A new legal block on the disclosure of information about NHS safety investigations will fuel public suspicion of cover-ups and protect poor quality inquiries from scrutiny, says the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
The Department of Health has proposed new arrangements for investigating serious hospital safety incidents. The aim is to encourage staff to speak frankly to investigators about mistakes they may have made without fear of being victimised. As a result, only the investigation report could be published. A new legal prohibition on disclosure would prevent the actual evidence obtained by investigators from being released under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. A hospital would not be able to release it voluntarily even if it wanted to and Parliament would not be able to obtain it either.
The Campaign took part in an event on 8th December 2016 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the world’s first ever freedom of information law, adopted in 1766 by Sweden and Finland which at the time were one country. The event was hosted by ARTICLE 19, the Embassy of Sweden, the Embassy of Finland and the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.
The evening session provided the first opportunity for many people to hear from the new Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, on her priorities for Freedom of Information.
In a landmark decision, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in the case of Magyar Helsinki Bizottság v. Hungary that there is a right to information from public authorities under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The UK’s Supreme Court had previously found that the Strasbourg court’s case law had not established this – but the new decision clearly does so.
The Government has just stated that it is “carefully considering” a recommendation made by the Commission on Freedom of Information in March 2016 that the right to appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) against the Information Commissioner’s decisions should be abolished. When the Commission’s report was published the Government gave an assurance there would be “no legal changes” to the FOI Act. Abolishing the FTT would require such legislative changes. The FTT is a vital safeguard against poor decisions from the Information Commissioner. In 2014, some 20% of requester appeals to the FTT were wholly or partly successful. The Campaign believes that depriving requesters of this right of appeal would seriously weaken the public’s right to know.
Photo: Campaign for Freedom of Information
When: Thursday 1 December 2016
Where: Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3GA
Time: 1:30 – 5:00 pm
The Information Commissioner has issued over 9,000 decision notices under the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations – while the Information Rights Tribunal has published over 1,700 decisions. A significant number of appeals to the Upper Tribunal and courts have also been decided. These complex decisions are essential materials for anyone trying to understand what public authorities must do to comply with the legislation.
This course, now in its 11th year, is aimed at experienced FOI practitioners and others with a good working knowledge of the legislation. It highlights the latest developments in the way the exemptions, public interest test and the legislation’s procedural requirements are being interpreted.
Photograph: Samuel Zeller
When: Thursday 3rd November 2016
Where: Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3GA
Time: Registration 9:45 am, course 10 am – 5:00 pm
Do you want to learn how to use the Freedom of Information Act? Are you already using the Act, but want to know more about how key provisions are being interpreted?
Making a FOI request is straightforward but making an effective request can be more difficult. Requests that ask for too much information can be refused – and some information may be exempt. But a well thought-out request can have a powerful impact, revealing that a policy isn’t working, an authority isn’t doing its job or generating key information for your research.
This practical course is designed to help campaigners, researchers, journalists and others make the most of the Act and the parallel Environmental Information Regulations. It explains the legislation, shows how to draft clear and effective requests, describes how to challenge unjustified refusals and highlights critical decisions of the Information Commissioner and Tribunal. The course’s interactive sessions will encourage you to work out how best to apply the Act in a variety of situations. The course is aimed at both beginners and those who are already using the Act but want to do so more effectively.
What we are looking for
The Campaign for Freedom of Information is seeking to broaden the skills and diversity of its board which currently has 5 members. We would like to appoint at least 2 new unpaid trustees/directors. They should be interested in improving the accountability of public bodies but do not necessarily need detailed knowledge of FOI. We would be particularly interested in hearing from people of any background with experience in individual giving, communications or the management of small organisations who can help the Campaign raise funds, promote its message more effectively and maximise its impact.
The board meets approximately 6 times a year usually late afternoons in central London. Travel expenses reimbursed.
About the Campaign
The Campaign is the UK’s leading freedom of information (FOI) organisation. Set up in 1984, it played a critical part in persuading the government to introduce the FOI Act in 1999-2000, improving the legislation in Parliament and resisting repeated attempts to restrict it (most recently just a few months ago). The Act has helped reveal the MPs’ expenses scandal, expose wasteful spending and shortcomings in the provision public services and transformed the public’s rights to information.
It now seeks to defend and improve the Act, assist FOI users, train requesters and public authorities and encourage authorities to adopt a positive approach to the legislation.
The Campaign is a not-for-profit limited company. Much of its income comes from charitable foundations though it is not itself a registered charity. It has a full time staff of just 2, with considerable specialist FOI expertise. For more information see: www.cfoi.org.uk
How to apply
To apply, please send your CV with a covering letter explaining what experience and skills you would bring to the board to firstname.lastname@example.org. The closing date is 21 October 2016.
The Justice Committee’s report on Courts and Tribunal Fees has endorsed the proposal, made by the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information that the right of appeal to the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) under the Freedom of Information Act should be abolished. The Committee does not appear to have examined the case for this change itself. It simply reported that it saw no reason to disagree with the Commission’s view. The Campaign believes that if the proposal went ahead, it would significantly undermine the operation of the Act.
A Justice Committee report published today supports the abolition of the main right to appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decisions under the Freedom of Information Act. This would “seriously undermine the FOI Act” says the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
Today’s report from the Commission on Freedom of Information does not call for the severe restrictions that had initially seemed likely, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The report sets out a mixture of proposals, many of which would enhance the FOI Act. However the Campaign says a proposal to remove the right of appeal against the Information Commissioner’s (IC’s) decisions to a specialist tribunal would undermine the Act’s enforcement system.
A statement issued last night by the Cabinet Office minister responsible for FOI, Matt Hancock, said the government “will not make any legal changes” to the FOI Act. The Campaign said this suggested that the Act would not be weakened.
The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “The Commission has stepped back from the one sided agenda which the government initially appeared to set for it, of restricting access to internal policy discussions, introducing charges for requests and making it easier for authorities to refuse requests. Instead it has also looked at the case for improving the legislation. The government itself has clearly been scalded by the criticism it has received from the press and public and made it clear it’s not prepared to take its initial agenda forward. We now need to ensure that the Act is extended to contractors providing public services and bodies like the National Crime Agency which have been deliberately excluded.”