Bridget Prentice

Bridget Prentice has been speaking about the sorts of thing this blog is interested in.  So you might find the report of her speech of interest as well:

Bridget welcomed the Future of Citizenship report which addresses the relationship between the citizen and the state – and which challenges government to do better to bring both sides together.  She spoke of the report’s findings that people are more than happy to engage in horizontal citizenship (engagement between neighbours, behaving morally and with good manners) but that there is little vertical interaction with authority – either through engagement with public services, in voting or in holding elected officials to account.

Bridget acknowledged the importance of creating a new dialogue around citizenship and of government listening more.  She spoke about a range of projects where young people have (for example) become more involved in governance of their school or where they have used internet radio to engage in dialogue with local politicians about local issues of importance to them – and suggested that more activities of this type are essential to re-engage citizens.

In the final part of her speech, Bridget pointed out that, once citizens begin to re-engage with the democratic process, government will need to do everything it can to keep the conversation going and to nurture and maintain the connection.   She was particularly hopeful that projects using new technology – such as the Love Lewisham project and the Digital Dialogues initiative – will help achieve this.  She finished by suggesting that there is plenty of scope for further innovative thinking to ensure that participation and democracy are strengthened – and that government must listen to the report’s findings that it needs to do more to engage citizens.

More locally, Bridget’s website has had a retune and is all the better for it.  I see she’s starting a regular feature “Letter to Lewisham“, which should provide fodder for my Lewisham Round Up:

Elsewhere in the news one of the themes to emerge has been family. We know that strong relationships are an important part of successful parenting and that marriage represents the pinnacle of a strong relationship. But that doesn’t mean that other family structures can’t thrive and it doesn’t mean that all children in traditional families benefit. When a marriage is troubled, children often suffer. I think issues surrounding the family have come a long way since the days of Conservative MPs attacking single mothers and that the last ten years have had a civilising effect on the debate. 

In Lewisham itself I had the privilege of visiting the Downham Health & Leisure Centre (check my photo gallery!). It’s a fantastic development which will serve the whole community. As well as an activity room, a wonderful pool and a community hall, there are also GP surgeries, IT facilities, a fitness suite and – after all that – a café in which to relax. It opens on the 12th March and if you join before then you’ll enjoy a 20% discount. I’ll be mentioning the Health & Leisure Centre a lot over the next few weeks and I want to know what you think about it. Maybe your feedback will feature in my next column.  

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About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
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14 Responses to Bridget Prentice

  1. Max says:

    “Bridget pointed out that, once citizens begin to re-engage with the democratic process, government will need to do everything it can to keep the conversation going and to nurture and maintain the connection”

    Maybe she would have a better title to say so if she wasn’t a minister in the same Constitutional Affairs Department that is at work to curb on Freedom on Information with the most preposterous of reasonings.

  2. andrewkbrown says:

    Well, if you’re trying to conduct the conversation about democratic engagement through FOI requests I’m not sure you’ll get a conversation at all.

  3. Max says:

    As you can’t have a conversation about the colour of the King’s dress is you happen to believe that he’s naked.

    Bridget Prentice:
    “..but that there is little vertical interaction with authority – either through engagement with public services, in voting or in holding elected officials to account.”

  4. Max says:

    I better expand on that as it is poetic but maybe slightly too cryptic.

    Engagement is not only collaboration and niceties among the public and the administrations on issues where there is a common goal, engagement is also something that happens in conflict and sometimes ordinary Joe public has to break out of the cosy “parnership” environment and challenge the admistration and the FoI is a principal tool in sourcing those information that the administration would rather not give you.
    The current proposal of reform of the FoI is a helping hand for those administrations that want to keep their business sheltered from the public that pay their wages and is entitled to know what they’re up to.

    I’m sorry to have to say that in the light of this BP words sound rather empty.

  5. andrewkbrown says:

    Always best not to be poetic on this blog!

  6. Max says:

    I’ll keep to the prose.
    Touching on the tangent argument of the FoI reform, are you happy with it?
    Is there a Labour Party position and/or debate about it or was it in the manifesto?

  7. andrewkbrown says:

    I’m afriad I’ve not kept my eye on FoI reform, so I don’t have a considered or definative position on what is being proposed.

    From a general point of view I believe in transparent(ish) government. I don’t always think it is to the benefit of policy making to have all information in the public domain. But more often than not it is.

    In terms of FoI the limited experience I had with it made me think that there were some unitended outcomes from the legislation, and costs to the system that hadn’t been recognised when it was introduced.

    But I’ve not read anything on what is being proposed for reforming the system so can’t say whether I think those changes strike the right balance.

    Our manifesto is a public document and while I can’t see commitments to change the Act that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been debated inside the Party.

    Having just done some digging around I see that the reforms that seem to be causing such angst flow from this review of the Act. I’ve not had the time to even contemplate reading the 74 pages it represents, but did look at this response to the Constitutional Affairs Committee which says:

    Following the conclusions of the review the Government is minded to:
    i. include reading time, consideration time and consultation time in the calculation of the appropriate limit (£600) above which requests could be refused on cost grounds; and
    ii. aggregate requests made by any legal person, (or persons apparently acting in concert, to each public authority (e.g. Government Department) for the purposes of calculating the appropriate limit.

    and the Government is not minded to agree the following:
    iii. a flat fee for all requests (although this could not be ruled out permanently as Parliament had voted powers in the FOI Act to allow such fees); and
    iv. a reduction in the cost threshold to £400.

    So if these are the proposals that worry you so much perhaps you can outline what’s so “preposterous”?

  8. Max says:

    There are information that are not intended for the public and requests of access to them are denied.
    All other information have to be made accessible.
    This is the basis of my thinking.

    This reform provides a very easy way out for authorities unwilling to provide you with documents. All they have to say is that:
    – it would take too much hassle to find it or
    – they have already dealt with you enough or
    – they have already dealt with your associates enough

    In short, if Sir Humphrey doesn’t want to give you the papers that you have a right to he will not give them to you and there will be nothing to force him to act differently.

    The proposal is “Preposterous” (note the capital P) in its motivation, here’s the email that No 10 sent me as a signatory of a petition opposing this law:

    “The Government recognises the importance of public participation and understanding of the functions of Government. The intention of the changes proposed is not to hinder legitimate requests for information or to reduce the effectiveness of the Act. An independent review commissioned by the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs to look at the impact of the Freedom of Information Act showed that a small minority of requests and a small minority of requestors account for disproportionate amounts of the cost of answering FOI requests. The proposals are designed to address this issue and to ensure public authorities can balance access to information for all with the delivery of other public services.”

    The total of the national cost of FoI requests over a year is according to the Deparment of Contitutional Affairs at around £35m and that is in mine and many others opinion a very tiny cost for such a conquest of democracy and tool for transparency.
    The Government is using this sum as an excuse to curb on FoI and that’s where it is Preposterous, because its substance is hypocrisy.

    The fact that, as the Government puts it, “a small minority of requests and a small minority of requestors account for disproportionate amounts of the cost of answering FOI requests” obviously derives by the proportion of people that take it on themselves to act in the public interests and makes repeated requests and this includes Journalists, MPs, Campaigners, local Councillors, researchers…
    The vast majority of the population doesn’t have the time or the energy to put in requests and battle with officers to have them fulfilled but I’m sure that they’re happy if their neighbours or their elected representatives do that for them to in order to clarify matters of public interest that can be even very serious.

    I have an alternative suggestion for reducing the cost of implementation of FoIA. Just make all information that should be available truly available, then it would cost next to nothing.

    The Government have failed in producing the transparency that they proclaimed they would have delivered and they failed because they failed to challenge those in the public administration that work against transparency.
    Now they even bend over backward to rid them of the duty of transparency. That’s what this proposal is.

  9. Max says:

    But I’m sure that there are some good reasons for the Government to push this law through, if only we were given to know them!
    From the Campaign for Freedom of Information website:

    “The government’s new proposals to restrict use of the FOI Act are based in part on a survey carried out in January 2006 of the time needed to respond to FOI requests. This data was used to estimate the costs of the FOI Act and the possible savings from new restrictions. (These estimates are contained in a report commissioned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs from consultants ‘Frontier Economics’) .

    Two months before the government’s proposals were published, the Campaign made an FOI request for the data obtained during this survey.

    The request was refused by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The DCA maintained that the information fell within the FOI exemption relating to the “formulation and development of government policy” and that the balance of public interest favoured withholding the information. ”

    I also see that there is this early day motion signed as today by 108 MP’s of all parties, maybe Joan Ruddock MP could consider joining in:

    “That this House expresses concern that the proposed new fees regulations under the Freedom of Information Act would allow authorities to refuse on cost grounds a high proportion of requests which they are currently required to answer; notes that the Government’s consultation document recognises that this will have a greater impact on journalists, hon. Members, campaign groups and researchers than on private individuals; considers that such changes would undermine the Act’s contribution to increased discussion of public affairs, accountability and trust in the work of public authorities; and calls on the Government not to proceed with the proposals.”

  10. andrewkbrown says:

    I’ve now had a chance to read the executive summary of the independent review’s report and I’m not sure your charge of hypocrisy stands up. Nor your assertion that the disproportionate users are always acting in the public interest.

    Here are some of the examples from the report about how the Act has been used, which they describe as not in the spirit of the Act:
    A request for the total amount spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates in UK embassies.
    A request from a vintage lorry spotter to 387 local authorities for the registration numbers of all vintage lorries held in their stock.
    A request for information on a sweater given to President George Bush by No.10.
    Multiple requests from a long time correspondent of the CPS about allegations of criminality against him, having already been told that the CPS was not the authority to answer such questions.
    A request for the number of eligible bachelors in the Hampshire Constabulary between the ages of 35 and 49, their e-mail addresses, salary details and pension values received from requestor “I like men in uniform”.

  11. Max says:

    From the New Statesman:

    “…Almost every minister who speaks for restrictions cites as an example of such a “trivial” request the applicant who wanted to know the cost of Ferrero Rocher chocolates supplied to British embassies around the world. Ho ho ho. And yet, why should we not know? And who should decide what is trivial? If we can’t know about chocolates, can we know about the ambassador’s car? Or her travel expenses? And if we can’t know about them, can we know about the cost of the Iraq war? (The answer to that is No, by the way, under old and new rules.) It is easy to see how narrowly circumscribed the class of things that are not too trivial, too time-consuming, or too dangerous for citizens to know could eventually become..”

  12. Max says:

    I just wrote to Joan Ruddock MP asking her to sign the early day motion.

  13. Lone Ranger says:

    According to the National Association of Local Councils website it represents 10,000 community, parish and town councils in England and Wales. Which brings the average annual cost of FoI enquiries down to £3,500, throw in the number of institutions, government bodies and departments and the cost comes down even further.

    As most documents are now electronically created or stored why not as suggested make everything available to public scrutiny but with the proviso a council can withhold certain information with a proper and full explaination.

    The so called ‘irrelevant’ questions would become irrelevant as the public body could just point the person in the right direction and say seek and thou shall find? Would that not save money as well?

    I’ve not made a FoI application and don’t know how they operate.

  14. Lone Ranger says:

    Oooh just a thougt, how about a fee paid to questioners for irrelevant answers to relevant questions?

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