Transparency, aid cuts, health data: openDemocracy sets the UK agenda
The government has backed down on a health data grab in the face of our legal threat. Parliament is debating an issue we uncovered. And a judge has found for us against the Cabinet Office. We couldn’t do it without you
It’s been a dramatic couple of days here at openDemocracy.
Over the past 48 hours, Westminster has been dominated by the threat of a Tory rebellion over the government's massive foreign aid budget cuts, which thousands of our readers have signed our petition against. Aid cuts, that is, which my colleague Peter Geoghegan first revealed after their details were leaked to him. Aid cuts which directly contradicted the government’s promises at the last election, and which provoked shock across the political spectrum.
As I write, a debate on these cuts is finally taking place in the chamber. And rebel MPs tell us they still hope to force a vote down the line.
But it’s not just aid cuts. Today, we announced that our own Jenna Corderoy has won a legal victory against the Cabinet Office. Last year, Peter and Jenna revealed that the department which co-ordinates much of the inner workings of the government was running a ‘Clearing House’ unit for Freedom of Information requests.
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The law says that Freedom of Information requests have to be ‘applicant-blind’: which means it doesn’t matter who asks for information. But Jenna and Peter discovered that requests from journalists, researchers and campaigners were all being sent to this secretive Clearing House. The National Union of Journalists said this “blacklisting” had to stop.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had previously called openDemocracy’s journalism on the subject “ridiculous and tendentious”. But when Jenna went up against his department’s lawyers in a tribunal – after almost three years of trying to force transparency about the Clearing House – it was Jenna who came out on top. Judge Chris Hughes ruled that there is a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”. The Cabinet Office has been ordered to release further details of how the unit works.
And that’s not all.
This afternoon, the minister for public health announced that the government has delayed its planned grab of health data from England’s GPs. We had teamed up with a group of partners and threatened an injunction to stop this going ahead.
Perhaps the government took notice of the 18,000 of you who signed our petition demanding that the health secretary doesn’t share our health data for profit.
We’re proud that sometimes, our journalism makes a difference in the world
The attempted data grab didn’t come as a surprise. If, as we’ve learned over the past decade, data is the new oil, then NHS data is the UK’s new North Sea. Few organisations on earth know as much about human health as the NHS, and so massive corporations across the world are desperate to get their hands on the UK’s healthcare data.
As my colleague Caroline Molloy has often said, data is the new frontline of NHS privatisation. And this would have been “the largest seizure of personal medical records in NHS history”.
But the government has backed off – for now. “We will use this time to talk to patients, doctors, health charities, doctors, and others to strengthen the plan, build a trusted research environment, and ensure that data is accessed securely,” the minister said.
As our partners at Foxglove have said in response, “This is an important step. We still have questions: how will patients be notified, including people who aren't online? How will the trusted research environment work? On what terms will corporations be allowed to access people's health data?”
“But,” they added, “the first battle is WON.”
At openDemocracy, we often say that we challenge power and inspire change. We’re proud that sometimes, our journalism makes a difference in the world.
And it’s pleasing to feel like those times are coming more and more often these days – from the brilliant work of our feminist investigative journalism team, who recently stopped doctors giving out bogus advice on fake ‘abortion reversal pills’ to our colleagues in Latin America exposing the people destroying the Amazon.
Good journalism changes things. And as media institutions collapse around us, we’re proud to be growing, and changing things more than ever.
If you like what you see, please help us.
Why should you care about freedom of information?
From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.
Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy
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