On the q.t. and very hush-hush

Why do so many universities feel they can stonewall requests made under the Freedom of Information Act?

January 9, 2014

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

As Tony Blair reveals in his memoirs, he does not look back fondly on his decision to introduce Freedom of Information laws opening up government and publicly funded institutions to scrutiny. His main regret is that FoI was taken up mainly by journalists – he likens passing the Freedom of Information Act in 2000 to “saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet”.

As institutions subject to the act, universities may agree with this assessment – indeed, they frequently employ the same argument as Blair when he says that FoI is dangerous because government needs to debate issues with “a reasonable level of confidentiality”.

Of 135 universities asked about FoI requests, 44 per cent did not respond in the required 20 days and 12 per cent refused to provide the information

Yet the act does provide for necessary confidentiality, allowing requests for information to be refused for a wide variety of reasons.

For journalists approaching FoI from the other side, it has always been clear that the ways in which public institutions deal with requests for information are wildly inconsistent.

Some will respond promptly, some not at all; while others routinely reject applications on often spurious grounds.

There are, of course, plenty of valid reasons for refusal – the exemption covering research data before its publication is a case in point.And the cost of dealing with growing numbers of FoI requests is considerable.

But the baseline level of resistance to (or non-compliance with) FoI laws is striking.

When people break data protection laws, it is likely to be cock-up rather than conspiracy.

Attitudes to FoI, by contrast, can seem closer to the view of the hunting ban among red-jacketed, horn-tooting horsemen: something to be got around if at all possible.

We highlight the uneven approach this week, having asked 135 universities how many FoI requests they received in the past three years, how many they rejected and on what grounds.

The results tell the story: 44 per cent did not respond in the required 20 days; 12 per cent refused to provide the information; one had lost some of the relevant records; and of those that did respond, the proportion of FoI requests they refused ranged from 0 to 45 per cent.

Even allowing for local issues, these figures would be unacceptable in other areas governed by an act of Parliament.

This is not a new development. In 2008, Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said it was both unoriginal and wrong of universities to argue that “we are the exception” when it comes to FoI.

“This idea that universities are such well-regulated, exemplary organisations that there’s no need for FoI, or that they are uniquely sensitive or vulnerable to being damaged by the release of information, is one that can be argued by every sector,” he said.

Six years on, it is likely that the move to a higher education market will further entrench opposition to outside scrutiny.

But where is the evidence that those who are open damage themselves in relation to their more secretive peers?

As for the take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the legislation, it’s surprising that the Information Commissioner isn’t taking a greater interest.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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