The Freedom of Information Act
The freedom of information act is an invaluable tool for the news team at Pulse. It gives us the ability to demand information from the Government and various healthcare bodies such as CCGs and hospital trusts. It could be to ask for minutes from meetings involving the health secretary, or documents that the Government is trying to bury. Equally, it could be asking a vast range of CCGs about spending plans, or what services they are rationing in an attempt to build up a national picture. We have done this to great effect. Last year, we revealed that commissioners are paying out NHS money for patients to go on holiday, and are cutting services to do so. We also revealed that some CCGs are incentivising GPs to cut urgent cancer referrals. Both these stories caused an outcry, featuring on the front page of numerous national newspapers and forcing NHS England to review its policy. Pulse is not alone in using the FOI act to uncover potential scandal. Among other stories, the Sunday Times uncovered how hospitals in the UK were incinerating miscarried and aborted foetuses as clinical waste, sometimes in waste-to-energy power plants, while the Sunday Mirror discovered police officers were using 50, 000-volt Taser stun guns on children, including a mentally ill 12-year-old girl. But last year the Government made moves to limit the use. It consulted on limiting the information that could be made available, such as Cabinet minutes and policy decision making. It also proposed a charge for an FOI request. For Pulse, this would have been catastrophic. It would mean that stories used to build up a national picture would be impossible, potentially costing £4, 000 (with a charge of £20 for 200 CCGs) without a guaranteed story at the end of it. However, these proposals did what few can do – it united the press sector. All elements of the press, from the local newspapers to the trade press to the nationals rallied against them. The Daily Mail devoted front pages to the campaign for freedom of information; the Society of Editors launched a ‘Hands off FOI’ campaign alongside the Press Gazette; and the consultation receive more than 30, 000 responses, mainly negative to any changes. Government ministers early on started distancing themselves from the proposals, culminating this month in an announcement by Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock that he was going to leave the act alone. The press gets a lot of abuse, and much of it is deserved. But the FOI act brings out the best in journalism, and we should be thankful that it remains.