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Lord Chancellor presents 1997 Freedom of Information Awards

Individuals who have blown the whistle on dangers to the public and public bodies which have voluntarily released normally confidential information are amongst those recognised in the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual Awards.

The Awards are presented on the evening of Tuesday April 28 by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine. Lord Irvine chaired the cabinet subcommittee on freedom of information and played a central role in the discussions leading to the publication of Dr David Clark’s freedom of information white paper.

The Campaign’s Awards go to:

  • The BSE Inquiry, for its Internet site, which gives the public immediate access to all written evidence it receives and puts full transcripts of oral evidence on-line within two hours of a witness’s appearance.
  • Neil Woodward, a medical scientist who exposed the true extent of the misreporting of cervical smears at Canterbury Hospital – a failure which led to a series of preventable cancer deaths.
  • Godfrey and Sissel Fowler, who challenged the secrecy surrounding the death of their son in a railway accident.
  • Jim Boothby, a former director of a chemical company, who resigned in order to blow the whistle on pollution problems at his former employer’s premises.
  • Statewatch, the civil liberties group, for a series of successful challenges to the secrecy of the European Union’s Council of Ministers.
  • Cardiff County Council, for establishing a public register of councillors’ and officers’ conference expenses.
  • Wandsworth Borough Council’s Technical Services Department, for making details of all planning applications, including scanned images of original application forms and plans, available on the Internet.

The BSE Inquiry

The BSE Inquiry receives an Award for its remarkable Internet site, on which all the evidence received by the Inquiry can be read as soon as it is received. At most inquiries, the only way to find out what is happening is to rely on sketchy newspaper reports, or turn up in person day after day – something beyond all but the most dedicated observers. Some inquiries do produce a daily transcript but users have to buy these from the reporting company, usually at a cost of between £20 and £35 a day. A full set of transcripts for the Scott Inquiry on arms to Iraq would have cost over £2,000.

The BSE Inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Phillips, has changed all that. Within two hours of an evidence session, a full transcript of every word that has been said can be read free of charge on the Inquiry’s Internet site (http://www.bse.org.uk). All written statements are put on-line the week before the witness appears in person, and the Inquiry encourages anyone who thinks they have detected an error to notify the Inquiry – by Email if they wish. The web site also contains a detailed history of the BSE saga and a glossary of the technical and medical terms. It receives some 7,000 ‘hits’ on hearing days, and has been accessed by Internet users from 64 different countries – particularly scientists. In the six weeks since the Inquiry, opened at the beginning of March this year, some 7,500 copies of witness statements and 14,000 copies of transcripts have been downloaded onto visitors’ own computers. The ease with which this information can be obtained contrasts markedly with the secrecy that has surrounded the BSE problem in the past.

 

Neil Woodward

Neil Woodward is the medical scientist who discovered and helped to remedy the inadequate screening of cervical smear slides at Canterbury Hospital. The failure to detect abnormal smears has led to several deaths from cancer and many unnecessary hysterectomies.

Mr Woodward was put in charge of the smear screening on joining the hospital in 1993. He soon realised there were grave deficiencies. There were too few staff, many had not been properly trained and the recommended quality control checks were not being done. He introduced such checks and began to review slides previously marked as negative. In some samples as many as 75% of slides proved to have reportable abnormalities which had been missed. In one case, it was later found that abnormalities had been missed in five successive slides from the same woman. Although Mr Woodward repeatedly raised the matter both with medical consultants and senior administrators, he was told that this was a medical issue, which was not his business, and that if he persisted in raising the issue disciplinary action would be taken against him. Despite coming under considerable pressure and – as one observer put it – being “pilloried in a very unpleasant way” he continued to check previously screened slides, often coming into the laboratory at night in his own time to do so. He later had to take time off work through stress. Finally, a year and a half after he had first raised the problem a newly appointed clinical director acted on his information. An independent laboratory confirmed that the original assessments had been grossly substandard. This led to the reassessment of more than 91,000 slides, and a decision to remove all screening work from the hospital. Ironically, that would eventually have left Neil Woodward out of a job, adding to the considerable pressure he faced.

Early in 1997 the Trust published a brief 9 page report on the rescreening, which those in the know regarded as deeply misleading. It implied that concerns were not raised until February 1996, two years after Mr Woodward had in fact done so. Indeed, concerns about lack of staff and inadequate training had been raised even earlier.

Neil Woodward later agreed to appear on Channel Four’s Dispatches programme to reveal what had been going on. His evidence was crucial to the programme, broadcast in May 1997, enabling it to show that the Trust’s published report had grossly misrepresented the position, and that commercial pressures caused by the NHS internal market had encouraged it to conceal its own failings. Following the Dispatches programme the incoming government appointed an independent inquiry which, in damning terms, condemned the Trust’s for its “inadequate” published report and its “entirely indefensible” and “misleading” presentation of statistics to understate the number of women affected by the screening programme. Neil Woodward, mentioned anonymously in the report, is one of the few people to emerge from it with any credit. Following considerable stress and suffering he has now re-established his career.

Mr Woodward’s experiences, and those of Jim Boothby described below, illustrate the need for the Public Interest Disclosure Bill, a measure to protect whistleblowers, introduced by Mr Richard Shepherd MP, which completed its Commons stages last week with government support.

 

Godfrey and Sissel Fowler

Godfrey and Sissel Fowler’s son Adrian died after falling from a train he was running to catch as it left Oxford Station in July 1995. An internal inquiry was carried out by Thames Trains, and sent to the coroner and to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), but the bodies concerned have all refused to disclose it. At the inquest they learnt that the conductor responsible for operating the central door locking mechanism and instructing the driver to start was at the front of train, and was unable to see the rear where late passengers would be likely to board.

The Fowlers were told that the report had recommended new safety precautions, but nearly six months after the accident Professor Fowler said he had observed the same dangerous practice continuing (though he says strict safeguards were later introduced). When the Fowlers asked to see the report Thames Trains said it would be circulated within the industry so others could learn from it, but would not be given to the family. The coroner said that, because the report had not been called in evidence at the inquest, he also could not release it. They then applied to the HSE under the 1994 Open Government code of practice. But it cited exemptions which allowed them to withhold information supplied voluntarily or information which, if released, would discourage bodies from supplying information in future. (In fact, the Code does not prohibit disclosure in these circumstances, and explicitly draws attention to the desirability of releasing information where there is an overriding public interest, but HSE said no such interest applied here.)

The Fowlers then challenged the refusal by complaining to the Parliamentary Ombudsman. After a year’s wait, the refusal was upheld. The Ombudsman said if the information had been supplied voluntarily, HSE were entitled to withhold it. If HSE had used its legal powers to demand it, a statutory gagging clause would prohibit its disclosure unless the information would help improve safety. The Ombudsman accepted HSE’s view that this was not the case here.

The Campaign said that Professor and Mrs Fowler’s determined efforts to obtain this information, and ensure no repetition of the accident could occur, have highlighted fundamental weaknesses in the existing code – which must not be repeated in the proposed Freedom of Information Act. Protecting a co-operative relationship between a regulator and regulated industry should never be given a higher priority than a family’s right to know why a tragedy of this kind has occurred and whether everything necessary to prevent a recurrence has been done.

 

Jim Boothby

Jim Boothby is a former director of a chemical company, who resigned to blow the whistle on environmental problems at his employer’s premises – an almost unprecedented act for someone at that level. Mr Boothby was the Works Director of Witton Chemical Company in Suffolk, and responsible for safety and environmental controls. After joining the firm in 1990 he realised that it had a serious pollution problem caused by chemical spillages and leaks, which were draining into the ground and threatening to pollute a nearby borehole from which public water supplies were taken. In 1992 the National Rivers Authority (NRA) warned the company of its “very serious concern” about the site and commented that the firm’s pollution arrangements were “almost non-existent, and appear to virtually guarantee that massive groundwater pollution would result from any serious incident on your premises”.

In the course of investigating and remedying the problems, Mr Boothby discovered some 80 to 100 buried drums of old chemical waste, some corroded and leaking. After digging them out and disposing of the wastes he was told that an even larger number – between 500 and 1,000 drums of chemicals – had been buried elsewhere on the site. The NRA had earlier “strongly advised” the company to keep it fully informed. Mr Boothby says he did not immediately tell the NRA about the drums, but later repeatedly sought the company’s agreement to tell the authority about both finds. They refused to do so, saying they believed they only needed to tell the authority if actual pollution occurred. Mr Boothby believed not only that the company was obliged to do so, but that he might personally be at risk of prosecution if he remained silent about the matter. After agonising over the matter for several weeks, he finally resigned from the company in November 1993. He then informed the NRA about the situation.

However, according to the environmental journal ENDS – which first reported the story – when the authorities inspected they found nothing but an empty hole – from which the drums had been removed. The company later said that it had informed both the NRA and the waste regulation authority about the drums and its clean up plans – but both bodies subsequently stated that they had no record of any such notification.

Mr Boothby later sued the company for constructive dismissal, and in 1996 received a negotiated settlement of less than his annual salary, plus his legal costs. In the four years since his resignation he has failed to find another job in the industry, despite innumerable applications – a high price for following his conscience, and the law.

 

Statewatch

Statewatch is a voluntary organisation which monitors civil liberties in the UK and Europe. It has documented, and persistently challenged the secrecy of the European Union’s Council of Ministers, illuminating the complex and hidden decision-making procedures of the Council’s Justice and Home Affairs Ministers – the ministerial body responsible for immigration, asylum and policing.

Under a 1993 policy on access to Council documents, Statewatch applied for a series of documents, including agendas, details of future meetings and decisions, about justice and home affairs matters. The requests met with extraordinarily obstructive and secretive responses. Statewatch was told that (a) agendas of past meetings could not be supplied as these were automatically destroyed after a year (b) no list of decisions taken over the past seven months existed at all (c) the documents that would be made available could not be posted to Statewatch; they would have to be inspected in person in Brussels.

The Council also argued that Presidency of the Council of Ministers was a separate institution from the Council itself, and therefore not subject to the Council’s openness policy. Statewatch was told that a calendar of Council meetings to be held under the then Irish Presidency, belonged to the Irish government – which refused to disclose it. These and other refusals led Statewatch to make six complaints to the European Ombudsman. Initially, the Council denied that the Ombudsman had any right to investigate complaints relating to home affairs and justice at all – a decision vigorously opposed by the Ombudsman himself. Three of the complaints have now been settled in Statewatch’s favour, with decisions on the others still awaited.

As a result of these complaints (a) a specific clause, explicitly establishing the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction in this area, was included in the 1997 Amsterdam treaty (b) the Council has now agreed that the Presidency is subject to the Council’s access rules (c) documents will be sent to applicants, who will not be obliged to inspect them in person (d) agendas will not be destroyed after a year (e) some form of up-to-date database of decisions – though not necessarily a complete one – will be made public on the Internet.

However, many of the documents sought by Statewatch are still being withheld on a variety of grounds and decisions on these are still awaited. The decisions so far, however, represent significant steps towards holding this powerful body at least partly accountable for its decisions.

 

Cardiff County Council

Cardiff County Council have introduced a unique public register of councillors’ and senior officers’ conference expenses. In most authorities, information about members’ expenses is difficult to obtain. Usually, they are accessible only at the time of the annual audit, when for a few days each year authorities are required to make all receipts, invoices and other financial records available for public inspection. Few people know about these rights, and those that do sometimes have difficulty persuading councils to release the relevant information. The secrecy contributes to suspicion about “junketing”, which undermines public confidence in elected officials.

From the time it was set up as a new unitary authority, Cardiff County Council introduced an open register of applications to attend conferences, seminars, courses and similar events. All applications, including those which have been turned down, go on the register as soon as they have been approved or rejected. The register can be inspected during office hours and no charge is made for photocopies. Each entry contains details of the event; who is seeking to attend; the fees, accommodation, travel and subsistence costs; the budget from which it will be met and the size of that budget and, in the case of overseas trips, a summary of the expected benefits of attending. Applications can only be authorised if both the chief executive and leader of the council approve.

Cardiff Council also operate separate hospitality registers on which members, directors and other employees are required to register offers of hospitality or gifts, whether or not they have been accepted. Both measures are audited to check that the authority’s rules are complied with. These represent important innovations which the Campaign hopes will be widely adopted elsewhere.

 

Wandsworth Borough Council’s Technical Services Department

Wandsworth Borough Council’s Technical Services Department makes all planning applications and plans available to the public on the Internet – vastly increasing their accessibility. Previous surveys had shown that over 40% of respondents would have liked to inspect planning drawings, but found it inconvenient to visit the Town Hall.

The scheme, introduced in January 1996, allows access to scanned images of the original forms and plans, providing access to exact copies of original documents. The system is built around the council’s internal document management system, and can be accessed through the Internet or from terminals in libraries and one-stop-shops. The number of people viewing applications has quadrupled since September 1996, rising from around 500 to nearly 2,000 a month. Users can also comment on applications by e-mail, examine an on-line register of all planning decisions over the past 50 years, a large part of the borough’s unitary development plan, and download copies of planning application forms.

The authority’s good practice on planning is not restricted to the Internet. It also makes planning case files available for public inspection, whether or not the application is dealt with at committee. (This goes beyond the legal requirement, which only requires papers going to committee to be made public.) Applicants are also sent copies of reports on their applications before they are submitted to committee, giving them the opportunity to challenge possible errors.

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