Thursday, May 10, 2007

Media update

FOI stories from the last couple of weeks. Apologies for the gap in postings, which was due to the fact I was away for a few days last week. Regional round-up to follow shortly.


Blair 'no comment' on info bill - BBC
"Tony Blair has said it would be "inappropriate" for him to give a view on proposals aimed at exempting MPs from Freedom of Information laws. However, he added that Parliament operated under one of the "most transparent systems in the world". During prime minister's questions, Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell said there should not "be one law for MPs and a different law for everyone else". He said it looked like "Parliament has something to hide".

A regrettable regression - Guardian Unlimited
"This extraordinary self-serving measure would mean MPs and peers alone among public bodies would be above the law and not be required - like every other public servant - to declare how much money taxpayers give them for their travel, second homes, and office costs. It would also mean that an MP's letter (often on matters of enormous public interest) would become a secret document that only they could release...the debate in parliament has shown how ignorant some of our wonderful representatives are about the laws they pass. Former minister George Howarth argued that a change in law was needed to protect people who asked, their MP in confidence to press the police to deal with criminals on their estate. Wrong, the law already protects disclosure in this case."

A Bill we MPs cannot afford to pass - Richard Shepherd MP, The Daily Telegraph
"To try to change a law that we enacted so that the public's right of access to the whole of the public sector does not apply to what we ourselves do, would be a staggering misjudgement. The Government says it is leaving the decision to the House of Commons. But ministers are never neutral about moves to repeal part of an Act which they have introduced. Everyone understands that privately they have given the Bill the thumbs-up...If we, who introduced the legislation, think we should not have to comply, how can we expect councillors, teachers, police officers, hospital consultants, permanent secretaries - let alone ministers - to do so? How can we expect everyone else to embrace the legislation and recognise the public's right to know, if we as MPs refuse to do so?"

Open democracy under threat from Parliament - The Independent
"The silence is almost deafening. Why won't the Government say whether it supports or opposes a law that would exempt MPs from the scrutiny of this country's newly passed freedom of information regime? Historically the law has always regarded silence as evidence of acquiescence and it is difficult to interpret the Govern-ment's position on the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) in any other way. In the context of ministers' recent proposals to water down the right to public disclosure there is strong corroborative evidence to show that the Government would be quite happy to let a Tory MP use his Private Members' Bill do its bidding."


How salt campaign was scuppered - The Times
"Britain's biggest food companies united to convince regulators to reduce tough targets for cutting the level of salt in their products, The Times has learnt. Household names were prominent in campaigning for a gentler approach by the Food Standards Agency, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Waitrose and Nestlé were some of the powerful players who pushed hard to persuade the FSA to adopt less demanding goals, the papers reveal...Perhaps the most nakedly honest lobbying came from Nestlé. “Reduction in salt levels, even by a very small amount, significantly increases the overall cost of manufacturing the product, mainly because the ingredients used for the replacement of salt are much more expensive, eg, herbs or meat extracts. These costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers (including schools),” Nestlé said."

'Shameful' waste on £72m DoH plan - Hospital Doctor
"The DoH is at risk of 'significant embarrassment' if the value for money delivered by the £72m former NHS University (NHSU) were to be probed, a report obtained under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act has revealed. The Review of NHSU Progress and Performance report, carried out by Sir William Wells, questioned whether its vast investment had been appropriate and asked when it was likely to 'bear fruit'...The revelation comes after policy academic Rod Ward won a two-and-a-half year battle to obtain the information. His FOI requests were twice turned down by the DoH, but the independent Information Commissioner ruled in November 2006 that the DoH should disclose the document. The DoH appealed against the decision but, two weeks ago, just before the hearing, withdrew its appeal."

'Patients dying needlessly' - Mirror
"Half of all ambulance crews are not trained to help in some of the most serious 999 emergencies, meaning patients are dying needlessly, it is claimed today. A desperate shortage of fully qualified paramedics means that the majority of UK 999 calls are answered by emergency medical technicians - who carry less lifesaving equipment and are not authorised to administer intravenous drugs, such as those used to treat heart attacks...Only 34 per cent of ambulance crews in London are fully qualified, compared to 74 on the Isle of Wight, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Tonight with Trevor McDonald."

Asbestos threat at schools - The Independent
"Thousands of pupils and teachers will be at risk of exposure to deadly asbestos fumes for years. Up to 13,000 state schools still contain asbestos, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The figures indicate more than three million children are at risk. In addition, despite the Government's £45bn programme to refurbish every secondary school and half of England's primary schools, there is no guarantee asbestos will be eliminated from buildings. The figures have been obtained by Michael Lees, an anti-asbestos campaigner whose wife died of mesothelioma after 30 years teaching in a primary school."

Expulsion of under-fives triples in a year - The Times
"Every day of last year more than 200 children under 11 were sent home from school for bad behaviour such as attacks on teachers and classmates, statistics show. Nearly 1,000 children were suspended for biting and kicking staff and classmates, or for disrupting class. Sixty boys aged four were expelled — three times as many as in 2003-04. The Government figures, which were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal how teachers are being forced to cope with increasingly poor behaviour among England’s youngest children."

Huge bonuses for civil servants in farm fiasco - The Daily Telegraph
"Civil servants responsible for the farm payments fiasco, which the Government has admitted caused severe financial hardship to farmers last year, were paid £572,000 in performance-related bonuses. Failures by the Rural Payments Agency, which failed to pay English farmers their subsidies by the EU's legal deadline last year and is struggling to meet deadlines this year, could eventually cost up to £500 million, MPs estimate. Yet documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that 1,082 agency employees were awarded generous bonuses over a two-year period."

BB bullying row 'ignored' by diplomats - Evening News
"...dozens of e-mails between Foreign Office staff in New Delhi and London show the frantic damage limitation efforts after Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty's treatment sparked an outcry. Details of the Chancellor's visit emerged in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. Mr Brown arrived in India on January 17, just as the controversy erupted and protesters began burning effigies of Big Brother organisers on the streets. An urgent e-mail from an unnamed British High Commission official to the Foreign Office in London the same day described the situation as "not good"."

Fly tipping costs to increase - Country Life
'Fly-tipping, which already costs local councils over £100m a year, is only set to get worse if action is not taken, according to the Countryside Alliance (CA). Nearly 2.5 million incidents of illegal fly-tipping took place in year up until April 2006, the CA has learned, which cost over £100m to pick up, but resulted in only 100 prosecutions. Details revealed by the Freedom of Information Act include the facts that there is an incident of fly-tipping every twelve seconds in the UK, and these crimes cost the public £72 a minute."

FOI frustrates journalists, report finds - Press Gazette
"Journalists find using the Freedom of Information Act useful for historical and investigative stories, but have also found the process of using the law "frustrating" according to a new study. Researchers from the Constitution Unit, a think tank at University College London, found that some journalists from both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers had experienced "significant disappointment" with the process of getting answers to and appealing requests. Nine leading journalists who took part in the study complained of "delays, liberal use of exemptions and long waits during review and appeal processes"."

Why was Prince William wearing that sash at the parade? - The Independent
"Freedom of Information officers working at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) are not all tied up deviously looking for reasons to deny journalists disclosure to sensitive documents about the war in Iraq or the combat readiness of Prince Harry. A glance at the request log published by the department for the last month shows that most enquiries are from historians, researchers or members of the public trying to trace information about their ancestors...The MoD request log is only a snapshot of who is using the right-to-know law but it is good illustrative evidence that beneficiaries are outside Fleet Street."

Tribunal forces opening up of ID card 'gateway' docs - The Register
"The Information Tribunal has forced the disclosure of strategic reviews of the identity cards system by the Office of Government Commerce, which opposed the disclosure of the information...The Reviews set for disclosure had been conducted to determine whether the Identity and Passport Service, which was proposing to implement the ID system, had realistic expectations - whether they had properly considered how much it would cost, how much resources they would need to do it, how long it would take and whether it was at all possible...The Tribunal said that the OGC's arguments against disclosure of the reviews appeared disingenuous. "We find it difficult to accept that the OGC is really convinced by the arguments put forward by Mr Tam on their behalf," it said."

Hutton hoodwinked - Guardian Unlimited
"Yesterday, I finally got the information commissioner's decision on the suppressed draft of the Iraq dossier, produced by former Foreign Office spin doctor John Williams. The commissioner has concluded that the Foreign Office was wrong to refuse my Freedom of Information Act request for the document and ordered it to release it, on the grounds of "the significant public interest in disclosure of the requested information". But more significantly, the decision has placed the Williams draft firmly in the process of producing the dossier."

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