1994 Freedom of Information Awards

The contributions towards greater openness made by individuals and organisations are recognised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual Awards, presented in London on the evening of February 27.

The Awards are presented by Eithne Fitzgerald, Minister of State in the Office of the Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) in Ireland and Minister of State for Labour Affairs. Ms Fitzgerald is responsible for introducing a Freedom of Information Bill in Ireland, due by the end of the year, and for piloting the Ethics in Public Office Bill.

Freedom of Information Awards go to:

  • Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for publishing the minutes of his monthly meetings with the Governor of the Bank of England.
  • Arthur and Victoria McConnell, who fought to improve patient information about drugs after their daughter died after taking steroids.
  • John Carvel of the Guardian and David Gardner of the Financial Times, for effective challenges to the secrecy of the Council of Ministers, the European Union’s most powerful institution.
  • Llew Smith MP and his research assistant David Lowry, for their sustained campaign against nuclear secrecy.
  • Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise, a training and development body, for a disclosure policy which rejects “the fig leaf” of commercial confidentiality.
  • Omagh People Against Goldmining, for a successful legal challenge to the environmental secrecy of the Crown Estate.
  • Susan O’Keeffe, the World in Action journalist who faced the threat of imprisonment for protecting her sources.
  • Richard Norton-Taylor of the Guardian, for his play dramatising the Scott Inquiry.
  • The Liverpool Echo, for a successful challenge to an injunction which had prevented them revealing details of an inquiry into a mismanaged council contract.

Kenneth Clarke

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, receives an Award for publishing the minutes of his monthly meetings with the Governor of the Bank of England. The Campaign’s director, Maurice Frankel, describes the release of this material, which began in April 1994, as “a breakthrough which undermines one of Whitehall’s deepest taboos. Discussions between ministers and their advisers – policy advice – is virtually never released, and the disclosure of such high level discussions is unprecedented. MPs are not even allowed to ask for policy advice in parliamentary questions; civil servants cannot reveal it to select committees; and ministers issue public interest immunity certificates – so called ‘gagging orders’ to try and prevent its release in court, as they did during the Matrix Churchill trial.”

The government argues that revealing advice would prevent officials speaking frankly and damage the decision-making process. As a result it is normally only disclosed after 30-years. Kenneth Clarke’s robust approach rejects this convention. It is designed to reassure the public and the markets that decisions on interest rates are not taken for political advantage and can be justified on what he argues are objective economic grounds. Publication of the minutes is expected to help ensure this.

The Campaign says that at present it is too easy for ministers to argue that something is technically not feasible, when its own experts’ confidential advice shows this is not so. It wants to see Kenneth Clarke’s example followed by other departments, so the public can see what the government’s medical, scientific, statistical and other expert advisers have concluded.

Arthur and Victoria McConnell

Arthur and Victoria McConnell launched a campaign for patients to be given better warnings about the side effects of corticosteroid medicines after their 9 year old daughter died while taking the drug. Their daughter, Lexie, had been prescribed a corticosteroid to treat an eye infection. Mr and Mrs McConnell say the only warning they were given was that a rash might result, although severe side effects are well documented. In fact she reacted with nausea and serious headaches. More significantly, the drug caused serious damage to her immune system, leaving her unprotected against infection. She later contracted and died of chickenpox in an Oxford hospital in November 1992. The subsequent coroner’s inquest explicitly linked her death to the drug. The McConnells were deeply critical of the secrecy surrounding the drug licensing system, and launched a campaign both to have the cause of her death properly investigated and to improve the warnings given to doctors and patients. Their efforts led to an inquiry by the government’s Committee on Safety of Medicines, and by the manufacturer of the drug, Glaxo. As a result, fresh warnings were issued to doctors and the manufacturer has added a specific warning about the risks of infection and chickenpox to the patient leaflet supplied with the drug. The Campaign says that such a response to the efforts of an ordinary family is extremely rare, and is a testament to their concern for the welfare of other patients and their highly effective campaigning. The Anglia and Oxford Regional Health Authority has however refused their calls for a public inquiry into their daughter’s death. Their offer of a private inquiry was rejected by the McConnells, and will not now take place.

John Carvel, Guardian and David Gardner, Financial Times

John Carvel of the Guardian and David Gardner of the Financial Times receive Awards for their vigorous challenges to the secrecy of the Council of Ministers. The two journalists were amongst the first users of a new disclosure code applying to the Council and European Commission which came into force at the beginning of 1994. The Awards to them recognise the importance of journalists treating secrecy as an issue of immediate priority to their own work and not – as so often – merely as a news item to be reported if presented on a press release.

John Carvel, the Guardian’s European Affairs editor, applied for and obtained documents of a meeting of the ministers dealing with social affairs issues, at which the UK secured a partial opt-out from a directive on child labour. But he was refused equivalent documents from a meeting of ministers dealing with immigration and terrorism. Mr Carvel appealed, arguing that the withheld documents had similar status to those that had been released. In response, the Council claimed both sets of documents should have been withheld under a controversial exemption protecting the “confidentiality of proceedings”. The child labour material had been disclosed in error, it concluded. The British government, like most other member states, supported this secrecy, but the Danish and Dutch governments backed the Guardian. The paper has challenged the decision at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, where it is formally supported by the European Parliament and the Danish and Dutch governments. A hearing is expected later in the year.

The Award to David Gardner recognises his paper’s challenge to the policy of keeping secret voting records at the Council of Ministers. The Council is the forum at which foreign ministers from each member state vote to introduce European law. In 1994 Mr Gardner, then the FT’s Brussels correspondent, used the new code to request records of how each government had voted since 1989 on hundreds of directives. The Council’s secretariat refused to release the information, claiming – extraordinarily – that it did not hold records of how members of this crucial legislative body voted. It said the only records were in the minutes of the meetings themselves, which it would not release – again citing the exemption for the “confidentiality of proceedings”. The FT appealed, and was supported by Denmark and Holland against the majority of member states. In this case the UK government proposed a compromise, which was eventually accepted. Under it, past voting records remain confidential, but records of future votes are now being centrally recorded and disclosed.

Llew Smith MP and David Lowry

The Award to Llew Smith MP (Labour, Blaenau Gwent) and David Lowry his research assistant recognises their persistent campaign against nuclear secrecy. Llew Smith, who was elected to the Commons in 1992, is amongst the most tenacious tablers of parliamentary questions (PQs). Between May 1992 and October 1994 he tabled more than 2,500 questions, a third of them on nuclear issues. He insists that far from asking too many questions, MPs ask too few – and that PQs provide the only reliable opportunity for backbenchers to elicit information. The questions have deliberately probed the extent of the official secrecy surrounding nuclear reprocessing, radiation risks, the use of plutonium, nuclear proliferation, leaks of nuclear material, activities at Sellafield and many related issues. A response to one of Llew Smith’s questions in 1994 provided the first comprehensive figure for the number of occasions on which civil nuclear material had been removed by the British government from the internationally monitored non-proliferation safeguards and transferred to military use. There have been 571 such instances since 1979, many of them only temporary, but some representing permanent transfers of civil nuclear material for military purposes.

Mr Smith has also highlighted the government’s repeated refusal to answer questions about arms sales to Iraq, on the grounds that this was a matter for the Scott Inquiry. He took the issue up with Lord Justice Scott directly, who declared that he had no objection to ministers answering questions on the matters he was investigating. Mr Smith was however later barred by the Speaker from tabling any further questions on arms to Iraq or the Scott Inquiry, a controversial decision which has further limited the opportunities for holding the government to account on these topics.

Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise

Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise (CASE) receives an Award for a bold disclosure policy based, in its own words, “on a belief that the old fig leaf of ‘commercial confidence’ is no longer sustainable.” CASE is one of 10 Local Enterprise Companies (LECs), which since 1991 have been responsible for training and development grants in the Highlands & Islands of Scotland. LECs, like their English counterparts the Training & Enterprise Councils (TECs) have been criticised for their lack of accountability, particularly as most directors are appointed from local businesspeople. In response to such concerns, CASE introduced a farsighted openness policy. It publishes a monthly report with a full account of who has benefitted, and in what way, from public funds, with specific details of every grant made ranging from training credits of a few pounds to business grants of tens of thousands. Elsewhere such details are almost always withheld on commercial or privacy grounds. CASE says that if the openness policy deters some clients from seeking grants “such risks are worth taking”. It believes its work will be improved by “knowing that we may have to publicly defend what we are doing with the public’s money”. CASE’s example has now been followed by the other 9 LECs in the Highlands and Islands region though not by other Scottish LECs or by the English TECs.

Omagh People Against Goldmining

Omagh People Against Goldmining (OPAG) is a small local environmental group which has successfully concluded what is probably the first test case under a new environmental information law. In May 1993, Omagh Minerals Ltd obtained a lease from the Crown Estate to extract gold and silver, by a process using cyanide, from land near Omagh, in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. A crucial aspect of the lease requires the company to put up a bond to cover the cost of making good any environmental damage caused by the open cast mining. However, despite repeated questioning during a public inquiry neither the company nor the Crown Estate were prepared to reveal the size of the bond. Residents in the area suspected it might not be sufficient, and applied to the Crown Estate for a copy of the lease and details of the bond. The application was made under the Environmental Information Regulations 1992, which implement a European directive intended to guarantee the public’s right to environmental information held by public bodies. However, the Crown Estate refused to release the information claiming (though without explaining why) that they were not subject to the regulations at all, and that the information was in any case commercially confidential. Backed by the environmental law group FIELD and solicitors Leigh Day & Co, an OPAG member challenged this decision by judicial review, in what was the first case of its kind. Days before the case was heard in the High Court, the Crown Estate, backed down and handed over the requested information.

Susan O’Keeffe

Susan O’Keeffe is a Granada TV journalist who risked imprisonment rather than reveal her sources. Her “World in Action” programme, broadcast in 1991, rocked the Irish political establishment with allegations of serious financial malpractice in the Irish beef industry and alleged ties to leading political figures. The programme led to the establishment of a special judicial tribunal, which after a three year inquiry vindicated most of Ms O’Keeffe’s allegations. But much of the report’s impact was lost when, perhaps not accidentally, the day set for its debate in the Irish parliament proved to coincide with the announcement of the IRA ceasefire. Ironically, the only person who faced any formal charges was Susan O’Keeffe herself. She was charged with contempt of court for refusing to name her sources to the tribunal. At one stage the Irish authorities considered seeking to have Ms O’Keeffe, who lives in Manchester, extradited from Britain. She later returned voluntarily and was charged with contempt. When the case came to court, this January, the state’s case against her collapsed and she was acquitted. Despite the possibility of a two-year prison sentence she continued to refuse to name her informants throughout, upholding a vital journalistic principle that protects the flow of information to the public.

Richard Norton-Taylor

Richard Norton-Taylor receives an Award for his dramatisation of the Scott Inquiry. His play, “Half the Picture”, reconstructed the inquiry’s highlights verbatim from the transcript of proceedings. The author was one of the few people to sit through all 400 hours of the inquiry’s public proceedings. His play, which was widely praised by drama critics, ran for a month at London’s Tricycle Theatre in the summer of 1994, is due to be broadcast on BBC2 shortly, and the BBC is considering translating it into Arabic for broadcast on the World Service. The play proved an extraordinarily insightful, accessible and entertaining guide to the many complex issues raised by the inquiry and, for those who saw it, some compensation for the fact that this unique investigation into Whitehall’s secretive decision-making was not itself televised. Richard Norton-Taylor has been covering Whitehall and official secrecy for the Guardian since 1975. His book on the Scott Inquiry “Truth is a Difficult Concept” was published earlier this month.

The Liverpool Echo

The Liverpool Echo receives an Award for successfully challenging an injunction which had barred it from revealing the findings of a draft report into a controversial loss-making council contract. Liverpool City Council’s direct services organisation had undertaken the contract to lay cable TV cables, despite warnings that it was ill-equipped to do so. In the event, the council made losses of around £5 million. The council commissioned accountants KPMG Peat Marwick to investigate. The Liverpool Echo learnt of the findings of their draft report, but was prevented from publishing by an injunction obtained by KPMG. The firm argued that it would not be in the public interest to allow a draft report, which might not be entirely accurate, to be debated publicly. But the newspaper argued that it was important that local voters should learn about the findings immediately, as local council elections were only a month away. The judge, commenting on the delays in producing the report, held that the overriding public interest favoured disclosure before the election, and lifted the injunction, allowing the paper to reveal the draft report’s findings. Newspapers are increasingly subject to legal restraints on publication, which they often find too expensive to challenge. The Award to the Echo recognises the importance of the paper’s vigorous defence of its right to inform its readers.

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