Catalonia could better fight corruption with a Freedom of Information Act

Access to public institution information could help citizens and journalists in Catalonia to prevent political corruption and false accounting in public finances in a similar fashion as in the UK.

CNA / Laura Pous

July 6, 2010 10:30 PM

Barcelona (CNA).- Corruption is well at the top of the public agenda in Catalonia these days. However, while tribunals and police keep investigating cases of false accounting in public bodies and institutions and citizens' outrage grows, Catalonia has not even initiated a formal debate on whether to introduce Freedom of Information legislation. Only timid voices such as the Antifraud Office and the Minister for Home Affairs, Joan Saura, have suggested the possibility of changing the law in Catalonia. As the journalist who disclosed the expenses scandal in the UK said, if the UK was already late in passing the legislation in 2000, Catalonia "is even later".

“Having a Freedom of Information Act probably gives more power to the journalists and the public. This allows them to receive information that swings the power balance slightly away from the politicians and the establishment towards people trying to investigate and hold those in power into account”, said Ben Leapman, chief editor of the Sunday Telegraph and the journalist who disclosed the expenses scandal in the UK.
However, in Catalonia, neither journalists nor citizens can ask for details regarding politicians’ expenses, as Leapman and two other correspondents did back in 2005. In fact, even if the British Parliament was initially reluctant to publish the expenses, a jury ruled that the public had a right to know how much money was being spent. “There is a presumption in favour of the information being made public”, says Steve Wood, Head of Policy Delivery at the UK Information Commissioner’s Office. This is not the case in Catalonia.
Although the parliamentary expenses scandal in the UK was finally made public through a leak to the media, it was a Freedom of Information requirement that initiated what was called to be the worst political scandal in recent British politics. Without such a law, argues Leapman, politicians would probably not have changed the rules. “This is one example in which the right to know can elevate an issue of public importance that generates the pressure to get something changed that would not otherwise have been changed”, he said.
The expenses scandal was huge in the UK, although most of the politicians did not break the rules – they only 'abused' the system. Dozens of MPs had to step down, and even Ministers resigned because of their expenses. The level of public outrage was bigger, though, than what has been seen in Catalonia and Spain, where important political scandals involving serious corruption allegations have been discovered by the police. “We are very lucky in this country that, by large, our public servants and politicians do not go into it for the money, they are not corrupt”, said Leapman. “As a result of that, there is a high expectation of politicians; the public expects politicians to maintain a high level of standards. Perhaps standards are higher here than in other countries because we do not have a history of political corruption”, he added.
Leapman rejected the idea that a Freedom of Information Act avoids scandals. “Clearly, it does not prevent scandals nor corruption”, he said. He added: “But it helps to ensure that when there is something going wrong, or a bad decision has been taken, there are more chances of it being uncovered and dealt with”. In Catalonia, where corruption scandals such as the Millet or the Pretòria seem to have been perpetuating during a long period of time, the example of the UK and other Western countries with FOI legislation can be appealing. In fact, the Antifraud Office urged the Catalan Government to prepare a piece of legislation to ensure public access to institutional information. However, only the Minister for Home Affairs, Joan Saura, agreed on the proposals, as the plans seem to not be a priority in the executive agenda.
Steve Wood from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office argued that apart from the political consequences, the expenses scandal in the United Kingdom highlighted the ‘importance’ of having a Freedom of Information Law. “Citizens would be really concerned if someone tried to change the rule now”, said Wood. The Head of Policy Delivery at the ICO, who has visited Barcelona to discuss the implementation of a similar legislation in Catalonia, said that the country was ‘willing’ to promote more transparency but was still in a 'different stage' in comparison with the UK.
Wood explained that the UK deals with around 100,000 FOI requirements every year that affect more than one thousand public bodies and institutions. Despite the critics, who argue that the FOI is too costly, Wood says that the 30 million pounds they spend every year is 'worthy' because “the country is certainly more open and transparent”. Leapman agreed: “There has been a huge change in the whole political culture”. “Public servants now realise that information should not be keep secret and that you should not have to wait for someone to ask for a FOI request. It should be published as a matter of routine”, he added.
“More big organisations are being more open with their finances and their decision-making process and I think that this is good for the public. In a democracy we need all the information we can get in order to decide how to cast our votes”, said Leapman. “Britain itself is coming late, so your legislation in Catalonia is even later”, he concluded.