Ask a simple question…

In journalism you get used to doors being slammed in your face. People are naturally suspicious about your motives for asking questions, particularly when the answer might cause some embarrassment. The trick in these situations is to never take no for an answer. But that’s sometimes easier said than done.

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Since its inception, the Freedom of Information Act has been used by journalists to gather facts and figures to form the basis of a story. Public bodies are required by law to respond to requests within 20 working days, even if that response is to politely decline the request on grounds of confidentiality, the costs of processing the data or various other exemptions. FOI officers in those organisations are acutely aware of the requirements of the law.

So when a public body firstly delays the FoI response – and then takes 99 days to provide the details – and then only does so after a threat to complain to the Information Commissioner – you’d be forgiven for thinking they might have something to hide.

This was precisely the dilemma facing one of my colleagues in researching so-called “Compromise Agreements” given to staff at local authorities. In the end, the figures were quite impressive. Over £600,000 paid out by one council alone. A story broken today, and taken up by our local competitors.

But the detail of the story itself is less important, at least journalistically, than the excuse given for taking so long to reply. In short, said the authority, the question was “ambiguous” and could have been interpreted in several different ways.

Well the question was – in very plain terms – how many staff had left and signed compromise agreements – and how much did they cost. It’s hard to see the ambiguity there. Even if there was doubt, the FoI department could have come back within the statutory 20 day limit to seek clarification.

The issue, it seems, is one of workload. A senior figure from the authority said that the small FoI team were being inundated by requests, often asking silly questions. You see, Freedom of Information applies to the public as well as hacks. What’s more, we were told, journalists were using FoI as a means of “cheap research”. I would humbly suggest there’s nothing cheap about having to remind a local authority several times over of their legal obligations.

I don’t doubt that public bodies are already under enough strain without having to deal with questions like “how many zombies are in your city” or similar. Nor do I scoff at the £500k of taxpayers money being used in one city alone just to keep the FoI department going. Freedom, indeed, does come at a price. And yes, if it’s an unreasonable question, it perhaps doesn’t deserve a reasonable answer.

But this is data that already exists. The numbers have already been crunched. And the money has been paid out.

So please don’t try to prevent us from seeing it with a poor excuse.

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