans came in at 15,499, not the 1500 or so figure quoted in here. I think this was a typo error by one of our staff to apologies for this, but it's disappointing that no-one your end challenged this unusually low figure."
It is a shame that an incorrect figure was published. But the source of the incorrect figure was the NHS Trust, not the TPA. Moreover, the figure this NHS Trust provided was not actually the lowest number of MRI scans per machine month, and certainly wasn't outside of the range of plausible figures. Public sector organisations cannot expect requesters to check up on every figure they receive back. The duty to reply accurately lies with the public sector organsiation.
The Northern Echo quotes South Tees NHS Trust making complaints about our numbers:
"A spokeswoman for the South Tees trust said: “Our latest figures show we have carried out 36,114 fractions (treatments), or 9,028 per machine, in 2008-9. We also have an expansion plan which will increase capacity.
“We only have four, not five machines.”
Here (DOC) is the response to our FOI from South Tees. It states quite clearly that there were 5 Linacs on site and they produced 31,570 scans in 2008. Quoting a different period in an attempt to undermine our numbers (which the Trust provided) as innacurate is not simply misleading, it is dishonest.
Finally, Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust put out the following quote to the Hull Daily Mail:
"Radiotherapy manager Kay Duxbury said the figures are not relative because not all machines were always in working order at the same time.
She said: "The information provided by the TPA is flawed.
"A total of seven linear accelerators (linacs) were on site in 2008. However, at no point were all seven linacs operational at the same time.
"In 2008 the Radiotherapy Service transferred from The Princess Royal Hospital to Castle Hill Hospital. "Three linacs were installed at The Princess Royal Hospital and in operation until August 2008.
"Four linacs were installed at the Castle Hill Hospital site and became operational on August 26.
"A total of 29,125 fractions were delivered in 2008. The equivalent of 3.3 linacs were in operation which equates to 8,826 fractions per month, which exceeds national guidelines."
Again, here (PDF) is the response we received to our FOI. It states quite clearly that there were 7 machines on site in 2008 and that one was decommissioned in September 2008. No others are listed as having been "bought, replaced or disposed of during 2008", as we asked clearly in our request. We were careful to include a question about machines that were acquired or disposed of during the year to avoid precisely this issue. There was nothing in the Hull trust's response to suggest they hadn't understood the issue.
We will correct our report as soon as possible, but these failures on the part of NHS Trusts hint at a much deeper problem if public sector bodies don't understand that they are responsible for the information they provide in FOI responses.