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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 December 2004, 11:34 GMT
Your right to know
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

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Your right to know what public bodies get up to in your name changes radically on 1 January. Many people are preparing to probe deep into government - and we want to know how you are going to do it.

After almost 10 years of waiting, Godfrey and Sissel Fowler may finally be about to find out the full facts about why their son Adrian died in July 1995.

Adrian, a talented environmental scientist, was on his way to a job interview which might have led to him becoming a senior government adviser at the age of 29. But he fell from a train at Oxford station and never recovered.

The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death but the precise nature of the accident remains unknown to his parents.

However, a confidential industry report into the accident is thought to explain all - it's just that despite their best efforts, the Fowlers have not been allowed to see it.

So when the Freedom of Information Act comes into force on 1 January 2005, Professor Fowler will be at the front of the queue.

'Vigorous attempts'

"We made vigorous attempts to get the information," says Prof Fowler, an Oxford doctor attached to the university's Balliol College.

Godfrey Fowler
Having been a practising doctor for 40 years, I know how important it is for people to know how a loved one died - otherwise there is a sense of incompletion
Godfrey Fowler
"We were told soon after Adrian's death that there was going to be an internal inquiry and we were clearly led to understand that we would see that report.

"Thames Trains [now defunct] had a lot of lawyers at the inquest which we thought was unusual. When we asked for the report, we were not given it. They then wrote to me saying we could not see it on legal advice."

The coroner could not release the document because of separate laws governing what constitutes a public court document.

The Health and Safety Executive said it could not release it either. It's likely that scores of other railway officials across the industry have seen the report - but the Fowlers have not even seen its table of contents.

Using the then code of conduct on government openness the family asked the Parliamentary Ombudsman to intervene.

But a year later the watchdog said the HSE had been right to withhold the report and the family's campaign came to a juddering halt.

"It was a very unsatisfactory outcome," says Prof Fowler. "We felt that we'd gone into the sand. I always told myself we would have a go once we got a freedom of information act.

"We believe it is our human right to see information which relates to the accident in which our son died."

The HSE is the family's only realistic route to the document, and Prof Fowler has put it on notice that he will be back.

How many public bodies? 100,000 at the last count
For its part, the HSE argues it can take no other course of action in cases as it is legally bound to protect confidential papers - a rule designed to encourage companies it investigates to be open and frank.

"We don't have a choice in such cases," says a spokesman. "We can't compel a company to produce a document to give to someone else."

Symbolic shift

Whatever the outcome for the Fowlers, January sees a symbolic shift in the state's relationship with the public. The public will gain a legally enforceable right to know if a public body holds information - and the right to ask for it.

The list runs to some 100,000 bodies. You may not have heard of them, but the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses will be as subject to this law as Birmingham City Council; schools too are included. The application process is simple and replies must be made in 20 working days or less.

There are exemptions under which material can be withheld. At government level, for example, ministers even have a veto over disclosure of their department's own papers.

However, the greatest impact may come over the long-term as the public absorbs a culture of demanding more information about every-day decisions.

100,000 bodies affected
A right to ask for information and see it
A duty on bodies to provide it
Wide exemptions
Security services and others exempt

So there's an expectation that contentious local issues such as schools admissions policies, local health planning and even parking fines policies will be laid bare.

To that end, the Magazine wants to hear from readers planning to use the new Act. We will follow the progress of some of your cases to see how open the Act proves to be. (See details at the bottom of this page).

Of course some applications are ready and waiting, and 1 January 2005 cannot come soon enough for the likes of Godfrey and Sissel Fowler.

"We're not concerned with litigation, just the facts so that we can understand what happened," says Prof Fowler. "Having been a practising doctor for 40 years, I know how important it is for people to know how a loved one died. Otherwise there is a sense of incompletion.

"We've never had an opportunity to explain this to the people who hold the document and you just get a sense that they are very loathe to speak to us."

  • Do you have a burning desire to find out what a public body is up to?
  • Have you been trying with no success to see documents you believe should be public knowledge?
  • Are you planning to use the Freedom of Information Act?
  • We want to hear about your applications, or ideas that you have for information you want to know about.


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