The British Freedom of Information Act has now been in force for a week. What has it revealed so far?
The Guardian has been most effective, using the Act to force disclosure of lobbying efforts by Rupert Murdoch, which post office branches are slated for closure and who benefits from European Union farm subsidies.
The last of these stories is interesting. The government, knowning that they will face routine requests for this information, has decided to require that landowners declare what they receive under the Common Agricultural Policy. Public disclosure is expected to show that 80 percent of the £3.4 billion in EU farm subsidies that British farmers receive each year goes to the top 20 percent of largest landowners, including the royal family. The Country Land and Business Association is not happy about this, reports the Daily Telegraph.
The Guardian has also filed at least one other FOIA request, this one for the DTI to publish details of its contracts allowing Italy to send nuclear waste to Britain. There should be another story about this within 20 days.
Most major papers reported on documents released early to the National Archives showing that the Army had secretly maintained a racist recuiting policy for two decades. Rummaging through the same batch of 50,0000 documents released early under the FOIA, The Times noted a 1975 government plan to allow IRA hunger strikers in British prisons to die. The Sheffield Star focused on National Coal Board papers relating to the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. The papers include minutes of National Union of Mineworkers meetings, indicating that there was a mole in NUM executive during the strike.
The National Archives documents also uncovered the earth-shattering fact that the Home Office had a line in its budget since 1929 for Peter the Cat, a pet maintained at taxpayers’ expense to rid its Whitehall offices of mice. There was othe sillyness, including a story about civil servants’ campaign to get softer toilet paper in Whitehall.
On New Year’s day, The Independent, bemoaned the end of the British journalistic ritual of revealing stories under the 30-year rule on New Year’s Day:
WITH THE coming into force of the Freedom of Information Act today, an honoured tradition will pass into history. The so-called 30- and 50- year rules, which allowed for the opening of official papers held at the National Archives, will no longer apply. From now on, there will be no standard period for which official documents are kept closed. The new law provides that official papers will be presumed to be open unless their contents fall within certain defined categories. Content, not time, will henceforth determine confidentiality.
A story that may be rekindled by the FOIA is the Railtrack sell-off, as the Independent on Sunday reported:
Lawyers acting for disgruntled Railtrack shareholders are preparing to use the Freedom of Information Act to access sensitive government files which they hope will prove that the company was put into administration unlawfully.
The memos and minutes of meetings will be used as evidence in a court case against the former transport secretary, Stephen Byers, which is due to start on 27 June.
Represented by the law firm Edwin Coe and Michael Crystal QC, the group of 55,000 private shareholders are planning to lodge requests in the next few weeks for documents held by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).