Monday, June 19

A Question of Questions

Asking questions is important for democracy. Understandably those in 'power' are not particularly keen on the asking of questions since some times questions are asked in the public domain that are unwelcome.

Baroness Ashton a minister at the Department of Constitutional Affairs, told a select committee in parliament recently that the government is considering raising fees for freedom of information act requests because civil servants were having to deal with too many tame-wasters.

The Baroness said: ''The genuine question that has to be answered is the issue of vexatious and irresponsible requests.''

Well that comment sparked freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke to ask (under the rules of the Freedom of Information Act) ''Just how many 'irresponsible' questions are there really ?''

Ms Brook had noted that every time the issue of 'vexatious questions was commented on by a minister they would trot out the same examples of time-wasting questions that were asked. How much do government departments spend annually on toilet paper; how much do they spend on make-up;how many windows are there at the Department for Education and does your minister exist.

Ms Brook is concerned that such a powerful democratic tool will soon be priced out of the reach of many people. Over 40,000 questions are put to the government under the Freedom of Information Act. People have a right to freely ask questions and get answers from their public servants.

Ms Brook did receive a reply to her question about questions. '' The information you requested is not held as the department does not formally record , list or categorise requests as 'irresponsible' ''

On the evidence above one could ask the question of how the question of raising fees for asking questions was considered to be an issue. At least Ms Brook was not told that she would be ignored for asking questions - which is important, what ?


A civil servant said...

I'm afraid that the official answer was incredibly obvious. No government department is ever going to categories requests in that way and to ask the question is in itself an irresponsible act. Some poor civil servant has had to waste their time on this, time that could have been better spent.

As a citizen and a civil servant I see no problem with charging for FOIA requests as long as the charge is kept relatively low. If a charge of fifty pounds was levied than I’m sure the serious campaigners and journalists would still submit their questions but it would mean (a) a better standard of question and (b) eliminate the flippant and irreverent.

The precedence of charging for a ‘democratic right’ is already well accepted. Anyone is allowed to stand for election but they need to pay a deposit and raise a number of signatures. Why? To stop at least some of the flippant and irreverent.

Peter Troy said...

Well incredibly obvious to a 'poor civil servant' maybe but not to the rest of us Subjects (citizens live in republics).

The question of what is flippant and irreverent is best not answered by a civil servant nor a politician. Either, or both, would wish to eliminate what they don't wish to answer on the grounds that the the issue is not not of sufficient standard.

As to a 'relativly low charge ' who decides what is relative or indeed low?

As we pointed out in the piece it is all a question of questions as probably the Monster Raving Loony Party would agree.

Stewed Cabbage said...

Well I would like to ask a question, but only because it is free.

Since it is incredibly obvious that there are so many irresponsible, flippant and irreverent civil servants how many of them are categorized as mad ?

Civil Servant again said...

Great example. OK lets assume you asked that last question as a FOIA request. The way the question is framed means I can give you almost any answer I want.

There is no definition of mad or what you mean by civil servant. Do you for example want to include civil servants who are on long term sick leave for a nervous breakdown or stress? Do you want to know about civil servants who lost their jobs after being diagnosed as criminally insane and committed to a secure hospital, if you do over what time period? Do you want to include all mental illnesses, e.g. manic depression, Alzheimers, dementia etc or just stark raving bonkers?

I could decide you mean someone who is committed and since nobody could be committed and an active (i.e. not one on long term sick leave) civil servant at the same time I say the answer is none. I could equally say the question is unanswerable because you ask who many are “categorized as mad” and I could say that no government department categorises it’s staff in this way. Either we do loads of research to provide a detailed answer to a question which probably isn’t what you meant in the first place or we can give you one of the cuff (none or unanswerable) and save the taxpayer some money. Alternatively we charge you fifty pounds to ask the question and suddenly there is no question or there is but this time you take the time to think about what you really want to ask and structure your question accordingly.


Incidentally I don’t agree that citizens only live in republics. I’m sorry to tell you but you’ve been a British Citizen since 1983 and the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1981. At that point every Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies became either a British Citizen, British Dependent Territories Citizen or British Overseas Citizen.

British citizens are not British subjects under the 1981 Act. The only circumstance where a person may be both a British subject and British citizen simultaneously is a case where a British subject connected with Ireland (s. 31 of the 1981 Act) acquires British citizenship by naturalisation or registration. In this case only, British subject status is not lost upon acquiring British citizenship.

Personally I'm happy to use either term but technically only British Citizen is accurate.

Peter Troy said...

Well Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms Civil Servant I thank you for your contribution.

Clearly the reference to a 'British Citizen' on my Passport is not after all a printing error.

Perhaps we should rename this blog:

'Very British Citizens (as defined by the British Nationality Act, 1981)'

Stewed Cabbage said...

I recall two books, published a few years ago that if I can locate them may help me move this debate forward.

I think one was called 'The Mad Civil Servants' and the other 'The Naked Officials', or was it the officials that were mad and the civil servant that was naked ?

Any suggestions ?

Peter Troy said...

The Mad officials was written by Richard North and Christopher Booker.

Mr Booker writes a weekly coulumn that is published in The Sunday Times which confirms that the mad officials contiue unabated in Her Majesty's Realm.