The barriers to transparency

Today’s Times carries a must-read account of the difficulty that can be encountered when pursuing Freedom of Information (FoI) requests. Martin Sixsmith, a former senior Civil Servant, was ousted from Whitehall after being blamed for the misbehaviour of Stephen Byers and his spin doctor. Keen to find out who had been behind his removal, Sixsmith submitted a FoI request for subject access on all of the information that the Government held on him. He found plenty of obstacles to obtaining the information:

“we have faulty IT equipment; manpower shortages; new priorities; “I am on holiday in France, R. Smith, Data Controller”; pressure of other business; change in IT supplier; the need to consult widely; Christmas leave commitments; third-party interests; concerns over data security…”

Eventually he took his case to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), who believed that “the Government had probably contravened the act”. With little more progress, Sixsmith described the scene at the ICO’s headquarters in Cheshire after requesting an interview there:

“I found an understaffed, cowed and demoralised organisation with nothing like the clout and resources the job demands. Staff members told me that they were stressed, overworked and scared of challenging the Government (which pays their wages).”

As guardians of the FoI Act, this office should be properly equipped to do its job, and here at the TaxPayers’ Alliance we are all too aware of how long referrals take to pass through the ICO; it should also be unequivocally free from any Government pressure.

Back to Mr Sixsmith: he eventually took his case to the Information Tribunal – the highest authority on FoI – and was denied a public hearing. During his case he enquired what it had cost the Government to ‘fight’ his request:

“the Government was represented by two QCs, the ICO by one, and the panel of judges included a further two QCs — but I was told that it was not in the public interest for me to know this. One of the lawyers told me later that the figure was in the hundreds of thousands of pounds”.

Three years after his initial request, information began to land on Mr Sixsmith's doormat ; heavily redacted, naturally. A properly transparent Government with a functioning ICO would not only let taxpayers see how their money is spent, but would also save them money.

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