Freedom of Information: slow and effective but can't keep up with elections

30th Nov 2017 | Full Fact team

Onora O’Neill, the distinguished philosopher and peer, gave a 2002 lecture series called “A Question of Trust”.  In the fourth lecture, “Trust and Transparency”, she argued: 

“A crisis of trust cannot be overcome by a blind rush to place more trust. Our ambition is not to place trust blindly, as small children do, but with good judgement. In judging whether to place our trust in others' words or undertakings, or to refuse that trust, we need information and we need the means to judge that information.”

At Full Fact, it’s our job to listen to the claims people make in public life, to trace them back to original sources, to find out whether those claims are justified and to give that information to our audiences so people can judge for themselves whether or not to trust those claims. Factchecks give people a better choice than blind faith versus blind cynicism.

Our Director Will Moy spoke to the International Conference of Information Commissioners about Full Fact’s practical experience of using Freedom of Information (FOI) to factcheck what people say. This conference is held every two years and attended by Commissioners and Ombudsmen from around the world to discuss challenges related to FOI.

Will talked to them about what our factchecks collectively tell us about UK public life and the systems that underpin the quality of our public debate.

We’ve summarised his talk in this blog, and you can listen to the full recording here.

Slow but effective FOI

Several years ago there was a big debate about the welfare system, the benefit system in the UK, and in particular housing benefit.  The government was highlighting what they argued was the need to cap the level of housing benefit that could be given to any particular household. 

They wanted to put a limit on how much money a particular household could get and in order to justify that policy and make the case for it publicly, they claimed that some UK families were getting more than £100,000 a year in housing benefits.  That’s an extraordinarily large amount of money: almost four times the average salary in the UK at the time of the claim.

As part of his argument against this, at one point the Leader of the Opposition said in the House of Commons that London councils were being forced to block-book B&B accommodation for people that were going to be forced out of their homes. 

We decided to factcheck both of them, to address both sides of the debate as we always try to.  But how do you fact check the claim that councils are trying to block-book B&Bs, when there are something like 30 councils in London, and you’re having to prove a negative?  They only possible way to do it was to send Freedom of Information requests to all of those councils. 

And so we did, and over the following months we began to get responses from all of these councils telling us they hadn’t done this. After the first few it became pretty obvious we were unlikely to find a council that was block-booking B&Bs. 

About a year later, we were finally able to prove that what the Leader of the Opposition had said was simply wrong.  

What about the claim that there were families receiving £100,000 or more in housing benefits? It wasn’t wrong. There were families. But…

There are, to put it in context, around 4.5 million households receiving housing benefit in the UK.  Of those, our FOI request revealed that five were receiving the weekly equivalent of £100k a year.  It was more a symbol of a principle than a meaningful example of something that was a widespread issue. Read the factcheck and FOI request here.

Actually the average amount that the housing benefit claimants were getting was £85 a week, not £2,000 a week.  Fewer than 0.0001% of people were getting even half of the figure the government and newspapers were saying. 

It’s not enough simply to have sufficient information to know whether a claim is technically true or not, you need the information to judge that claim and help people form their own views as to whether to trust the claim. 

During elections, FOI is not your friend

The UK has had a long debate about the number of people using the NHS. A few years ago, the Secretary of State for Health said we identify less than half of overseas visitors who should be paying. 

He said this in the House of Commons so we put in an FOI request to get the source of that calculation.  We were told that we couldn’t have it:

“The department recognises the general public interest in making this information available for the state of greater transparency and openness… however, the department believes that the public interest lies in protecting the policy making process.”

This turned out to not be the case: we requested an internal review and a month later they gave us that information. Although the policy making process had not moved on, they were now willing to give us the information.

Timing is everything. If you are a journalist, a story only lasts a certain amount of time and the ability to make use of information for accountability only lasts as long as the story or the legislative process. If public bodies can delay just long enough then they don’t have to fear freedom of information and this is what we've seen at election time and referendum time. 

If you need information four weeks before an election, you might as well give up. You can be blocked until after the election, and by that time everyone has voted. So if you don’t want to back up your claims publicly, you don’t have to.  If we want FOI law that works during elections, then we need a shorter deadline for elections. 

"The real enemy of trust is deception"

All of this supports the idea that there’s a crisis of trust in public life in the UK, the US, and more widely around the world. We are at a turning point between two possible alternatives. One is that we could have the best informed government and democracies ever. Another is that we could end up awash with data that nobody trusts, with whole groups of society unwilling to hear each others' views.

We need to address both the culture of people in positions of power and their honest engagement with the FOI process, genuine accountability, and using information honestly. We need to give everybody good reasons to trust what we're hearing – even when we don't like the sound of it. 

Onora O’Neill argued that the real enemy of trust is deception. We’re seeing the effects in our public life in the UK, the US and elsewhere, as the rise of factchecking, promise-tracking, and verification journalism all over the world suggests – from Iran to Argentina to Japan to Nigeria.

When a public body says something in public they must be prepared to justify it in public at that moment – not a month later. 

That is a very basic expectation of honesty from people in public life. Being willing and prepared to justify what you’re saying is essential if you want to be taken seriously in an increasingly distrusting world.

We aim for our fact checks to be as accurate and up-to-date as possible. If you think we've made an error or missed some relevant information, please contact us.