MAURICE NEILL: Upholding our right to accountability

THE concept of Freedom of Information, the citizen’s right to know what goes on in government at all levels, has been around for decades and goes to the very heart of the concept of democratic accountability.

Campaigning journalist Heather Brooke says: “The public pay for and elect the government and it is only by the people’s will that those in public office hold power. Public servants’ primary responsibility is to serve the people and we have a right to know what they are doing in our name and with our money. Public accountability does not end the day after an election.”

Sweden has had Freedom of Information laws for more than 100 years. The USA introduced legislation in 1966 and one of President Obama’s first acts in 2009 was to strengthen them. The Irish Republic introduced an Act in 1997 and the United Kingdom in 2005. The Act in the UK is generous in its scope by international standards and includes around 100,000 organisations.

In the UK, in the first two months of 2005, more than 2,000 requests were made by journalists on a wide range of issues from international defence agreements to artwork on loan to cabinet ministers and the cost of providing senior police officers with luxury cars.

In its first year, national newspapers used the Act as a basis for major investigative stories including the disclosure of Tony Blair’s generous pension arrangements. The Act was most effective in Scotland where journalists enjoyed the support of a vigorous information commissioner in Kevin Dunion. Members of the Scottish Parliament have to make weekly returns of their expenses after one of his early rulings.

In Northern Ireland newspapers exposed how £1 million was paid to special advisers at Stormont while the Assembly was in suspension; how senior civil servants accepted thousands of pounds worth of hospitality from private companies and Lord Laird’s huge taxi bill as chairman of the Ulster Scots Agency. They also revealed the primary schools with the best 11-plus results and how the Water Service of Northern Ireland spent £400,000 renaming itself - Northern Ireland Water.

In the first year a total of 36,000 requests were received in the UK, mostly from members of the public, and while most were legitimate enquiries for personal information, or about matters of public interest, it emerged that much time and money was wasted responding to frivolous or malicious questions.

The Minstry of Defence was inundated with questions about aliens and UFOs. The deputy prime minister’s office was asked for the ‘exact weight of John Prescott’ and Angela Wright asked for a list of the ‘eligible bachelors within Hampshire constabulary between the ages of 39 and 49, their salaries, pension arrangements and email addresses.’

In 2007 it was revealed the Northern Ireland Office had the second worst record among government departments for replying to questions. Only the prime minister’s office was worse. Later that year Ian Paisley denounced ‘lazy journalists who will not do any work’ after embarrassing disclosures.

Central government has made several attempts to water down the legislation.

In September 2006 the Attorney General Lord Falconer sought to introduce rules that would allow only a handful of questions each year from each news organisation. In 2007 MPs attempted to give themselves immunity from questions but the move was blocked by the House of Lords. They tried again in 2009 but the move was ditched at the last minute after the threat of an embarassing defeat for the government.

An acid test of the government’s comittment to freedom of information came in January 2009. An information tribunal upheld the information commissioner’s decision that minutes of Cabinet meetings relating to the war in Iraq should be released - leaving Downing Street with 28 days to comply, go to court or use a veto. The veto was used.

Use of the Freedom of Information Act by journalists in the Republic dropped to a low of 1,000 questions after the introduction of fees in 2003, according to the information commissioner, former journalist Emily O’Reilly.

In 2007 she called for fees to be drastically reduced, warned that continued exclusion of public bodies like the Garda was ‘quite extraordinary’ and called for incentives to encourage the media to use the legislation. In 2009 the Ombudsman claimed earlier and stronger FOI legislation would have disclosed the shocking level of child abuse, detailed in the Murphy Report, at a much earlier stage.

Though the legislation is weaker than in the UK, it has been used successfully by many journalists.

In 2007 reporters disclosed how outpatients were forced to wait up to eight years to see a consultant at Mayo General Hospital and how the Department of Justice paid compensation totalling almost £8m to civilians because of assault, unlawful arrest or malicious prosecution by Gardai. In 2009 journalists disclosed how the Speaker of the Dail, John O’Donoghue, ran up more than £100,000 in expenses on trips abroad while minister for the arts. He was later forced to stand down over expenses claims.

The issue about access to information came to a head when the Department of the Taoiseach refused to disclose the nature of the multi-million pound ‘secret deals’ with independent TDs which returned Fianna Fail to office in 2008.

Though the legislation, in both states, has failed to end the ‘culture of secrecy’ in central government, either because it is ‘too costly’ or because politicians have too much to hide, arguably it has worked best at regional and local level.

Ultimately, we all have greater access to information that we had a decade ago.

Maurice Neill is a lecturer in journalism and public affairs at Belfast Metropolitan College