Individuals and organisations who have contributed significantly to greater openness are recognised in the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual Awards, presented on Monday evening, March 25, by the Rt Hon Tony Blair MP, leader of the Labour Party.
The Campaign’s Awards go to:
- The West Wales Ambulance NHS Trust, for a unique ‘no gagging clause’ policy, permitting staff to speak freely to the media.
- Michael O’Connor, a Vice President of the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York, for his remarkable efforts to supply British victims of asbestos diseases with documents needed for their compensation claims.
- Leonora King, who was threatened with imprisonment for contempt of court for writing to the Queen in protest about pollution of her home near Chelmsford
- Peter Smith, an insurance manager who lost his job after warning his company that untrained sales representatives were selling policies in contravention of LAUTRO rules
- Martyn Gregory, whose Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme revealed how British companies secretly evade export controls on the supply of electric shock equipment to countries where such equipment is used in torture
- OFTEL, for a remarkable public consultation process which makes it more difficult for vested commercial interests to unduly influence decision making
- Tony Wright MP, for his writing on constitutional reform and practical steps in the House of Commons to protect whistleblowers and promote freedom of information.
The West Wales Ambulance NHS Trust
The West Wales Ambulance NHS Trust receives an Award for a unique, “no gagging clause” policy. The Trust, based in Swansea, has issued staff with formal guidance which states:
“The Trust has no ‘gagging’ policy. Individuals may say what they like when they like to the media about personal matters, including their conditions of employment”.
The only restriction is that staff must make it clear that they are expressing a personal view and not officially speaking on behalf of the Trust. The Trust’s Chairman, Mr Roger Hayes, introduced the policy when the Trust was established in April 1995, because, he says:
“I personally felt it was intolerable that we should try and restrict freedom of speech. We are the servants of the public. Some matters, such as patient confidentiality, must be protected. But our daily doings should be available for public scrutiny. We belong to the public and everything we do should be in the public domain.”
The policy flies in the face of the increasing trend, of NHS bodies and employers generally, to prohibit staff from talking to the media. Employees’ contracts of employment increasingly include confidentiality clauses making it a disciplinary offence for them to talk to the press. In a series of well publicised cases, NHS staff have been punished for publicly expressing concern about standards of patient care. The Campaign’s Award is intended both to recognise the significance of the Trust’s groundbreaking approach – and to encourage others to follow suit.
Michael O’Connor is a Vice President of the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York and one of its senior lawyers. The Award recognises his remarkable efforts to provide information about the dangers of asbestos to British groups and lawyers acting for people injured by this deadly substance in the UK. Chase Manhattan has been involved in legal action in the US courts against the US subsidiary of the British asbestos manufacturers, Turner and Newall. During it Mr O’Connor obtained literally millions of pages of previously unseen Turner and Newall documents, from the 1920s to the present, revealing how early the company knew about the real risks of this cancer-causing product. Instead of using them solely for his own company’s law suit, he sent thousands of documents to organisations and lawyers representing British victims of asbestos diseases. The British lawyers say he has been extraordinarily generous, going far beyond the normal courtesies. Documents he released include a 1964 T&N memorandum describing the growing public awareness that asbestos caused cancer as a “sinister development”. Another company document about new safety regulations said: “If, however, we demonstrate by a token effort only an ostensible intention to comply with the regulations, it is conceivable that we can ward off the evil day when asbestos cannot be economically applied.” Chase’s documents played a crucial part in a case in Leeds last October when compensation was for the first time awarded to people who had contracted mesothelioma, an asbestos related cancer, as a result of living near an asbestos factory. Their lawyers were able to get Turner and Newall documents from Mr O’Connor which the company itself had not disclosed. Turner & Newall came in for scathing criticism from the judge, Mr Justice Holland, who said it had opposed the claims “by any means possible, legitimate or otherwise, so as to wear them down by attrition”. The company’s appeal against the judgement is expected to be heard this week.
Leonora King was threatened with imprisonment for contempt of court after writing a letter to the Queen, complaining about pollution of her home. Oil leaking from an estate heating scheme operated by Mobil Oil had damaged trees growing in Mrs King’s garden and high levels of fumes from the oil were detected within the house itself. Mrs King’s children suffered a variety of symptoms, including headaches, conjunctivitis and bronchitis which she believed were caused by the fumes. Her GP said he considered the contamination levels had reached “a probable dangerous level” and advised her not to live in the house. After a three-year battle, Mobil finally agreed to buy her house and provided some compensation, though she is still fighting for compensation for her youngest two children and remains worried about long term health effects. But the settlement included an all-embracing confidentiality clause, which prohibited any disclosure of information of any kind about the problem or the dispute.
Mrs King was angry at the fight she had to put up to get compensation and incensed when she noticed the Mobil letterhead carried the Royal crest, identifying them as suppliers of petroleum products “by Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen”. She wrote to the Queen protesting about Mobil’s conduct. Her letter was passed to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office who, for some reason, forwarded a copy to Mobil itself. This produced an astonishing result. Mrs King was served with formal notice by Mobil stating that by writing to the Queen she had breached the confidentiality agreement, and warning that she risked imprisonment. The affair was made public in the Guardian, by Paul Brown its environment correspondent. The Award is intended to highlight the problems caused by the growing practice of inserting confidentiality clauses in legal settlements, which allow organisations to buy the silence of people injured by their products, or unfairly dismissed or discriminated against. This suppresses public knowledge of matters of genuine public concern and prevents others who may have been similarly harmed from learning what evidence exists.
Peter Smith was a highly successful branch manager of Colonial Mutual, a major life insurance company, who lost his job after reporting to his head office that customers were being sold policies by untrained sales representatives. One of his staff had informed him that trainees from another branch had been visiting clients on their own, unsupervised, in direct contravention of the company’s rules and those of LAUTRO, the regulatory body. Some managers had been falsely completing training reports, concealing the fact that the visits had been unsupervised. After repeatedly raising his concerns, Mr Smith says he was told that if he pursued the matter his job would be on the line. Distressed at this, and as nothing appeared to have been done, he took the matter directly to the company’s chief executive. Though promised a reply, the next thing he heard from head office was that he had been selected for redundancy – despite the fact that he had recently been declared manager of the month for his outstanding sales record. The company maintains that this was nothing to do with his reporting of the matter: Mr Smith has no doubt that it was. The truth of the allegations made by Mr Smith was later accepted by the company and disciplinary action taken against two managers involved. Yet although Peter Smith’s concern was well-founded and he had raised the matter responsibly with his company he has lost his job. He has also been made ill by the stress of these experiences, and is currently suing for damages as a result. He has not been able to find work in the industry since, despite his considerable experience and track record. His case illustrates the overwhelming need for Don Touhig MP’s Public Interest Disclosure Bill currently before Parliament, which would protect individuals from reprisals if they raise serious concerns that are in the public interest, provided that they take the matter to the organisation itself first.
Martyn Gregory is the producer and reporter of the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, ‘The Torture Trail’ broadcast in January 1995, which exposed how British companies were selling electric shock weapons overseas. Although sold for riot control, such weapons are notorious for their widespread use in torturing prisoners, a practice thoroughly documented in many countries by Amnesty International. In the UK, their sale, use and export is illegal without a special licence. However, Dispatches revealed that British companies were able to evade export controls by offering to send electric shock equipment directly from overseas suppliers to foreign customers, without passing through the UK. Posing as a British businessman supplying equipment to the Lebanese government Martyn Gregory secretly filmed a manager at Royal Ordnance, part of British Aerospace, offering to sell electronic riot shields and shock batons. The company later made a written offer to supply $3.62 million worth of the equipment. Other companies were secretly filmed, demonstrating equipment capable of delivering shocks of up to 120,000 volts, and claimed that the British government was encouraging them in exporting this equipment. Royal Ordnance’s sales manager was filmed saying that it had supplied electric batons to the Saudi government as part of the ‘Al-Yamamah’ arms deal negotiated by the British government in 1985 – though the government itself denies this. A follow up Dispatches programme, broadcast earlier this month revealed that a guide for British exporters to the Gulf, largely funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, advised them of marketing opportunities for electronic batons to the Qatar government’s security forces. The programme also revealed that British police forces were acquiring electric shock shields, though the purpose is said to be to protect the police from ferocious dogs.
Questioned on the record by Dispatches, all the companies denied any involvement in the sale of this equipment, despite having been filmed offering to supply it. The programme was denounced by Michael Heseltine and other DTI ministers, who said it had been “contrived” and that the researchers had manufactured a story which did not otherwise exist. The ministers were forced to withdraw these allegations, and apologise in the High Court, and the government paid £55,000 damages, after Martyn Gregory brought libel proceedings against them. This appears to have been the first successful libel action against the government. In a disgraceful final twist to the saga, Mr Gregory was later interviewed by Ministry of Defence police and has been told that he may still face charges of inciting companies to breach the Firearms Act, an offence which carries up to a 5 year jail sentence.
OFTEL receives an Award for taking the process of public consultation further than any other public authority. In an effort to increase the transparency of its decision-making, it has adopted a new two-stage consultation procedure. Organisations and individuals responding to its consultation papers are asked to allow their responses to be made public. There is then a further period of consultation, in which the parties are invited to comment on the responses made by others. This second round is a unique innovation, which gives consumer bodies and other commercial parties the chance to challenge any unreliable information or questionable arguments put forward by others, and provides some safeguard against vested interests supplying slanted information. Although submitters can ask for their comments to be withheld from scrutiny, Don Cruickshank, Oftel’s Director General, has warned that confidential responses may be given less weight, if they have not been tested by other participants. He has also reserved the right to publish confidential responses, against the submitter’s wishes, if these are of ‘material significance’. Oftel has also begun a process of public hearings to discuss proposed new safeguards to prevent anti-competitive practices.
Dr Tony Wright
Dr Tony Wright is a former academic, now Labour Member of Parliament for Cannock and Burntwood, whose approach to politics unites intellectual analysis with practical reforming solutions – a rare combination. In his 1994 book ‘Citizens and Subjects’ he describes Britain as a “dominocracy” rather than a democracy and argues the case for building the citizen’s interests, as opposed to the interests of government and the political parties, into the political process. In a 1995 pamphlet he reviewed the extraordinarily wide powers of patronage, exercised by government in appointments to quangos and other bodies, and urged his own party to resist the temptation to merely inherit these powers rather than reform them. In the House of Commons last year he took the initiative in drafting and introducing a bill to protect whistleblowers from reprisals, if they disclose information in the public interest. His proposals formed the basis of the Public Interest Disclosure Bill, which received a second reading in the Commons earlier this month and is shortly to go into committee. He played an active part in promoting the Right to Know Bill – a freedom of information bill – in 1993, and has been a highly respected member of the select committee on the Ombudsman’s work, which is to publish a major report on open government later this week.