Information about safety and environmental problems in Britain, kept secret here, is freely available from America under the US Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
Anyone, even a British citizen living in the UK, can use the FOI Act. In a new report (pages 3-6 of ‘Secrets‘ No 22) the Campaign for Freedom of Information shows what can be obtained from the US about British cruise ships, meat plants, cars, pesticides, pollution incidents and pharmaceutical quality – all of which is treated as confidential by British authorities. It says a British Freedom of Information Act is long overdue and is calling on the government to make it a central feature of its forthcoming Citizens’ Charter.
The report reveals information on the following subjects:
Cruise Liner Hygiene
Cruise Liner Hygiene
British cruise liners crossing the Atlantic are checked by health inspectors in both countries. The British reports are secret – the US reports are widely publicised. Any British ship calling at a US port is also inspected – and nearly all were judged satisfactory at their most recent inspection. But Cunard’s QE2 failed 2 US inspections over a 17 month period and was borderline in a third. Cockroaches were found in the ship’s kitchens in December 1989 and again in April 1991. The latter inspection also found “many pans…soiled with food residues after washing”, the interior and exterior of an oven “heavily soiled with food residue and dust” and glassware leaving a dishwasher “soiled with food debris”. The P&O’s Sky Princess scored only 55 points out of 100 in November 1989 – well below the pass mark of 86. Equipment used to monitor chlorine levels in drinking water was not working accurately, disinfection of swimming pools and a jacuzzi was inadequate, and protective devices such as air gaps used to prevent drinking water being contaminated by backflow from swimming pools and even a hose in the ship’s hospital were absent. The company later put the problems right and was one of the highest rated ships (scoring 95/100) in January 1991.
The US authorities actively publicise ship inspection scores in a bulletin sent to travel agents and the press, so passengers can make an informed choice about which ship to travel on. No details of British port health authorities’ findings are made public.
British inspection reports on meat plants are secret. But if the plant exports to the US it is inspected by officials from the US Department of Agriculture, whose reports can be obtained under the FOI Act. Only one British company has a US license, the turkey producer Bernard Mathews plc of Suffolk. A checklist of inspection results from a June 1990 inspection showed that 73 hygiene items were rated as ‘acceptable’, only 3 were ‘marginal’ and none was ‘unacceptable’.
No specific information – good or bad – about meat plants is available from MAFF. It has refused to disclose European Commission inspection reports on British slaughterhouses exporting to Europe; it has refused to name plants whose European licenses have been suspended because of substandard conditions; it has refused to say how many of these continued to supply the British marked while suspended; and it has refused even to say what percentage of abattoirs were judged to satisfactory by MAFF veterinary inspectors.
We can learn far more about environmental problems at a US Air Force base in England than about pollution from an ordinary British factory. The Campaign has obtained records of oil spills at USAF bases at Lakenheath and Mildenhall in Suffolk. In October 1990 alone there were 19 spillages at Lakenheath, though most did not cause external pollution. Such information is not available about British premises. On the contrary the government has recently broken a promise to parliament that the public would have the right to see the reports of environmental investigations.
The food minister David Maclean claims that “the UK leads the world” in pesticide disclosure. But information on the safety of most British pesticides is secret here – and available only from the US. The safety of captan, an ICI fungicide is under review in Britain, and the information on it is confidential. But it can be seen by anyone visiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s public reading room in Washington. The public can also see notes of every meeting between ICI and the EPA, and EPA’s correspondence with manufacturers, farmers, food producers, environmental groups, UK government departments and the European Commission. Britain is gradually moving towards more openness, and releases safety information when a new pesticide is introduced or an old one reviewed. But by May 1991 information had been released on only 36 of the 400 or so pesticides in use. Data on more than 90% is still confidential.
American officials inspect British pharmaceutical companies who export to the US to ensure that products are sterile and manufactured to the highest standards. Their inspection reports are available under the FOI Act. A Department of Health official who released the equivalent British report would commit a criminal offence and could be jailed for two years. If a company’s license was suspended because its products were substandard even purchasers of drugs such as health authorities would not be informed. In the most serious cases, unsafe products would be recalled. But usually suspensions are kept secret and companies are allowed to sell products made before they lost their license. One health authority pharmacist told the Campaign he had discovered a suspension by chance only when he visited a supplier’s factory and noticed that production had stopped. The company had offered to continue supplying old stock from its warehouse – an offer he declined.
In 1984 US pharmaceutical companies tried to stop British consumer representatives being invited to an international symposium on the safety of antibiotics. At a preliminary meeting the consumer representatives had been critical of the over-use of antibiotics, which accelerate the spread of drug resistance in bacteria making some diseases difficult or even impossible to treat. A representative of one US company, Wyeth International, complained: “I cannot recall ever hearing or reading of one of them [the consumer representatives] speaking in admiring terms of the US pharmaceutical industry”. His letter to the US National Institute of Health – which funded the symposium – has been released under the FOI Act. Similar lobbying in Britain would never be disclosed.
Details of safety related complaints about British cars in the US are publicly available. Similar information about complaints made in Britain is confidential.
Some information available under the FOI Act has been kept secret from MPs. A House of Commons select committee investigating the collapse of the International Tin Council in 1985 found its main information came from disclosures under the FOI Act. The British government not only kept this information confidential, but refused to discuss those documents that were released in America. The committee reported that government secrecy had “thwarted” its investigation.
The Campaign says a British Freedom of Information Act is long overdue. The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel, said: “it is intolerable that the public should have to turn to the American FOI Act to learn about British safety problems which the British government keeps secret.” He said even MPs have no adequate rights to information and have been refused some of the information described in the report. He added: “The embarrassing truth is that the ordinary British citizen often has greater rights to information from the US government than a British MP has from ministers in parliament.”
A recent document circulated by ministers says FOI would “undermine accountability to Parliament”. The Campaign says this is nonsense. It says accountability cannot be weakened by providing more information. All that would be undermined is government’s ability to withhold information simply because it might be embarrassing to it or inconvenient to the bureaucracy.
The Campaign says Britain is a “retarded democracy” left behind by other countries whose citizens have the right to know what is done in their name and with their money. Countries with freedom of information acts include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and the USA. Even tiny Malta, another Commonwealth country with a Westminster type parliament, is committed to FOI legislation.
A Freedom of Information Act would contain exemptions protecting information whose disclosure is genuinely harmful to defence, security, law enforcement, trade secrets or personal privacy. Parliament would define the exemptions and would be free to change them. And the Act would not prevent MPs seeking any information, whatever its status under an FOI law.
Both Labour and the Liberal-Democrats are committed to introducing FOI. The Campaign says the reform should be central to the government’s Citizens’ Charter too. It says a Charter which allows public authorities to keep basic consumer information secret from the public will be a failure. It points out that conservative administrations in Australia, Canada and New Zealand were responsible for introducing or enacting FOI legislation. According to a MORI poll this January FOI is not only the most popular of all the constitutional reforms being discussed in Britain, it is also supported by 75% of Conservative voters.
In both Australia and Canada FOI laws cost around £7 million annually. The report says that even if this figure is scaled up for Britain’s larger population, “it would still come out of petty cash at the Central Office of Information (1989/90 budget £164 million)”.