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INSIDE TRACK: Freedom of information comes with a hidden cost

I HAVE a love-hate relationship with the Freedom of Information Act.

On the one hand, extracting straightforward answers from public bodies - such as health boards - about issues which are clearly in the public interest, can be infuriating. We human beings are defensive creatures and, directly or indirectly, consciously and subconsciously, governments seem to put managers under pressure to present the rosiest picture possible. So, I do believe we need a law to ensure reasonable questions are reasonably answered.

Having said that, the legislation has undoubtedly created extra work for organisations like councils and health boards. When I think about people who are extremely busy running vital services, doing jobs which I am not trained to tackle, I feel guilty knowing they may have to take time out to answer one of my FOI questions or divert resources to fund an additional member of staff to do it. Politicians who regularly make use of FOI should think about this before criticising the NHS for employing more pen-pushers.

I understand use of the legislation these days is largely responsible, but I heard in the past of questions being submitted from the media such as: How much do you spend on oranges for students/staff to practice syringe insertion? Assuming there is no whiff of scandal around this - a grower offering managers free juice in return for large orders perhaps - fishing for tittle-tattle in this fashion really helps no-one.

On this note, I recently trawled through responses to FOI questions I had submitted and found out I had pretty much wasted everyone's time. I was well motivated. The Herald is campaigning for a review of capacity in hospitals and the community with a view to caring for the growing elderly population. But, while it is relatively easy for me as a health correspondent to access information which shows how well hospitals are coping with demand just now, I have found it much more difficult to paint a picture of any pressures that might exist on social care services. So I submitted an FOI to all Scottish councils asking about the number of social work clients they had over the ages of 65, 75 and 85 during the last decade. I also asked about the size of the budget and the number of care hours provided etc. Then I spent forever printing out all the responses and sat down to sort through them.

A fair few had answered every question in an easy-to-read format, but by the end of the afternoon the pile that was biggest consisted of responses that were problematic. Two councils had provided no information on the basis it was too expensive - £735 according to one estimate. Others would only answer the questions if I paid, although the sums were smaller, eg £15.50. Some were unable to answer the questions without clarifications. Some provided links to numerous websites.

In the end I had to admit I had not gleaned anything meaningful from the investigation, except perhaps greater appreciation for the health statistics division of NHS Scotland which hosts a variety of data going back in time for the whole country.

I guess at least now I can say it also provided material for this column.

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