Heather Brooke: The Government's right to keep us in the dark

In a modern democracy we should not have to go begging for scraps of information
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The Independent Online

Yesterday's publication of the Common Agricultural Policy farm subsidies in England marks one of the first major successes for freedom of information. The public pays £4bn toward this system, so it might seem obvious that it has an interest in knowing how this money is spent. I campaigned for the release of these figures in my book Your Right to Know, but it wasn't until formal requests were filed under the Freedom of Information Act and the new Environmental Information Regulations that government departments took seriously the public's right to this information.

Yesterday's publication of the Common Agricultural Policy farm subsidies in England marks one of the first major successes for freedom of information. The public pays £4bn toward this system, so it might seem obvious that it has an interest in knowing how this money is spent. I campaigned for the release of these figures in my book Your Right to Know, but it wasn't until formal requests were filed under the Freedom of Information Act and the new Environmental Information Regulations that government departments took seriously the public's right to this information.

The Rural Payments Agency, responsible for doling out cash to farmers in England, is releasing the names of subsidy recipients and the annual amount that has been paid to them in the last two years. It will be supplemented in a few weeks time with information broken down by region.

This is admirable, but the Scottish and Welsh agricultural departments are refusing to release even these basic details, citing the privacy rights of individual farmers. Without names, the subsidy information is neutered. Names are essential for gauging the fairness of the system. Are the richest landowners getting the biggest handouts? In England at least, the answer is "yes". Is this the way we want our tax money spent?

The other problem is availability. If you want to look at the raw data, you must contact the Rural Payments Agency (e-mail atihelpdesk@rpa.gsi.gov.uk) and they will post a disk to your address. There are no plans to put the data on their website or make it widely available. The agency says it is "looking into solutions", but, let's be frank, it is not rocket science to put two 8.7MB Excel spreadsheets online.

Detailed data on farm subsidies has been public in the US since 1996, when The Washington Post, after being turned down on a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals, won a lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture. Since then, the USDA has released whole databases on farm subsidies to the public. Non-profit organisations such as the Environmental Working Group have taken this raw data and put it on their websites in a form that is accessible and easy to search. (http://www.ewg.org/farm/).

Could we see Oxfam or Friends of the Earth doing something similar? Possibly, but Crown Copyright presents another obstacle in the way of freedom of information that the Americans don't have to worry about. In the US, the people are deemed to own all the work created or paid for by taxpayers' money so it cannot be copyrighted. Copyrighting government information stifles both democracy and business development. If Oxfam, or anyone else, wants to use the farm subsidy data, or any similar type information, they first have to ask the UK government for permission.

The Data Protection Act has become one of the most oft-cited reasons for refusing information to the public. Remember this is the law that led police in Humberside to destroy records of sexual allegations made against the Soham murderer Ian Huntley. British Gas believed it would have been a violation of DPA to notify social services when they cut off the gas supply to an elderly couple (both of whom subsequently died, one of hypothermia).

As early as 2002, the European Ombudsman warned that the EU data protection rules (on which our Data Protection Act is based) were "being used to undermine the principle of openness in public activities". And so it has come to pass. The DPA was meant to protect the rights of private citizens going about their private business from powerful organisations such as the Government and corporations. Instead, the powerful have hijacked the law and are using it as a shield to hide from public accountability.

With no hint of irony, the Government is now introducing more ways of collecting, storing and sharing information about us, the private citizen going about our private business, while we are left in ignorance about how billions of pounds' worth of public money is spent by Scottish and Welsh agricultural departments. These are not small sums, either. One farming business in Scotland received more than £950,000 in subsidies in 2003, and in total, 64 businesses, received more than £250,000. Farmers are private individuals, but when they accept such huge chunks of public cash they cannot expect to remain anonymous. This is called accountability.

Battles are currently raging for the release of the thousands of food safety inspections that local councils conduct on supermarkets, the food industry and restaurants. After BSE, foot and mouth and the Sudan-1 food-dye scare, it boggles the mind how public authorities can persist in their arrogant belief that they know best. Clearly they don't, yet they are putting up a fight to keep secret such important public health documents.

Such secrecy shows a profound disrespect for the British public. In a modern democracy we should not have to go begging for information scraps from the table of government.

heather@yrtk.org

Heather Brooke is the author of 'Your Right to Know' (Pluto Press £12.99) www.yrtk.org

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