The Cheeky Price of Transparency

I recently finished an investigative study into the life of a certain ex-BP CEO. The exercise meant to introduce me to the world of public records in the UK. I was doing my snooping around the same time the Whitehall accounts were released and cabinet members claimed “this government will be the most transparent and accountable country in the world.”

For my assignment, I was to find out as much information as I possibly could about one person- a quantitative exercise and not qualitative. I started with some (what I thought would be) simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Luckily, I was aided by Heather Brooke’s Your Right to Know, because if not I would have quickly gotten lost in the sea of bureaucracy. A look at FOIA’s webpage and you’ll learn about all the wonderful information you can find out and from which public agencies, but they don’t ever tell you exactly how you go about making that application.

Do you e mail the public agency directly? Is there something to click on on this FOIA page? Is there some centralized office that handles all the requests?

I tried my luck directly contacting the office to get public information. In this case it was electoral rolls (registered voter list). I e-mailed a local council outside of London. Their response was this two days later:

Thank you for your email to the Electoral Commission.

A copy of the edited electoral register is available for general sale from your local council office. If you require all local authorities within Kent, you will need to contact each authority independently to purchase copies. Alternatively you can view the full register at your local council office.

You can use our website to find contact details of local authorities within Kent, visit http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk website and search for the local authority your [sic] require.

Please let me know if you require further information.

Ok, I sent the request to the right place, but in order to simply peruse the list of people who voted for this transparent government I have to pay money?                                                                                                                                                                                                       

So, I tried192.com. It’s easy to use, boasts about it’s ability to find people, businesses and places. Initially, a search gives you only the post code and the district of the person you’re looking for. After that, guess what? You’ve got to buy credits that you use with every click on the page.

I was determined not to shell out for information. So, sleuth that I am, I found that the electoral roll was also available at the British Library and for free! I also found the marriage, birth and death records in tiny microfilm slides that you can read with a big magnifying machine- free and accessible as they should be. Well, relatively accessible. In order to become a registered reader, I had to show proof of address, proof of my signature and a photo id as well as explain why I wanted to use the library.

Once I had my Oil boss’s address and birth date verified I thought it’d be no problem to see a quick history about the property where he lives. Land ownership records? £14.

I also wanted to find out what other companies he is or has been involved in. I took a trip to Companies House. I’m lucky that I knew his first, middle and last names as well as his birth date because just to click and see more information about one person from a list of 50+ names cost £1 each. After that, if you want to see any reports from public companies, PUBLIC mind you, you have to pay £3. Prices go up for even more extensive information about a company. In my case, I grudgingly paid £7 just to know that he didn’t hold any stock in two companies where he was on the board of directors almost 10 years ago. I left feeling a little chapped for having paid for no information.

It angers me to think how much a member of the public would have to pay, in pounds and time, if they were doing more than just a personal profile of a public figure. When did information become so expensive? How can England call themselves an open society when one individual has to not only go to great lengths to have access to public information but also pay for it? And, not to mention, use an almost 300 page guide book just to know how to exercise their right to know.  I believe this joke of a system is what the Brits would call “quite cheeky.”

So, Whitehall MPs can pat themselves on the back for allowing the public to see how ridiculously they spend tax payers’ cash, but they shouldn’t pat for too long. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism has ranked England 25th out of 27 for their transparency on EU structural fund expenditures. It seems the horn tooting came a bit prematurely.

About sinhblog

I'm a freelance journalist who believes in the fourth branch of democracy.
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