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WrittenevidencefromBenLeapman Background 1.IamcurrentlyDeputyNewsEditorofTheSundayTelegraph,apositionIhaveheldsince2008. PreviouslyIwasHomeAffairsCorrespondentofTheSundayTelegraph(20062008),HomeAffairs CorrespondentoftheEveningStandard(20042005)andPoliticalReporterfortheEveningStandard (19992004). 2.AsaworkingjournalistIhavesubmitteddozensofrequestsundertheFreedomofInformationAct (FOIA)toWhitehalldepartments,publicbodies,andcouncils.Inowhelptomanageateamof reporterswhoregularlymakeFOIArequests. 3.InFebruary2007IwasoneofaroundadozenseniorjournalistsandeditorswhometBaroness AshtontolobbyagainstproposedchangestoFOIA,whicharosefromtheFrontierEconomicsreport commissionedbytheMinistryofJustice(MoJ).Wearguedthatthechangeswouldseverelycurtail thepublicsrighttoknow.TheproposalswerelaterabandonedbyGordonBrownsgovernment. 4.IwasoneofthethreejournalistswhoseFOIArequestsfordetailsofMPsexpensesledtoaHigh CourtdefeatforParliamentin2008,forcingittoagreetopublishfulldetailsofexpensesclaims whichleddirectlytotheleaktoTheDailyTelegraphandthescandalof2009.Thebrieftimelineis: January2005:TheweekFOIAcameintoforce,IaskedtheHouseofCommonstodisclosethe fullexpensesclaims,includingreceipts,submittedbysixnamedMPs.Commonsauthorities rejectedmyrequestinitiallyandagainoninternalappeal. April2005:IappealedtotheInformationCommissioner,whojoinedmyrequestwithothers submittedbyHeatherBrookeandJonathanUngoedThomas. June2007:Aftertwoyearsofconsideration,theCommissionerissuedadecisionnotice requiringtheCommonstopublishmoredetailofMPsclaims,butnotthereceipts. Feb2008:TheCommonsappealedtotheInformationTribunal,butitscasewasrejectedand insteadtheTribunalbackedacrossappealbythejournalists,orderingfullpublication includingreceipts. May2008:TheHighCourtrejectedanappealbytheCommonsauthoritiesandruledin favourofthethreejournalists,declaring:Theexpenditureofpublicmoneythroughthe paymentofMPs'salariesandallowancesisamatterofdirectandreasonableinterestto taxpayers."1ConsequentlytheCommonsagreestopublishexpensesclaimsinfullandbegan totransferpaperrecordstoelectronicform. May2009:ElectronicrecordscreatedasaresultofjournalistsHighCourtvictorywere leakedtoTelegraphbeforetheirofficialrelease,promptingpublicationoftheExpensesFiles investigation. 5.ExamplesofothernewsstoriespublishedasaresultofmyFOIArequestsinclude:

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PoliceforcesratedamongtheworstbytheHomeOfficepaybonusestotheirchiefs constables,whilesomeofthebestratedforcespaynobonuses.2 Twomillioncrimesayeararescreenedoutbypoliceanddeemedunsolvablewithinhours ofbeingreported.3 Convictedcriminalscommit10,000newoffencespermonthwhileonprobation.4 AsylumseekerswhoacceptfreeflightshomeunderaHomeOfficevoluntaryrepatriation schemesubsequentlyreturntotheUKanddoitagain.5 DoestheFreedomofInformationActworkeffectively? 6.FOIAhasbroughtimportantbenefitsforthepublic,bylifting,inpart,theveilofsecrecyoverthe affairsofcentralandlocalGovernment.Inparticular,manyrequestsbyjournalistshaveledtothe disclosureofimportantinformationwhichwouldotherwisehaveremainedsecret.Thesedisclosures haveallowedthepublictoformamoreaccurateviewoftheirelectedrepresentativesandofpublic bodiesfundedbytaxpayers. 7.ThecultureofWhitehallandpublicbodieshastosomeextentbecomelesssecretive,withsome informationbeingreleasedproactivelythatwouldpreviouslyhavebeenwithheld. 8.However,thereisstillavastamountofinformationwhichwouldbeliablefordisclosureunder FOIAbutisnotroutinelyproactivelypublished.Whenaskedtoreleasesuchinformation, organisationsoftenrespondfromastartingpointofreputationmanagementratherthanthe publicsrighttoknow.Iftheyperceivethatthereleasewoulddamagetheirreputation,theyoften seektodelayandtofindreasonstorefuse,evenwhentheyhavenolegalgroundstodosofor example,bycitingexemptionswhichdonotinfactapply. 9.TheInformationCommissionersOffice(ICO)underRichardThomastookfartoolongtodealwith appeals.Ifaceddelaysofmorethan18months,whichwasunacceptable.UnderChristopher Graham,theICOhasspeededupitsprocess. 10.IndealingwithmyMPsexpensesrequest,arguablyitsbiggesttest,theICOunderRichard ThomaswasinsufficientlyassertiveandendedupbendingtothewillofMPsandParliamentary officialsseekingtopreventpublication. 11.IconsideritunacceptablethatMrThomassofficialsspenttwoyearsnegotiatingwiththe ParliamentaryauthoritiesovermyFOIArequestforMPsexpensesdetails,withouteverdiscussing theissueswithmeortheotherrequestors.ItwasalsounacceptablethattheICOwentasfaras draftingadecisionnotice,datedOct2006,whichwouldhaveorderedthereleaseofthefulldetails ofexpensesclaims;butthen,followingameetinginDec2006betweenMrThomas,JackStrawand threeotherseniorMPs,MrThomaschangedhismindandeventuallyissuedaquitedifferent decisionnotice,whichdidnotorderdisclosure(andwasoverturnedbytheTribunalandtheHigh Court).Thismeetingwaskeptsecretatthetime,anddidnotcometolightuntilawhistleblower leakeddetailsofittomein2009.6

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12.AparticularexampleoftheCommissionersweaknesswasthataroundApril2005,theHouseof Commonsauthoritiesdeliberatelydestroyedrecordsforthe2001/2expensesclaimsmadebyfour MPsthatweresubjecttomyFOIArequestincludingTonyBlair.ItisanoffenceunderFOIAs77to destroyinformationwiththeintentionofpreventingdisclosure,yettheexplanationofferedbythe Commonsthatthedestructionwasduetoincompetence,notdeliberatewasaccepted,andno sanctionwasimposed. 13.Today,theICOunderMrGrahamregularlyseekstoavoidtheissuingofdecisionnoticesbytrying topersuaderequestorstodroporsettletheirappeals.Thisstrikesmeaspotentially counterproductive,becauseformaldecisionnoticesareausefulguidetopublicauthoritiesandto requestorsonwhatshouldandshouldnotbereleased.Itstrikesmethatbyavoidingissuingthem, theICOmayhavetogobacktofirstprinciplesandduplicateitsconsiderationsinsomecases. Whatneedstochange? 14.IwouldliketoseesomeextentiontothescopeofFOIA,inparticulartocoverprivatesectorand voluntaryorganisationsthatareperformingpublicservicesoncontractforpublicsector organisationsfundedbythetaxpayer.Ialsobelievehousingassociationsshouldbecovered.Thereis astrongpublicinteresthereinensuringtransparency,notleastbecausescrutinyisrequiredto ensurethattheservicesarebeingperformedwellandefficiently.Itisunfortunatethatatpresent thetransferofworkfromthepublicsectortotheprivateorvoluntarysector,orthetransferof housingstockfromcouncilstohousingassociations,isaccompaniedbyareductionintransparency. 15.Thereoughttobeastatutorytimelimitfororganisationstocarryoutinternalreviews.Theres nopointrequiringorganisationstorespondtotheinitialrequestwithin20days,butthenletting themconsidertheirinternalreviewforeightmonths,ashappenedwhenIaskedtheHomeOfficeto releaseablogwrittenbythenPermanentSecretaryDavidNormingtononitsintranetsite. 16.IwouldliketoseeclearguidanceissuedbytheICOthatministersandtheiraidescannotavoid thescrutinyofFOIArequestssimplybycommunicatingthroughprivateemailaddressesorsocial networkingsitesratherthandepartmentalemailaddressesandwrittenmemos. Proposalstoscalebacktherighttoknow 17.TheMoJmemorandumtotheselectcommitteeraisesconcernsoverthecosttopublicbodiesof implementingFOIA.Itsaysthecosthasbeenestimatedat40millionayearalthoughitadmits thatestimatesvarywidely. 18.IbelievethatifFOIAdoescosttaxpayers40millionayear,itismoneywellspent. 19.Greaterscrutinyofpublicbodiesproducesfinancialbenefitswhichcouldbesetagainstthiscost, toobtainamoreroundedviewoftheimpactofFOIAonthepublicpurse.Totakejustoneexample, MPsrepaidmorethan1millionofexpensesaftertheirclaimswererevealedinfull.Iexpectthat publicofficialsandlocalpoliticiansupanddownthelandarenowclaiminglessinexpenses,and

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foregoingperks,forfearthattheywouldbeembarrassediftheirspendingwasexposedthrough FOIArequests. 20.EstimatesforthecostofimplementingFOIAmayturnouttooverstatethetrueadditional burdenontaxpayers,becausemanypublicbodiesnowaskjournaliststoputinFOIArequestsfor informationwhichtheywould,priorto2005,havereleasedthroughtheirpressoffices.Itwould haveusedjustasmuchstafftimeforpressofficerstoobtainandreleasetheinformationunderthe oldsystem.Thustheserequestsarenotanadditionalcost,merelyaswitchofcostcentrewithinthe organisation. 21.OrganisationscouldcutthecostoftheirFOIAreleasesbyproactivelypublishingmore information,sotherewaslessneedforrequeststobemade.Forexample,EnglishHeritageroutinely publishespublicminutesofitsboardmeetingsonitswebsitebutagainsteachitemnumber,there isonlythephraseThisitemisincludedintheprotectedminutesofthismeetingasitcontains informationthatispotentiallyprotectedfrompublicaccess.7YetwhenIaskedlastmonthfora copyoftheprotectedminutesforoneboardmeeting,Iwassentamuchfullerdocument,headed protectedminutes,withnoredactions.IfEHhadputthefullerversiononitswebsitetobegin with,itcouldcutthenumberandcostofFOIArequests,whilebetterinformingthepublicofits work. 22.TheMoJmemoraisesagainthesuggestionthatcostscouldbecutbytakingintoaccountstaff readingtimeandstaffredactingtimewhencalculatingwhetherthecostofaparticularrelease wouldexceedthestatutorylimit.Thisproposalsimilartowhatwasconsideredandrejectedin 2007wouldhavetheeffectofallowingpublicbodiestoturndownmorerequestsoncostgrounds. Ibelievethisisadeeplyflawedapproach,forthefollowingreasons: a)Atthe1apagereadingcostfloatedinthe2006FrontierEconomicsreport,andwiththecurrent 600costlimitabovewhichaWhitehalldepartmentcanrefusearequest,thiswouldmeanthatany Governmentreportmorethan600pageslongwouldremainsecret,whileshorterdocumentscould bereleased.Thiscannotberightinprinciple. b)Inpractice,arequestercouldgetaroundthebanbyrequestingjusthalfofthereport.Later, anotherrequestercouldrequesttheotherhalf.Thecostofdealingwiththeseparaterequests wouldbehigherthanthecostofdealingwithjustonerequest.TakingtheexampleofmyMPs expensesrequest,IaskedfordetailsofjustsixMPsclaimssoasnottobebarredoncostgrounds. ButtheCommonsauthoritiesdecided,rightly,thattheywouldnotreleaseclaimspiecemeal;after theylostintheHighCourttheysaidtheywouldreleaseexpensesdetailsforallMPs,notjustthe onesinvolvedinthecase. c)Thereisnoreasontothinkthattherequestsblockedunderthisnewapproachwouldbetrivialor unnecessaryrequests.Theyaremorelikelytobeseriousrequestswithastrongpublicinterest behindthem.Themoresensitiveandcontroversialthesubjectmatterofarequestis,themore readingandredactionitislikelytorequire. 23.TheMoJmemorandumhighlightsunhappinessbypublicbodiesaboutthevolumeofFOIA requestsfromjournalists,includingacomplaintthatFOIAisbeingusedforwhatwasseenas illegitimateuseieagoodmediastory.Ithinkrequestsfromthemediatopublicbodiesfor

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information,whetherthroughFOIAorthetraditionalpressofficeroute,needtobeseenasavital elementofdemocracypotentiallyexposingthefailingsthatpublicbodiesdonotwantthepublicto see.Thecostshouldbeheldupagainstthesumthatpublicbodiesspendonmarketing,promotion andadvertisingtoputacrossthemessagetheydowantthepublictoseewhichIsuspectismuch higher. January2012
Footnotereferences 1http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2008/1084.html 2http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1578918/Policechiefsrewardedforfailurebybonuses.html 3http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1568991/OfficialPoliceleave2mcrimesuninvestigated.html 4http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1518301/Offendersonprobationcarryout10000crimesamonth.html 5http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1517013/Migrantspaidtoleaveforgoodtwice.html 6http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mpsexpenses/5412674/MPsexpensesInformationcommissioner performedUturnoverpublication.html 7http://www.englishheritage.org.uk/content/importeddocs/ae/ebpublicminutes13sept11.pdf