Freedom of Information : This page has been downloaded from the Campaign for Freedom of Information "http://www.cfoi.org.uk/awards98pr.html"
The Campaign for Freedom of Information

Press release
Monday June 7, 1999

 

Home Secretary Jack Straw presents
Freedom of Information Awards

 

Individuals and journalists who have fought against official secrecy, and public bodies which have voluntarily released information, are amongst those recognised in the Campaign for Freedom of Information's annual Awards tonight.

The Awards are presented by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and come two weeks after Mr Straw published the government's draft Freedom of Information Bill. (The Campaign's initial response to the draft bill can also be read on this site.)

The Campaign's Awards go to:

Will and Diane Powell, from Ystradgynlais near Swansea for their 9-year battle to learn the truth about the death of their son from a rare but treatable medical condition.
Glenys and Colin Francombe, from Abertillery in Gwent, for their campaign to expose local councillors' false expenses claims.
INQUEST, for its long campaign to end the secrecy surrounding deaths in police custody and prison.
Santha Rasaiah, of the Newspaper Society, for her longstanding work on freedom of information and press freedom issues.
Rob Evans, a freelance journalist working for the Sunday Telegraph, for his persistent use of the open government code to uncover normally withheld information.
Tony Collins, of Computer Weekly, for his investigations into the vast sums of public money lost through flawed computer projects.
The Royal Commission on Long Term Care for the Elderly, for the early release of its papers, which would normally remain secret for 30 years.
Hampshire County Council, for its superb Hantsweb Internet site, which provides the public with a vast amount of detailed information about the council.

 

 

Will and Diane Powell

Will and Diane Powell's nine year battle - which is still continuing - to learn about the death of their son led the General Medical Council to tighten up its rules on doctors' duty to tell the truth to patients.

Ten year old Robert Powell died of a rare but treatable condition called Addison's disease, in 1990. A consultant at a Swansea hospital had suspected the condition after Robert was taken into hospital seriously ill with severe vomiting and abdominal pain. The parents were given no proper information about his diagnosis, and were later casually told that he had had gastro-enteritis. Unknown to them, the discharge letter sent to his GP said that he needed to be given the specific 'ACTH stimulation' test used to diagnose Addison's disease. The test was never carried out. He appeared to make a complete recovery but fell seriously ill again four months later. Five different doctors from his health centre saw him no less than seven times in 15 days. Only one of the doctors looked through his medical notes. None recognised his condition. On the day of his death he fainted at home, but the doctor who visited him refused to admit him to hospital. Later that day, the doctor was called out again by the desperate parents, and finally agreed to refer him, though refused to call an ambulance. His parents drove him to hospital themselves. He stopped breathing on arrival and died within hours.

Mr Powell later asked to see his son's medical records and was shown them by one of the GPs. He says they contained letters from the hospital doctor stating: "Needs ACTH test; parents informed" and stating that Addison's disease was being considered. If there was any recurrence, the GPs were advised to refer him back to the hospital. This was the first they knew that his real condition had been suspected earlier. The file was later seen by an independent witness who confirmed the presence of these letters.

Mr Powell complained about the GPs' care of his son. But crucial documents, which had been in the file when he was shown it originally, had been removed by the time of the hearing. When the hearing cleared four of the five doctors, Mr Powell appealed to the Welsh Office. The appeal overran the allocated time and was adjourned. When it reconvened six months later, further changes to the GP medical records had been made. This fuelled the Powells' belief that a further cover-up had taken place, and they pulled out of the appeal. A police inquiry into possible forgery was carried out, but no proceedings were brought - though the investigation has since been reopened.

The Welsh Office claimed the records had been introduced in evidence by the Powells and taken away by them when the hearing adjourned. After asserting this for three years, the Welsh Office was finally forced to admit that they had introduced the records as evidence themselves and that they were responsible for their safekeeping In fact, they had no idea where they had actually been. The Parliamentary Ombudsman later severely criticised them for this..

The Powells also sued the health authority and GPs for negligence, and for post traumatic shock, to themselves caused by the alleged cover-up. The health authority admitted liability for their son's death, and a payment was made which also covered Mrs Powell's stress caused by the death. However, the Powells were determined that the full case should be heard in court and continued with a further claim for trauma caused as a result of the alleged falsification of the medical records. This was, however, struck out by the High Court which held that the GPs owed no duty of care to the Powells. The Court of Appeal later upheld this decision, and in a highly controversial ruling held that a doctor's duty to tell the truth applied only to the patient - not to parents of a child being treated. It accepted that the parents may need to be told the truth so they are able to look after their child properly, but said that after a child's death there was "no authority for the proposition that there is some kind of free-standing duty of candour, irrespective of whether the doctor-patient relationship exists". This caused widespread concern and was seen as endorsing a doctor's "right to lie" about a patient's death.

However, the General Medical Council were so concerned at the appeal court ruling that they changed their professional rules, requiring doctors to give a full explanation to the parents of a child who has died. Failure to comply could now lead to a doctor being struck off. The appeal court ruling has left the Powells with a heavy order for costs against them. They are challenging the ruling itself in a case to the European Court of Human Rights.

 

Glenys and Colin Francombe

Glenys and Colin Francombe used a little known right to inspect council financial records to expose false expenses claims by councillors. Their three year campaign resulted in Blaenau Gwent council twice being convicted of secrecy offences, and in the conviction of 12 councillors for falsifying their expenses.

The Francombes began their campaign after the council approved a series of major planning developments which they felt were totally unsuited to their small village of Abertillery in Gwent, and taking no notice of local people's objections. They saw a notice in their local paper, which councils must publish during the annual audit, saying that the financial records were open to inspection. Section 17 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 gives any interested person the right to inspect "all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts" relating to the audit. This is an unusually powerful right of access, and does not allow anything to be withheld on grounds of "commercial confidentiality".

In 1996 they asked to inspect a wide range of claims and receipts for the expenses of councillors attending conferences. But they were shown only a small part of what they had asked for and denied photocopies on the grounds that copying would be "illegal". In fact, the access regulations provide an explicit right to copies.

They brought a private prosecution against the council for failing to disclose. Because of a technical error in the wording of the summons, they had to withdraw the case at the last moment, and were forced to pay costs of £1,000. They then went back to the magistrates court with a redrafted summons. In April 1998 the council was fined £100 for refusing to disclose councillors' claims forms.

The documents the Francombes saw confirmed their suspicions of extravagance and widespread irregularities. They questioned whether it had been necessary for no less than 12 councillors to attend the same 3-day conference at a cost of over £6,500, while local services in a deprived area were being cut. On another occasion a delegation of councillors had travelled to Southport to support a local 76-year old man performing a juggling act in a senior citizen's talent competition. The cost came to nearly £1,000.

Councillors had also made fraudulent expenses claims. The Francombes took a dossier of complaints to the police, which have now led to the convictions of 12 former councillors on charges of false accounting. Many were making a profit on their expenses. Some were reimbursed for attending a conference in another county while simultaneously claiming for attending council meetings. Some claimed car allowances for distances greater than they had travelled. Some were reimbursed for 1st class rail fares when they had travelled on cheaper tickets, or claimed for hotel accommodation which they had not used. The convicted members included the former mayor and council leader.

However, when the Francombes returned to inspect the books the following year, they were still not given complete access. In April 1999 they successfully prosecuted the council a second time for withholding further financial records. The council was fined £200.

 

INQUEST

Inquest, the legal advice and campaigning group, receives an Award for its efforts to end the secrecy surrounding deaths in police custody or prison.

The families of people who die in custody face appalling problems in finding out what has really happened, as Inquest has repeatedly documented. A coroner's inquiry may not be held until many months after the death, during which time families may be kept completely in the dark. The report of the police or prison service inquiry into the death is usually never disclosed. At the inquest, only those witness statements which the coroner decides are relevant are disclosed. There is no right to see evidence beforehand. Advance disclosure of witness statements requires the permission of the police - which is often refused if they feel that officers could be criticised. This prevents lawyers for families preparing to cross examine witnesses. The circumstances of the death are thus often only revealed during the inquest itself, and the sudden disclosure of the facts only at the formal hearing adds to the family's distress, and fuels suspicion of a cover-up.

Inquest has campaigned tirelessly on this issues, advising families, briefing lawyers, publicising instances of injustice and arguing the case for disclosure to government and inquiries. Since the election, it has held a series of meetings with Home Office ministers, who indicated a willingness to reconsider the deeply entrenched non-disclosure policy. Finally, in April 1999 the Home Office issued new guidance on deaths in police and prison custody.

The guidance acknowledges that the lack of disclosure "has been counter-productive" and has "given risk to unfounded suspicion that matters are being deliberately concealed". It advises the police and prison service to disclose in advance the material which they supply to the coroner - a crucial breakthrough. However, it stops short of full disclosure, permitting information to be withheld where there are 'compelling reasons" and says that families should be given information only if they agree to keep it confidential. It is nevertheless a significant step forward, and a testament to Inquest's tenacious campaigning over many years.

 

Santha Rasaiah

Santha Rasaiah Head of Legal and Regulatory Affairs at the Newspaper Society, and legal adviser to the Society of Editors, receives an Award for her longstanding commitment to freedom of information and press freedom issues. For many years, as legal adviser to the Guild of Editors she played a central in ensuring that regional newspapers were fully engaged on freedom of information, arguing the case for greater access to information about quangos, NHS trusts and local councils. She has highlighted problems caused by the legislation which allows courts to prevent the naming of children involved in legal proceedings, pointing out that in some cases the orders had been made to prevent the naming of young murder victims. More recently she has played a key role in highlighting the potential effects of the new Data Protection Act on the press, helping to negotiate changes which ensure that the new law cannot be used as a form of prior restraint in relation to media reports where a genuine public interest argument could be made. She has taken a leading role on behalf of the press in relation to the current Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill, warning that the strict prohibitions on naming children involved in potential offences could have prevented the press reporting any specific details about the Dunblane massacre.

 

Rob Evans

Rob Evans is a freelance journalist working for the Sunday Telegraph who has used the open government code to obtain a series of telling news stories. Most journalists have not bothered to use the code, introduced by the last government in 1994. Rob Evans's systematic use of it, particularly to probe defence issues, has shown the opportunities they have missed. His research has led to a series of Sunday Telegraph articles, written with the paper's defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan.

Using the code he has revealed the names of 53 countries to whom the British army was providing free military training. He showed that thousands of spare parts for Britain's trident nuclear deterrent had gone missing; that MOD staff were responsible for almost half of all reported cases of fraud in Whitehall; that the new agency responsible for defence security vetting was under-funded and unlikely to meet its objectives; and that an MOD commissioned public opinion poll had found that army discipline was regarded as "repressive and robotic", that its culture was seen "low-tech, old-fashioned and class-based" and that the "the purpose of army discipline is seen as to crush individuality".

Although much information was disclosed relatively readily, the MOD also showed why it has earned its traditional reputation for excessive secrecy. When releasing the opinion poll, the MOD warned Rob Evans that if he quoted from it without permission "legal action will be taken" against him for breach of Crown Copyright. This threat was not only ludicrous but unlawful, since copyright law permits journalists to publish extracts of copyright material in news stories, without anyone's permission.

The Award is partly intended to encourage more journalists to use the code, which is enforced by the Parliamentary Ombudsman. In some respects the code, introduced by the Conservatives, provides better rights to information than Labour's recent widely-criticised draft Freedom of Information Bill.

 

Tony Collins

Tony Collins, Computer Weekly's Executive Editor, and an investigative journalist of rare quality, receives an Award for his penetrating analyses of the computer disasters which consume billions of pounds of public funds.

His recent expose into the escalating costs of the "fixed price" new air traffic control system at Swanwick in Hampshire, which is already six years late, revealed that it has cost nearly £80 million more than originally announced. His reports led to threats of legal action against Computer Weekly from the public authorities concerned. However, the paper's campaign to have the project independently audited was endorsed by a Commons select committee and led ministers to commission a report on the project, which confirmed that there were still some 1200 "bugs" in the computer system..

His frequent theme has been that each project is undertaken as a unique experiment, with no recognition of how much it has in common with earlier projects which have gone badly wrong. As a result little is learnt from the history of the past, and the same mistakes are constantly repeated. The failure to learn is underscored by claims that project details cannot be discussed because of commercial confidentiality. But as he reveals, all to often what is being concealed is official embarrassment at expensive cost overruns and disruptive delays.

Most recently he has revealed evidence suggesting that MPs had been misled over the cause of the fatal crash of an RAF Chinook helicopter in 1994 on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. The crash was blamed on pilot error. But Tony Collins revealed persuasive evidence that problems associated with the helicopter's software had surfaced in the weeks before the accident, and the MPs had been been wrongly told that legal action being brought by the MOD against the engine contractor had nothing to do with defects in the software itself.

 

The Royal Commission on Long Term Care for the Elderly

The Royal Commission on Long Term Care for the Elderly receives an Award for the early release of its papers, which would normally remain secret for 30 years.

The Commission, chaired by Sir Stewart Sutherland, published its report on March 1 this year. It proposed a fundamental change in the system which currently forces 40,000 elderly people a year to sell their homes each year to pay for residential or nursing care. People with assets of more than £16,000 - including property - get no cash support from the state, and only those with less than £10,000 are cared for entirely free of charge.

The Commission proposed that all elderly people, not just those with virtually no assets, should be cared for free of charge in residential homes. The better off would still have to pay for food and accommodation, but no-one would pay for being looked after. However, two of the 12 Commission members refused to endorse this central recommendation and published a minority report of their own, arguing that the money should be targeted on the least well off.

The reportedly heated dispute within the Commission prompted Sir Stewart to propose that the Commission's papers be totally opened to the public. This would allow full debate of all the issues - including the arguments and evidence that divided members of the Commission.

In May this year, just 8 weeks after the report's publication, 590 files - the bulk of the Commission's work - were made available in the Public Record Office. This includes all the evidence received; transcripts of public meetings; correspondence with the Commission; and some internal material, such as agendas, papers and minutes of Commission meetings and draft chapters of the final report. The Secretariat's papers will be released in March next year, though some materials will be withheld for five years. This includes information supplied in confidence by other governments and papers produced for the Commission's working groups. Even so, this means that full disclosure will have been provided 25 years earlier than the normal 30-year period.

 

Hampshire County Council

Hampshire County Council receive an Award for their Hantsweb Internet site, a superb site which provides a vast amount of detailed information about the council's work. The site provides access to some 700,000 pages of material and includes

  • Minutes of the council and its committees and subcommittees going back to 1986;

  • a guide to the authority and its functions, including a directory of phone numbers and e-mail addresses for staff of the council, other local authorities, health service bodies and voluntary organisations in the area;

  • information on local schools and colleges including examination results, OFSTED inspection reports; and e-mail addresses for individual teaching staff;

  • social services inspection reports on individual residential homes for children and elderly persons, with links to heath authority inspection reports on nursing homes.

  • details of the council's budget and expenditure; and performance indicators, showing how the councils' services rate against the Audit Commission's criteria for particular functions.

  • guidance on how to obtain advice, report problems or make complaints, about all the matters dealt with by the authority. of the council's functions; and advice on getting help with finding a range of services from rented accommodation to childminders

Despite its vast range, the site is easy to navigate, and written in clear language, providing helpful and accessible information across an enormous range of council activities.

 


 
Read Jack Straw's speech to the Awards ceremony.
  
Read the speech of the Campaign's Co-Chairman, James Cornford, to the Awards ceremony.
  
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