Points of View 9th October 2015

8 case studies which show why we need to #saveFOI

by Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Josephine was a Policy Analyst at Involve. She worked on the Open Government Partnership and supported the coordination of the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network.

6555467573_3e8e837710_oThose of us who work in improving governance, and challenging government to be more open and accountable, can sometimes overlook the fact that most people don’t see the world through the prism that we do. When we talk about making government more transparent, or accountable, or participatory, sometimes we don’t tell the story about why those things are important, and how they make a difference to people’s lives.

The government has set up a commission to look at the scope of freedom of information laws, which we’re concerned may result in the scope of the Act being narrowed. So it’s even more important now to explicitly draw a connection between access to information laws and their tangible effects on people’s lives. We need to better tell the story of how Freedom of Information has been integral in exposing corruption, scandals and mismanagement, and how it’s made a difference. Here are 8 case studies of public interest stories which show why we should #saveFOI:

  1. GP practices are being offered financial rewards for not referring patients to hospitals. We recently found out that GP practices are being offered thousands of pounds to cut the number of patients they refer to hospitals. First appointments for cancer – that should occur within two weeks of a GP suspecting the disease – are included in some of the targets to cut referrals. The rewards are being offered by clinical commissioning groups (CCGs). This was revealed through FOI requests made by Pulse magazine.
  2. The MPs Expenses Scandal. The journalist Heather Brooke worked for years to get this information in the public domain by making FOI requests, and the House of Commons fought hard to keep it secret. But the people’s right to know was upheld in 2008. This fundamentally changed how politicians behave; now there is an expectation of transparency and MPs understand that if they misuse our money, we will know about it.
  3. People with degenerative health conditions were being judged fit for work by the DWP in 2014 and had their benefits cut. We found out in 2014 that more than a third of very ill people with conditions which will only worsen over time were having their ESA (Employment Support Allowance) slashed because the DWP deems they will recover enough to look for work. This was revealed through a joint FOI request by charities representing people with MS, Parkinson’s, Motor Neurone Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Cystic Fibrosis.
  4. British pilots carry out air strikes in Syria despite the Commons voting against military action in Syria. David Cameron was aware for months that British pilots were carrying out air strikes in Syria, but failed to reveal this to the House of Commons despite MPs voting specifically against the UK taking part in military missions in the country. This was revealed through an FOI request by the pressure group Reprieve this year.
  5. The scandal of 15 minute home care visits. Much of the home support provided to elderly or vulnerable people is supplied in short 15-minute visits commissioned from private providers. It is often impossible to provide the range of support people may need in this time. A 2013 FOI request by Unison revealed that 69% of English councils provided at least some of their care in 15 minute slots with 83% of Welsh authorities and 88% of Scottish councils doing so. The disclosures have fuelled a campaign to abolish the practice, leading the Department of Health to issue statutory guidance under the Care Act in October 2014 stating that 15 minute visits are “not appropriate”.
  6. Liberal MP Sir Cyril Smith put pressure on police to drop investigations into his alleged sexual abuse of children. The late Liberal MP confronted police at a Rochdale police station and tried to dissuade them from investigating claims that he had been sexually abusing young boys. This story was revealed by an investigation by the Manchester Evening News in 2013 which made use of FOI. Sir Cyril was never tried despite Greater Manchester Police admitted there had been ‘overwhelming evidence’ that he abused boys both physically and sexually.
  7. The remains of more than 15,000 aborted or miscarried babies were incinerated as ‘clinical waste’ by hospitals. In 2014, an FOI request by Channel 4’s Dispatches revealed that at least 15,500 foetal remains were incinerated by 27 NHS trusts between 2012-14. In response the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice.
  8. A number of foreign diplomats have been arrested for crimes including rape, assault and robbery, but have been protected under immunity from prosecution rules. The immunity, which also covers family members who are part of the diplomat’s household, grants exemption from arrest or detention. This was revealed by a 2011 FOI request submitted by the Evening Standard.

Some of these uses of FOI are one-offs which have forced the government and the authorities to change the rules. Some have been a small part of a larger jigsaw puzzle to understand a wider issue. With others the impact is not so clear. But in each case, it’s been in the public interest for the details to be known.

Changing internal governmental cultures and structures is not the top priority for most citizens. Yet we know, and the case studies above demonstrate, that a more open government will be an antidote to corruption, injustice and wrongdoing. We just need to make sure other people know too, or we risk allowing the clock to be turned backwards on open government.

Photo credit: opensource.com