Helen Martin: Don’t let them keep us in the dark

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THERE are moves afoot in central government and the public sector to clamp down on the Freedom of Information Act. With claims that it costs too much and takes up too much time, suggestions are that that we should have to pay to submit a request or that some requests should be turned down simply because providing the answers would take too long.

But we now live in an age of increasing corruption and decreasing personal responsibility, honour and morality, with FoI one of the few weapons at our disposal to expose wrong-doing. Ludicrously high fat-cat salaries paid wholly or partly by the public purse, out-of-this-world expenses claimed by high-ranking individuals including MPs, mismanagement of the NHS, and the multiple scandals of Police Scotland are just the tip of the iceberg.

We have a right to ask questions about how public servants are spending our money. And we need it now more than ever. It’s no secret that newspapers are in decline, primarily because of the internet. As advertising revenues and sales fall and people turn to free, online sites and social media instead, the number of trained journalists, particularly those experienced in investigation, has plummeted along with the resources to pay for such investigations which can run for weeks, months or even years.

Perhaps we’ve always known politicians lie but that has become an officially accepted fact of life with former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael being let off the hook for telling porkies about Nicola Sturgeon in the lead-up to the election. . . and now pursuing the constituents who brought the case against him for his legal costs. No sign of contrition, no realisation that he shouldn’t have lied and that in doing so he brought the court case on himself – and clearly no glimmer of hope left that we can expect politicians to be honest. As for Tony Blair and Iraq? We may never learn the truth, no matter how much it cost in British lives and money.

Even local authorities are joining calls to limit Freedom of Information which has the potential to expose their shortcomings, albeit their excuse is that FoI is a financial burden they can ill afford in times of austerity. Of course, if they operated an “open book” policy in the first place allowing the public to scrutinise records that didn’t breach confidentiality laws, it wouldn’t cost half as much. It’s because the information we seek is “hidden” and has to be carefully sifted before presentation that it takes time and money to deliver.

Underlying all this is the government and public sector belief that the public have no right to scrutinise and question the way they operate. Try that on the person or people who pay your wages in any other walk of life and you’ll be history.

We want transparency and truth. They want secrecy and power. And as the saying goes, information is power. The Fourth Estate (as journalism was once known) though reduced, is still dedicated to unearthing that information for citizens, as are inquiring individuals with know-how. But with a “degraded” Freedom of Information Act we’ll all have the same rights as a tray of mushrooms – left in the dark under a blanket of muck – before being blindly asked to vote for our masters at election time.

It’s retailers that need the therapy

AMID stores’ angst about flat sales figures, I’m beginning to think they’re not really trying. In North Face in Frederick Street to buy a voucher for £100 as a Christmas gift, Himself was handed a flimsy little till receipt the size of a bus ticket.

It was hardly impressive, definitely not fit for purpose and had all the substance of gossamer.

Could be a genius plan to make sure the customer loses it among all their shopping receipts and the store gets £100 for nothing, or perhaps they don’t want the expense of producing loaded plastic credits or even gift cards and envelopes.

Anyway, with no alternative on offer the transaction was cancelled and they lost the sale. Seems despite their illustrious reputation for outdoor and adventure clothing, they have a bit of a mountain to climb in retail practice.

Blown over by new bin woes

LIGHTWEIGHT wheelie bins were once a great idea allowing residents to pull them out to the roadside for collection . . . until global warming made wild winter winds a regular feature of Edinburgh weather.

One neighbour’s green bin was blown over, scattering the contents across three gardens. I was driving to the supermarket when a brown bin gusted across the road, missing me by inches. And because collection is now done in shifts and often at night, we have to battle through the dark, wind and rain to reclaim our receptacles, including the wee gray and black food bin before it takes off for the Borders, inevitably coming back with someone else’s and causing neighbourly consternation.

At least our blue box is firmly anchored to the ground by the weight of wine bottles. Even a hurricane couldn’t shift it.

We can’t blame the council for climate change but I feel yet another bin rethink coming on.

District plan is on road to ruin

I HOPE the £700 million plans for a new 90-acre district with thousands of homes near Edinburgh Airport includes imaginative transport solutions such as zip wires, helicopters, balloons and high level monorails. The area certainly can’t cope with any more traffic.