"When you start to see public authorities proactively publishing information, rather than the commissioner having to order it, you will know that the culture of government secrecy is changing. We're not there yet."
- Published Date: 25 January 2008
- Source: News Letter
- Location: Belfast
- By Staff reporter
These words from Assistant Information Commissioner Marie Anderson sum up where freedom of information is today.
Though there is work still to be done in opening up government to scrutiny, the situation she leaves is irrecognisably more transparent to that when she opened the Belfast office in 2003.
A decade ago it would have been almost inconceivable that any member of the public could legally get their hands on government information ranging from ministerial correspondence to private reports to the detailed expenses of senior civil servants.
But three years after the Freedom of Information Act became law the act has become so widely used and accepted that public bodies are publishing increasing amounts of information before it is even requested.
Mrs Anderson, a 47-year-old solicitor, has been Ulster’s top official in the office that enforces the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and Data Protection Act since she set up the first regional office outside England.
She leaves behind a series of landmark rulings — many now referred to by Freedom of Information Commissioners around the world — and an office which is respected throughout the UK.
Mrs Anderson, 47, is originally from west Belfast but now lives in Holywood with her husband and three children. Qualifying as a solicitor in 1983, she worked first in private practice and then for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, as a human rights and information lawyer.
“The sheer challenge of setting up an office was why I applied for the job,” she says.
“Belfast was the first regional office that was set up by the Information Commissioner and when it started there was just me and a laptop — now we have seven staff and are about to move to our own office in the centre of Belfast.
“I had a sense that Freedom of Information would be widely used in Northern Ireland and that has proved to be the case.”
In his annual report last July, the UK’s Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, wrote: “Freedom of Information and Data Protection are now inescapable features of the landscape.
“Secret government is unhealthy government — FOI brings official information into the open and gives power to the people.
Equally, too much private information held by the state or by commercial organisations can be unhealthy, and is dangerous if organisations do not handle it with the utmost care.”
Mrs Anderson agrees and says that the “culture of secrecy” is changing slowly and, although she praises public authorities for their approach to the law, she says that there is still considerable work to be done.
Recently Castlereagh Borough Council voted to annually publish details of councillors’ expense and allowance claims after a lengthy battle with Alliance councillor Michael Long.
“If Castlereagh can do it, why shouldn’t everyone else?” Mrs Anderson asks.
Mrs Anderson tactfully declines to comment on First Minister Ian Paisley’s assertion before Christmas that FOI is being used by “lazy journalists who will not do any work” and wasting civil servants’ time.
But she does say that about 60 per cent of complaints to her office about government bodies withholding information come from members of the public — not journalists or politicians.
“Individuals want to know about decisions that affect them — information about planning, funding, grants and employment.
“But if public authorities are receiving repeated requests for certain types of information, then we would expect them to proactively release that information on their website. If you proactively release it, you do not need to deal with the FOI request.
“I would say we’re not seeing enough proactive publication and our office has been liaising recently with public authorities around new model publication schemes to promote proactive disclosure.
“Responding to requests is a reactive event — it’s much better to proactively publish. You shouldn’t have to be asking the same things time and time again about the same information.
“And something else we need to take more follow-up action on is when information is only released to the individual making the request. We expect to see any information released to a requester published on an authority’s website but I accept that it is not happening in many cases.”
Mrs Anderson is the only one of the UK’s regional information commissioners who personally investigates complaints.
A legal expert prior to being appointed commissioner, she looks back on several ground-breaking decisions made during her tenure.
“The decision that the law of confidence survives an individual’s death was a significant development in the law of confidence and was of interest to the PSNI’s Historical Inquiries Team.
“Last year the commissioner also investigated allegations that the PSNI concealed information and used our powers under Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act — which give us powers to investigate the shredding or concealment of data — to launch a criminal investigation.
“We had insufficient information to bring the case to court, but, as a result of our investigation, the PSNI initiated a review of FOI and we are awaiting a copy of the review.”
Mrs Anderson says that the feedback she receives is that public authorities respect the office and consider it to be fair.
The commissioner says that Data Protection — which, unlike FOI, covers the private as well as the public sector — still forms the bulk of inquiries to her office.
“It used to be that it was about two thirds data protection, one third FOI — now it’s about 90 per cent Data Protection and we’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of people ringing us since the data loss incident.”
Mrs Anderson refuses to speculate about one day returning to the Information Commissioner’s Office in another role.
“I only answer to Richard Thomas on that one,” she says.
Source: Public 'benefit most from a more open government' - Belfast Today