The Newsletter of
From cover-up to Power Up
In August I attended the 'Power Up' weekend in Barnsley, a training event on planning rights and freedom of information organised by Friends of the Earths Rights and Justice Team.
The seminars by FoE's lawyer Phil Michaels on the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) were by far the most exciting part of the event, for the sheer pleasure of finding out how easy it can be to outwit certain organs of the Government machine. Indeed, as Phil told us, after his sessions we would probably know more about FOI and EIR than 95 per cent of civil servants.
The FOI gives us all the right of access to any information held by public bodies in any recorded form, except where the "balance of public interest" can be shown to favour withholding the information. The EIR is European Legislation similar in essence to the FOI but which applying only to environmental information and conferring slightly stronger powers.
The new regulations place a duty on public bodies to assist us in obtaining the information, and carry a presumption in favour of releasing it. This, as many councillors and council officers reading this will probably recognise, will require a wholesale shift in public sector attitudes, almost as if public activity funded by public money should be transparent to the public!
In the past, "commercial confidentiality" has thwarted many an activist's request for sensitive information. Under the FOI, however, while certain parts such as actual costs, for example, could be blocked, a whole contract could not. If the public body does refuse entirely, you have various rights of appeal.
My favourite excuse for non-disclosure ran as follows: Activist's letter: "Could we have a copy of the advance contract for the construction of the Stoke Hammond and Linslade Western Bypass, with particular reference to the terms and conditions concerning bats " Council's reply: "The exceptions applied are: regulation 12(5)(a): international relations, defence and public safety: disclosure of the requested information could have an adverse effect upon the health and safety of the public, as there is a likely possibility of harm from demonstrations to all concerned. The reasons why the public interest favours withholding the information are: it is never in the public interest to endanger the health and safety of any individual".
Needless to say, this decision was easily challenged and overturned, and the information obtained. Another local authority excuse ran along the lines of: "We can't give you the information because it is complicated and you wouldn't understand it". Some local authorities have a long, long way to go!
It is useful to know that corporate lobbying of government is public information to which you have a right via the lobbied government body. Companies carrying out functions of public administration count as public bodies, as do those wholly or largely owned by the government. If you know something's going on, but don't know what to ask for, you can ask for a 'file list' of the names of all files kept by a unit of the authority, browse through, and apply to view anything that looks interesting.
We have a copy, albeit a draft version, of the Rights and Justice Team's excellent resource pack on FOI, the planning system, the workings of local strategic partnerships and many other things you might find useful and/or interesting, complete with a helpful "anorak rating" of one to five indicating of the complexity of the subject matter of each section. Council officers or other public sector employees reading this are encouraged to call FoE's London office on 0207 490 1555 for a copy of 'Guide to FOI and EIR for Local Authorities'.
FoE took away some very positive feedback from the Power Up event and are keen to run it again next year. Recommended for anyone with even half an anorak. For more information visit www.righttoknowonline.org.