Bringing Prince Charles back

Prince Charles

Prince Charles’ private meetings with government ministers, and the fact that we cannot know what was said in them ,has become a small controversy buried under a scandal, namely the one about News of the World and its various mischiefs.

What seemed to be the beginning of an interesting debate was inevitably cut short. A small recap may be useful to bring the story back to the fore and continue with the discussion.

A week ago, the Mail on Sunday reported that prince Charles held at least 9 private meetings with senior ministers and also mentioned his notorious “black spider” letters to ministers – referring to the Prince’s lengthy notes on policy, inked in his spider-like handwriting.

This came after Alastair Campbell, who was former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s communications chief, revealed that Blair was frustrated with the Prince’s interventions on policy issues.

The monarchy no longer has any political power in the UK and Prince Charles’ constitutional role is to remain largely a symbolic head. Private meetings with ministers could be seen as pushing boundaries. But more important is that we can’t know for sure if Charles was, in fact, exceeding his position because the Royal Family’s communications with ministers became exempt under the Freedom of Information Act during the final days of the previous government.

In response, campaigners have called for a review to the changes in the law.

Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information told The Independent that the revelations of regular private meetings with ministers showed that the changes in the FOI Act were not sustainable and suggested the Prince could use the exemption to conceal his political involvement.

“There is a legitimate case to made, for example, in protecting discussions between the Queen and the Prime Minister. But this type of roving lobbying by Prince Charles is a different matter. There is a question as to whether any political role he might be taking is being concealed by the use of this exemption. It should be made subject to review and, in some circumstances, the release of that information is justified.”

When the changes were first announced, Ben Chu, commented in The Independent that though the royals are no longer political actors, their symbolic position representing the U.K. must also be kept in check. Their exemption from the FOI Act also eliminates the mechanism meant to scrutinise their actions.

 “The Royal Family must be above politics and provide a focal point for respect from all Britons. But that does not undermine the argument for scrutiny and oversight of royal affairs. The monarchy needs to be seen as a dignified figurehead. Financial profligacy or improper behaviour by members of the Royal Family would bring the monarchy into disrepute and jeopardise its constitutional role. Statutory transparency (in the form of the Freedom of Information Act) would help to keep royals on the straight and narrow.”

The changes to the FOI Act came after Prince Charles was accused of intervening to halt a £3 billion redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks by the Qatari royal family.

At the time, the Royal Family was exempt from direct requests for information under the FOI Act, but public bodies could be asked to disclose the information they held about them. The requests were subject to a public interest test.

The changes that took place in January rendered the Royal Family an absolute exemption from the release of details about his contacts with ministers and civil servants.

Here is what the Constitution Unit wrote about them in March.

“The absolute exception covers all communications of the monarch, her heir, and the second in line to the throne, while the correspondence of the rest of the Royal Household with public bodies remains subject to a qualified exemption. So… requests about finances would result in exactly the same outcome now as before the amendments. Similarly, if people are requesting records of Prince Andrew’s activities as the UK’s trade envoy, then the decision to release, at least under section 37, will be taken in light of a qualified exemption. The real change will be felt with respect to the third and more controversial example: letters allegedly sent between ministers and Prince Charles lobbying on political matters are now inaccessible to FOI requesters.“

With all this talk about Freedom of Information, Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI specialist added another element to the mix: the FOI law may be only part of the issue here.

Because Prince Charles’ policy concerns has more to do with the environment than with any other policy issue, much of the information we want to know about is not covered by the FOI law at all, but rather the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).

The EIR do not have any specific provisions protecting the Royal Family, Rosenbaum said, so requesters can fire away. But there are exemptions.

“The letters written by Charles himself could be withheld on the basis that it would harm his interests, as someone not obliged to supply information to the public authority. And the Information Commissioner has ruled that replies to him from the government can be kept secret, because by revealing his views they would thus reveal his personal information in breach of the Data Protection Act.”

In all matters not related to the environment, however, the FOI exemption for the royals should be looked at. After all, the Prince Charles may be only a symbolic figurehead and a private person in his own right – but not every private individual enjoys such access to Members of Parliament. Isn’t it in the public’s interest to know what is being said to them?

FOI wakes up the dead

Zombies in Leicester

It started with a simple question to a local council. A few paragraphs to the bureaucrats. It was a strange question, surely, but what happened next came straight out of a sci-fi movie.

Hundreds of zombies came to the streets. Their faces wan with foundation powder, dark circles hinging under their eyes, induced by eye-shadow. Red stage make-up dripping like blood from their cheek bones.

They were not there to eat people’s brains like regular zombies do. These living-dead had arrived to evaluate Leicester city’s contingency plans.

What brought them out on the streets was a Freedom of Information request sent to Leicester City Council by “a concerned citizen,” also known as Robert Ainsley, and identified by The Leicester Mercury  as 26-year-old politics graduate James Dixon.

“Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion?” he wrote. “Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for.”

It was a joke, not the delusions of a gadfly, according to The Leicester Mercury, and the media ruckus that ensued was enough to wake people from their eternal rest.

But it really fair for the civil servants – legally binded to respond to non-vexatious FOI requests – who are now scratching their brains, trying to respond to this strange question? They probably weren’t prepared for the event of an FOI request on a zombie attack.

And how does it affect the FOI Act itself?

One one hand, it could serve to get more people acquainted with its existence who may start asking responsible questions.

In 2008, 86% of the UK population knew they had the legal right to access government information, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office. This may be the reason why the number of FOI requests to local authorities rose from 60,000 to 80,000 between 2005 and 2007, according to the Constitution Unit’s research.

On the other hand, the zombie request may also start a trend in which citizens ask their council questions like whether they are planning to build an airport for flying saucers or a school for alien children, just because this one was so much fun.

According to FOI request tracker WhatDoTheyKnow.com, nine new requests have been submitted on the topic of zombies.

But even that isn’t really a bad thing, as it may help oil the FOI machine. The Constitution Unit found that if the Act is not being used, the act can enter into stagnation: a minority of requests are answered and there are more delays.

The Leicester council hasn’t responded to Ainsley’s request yet, but Leicester’s head of information governance, Lynn Wyeth spoke to local radio and the BBC about the question.

She could have complained about the amount of work created by someone who just wanted to have a good laugh. Instead, she responded gracefully.

“To you it might seem frivolous and a waste of time… but to different people it actually means something,”she said. “Everybody has their own interests and their own reasons for asking these questions.”

Bristol City Council took it one step further and responded to a copycat FOI request with an actual, “top secret” zombie contingency plan. You can look at it here if you don’t believe me.

But maybe we are having too much fun. The FOI Man offers a more sobering perspective from the point of view of an official dealing with the Act on a regular basis.

Though he found it amusing at first, he soon came to the conclusion that it is a misguided use of FOI, and may make public officials who are already skeptical of the act, even more so.

My fear is that a combination of zombie requests, public sector spending cuts and lack of support for FOI at all levels in public authorities could seriously damage our right to access information in this country. As FOI Officers, we have a duty to promote FOI to our colleagues. But we can’t just keep repeating the same old answers in the hope that they will have a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion. The only way we can progress in instilling FOI as a culture in our organisations and our country is to listen to colleagues’ concerns.

FOI requests also cost a lot of money too £30.6 million pounds in total for the UK, according to the Constitution Unit’s calculations.

“We should acknowledge that some requests are a waste of resources (even if we can’t actually refuse them),” he wrote.

Having said all that, this may just be a one-off situation in which a “concerned citizen” decides to bring the FOI act to the fore for some good fun.

The media will soon forget about it (they may already have), but for some FOI enthusiasts it will remain an event in which a simple request for government documents turned into a lighthearted invasion of the living dead.

Palin’s e-mails: why so bland?

They waited nearly three years for boxes of what promised to be controversial and entertaining news fodder, straight from the fingertips of the U.S. vice-presidential candidate.

“Editors, bloggers and producers were doubtless rubbing their hands in glee on the expectation that the unfiltered thoughts of Sarah Palin as expressed in her email messages would be at least as idiotic as some of the unfiltered statements that come out of Sarah Palin’s mouth when she’s in front of a camera,” wrote L.A. Times’ Dan Turner.

What they got instead is a 24,000 pageload of mundane messages. No new revelations, not even material for a laugh.

The e-mails – or at least the ones the media has managed to sift through — are so boring it makes one wonder whether Sarah Palin, conscious that the messages could potentially be perused by the public, wrote them accordingly: free of gaffes, uninformed statements and controversy. (The Guardian has asked the public to help them sift through the e-mails)

She wouldn’t be the first politician to do so.

Some researchers claim the Freedom of Information Act – which the U.S. has had more than 40 years of getting used to –  has had a “chilling effect” on politicians in Sweden and Canada. Sanitising records or making important or controversial decisions in unrecorded oral discussions may be a logical result of politicians and staff being conscious of potential public scrutiny (a study by the Constitution Unit, showed UK politicians would rather keep good records than face any negative consequences, however.)

Palin is often ridiculed for lacking media saavy and being a teleprompter addict – but she may have just outsmarted us all.

The disclosure on Friday and Monday by the state of Alaska contains e-mails from her Yahoo account, as well as the state-related e-mail from her staff’s personal and work accounts.

Until now, the documents consist of correspondence with aides, nice words for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama,  e-mails showing annoyance about certain press coverage and a picture of Palin and her husband with an Elvis impersonator.

The e-mails spanning Palin’s first two years as governor were requested during the 2008 national elections, when she was Senator John McCain’s running mate, by citizens and news organisations such as the Associated Press. By now, her aspirations are one step further up the ladder as she toys with the prospect of being president.
Almost 2,300 pages were held back due to data protection issues, however.
“Who knows what juicy tidbits we might have found had the rest been available?” Turner wrote.
It may be that the good stuff was simply redacted or withheld. It may be that a golden nugget is hidden under the crease of a photocopied e-mail printout. Maybe Palin is simply not as interesting as people seem to  think — or she just knows how to avoid FOI.

Whose freedom is it?

In March 2010, an animal rights activist sent Freedom of Information requests to universities for details of experiments conducted on animals.

“We’re putting the FOIs in just to find out what is happening with vivisection at the universities. If they’ve got nothing to hide, then it’s not a problem for them to put the information out there,” the activist told The Guardian.

The underlying statement was clear: if they don’t disclose their research, they are probably doing something worth hiding, and whatever information they did disclose would be used to protest against them — a Catch-22 scenario.

The FOI law has become a preferred tool of anyone involved in politics — and it is not surprising, as obscurity is one of the main characteristics of an undemocratic government. No one can argue against the right to government transparency in the UK – but does it trump academic freedom?

Last month, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, said FOI was being used by organised campaigns as a tool to intimidate some scientists and that the current law should be revised. He said this after the launch of a Royal Society study meant to examine ways of improving access to scientific data.

“I have been told of some researchers who are getting lots of requests for, among other things, all drafts of scientific papers prior to their publication in journals, with annotations, explaining why changes were made between successive versions. If it is true, it will consume a huge amount of time. And it’s intimidating,” Nurse told The Guardian, adding that some requests may have been intended to simply stop scientists from working.

Nurse may have been referring to the University of East Anglia’s ‘Climategate’ scandal, where e-mails showing scientists trying to avoid FOI requests – some by climate change sceptics were hacked and revealed.

The Unit, headed by Professor Phil Jones, was flooded with requests. Some e-mails showed scientists figuring out ways to sidestep them, while others showed them desperate to stop responding and get back to work.

“This is all about academic freedom. I’m just a humble scientist trying to do research,” Jones told Martin Rosenbaum, who writes the BBC’s Open Secrets Blog about Freedom of Information.

Nurse is not the only one who thinks FOI and academic freedom are often mutually exclusive. In April, the Mackinac Centre, a policy research group with libertarian and conservative influences, filed requests with the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University asking for e-mails that mention collective bargaining disputes. This prompted Ian Robinson, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, to collect 1600 signatures on a petition for academic freedom.

In Virginia, the American Association of University Professors, the Virginia ACLU, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and nine other groups called on the University of Virginia to “[balance] the interests in public disclosure against the public interest in academic freedom”. This was in response to a FOI request on the work of climate scientist Michael Mann.

On the other hand, academics immersed in controversial research projects such as climate change, or have contentious methodology — animal testing — are the usually the ones receiving a large amount of requests. Besides, these bodies generate much of the data circulated through newspapers, magazines, blogs — in other words, it is the data we all feed on. Shouldn’t it be the public’s right to scrutinise their scientific methods?

Besides, scientists have safeguards within the law to protect them from vexatious requests, said Maurice Frankel, the Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in a letter to The Guardian, responding to Nurse’s statement.

“Unreasonable requests for all pre-publication drafts of scientific papers can be refused under an exemption for information due for future publication,” he said.

“Explanations of why changes to successive drafts were made do not have to be provided unless they exist in writing. Multiple related requests from different people, if they are co-ordinated, can be refused if the combined cost of answering exceeds the act’s cost limit,” he said.

Hiding information may also make things worse for scientists, Frankel said.

“It was the misguided attempt to deny ammunition to critics that led to the [University of East Anglia] Climategate fiasco,” he said.

The hacking of CRU’s e-mail was reportedly triggered by the institution’s sidestepping of FOI requests – people who believed their right to obtain information was being trampled on (others question whether the Russian or the Chinese government is the real culprit).

Having the right to refuse information when it clashes with some scientists’ own freedoms seems like the optimal way to guarantee the rights of the requester and the provider of information simultaneously. And it’s already provisioned in the law. But do the safeguards really help academics studying controversial matters?

Whether academics deny or provide ammunition to their critics, they will be criticised or harassed nonetheless. Regardless of whether the academic is acting within the law, not providing information can turn into a self-directed bullet.