Posts Tagged 'Freedom of Information'

Secretive State serving its own interests

The Observer has a sickening story today about the actions of social workers and police in Kent who placed a 14-year-old girl into ‘foster care’ with a convicted paedophile, David Mason.

Having failed to complete the private fostering assessment and carry out statutory checks on the man’s background required by law – or even checking proof of his identity – the girl’s request to be allowed to stay with him was granted.  Mason, who had changed his name to David Matthews, went on to sexually abuse two boys and four girls aged five to 13, including the girl’s three younger siblings.

Then after leaving Mason’s home, Kent County Council’s social services department let her be fostered, aged 15, by her 21-year-old boyfriend, who claimed to have autistic spectrum disorder and who they knew was having sex with her.  The story, includes the admission that when the family had been moved into the area where the abuse took place, their case was not assessed due to staff shortages and high number of child protection referrals

But beyond this horrifying catalogue of failure, where presumably dozens of other high profile cases from which ‘lessons will be learned’ have not resulted in anything being learne at all, the story presents an even more shocking dimension to the case:

The “tragic story” of the council’s “deplorable breach of duty” has emerged from a high court judgment delivered behind closed doors last month, which has just been made public. The extraordinary case would have stayed secret had not the judge, Mr Justice Baker, decided in view of the “alarming matters” that emerged during the hearing to allow the “unusually extensive and troubling” wider issues it raises to be publicised.

Here we see the media with its prominent pulpit failing to go to the next level.  The anger, indignation and proposed solutions are left for non establishment figures such as humble bloggers to express.

In 21st century Britain, supposedly bristling with rules to ensure transparency and accountability, the Courts were content to cover up this litany of incompetence to hide the disgraceful failings of our so called public servants.  If it was not for this one Judge, an exception to a miserable rule choosing in determining that these failures should be publicised, the public would have no idea just how badly a group of vulnerable people have been treated.

What has been uncovered is not merely a story of sexual abuse, but another example of the lengths to which the authorities will go to hide their gross misconduct and just how far the system will go to shield them from scrutiny of their actions.  This is the system protecting itself rather than the people who pay for it to serve us.  That is more outrageous than anything else in this story.

To heap insult upon insult, we are once again served up the standard rhetoric from the public body (in this instance, Kent County Council) that has displayed negligence worthy of criminal prosecution, designed as usual to fob us off while business continues as usual:

What happened in this case is deeply regrettable and the council offers its sincerest apologies to the family. In recent months we have been absolutely focused on recognising our shortcomings and weaknesses and a plan to make sure substantial improvements are made to the services we provide to children in Kent is already being actioned.

These supposedly sincere apologies and empty promises to make improvements to reach the very minimum level of performance we should be able to expect are an insult.  They change nothing.

Things will only change when the refuge of secrecy in such cases is removed and those responsible for the welfare of vulnerable children who fail to do their job are properly held to account.  If it takes the threat of criminal prosecution to focus the attention of public servants on the proper discharge of their duties to vulernable people in their care, then our largely useless MPs should put it on the Statute Book.  Cases like this are all too frequent and MPs have the ability to put a stop to them.

We don’t need self serving apologies being trotted out that are designed to make those who have failed feel better and feel they have been excused, we need action taken to stop more failures.  We can but guess at how many similar cases have been covered up over the years and remain hidden from public view. It has to stop.

Light needs to be shone into the dark corners where the establishment lets its colleagues skulk and conceal instances of their rank incompetence.  We need to make the establishment serve our interests rather than its own. We need to end the establishment’s self serving secrecy.

EU: Give us more and we will tell you less

In recent weeks this blog has relied upon Freedom of Information legislation to gain access to documents that have helped to expose the truth about matters concerning the Met Office in relation to its forecasts and Board decision making.

It is essential that as members of the public we are able to scrutinise the work of people working in public organisations and monitor how our money is spent.

But disturbing news from the European Union suggest plans are afoot to increase the number of restrictions that prevent public access to EU documents.  This is limited in its scope – for now.  The concern is that as with so many things, such a change could be the thin end of the wedge and that the administration in this country could become tempted to restrict public access to documentation and records.

A supreme irony of this European Commission proposal that is working its way to the European Parliament has been shown up in the EUobserver piece:

However, in the meantime, two groups involved have even been refused access to documents relating to these changes to access-to-documents legislation.

If this legislation is passed then we will be paying a great deal more money to fund an entity that will tell us ever less about its activities. It would only be a matter of time before the ne’er do goods in Westminster are encouraged to follow suit.  That could mean in the future that someone seeking to do what Katabasis and myself have done in recent weeks could simply have their request declined and the truth can remain concealed.

That would only serve the interests of those who are supposed to serve us.

BBC won’t reveal what we say to it

Following on from this post about a complaint of BBC bias and lack of journalistic rigour in coverage of matters concerning climate change…

Our anonymous contributor went on to submit an interesting Freedom of Information request to the BBC asking for details of:

  • how many complaints/ accusations of bias the BBC received from the public about the BBC’s coverage of climate change
  • how many of the complaints received about climate change were upheld by the BBC, i.e. were accepted
  • brief details / a list of all the complaints upheld, i.e. the details of the upheld complaint and the BBC’s response (excluding details of the person complaining)

The BBC has replied thus (you may want to get a coffee in for this long winded way of saying ‘piss off’):


The information you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide this information toyou and will not be doing so on this occasion. Part VI of Schedule 1 to FOIA provides that information held by the BBC and the other public service broadcasters is only covered by the Act if it is held for ‘purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. The BBC is not required to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities1, including information relating to the subject of editorial complaints. The BBC’s independence and impartiality would be at risk through disclosure of information on editorial complaints, which is discussed in detail below.

1 For more information about how the Act applies to the BBC please see the enclosure which follows this letter. Please note that this guidance is not intended to be a comprehensive legal interpretation of how the Act applies to the BBC.

The BBC has chosen not to volunteer information relating to the subject of editorial complaints for several very good reasons, chief amongst them being a desire to maintain our independence and impartiality.

You may not be aware that one of the main policy drivers behind the limited application of the Act to public service broadcasters was to protect freedom of expression and the rights of the media under Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). The BBC, as a media organisation, is under a duty to impart information and ideas on all matters of public interest and the importance of this function has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights.Maintaining our editorial independence is a crucial factor in enabling the media to fulfil this function.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has recognised the importance of Schedule 1 of the Act in protecting the independence of the media, stating that:

“It is the Commissioner’s view that the ultimate purpose of the derogation (Schedule 1) is to  protect journalistic, artistic and literary integrity by carving out a creative and journalistic space for programme makers to produce programmes free from the interference and scrutiny of the public.”

The BBC agrees that we have the right to protect our journalistic and editorial independence by maintaining just such a private space in which to produce our content. This extends to the sifting and review of praise and criticism from audiences, as well as the seeking of an independent view of criticism in order to undertake this review process. This is an important part of the BBC’s process of creating and improving programmes. Despite the BBC’s obligation to be independent and impartial, many bodies, groups and individuals attempt to influence our output. This pressure takes many forms and has to be resisted by programme makers across the BBC. If the content of individual criticisms were available for public scrutiny on a regular basis then programme makers would be under even greater pressure to respond to lobbies or vocal individuals than they are already. They might be reluctant to make changes that reflect the views in the complaints in that they could be accused of “caving in to pressure” and other viewers would make judgements about the apparent impartiality of the programme. Conversely, if their judgement was to ignore the complaints, as they believed them to be invalid or outweighed by other factors, they will be accused of ignoring public opinion, without the opportunity to explain the reasons for their editorial judgement. The BBC also believes that publication could lead to a tit-for-tat escalation of complaints, particularly from lobbying groups or political parties, as opponents competed with each other in terms of volume and strength of a complaint to the BBC.

I hope that this provides you with some understanding of why this is an important concern for the BBC. In addition, I can advise, outside the scope of the Act that the BBC proactively publishes public responses to recent issues of audience concern which have caused a significant number of  complaints, or to any significant issue raised by complaints received. The BBC also publishes quarterly archived reports covering the main themes in all complaints received. In addition,information about second-stage complaints, i.e. those considered by the Editorial Complaints Unit, is published at the following site: Information about the third stage of the complaints process, i.e. those considered by the ESC, is published at the following site:

Finally, the BBC makes a huge range of information available about our programmes and content on We also proactively publish information covered by the Act on our publication scheme.

Appeal Rights

The BBC does not offer an internal review when the information requested is not covered by the Act. If you disagree with our decision you can appeal to the Information Commissioner. Contact details are: Information Commissioner’s Office, Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF telephone 01625 545 700. Please note that should the Information Commissioner’s Office decide that the Act does cover this information, exemptions under the Act might then apply.

Yours sincerely,

Colin Sellers

Head of Operations, BBC Communications, Marketing & Audiences
The long and short of this response from the BBC is that it has chosen to interpret the Act in a very loose way by extending it ‘to the sifting and review of praise and criticism from audiences, as well as the seeking of an independent view of criticism in order to undertake this review process.‘  One rule for the BBC and another for everyone else.
It would seem obvious that complaints rejected by the BBC are not used to inform the creation or improvement of programmes because they are arguing the complaints are baseless.  So, the only possible reason for withholding details of rejected complaints is to hide the extent of viewer and listener dissatisfaction with an editorial line the BBC is determined to pursue.
The BBC.  It’s what they do.  With your money.

You can’t fault their honesty…

But you can fault everything else!  When it comes to stupidity it seems the good folk at Northern Ireland Water are in a league of their own.  From hiring a Chief Executive with a criminal record for theft to paying him nearly £100,000 when he decided to resign, it seems NI Water’s incompetence is constantly plumbing new depths.

As water regulators scrutinise the publicly run utility following its operational implosion as tens of thousands of water pipes burst during the December freeze, a Northern Irish politician has submitted a reasonable question in a Freedom of Information request.

Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice asked how long NI Water’s Dublin-based chairman, Padraic White, spends at work.  The response of this public – and therefore supposedly accountable organisation – was anything but reasonable.  As Allister explains:

“I am astounded by their refusal to answer and the utterly fatuous excuse concocted to try and keep this pertinent information from the public.

“In the most contrived and indefensible response to a FOI request that I have ever seen, NIW says releasing such information ‘could potentially prejudice the progress and outcome of the Utility Regulator’s ongoing investigation’.

“In an unbelievable fantasy trip they go on to proclaim, ‘any significant media comment and speculation generated from such disclosure could impact on NI Water having to divert resources towards management of such matters.’

“It gets better, because then they say, ‘Premature disclosure of information pertaining to the investigation, whilst the investigation is ongoing, could potentially result in closing off options through adverse public reaction’.

“And, in a telling finale they say, ‘NI Water is minded of the fact that the sensitivity of the information requested may decrease over time and that this information may be suitably released in the future.’

“I’m only asking how often Mr White turned up to work!”

It’s yet another example of how today’s public servants tend their master.  Things are run for their convenience and benefit, not those who pay their wages and suffer from substandard performance.

Allister suspects, as many others do, that White is another one of those networking Chairmen who get paid a handsome sum for a few hours work a week for no discernable benefit to the organisation – and that NI Water fears a backlash for paying out big money to a man whose Board failed to ensure the utility was fit for purpose.

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