MRC and Freedom of Information: 2
For some considerable time, Ian McLachlan has been engaged in correspondence with the MRC. Here is an update on Mr McLachlan’s most recent correspondence.
Paper letter from
Dated 20 September 2007
Case Reference: FS50074593
Dear Mr Battersby,
Thank you for your letter dated 14 September 2007. I think it a very good idea to also seek the
views of the researchers whose applications were unsuccessful. If obtaining funding for biomedical
research in the area of ME is causing the researchers such problems that I, and other sufferers are
being led to believe, then there should be no excuse for them not to be prepared to stick their
heads above the parapet and give their agreement. However, I am a little concerned that you may
place too much emphasis on their replies rather than reaching an objective decision based solely
on a fair and reasonable interpretation of the act. I do hope researchers when contacted will give
an honest opinion as to what their views really are, but my worry is, that as they are known to be
very conservative group of people, they may feel they are placed between a rock and a hard place
by being asked to give consent that may be put them at odds with the MRC’s preferred policy.
They may well take the view that being seen openly doing so could have serious ramifications on
any future applications, whether in the field of ME research or otherwise. It may be that they prefer
any decision reached was done so independently of them.
My main concern is whether once the MRC have consulted, and you know the outcome and are
ready to proceed to a formal decision, will that decision then set a precedent for any future requests
to the MRC; and will you look to make other recommendations to the MRC in order to ensure
that other people do not have to go via your office for a similar decision? I am thinking in particular
your point regarding information that could be commercially sensitive. Would you for example look
to recommend a change be made in which researchers when first making contact with the MRC
will be asked how they want their applications to be treated? I understand your concern that
proposed areas of research could be placed in the public domain to the applicants’ detriment, but
at the same time I am concerned that this reason alone could be used as a way of ensuring the public
are never able to use the act. Particularly as there is a possibility that they could be funding commercial
research, which might in effect, be research that when finished and drug trials have been concluded,
may result in developed drugs being too expensive for the NHS to fund. I feel it important that the
public should be able to know within a reasonable time frame why a decision was taken to fund a
particular type of research and what the thinking was behind that decision.
I do understand there are various arguments for and against the use of the FOI act in this area, but
I have felt from the outset that the MRC were not willing to be flexible and make compromises to
embrace the act in the way that I feel a public body should. All I am really asking is that you will
make fair recommendations, and reach a decision, which is also based on common sense and can
serve not only the public’s interest in the best way possible, but also balances the needs of the
research scientists. I firmly feel that advancement of science should be free from political influences
and the public have to be confident that it is, especially when taking into consideration the current
drive to involve them in issues such as their health and climate change. I hope you agree with me
and I look forward to knowing how you decide to proceed with this.
Paper letter from:
Information Commissioner’s Office
Promoting public access to official information and protecting your personal information
Mr I McLachlan
Dated 27 September 2007
Case Reference Number FS50074593
Dear Mr McLachlan
Thank you for your letter of 20 September 2007. With regard to your concerns about
undue weight being given to the views of the researchers who are being consulted by
the MRC in relation to whether information about their applications should be
disclosed, I should emphasise that even if they do not consent to disclosure, the
exemptions being applied by the MRC require a public interest test to be carried out.
As part of this test the researchers’ unwillingness to agree to disclosure would have to
be weighed against broader public interests which favour disclosure, including some
of the arguments that you have presented to us.
In relation to the other points you made in your letter, the formal decision notices that
are served at the end of an investigation tend to only address the issue-of whether a
public authority has correctly applied exemptions under the Freedom of Information
Act in withholding information. They do not generally go on to make recommendations
about how public authorities should deal with requests in future. However, if it became
apparent that a particular public authority had not taken on board elements of good
practice that it should have done following the serving of a notice, the Commissioner
would obviously consider whether it was appropriate to take further action.
Following the discussions we have had with the MRC, I think it is very likely that it will
review the way that it handles FOI requests that it receives. I think it is now aware of
the need to consult with parties who have a direct interest in particular requests, such
as the researchers in this case before reaching a decision. In addition, one of the main
points that came from the discussions was the need for public authorities to ensure that
they look at each request individually, make a decision based on the facts relevant to
that request and avoid the temptation to adopt any form of blanket approach to dealing
with particular types of requests.
I will obviously keep you informed of further progress with your complaint but, if you
have any queries in the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact me.