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MEN left wanting more after test on new FOI laws

The Manchester Evening News has found severe limitations on the Freedom of Information Act after putting the new laws to the test.

The newspaper put 15 requests for information to various local bodies, but in eight cases authorities refused to answer all or vital parts of the questions put to them.

It was able to gain information on the scale of the MRSA problem in Greater Manchester hospitals from the Greater Manchester Strategic Health Authority, and on the possibility of congestion charging in the city from the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive, but it was not as successful in all of its requests.

Bury Metropolitan Borough Council refused to disclose details of suspected pay-offs for a teacher who was suspended for nine years over unproven allegations of touching a pupil, saying that to do so would be an actionable breach of confidence, contrary to Section 41 of the act.

Other clauses quoted for not answering questions fully included Section 40, which relates to personal data; and a question about the measures in place in case of a terrorist attack on Manchester was not fully answered on grounds of health and safety and confidentiality.

A further two questions were rejected because they were deemed too expensive to process.

MEN editor Paul Horrocks said: “At the end of the day I don’t think we have been that successful.

“What we’ve learnt is that you need to be very specific in terms of dates and individual names.

“Newspapers also need to be wary of the over use of personal confidentiality excuses.

“We will keep at it and refine our procedures. I’m hoping that it will be a big source of information in the future.”

  • The MEN is planning to appeal against three of the decisions not to provide information, and has now been given more information on a request for details on the Metrolink from the Department for Transport after splitting it into three separate questions and making clear it did not want copies of letters sent by members of the public.