In the Know
An insight into the workings of the Freedom of Information Act, and how the government is trying to limit access.
Have you ever wondered who the Director General of the Prison Service sent Christmas cards to, or how much it cost to keep someone overnight in Rayleigh police station during Operation Safeguard? The answers to these questions (and many more) have been disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.
You can request almost any recorded information, historical or contemporary from any public body under the Act. They have to respond ‘promptly’ and certainly within 20 working days (28 calendar days). The Act applies to all 'public authorities’. This includes central and local government, the health service, the police, prison service, National Offender Management Service and Home Office.
Before making a request you should try and find out if the information you want is already available. You could try doing this through the prison library, the Independent Monitoring Board or by contacting the Prison Reform Trust. If you make a request, you should describe the information you want in as much detail as possible. Most requests are free but if the public authority thinks it will cost more than £450 (or £600 for a central government request) they can turn down the request. Any refusal has to be explained to you. If a request is refused, you can then ask the authority concerned to internally review the refusal. If this is not successful you can appeal to the independent Information Commissioner.
There are also limits to the Freedom of Information Act. Information that could prejudice security and good order in prisons is exempted. The guidance says that security includes all matter relating to safety, the prevention of criminal activity and secure custody. Good order includes all matters concerning disobedience, indiscipline or promoting a safe and orderly regime. However, this has to be weighed against the 'public interest test'. This test means that even if the information requested could be exempted (for security or good order) there may still be an obligation to disclose it. The question is: does the public interest in withholding the information outweigh the public interest in disclosing it? There are sometimes cases where the public interest involves ensuring that there is public confidence in the prison system. This may be assisted by keeping the public informed of policies and developments.
The guidance on the department of Constitutional Affairs website gives an example of how a decision to give information may be made. For instance, someone requests a copy of the contract between a prison and a private company who installed the perimeter fence. The prison has to weigh up what information is in the public interest. Some information, such as the strength or underground depth of the fence, will be considered a security risk. The public interest won't be served by relaying information aiding escapes or transmission of contraband. However, the public has an interest in how their taxes are being spent and how they are protected.
The Act is helping individuals and organizations to access detailed information about government. This means public authorities can be held accountable for their decisions and their policies. The Freedom of Information Act has meant that information not previously available is now widely accessible. It has been particularly successful in looking at how government departments are spending money. So much so that the government now wants to make it easier for authorities to refuse requests on the grounds of cost. The government states that these proposals are based on a survey carried out in January 2006. They have released some information from the survey describing the number of requests and time taken to answer them. They have so far refused to disclose detailed information about the cost of requests. The Campaign for Freedom of Information has appealed this and asked for further details of the survey (using the Act).
The government has proposed that authorities should also be able to include the cost of the time spent reading the information, consulting others about it, and deciding whether it should be released. This means requests that are complex, sensitive or raise important public interest issues could be refused on cost grounds, regardless of their merits. Also, requests from the same individual or organisation to an authority could be added together and refused if their combined cost exceeded the £450 or £600 limits. This could mean that an organisation like the BBC would only have one request answered in a 60-day period. The Campaign for Freedom of Information is currently asking MPs to take action about this and challenge the government’s proposals. This has recently been debated in parliament and we are waiting to see what steps the government will take next. Hopefully, access to information will not be restricted.
If you are still wondering who was lucky enough to receive a Christmas card from the Director General, the Home Office revealed (29th December 2006) that HM Prison Service and the Director General did not send Christmas cards in 2005 or in 2006 to any outside agencies or similar organizations. They have also disclosed (12th December 2006) that the estimated cost of holding a prisoner overnight at Rayleigh police station would be around £385.
Open Government Unit, National Offender Management Service, Room 410, Abell House, John Islip Street, London SW1P 4LH.
Information Commissioner, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 5AF.
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