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FOI finds out what MP couldn't

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Martin Rosenbaum | 11:38 UK time, Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Freedom of information requests, which anyone can submit, can obtain more information than Parliamentary questions from MPs.

This has just been illustrated by the issue of how much Arts Council England paid the artist Lothar Gotz for his role in the redecoration of its head office in 2008.

House of CommonsWhen the Labour MP Tom Watson put down a Parliamentary question to find this out, he was told [9.6Kb PDF] "this information is commercially sensitive".

This prompted Mr Watson to tweet: "Why should this parliamentary answer be commercially sensitive? ...If it was FOI'd I bet it would be answered."

It turns out that Mr Watson is right. Under freedom of information, the BBC posed the same question to Arts Council England. Yesterday we were informed [29.3Kb PDF] that the sum of money in question is £13,500.

A similar FOI application was also made by Richard Taylor via What Do They Know. However, he altered the wording so as to reduce the risk of the request being rejected on grounds of commercial confidence (whereas the BBC request kept Mr Watson's wording).

As a result Mr Taylor has now discovered that the total sum spent on the redecoration was £116,232, although he was not given the specific amount paid to Lothar Gotz.

Mr Taylor argues that, despite the Cabinet Office guidance on answering similar FOI and Parliamentary questions, this is a further example of previous instances where "What Do They Know beats Parliamentary questions". However, Mr Watson says it is a "scandal" which he will be raising with Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons.

Of course, MPs have the same rights as other citizens to make FOI requests. So is it an advance for democracy when their access to information is no greater than that of the rest of the public? Or is this just a tale of a government department which was trying to obstruct an MP who had what might be an awkward question?

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