News

Why Keeping the FoI Act is Vital to Call Power to Account

By Simon Perry

Over the ten plus years OnTheWight has been running, delivering Isle of Wight news, we’ve used the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) to unlock previously hidden information, leading to stories that have surprised Island residents.

In our experience, given the opportunity, bodies that should be fully-accountable to public scrutiny will do what they can to stop delivering this information, so the FoIA is an essential tool to inform the public.

Below are but a couple of examples.

Isle of Wight Council’s Credit Card Spending
In their report covering UK councils, the Daily Telegraph tried, unsuccessfully, to find out the details of how much Isle of Wight council officers were spending on credit cards. Their investigation inspired us.

Happily we were more successful getting hold of the data via our Freedom of Information request, after the council blocked our original press enquiry.

We discovered that 689 credit cards had been issued, so took three years of credit card spending data — ~35,000 credit card transactions — and worked with a highly-skilled local programmer, Simon Cooke (WightGeek), to create a dedicated Web-based system to allow that data to be searchable by readers.

It revealed close to £2 million being spent by officers and councillors on credit cards in just three years.

These went from the ridiculously small — a 9p purchase at Sainsburys, all the way up to a £5,759.42 purchase from EasyJet.

The data led to a number of articles, such as reporting on the £1/4m spent on hotels and inns by council officers and councillors and them spending £300,000 just on cross-Solent travel, just on credit cards, in three years.

Exposing Safety Issues
A combination of using the FoI Act and then calling on the Information Commissioner’s Office for support enabled us to force the release of the Emergency and Safety Plan for the 2012 Isle of Wight Festival. This exposed that it was not signed off, by senior officers or the Cabinet member responsible.

What was contained in this Emergency Plan should have come into effect if anything went wrong at the Festival, so its contents and quality were paramount, hence for the need for it to be formally approved.

Unhappily for all, something did go wrong at the Isle of Wight Festival 2012. It led to what is thought to be one of the worst traffic jams the Island has ever experienced, with even the cross-Solent ferries being stopped as no more cars could be brought to the Island. Tens of thousands of people were impacted.

OnTheWight sought answers, including the Emergency and Safety Plan. The council did everything it could to block our press access.

Given no option, we filed an FoI request. The council officers then blocked our FoI request, citing three sections of the Act — 38, 40 and 41 — which we felt had no grounds.

The Information Commissioner’s Office were called in and agreed with us, rebuking the Isle of Wight council, forcing them to release the documents.

It took us close to a year to achieve this.

If the Freedom of Information Act, or the ICO hadn’t been in place, it’s highly doubtful that all of the information would have come to light.

A freedom that cannot be lost
There are hundreds of examples like this up and down the country, initiated by news organisations of all sizes: small to large, as well as a slew of passionate, committed individuals.

These people are driven to understand and inform. To cast light into corners.

This is why the Freedom of Information Act must never be diminished.

A culture that provides cover to get away with hiding things only multiplies such behaviour, leading to a very unhealthy society.

Simon Perry is editor of OnTheWight, an award-winning news site for the Isle of Wight, now in its tenth year and reaching 100k unique readers each month.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IMPRESS, its Board or its staff.