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FoI madness, but not as we know it

14th Aug 2015 | Conor James McKinney

On 12 July, Greg Hands MP, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, tweeted about an example of "FoI madness". A few days later, the government announced a review of the Freedom of Information laws, which compel it and other public authorities to make certain information public.

FoI is one of many tools that help us check the claims we hear. But it doesn't always operate in an obviously efficient way.

Recently, we followed up a factcheck on legal aid rates with an FoI request about how often certain rates are paid by the Legal Aid Agency.

There's no email address given on its website for such requests, but on WhatDoTheyKnow, a sort of clearing house for FoI requests, replies from the Agency came from the pithy InformationGovernanceLAA@legalaid.gsi.gov.uk. So that's where we sent our request.

It triggered an auto-reply, saying that FoI requests should in fact be directed to data.access@justice.gsi.gov.uk. We resent the request; back came an acknowledgement from... InformationGovernanceLAA@legalaid.gsi.gov.uk.

Which may make sense at their end, but struck us as puzzling.

Even more difficult to understand is the experience of a former colleague, BBC journalist Emily Craig. She recently got in touch with the Department of Health about a story in the Daily Mail on the use of UK-issued European Health Insurance Cards by foreign nationals. Asked how much the government had spent on these cards, the press office referred her to the figures given in the Mail.

Ms Craig, in true Full Fact fashion, pointed out that the Daily Mail is not an official source and asked for the original data. Although this had been released to the Mail under FoI, the press office refused, saying that a new FoI request for the same information would have to go in.

This, to be fair, was promptly answered (insisting that the request be dealt with under FoI meant that the Department could have sat on it for 20 working days). But this attitude raises two issues.

First, on a practical level, why bother to insist that a journalist jump through the hoops of formulating an FoI request when you have the information to hand and intend to respond straight away?

Second, on a point of principle, to keep a tight grip on information already given out to somebody else is contrary to the spirit of freedom of information—as well as to official guidance stating that releases are 'to the world'. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it seems strange to insist that subsequent seekers after truth should have to call it up afresh each time.


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