1996 Freedom of Information Awards

People who have fought to overcome official secrecy are recognised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual Awards, presented on the evening of February 12. This year’s Awards are presented by the former Transport Minister Steven Norris MP, who before becoming a minister was a co-chairman of the Campaign.

The Campaign’s Awards go to:

  • Alison Taylor, a former social worker who was dismissed for trying to expose child abuse in children’s homes in North Wales, and who refused to accept a financial settlement containing a gagging clause.
  • Quentin Davies MP, for efforts to ensure there was no cover-up over the Willetts affair and the Scott report; and for his advocacy of Freedom of Information legislation.
  • Francis Wheeler, a retired bus-driver from Dumfriesshire who won a ten year campaign against the secrecy surrounding the removal of £168 million from the pension fund of the privatised National Bus Company. As a result of his campaign, the Government may now have to repay some £200 million.
  • Ian Church, the Editor of Hansard whose initiative led to Hansard being made available in full to the public free of charge on the Internet. A conventional subscription costs nearly £1,200 p.a. for the paper version and £2,000 for the electronic.
  • Dr Goran Jamal, a consultant neurologist from Glasgow who resigned from a government advisory committee on organophosphorous sheep dips rather than accept restrictions on his ability to give evidence about their hazards in court.
  • Press Gazette, for a vigorous campaign against official secrecy, and for consistently opposing moves to restrict journalists’ rights to information held by the courts, quangos, NHS trusts and other bodies.

Alison Taylor

Alison Taylor is a former social worker who was sacked for blowing the whistle on child abuse in North Wales childrens’ homes. As the manager of a home run by Gwynedd county council in the mid 1980s she had seen evidence of physical abuse and been told of appalling sexual and physical abuse by children transferred from other homes in both Gwynedd and neighbouring Clwyd. She raised the matter with her superiors, but when no action was taken she went to the police in 1986 with a series of allegations. The local authority responded by suspending her, claiming there had been a “breakdown in communications” between her and her colleagues. It twice offered her a financial settlement if she resigned, but she refused to accept the accompanying secrecy clause which would have prevented her revealing the allegations. She was then dismissed. When she challenged the sacking at an industrial tribunal she won an out of court settlement without a secrecy clause, which she accepted in 1989. Her dismissal was retracted and her legal costs paid.

Alison Taylor continued to campaign for action. She discovered that other social workers had made complaints before she did, with no result, but many others remained silent about what she said was “virtually common knowledge within the county”. She was also approached by other young people with many more accounts of abuse in the regions’ children’s homes. Yet her approaches to the Welsh Office, the social services inspectorate and others produced no result. In 1991 she took a dossier of allegations from over 100 young people to the police. Police inquiries later led to the conviction of seven care workers for abuse but Alison Taylor believed this was only the tip of the iceberg and that more than 2,000 children may have been abused. It later became apparent that there had been as many as ten internal inquiries by local authorities into abuse in these homes, none of which was published, or led to effective action. One reason for the secrecy was pressure exerted by the council’s insurers, Zurich Municipal, who threatened to withdraw their cover for Clwyd county council if details of the investigations – which might lead to more claims for compensation – were made public. Finally, after years of failing to act, a judicial inquiry was set up and last month began taking evidence about the child abuse. Alison Taylor’s refusal to be silenced has been one of the critical factors in finally bringing the scandal into the light.

 

Quentin Davies MP

Quentin Davies MP’s Award recognises his outstanding contribution to keeping Parliament from behaving exclusively as a partisan body. During vital debates on ministerial accountability he has consistently insisted on the overriding principle that ministers must tell the truth to Parliament.

Mr Davies, the Conservative member for Stamford & Spalding, and a member of the Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges, played a crucial part in its deliberations on the ‘David Willetts affair’. The committee’s enquiry centred on a memorandum by the then government whip, which suggested that he had tried to influence the chairman of the Members’ Interests committee over its investigation into an aspect of the Neil Hamilton ‘cash for questions’ affair. In his devastating, televised questioning of Mr Willetts, Mr Davies made clear his view that Mr Willetts must have either have deceived the Whips’ office with his original memorandum, or was trying to deceive the committee with his subsequent explanation of it. His role is thought to have been central to the committee’s final report which concluded that Mr Willetts had “dissembled” adding the damning recommendation that in future it would take evidence on oath – implying that only this would prevent witnesses from lying.

Earlier in the year, Mr Davies was one of only two Conservative MPs (the other being Richard Shepherd) to vote against the government on the Scott Report. In a passionate speech he argued that Parliament had been misled, and ministerial resignations were called for. In 1994, as a member of the Treasury & Civil Service Committee, he called on the government to introduce a Freedom of Information Act, criticising the non-statutory alternative – a code of practice on disclosure – which he said would ultimately be enforced in the Commons by an executive that “knows that it dominates and manipulates Parliament”.

 

Francis Wheeler

Francis Wheeler is a retired bus driver from Dumfriesshire, whose ten year campaign to discover how £168 million was removed from his company’s pension fund at privatisation, finally succeeded in September 1996.

The National Bus Company was privatised in the late 1980s, following the Transport Act 1985. Shortly before the privatisation there had been some doubt as to whether the company’s pension fund was sufficient to meet future commitments to pensioners. As a result the government proposed that any deficit should be made up from the company’s resources, but if there was a surplus it would be taken by the company and paid to the government. The basis for calculating future pensions was also changed, so that instead of linking them to average earnings they could be linked to a formula based on the retail price index, if that proved cheaper.

The fund proved to have a substantial surplus at the time of privatisation, and this went to the government. However, the fund’s original rules would have prohibited this: they required any surplus to be used to benefit the pensioners. The rules themselves could not be changed to the pensioners’ detriment unless each individual was consulted and agreed. In this case, the rules were changed to allow the removal of the surplus but the pensioners were not asked for the necessary agreement.

Mr Wheeler was determined to find out how this had been permitted. Yet his inquiries met a wall of secrecy. The Department of Transport refused to allow the minutes of the pension committee to be released; the trustee of the fund refused to explain why the changes had been agreed. At one point Mr Wheeler – who receives a pension of £170 a month – issued a county court summons seeking this information, but withdrew it after being warned that a full legal team would be fielded against him and he would liable for all their costs if he lost.

After long correspondence Mr Wheeler challenged the removal of the surplus by complaining to the Pensions Ombudsman. He also challenged the secrecy by separately complaining to the Parliamentary Ombudsman under the Open Government code of practice. The two Ombudsmens’ decisions proved a remarkable victory for Mr Wheeler’s tenacious campaign.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman rejected the department’s arguments for secrecy and required it to release any previously unpublished information contained in the pension committee minutes, though not the minutes themselves.

The Pensions Ombudsman’s report, published in September 1996, provided a startling revelation. The pension fund trustee had in effect been coerced into changing the rules: the company had threatened to suspend all contributions to the fund unless it did so. The Pensions Ombudsman described this as “a breach of the duty of good faith” and “an improper use of [its] power”. The Pensions Ombudsman also concluded that the fund trustee did not normally have to give reasons for decisions, so long as it acted properly. But in this case the failure to seek the member’s consent was “prima facie evidence of a breach of trust” – and the trustee was not entitled to withhold its reasons.

The Pensions Ombudsman ordered the pension fund to take steps to recover the money paid to the government, together with interest. The government has refused to repay the funds without a court order but has agreed to pay the legal costs of the Trustees in seeking judicial review. If it loses, it may have to repay some £200 million.

 

Ian Church

Ian Church, is the editor of Hansard, the daily record of what is said in Parliament. He was responsible for setting up and chairing a committee of Parliamentary officials, whose report has led to Hansard being published free of charge on the Internet. To its credit, the Cabinet Office endorsed this approach, despite the potential loss of revenue to the Exchequer.

The high cost of the paper version of Hansard has long been criticised, as putting it beyond the reach of many. An annual subscription to the daily version, for both Houses of Parliament, costs £1,185. The annual fee for an electronic version of Hansard, on CDs and through an on-line subscription, comes to £1,997.

However, as a result of Ian Church’s initiative, Hansard has appeared in full on the Internet since October 1996, a development which makes Parliament’s proceedings more accessible than ever before. All debates, questions and answers in both the Commons and Lords can be read free of charge the next day. The initiative goes beyond Hansard itself. A number of bills and select committee reports are also now available on-line without charge, and it is planned that by April 1998 all Parliamentary papers will be available on the Internet. These include some materials, such as amendments to bills, which are not directly available to the public at all at the moment. Few people will want to study Hansard regularly, but many will have an interest in reading a debate on a particular subject of importance to them – perhaps the environment, animal rights or the NHS – or seeing what their MP has been doing in the Commons.

 

Dr Goran Jamal

Dr Goran Jamal is a consultant neurologist who in December 1996 resigned from a government advisory committee on the hazards of organophosphorous sheep dips rather than accept restrictions on his ability to give evidence about these products in court.

In 1994 Dr Jamal was invited by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to serve on the Medical and Scientific Panel which advises the government’s Veterinary Products Committee about the safety of sheep dips. Dr Jamal is an expert on the hazards of these chemicals, which are increasingly believed to have damaged the health of farmers exposed to them. Related compounds are implicated in the Gulf War syndrome. The members of this panel are prohibited by a secrecy clause in the Medicines Act 1968 from disclosing information obtained by them in connection with its work, and indeed could face a two year prison sentence for revealing information supplied to the panel. Dr Jamal understood and accepted this restriction from the outset.

However, as a specialist treating patients exposed to sheep dips, who has also carried out research into the problem, he had been asked to give evidence as an expert witness in compensation claims brought against the products’ manufacturers. He considered he was able to do this from his own research and clinical experience – without drawing on information supplied to him as a panel member.

When MAFF learnt of this, it proposed that all members of the panel be asked to agree to a new code of conduct which made it clear that involvement in court proceedings was incompatible with membership of the panel. Dr Jamal was unwilling to accept this, and following his representations the terms of the code were amended. But even the revised code, in his view, would have made it difficult to take part in legal proceedings while remaining a full member of the panel. Faced with such a choice, many scientists would choose to withdraw from legal proceedings, even though this would in effect prevent them from sharing their own independently acquired expertise with a court and the public. Dr Jamal chose instead to resign from the panel, remaining free to give evidence on behalf of those who may have been injured by these potent chemicals.

 

Press Gazette

The Press Gazette receives an Award for a vigorous campaign against official secrecy. Its ‘Beat the Information Shutdown’ campaign, supported by the Guild of Editors, has highlighted the increasing range of restrictions faced by journalists seeking information from the courts, police, NHS trusts, quangos and local authorities. Its editorials have consistently called for greater freedom of information, and supported campaigns against secrecy by other newspapers and periodicals. Most publications report secrecy issues only when thrown up by other ‘newsworthy’ stories. The Press Gazette has made the secrecy itself the focus of its reporting. The high profile the Press Gazette has given to these issues helps both to educate journalists about the need for greater freedom of information and bring pressure to bear on those who restrict it.

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