8 things we wouldn’t know without the Freedom of Information Act
In a moment of inexplicable forgetfulness during this year’s summer recess, the Government decided to announce the second review of the Freedom of Information Act in three years.
In 2012, the cross-party parliamentary Justice Select Committee produced an incredibly detailed report, confirming that the FOIA had been a “success”, “enhanced the UK’s democratic system” and made our public bodies “more open, accountable and transparent”.
But, apparently dissatisfied with that outcome, our Government has put together a new Commission on Freedom of Information to take a second look.
To jog the Commission’s memory about the importance of the FOIA for holding the powerful to account, here are eight things we wouldn’t know without it.
1. MPs’ expenses
It was a Freedom of Information request that ultimately revealed how MPs had spent taxpayers’ money on everything from duck houses to new kitchens. The scandal led to the resignation of the Speaker and six ministers, and to changes in rules around expenses. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were paid back, and seven MPs received prison sentences.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was introduced to administer pay and expenses – ending MPs’ control over their own allowances.
But most significantly, the public’s perception of politicians was fundamentally changed – for better or worse – and MPs were given a sharp reminder that they are accountable to their constituents.
2. Incineration of foetuses
An investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme last year found hospitals burned at least 15,500 bodies of unborn foetuses either as ‘clinical waste’ or to heat hospitals in the space of two years. The revelations led to a ban on the practice.
3. Unlawful Stop and Search
In 2010, an FOI request found errors in the way 40 Stop and Search operations were authorised, resulting in tens of thousands of people being unlawfully stopped and searched.
The scandal centred on police’s use of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, under which anyone could be stopped in a specific area with no suspicion that an offence was being committed. It followed Liberty’s victory in Gillan and Quinton v UK, which ruled the power violated Article 8, the right to respect for private life. S44 was later repealed.
4. Care home residents dying of thirst
A FOI request by the Daily Telegraph revealed that more than 1,158 care home residents suffered dehydration-related deaths between 2003 and 2012. They also showed 318 residents were found to have died from starvation or when severely malnourished, and 2,815 deaths were linked to bed sores.
5. Police use of tasers on children
The BBC used an FOI request to expose that more than 400 children had tasers drawn on them by police in England and Wales in 2013 – a 38 per cent increase on the previous year.
6. Degrading treatment of detained migrants
Liberty obtained information under the FOIA that showed 1,065 children were held in immigration detention in 2009. They were detained on average for two weeks, but one child was held for 158 days. Liberty intervened in a High Court case, which saw two families held at Yarl’s Wood succeed in their claims that they were unlawfully detained.
7. Cyril Smith
Documents obtained by the Manchester Evening News showed the late Liberal MP Cyril Smith tried to bully police investigating claims he molested young boys. Smith, then a prominent councillor, also asked to be told if he was going to be charged so he could decide whether to stand for MP at the next Parliamentary election.
Officers did submit evidence but prosecutors decided not to pursue the case, allowing Smith to go on to become an MP.
8. Dangerous deportation practices
Following the death of Jimmy Mubenga during the course of restraint while he was being removed from the UK by aircraft, Liberty used the FOIA to obtain a copy of the policy governing use of force on removal. The Home Office document was significantly redacted, but it was clearly designed for and rooted in the prison service and inappropriate for immigration detainees on aircraft. Liberty brought a judicial review of the policy in February 2013.
One of the members of the Freedom of Information Commission is Jack Straw, who is already on record saying the Act should be rewritten, is currently subject to criminal investigation for his alleged involvement in the kidnap and rendition of a Gaddafi dissident and had to suspend himself from the Labour party earlier this year following a “cash for access” sting. Speaking in 2012 Straw said:
On freedom of information more than almost any other area of public policy, it is almost impossible to have a proper balanced conversation with the press, because, regardless of their political persuasions, they have one interest and the Government have another.
You can get individual journalists to accept that there needs to be better balance, but they are interested in stories.”
Discriminatory stop and search practices, the degrading treatment of detained immigrants, the MPs’ expenses scandal, police use of tasers on children, hundreds of care home residents dying of thirst – these aren't just "stories", they're grave State abuses that we wouldn't have known about without the Freedom of Information Act.