Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from John Campbell
1. For a two-year period I sought to use the FOI Act to shed light on key aspects of the British asylum system which are unaccessible to outsiders, including academic researchers.
2. During the period 2007–09, I made about 15–20 FOI requests, the vast bulk of which were to the Home Office/UKBA but the remainder were to the Ministry of Justice. Many of the requests were not adequately dealt with by officials who often refused me access to key information. I had repeatedly to appeal initial refusals to obtain evidence on key policies and the implementation of key policies, on public expenditure in key areas, on the nature of legal aid, on how The Home Office implemented its policy of language analysis, on information about Home Office Presenting Units, and about how the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal operated (specifically the way it listed cases for country guidance). In nearly all instances officials sought to frustrate access to information; several times they not only took exception to my requests—as evidenced clearly in their replies—but in one case a request for research access to the Immigration Asylum Tribunal was specifically refused because the Deputy President was aware of my FOI Request and objected to it.
3. As an academic, a tax payer and a citizen I feel it is right that government should meet all reasonable FOI requests because many areas of government are cloaked in a degree of secrecy and/or because officials do not like to be made accountable for their decisions. It is my understanding that the Home Office has refused the decision of the Information Commissioner to provide information requested under the Act on a number of occasions; it has certainly refused to comply with a decision by the IC in relation to a request by me.
4. Based in part on my FOI requests I have published an academic paper which looks into one area of Home Office policy. The evidence before me clearly indicated that officials had extended a policy for which there was no evidence that the policy worked; their actions had probably also violated British law. I attach that paper for your information.
5.My paper on UKBA policy which is based primarily on material obtained under the FOI Act was subject to considerable delay and obfuscation by the Home Office/UKBA who: (a) repeatedly delayed replying to my requests, (b) sought to limit the information released by imposing a more limited definition on the material I requested; (c) and who ultimately refused to release information. I was forced to appeal to the unit in the Home Office, to no avail, and ultimately to the Information Commissioner who ruled that the information should be released. It has been over 12 months since that ruling and the Home Office has refused to release the information.
6. I hope that ILPA has made a submission to you regarding their reliance on FOI requests on behalf of the asylum appeals of their clients. It is often the case that the Home Office and other officials make unreasonable decisions or claim to take a decision on the basis of an policy when in fact no such policy exists. Far better that the FOI operates than for the government to face an even larger bill in the courts in the face of mounting Judicial Review applications taken out against officials for their unreasonable decisions.
7. I would like to see the government’s rationale for limiting or ending the FOI Act. Cost cannot be a factor when official decision-making and unannounced policies are relied upon to deal with a problem which officials want to go away but which instead should be the subject of publicly disclosed information.