Freedom of Information & the Private Sector

Anybody who knows me will know I’ve made a number of FoIA requests over time. It’s a valuable tool and deserves protection from interfering politicians that would prefer to be able to hide anything they would rather people didn’t think about.

Those reading this that also happen to be living in the vicinity of Heathrow will have noticed more aircraft noise over recent months. From Epsom to Bracknell and Ascot the stories often end up being the same: more noise and disruption from aircraft passing overhead or nearby. I’m one such person having to put up with more aircraft, and since I had enough of the noise I tried getting information out of NATS via an FoI request.

Imagine my surprise when I found out NATS weren’t subject to it, despite the fundamental role they play in running our transport infrastructure.

First a little background to the whole matter:

In 2014 Heathrow conducted trials. These trials involved changing the flight paths taken by aircraft going to and from Heathrow. This rather understandably prompted floods of complaints thanks the the huge disruption this caused to anybody living under the new flight paths. The discontent that resulted from the trials helped to bring about an earlier end to them than had originally been planned. The management had obviously not foreseen the furore the trials would cause and were forced to stop them.

The problems didn’t stop with the end of the trials though, since people kept on claiming that there was more noise. Time and time again Heathrow claimed that no changes had been made. The continual denials from Heathrow weren’t particularly believable, since anybody living in the area could tell quite easily that there was a difference. In addition NATS admitted recently to having failed to notify Heathrow of a change to one of the departure routes taken by aircraft when leaving Heathrow (referred to as the Compton route).

Personally speaking I find it difficult to accept that proper procedure has been followed in the case of the Compton route change, and if it has been followed then that raises more questions about the procedures themselves. NATS are forcing planes to fly in a different direction yet somehow according to them this rather confusingly was not a route change. I can understand why they might want to avoid describing it as such, since this would presumably require additional consultation and delay.

This does not, however, necessarily stop it from being a route change.

To make matters worse NATS not only swept the fact that any change had taken place under the metaphorical carpet, but they also made the change during the flight path trial being conducted by Heathrow (how this doesn’t invalidate the entire trial as a result of such ham-fisted behaviour by NATS really is beyond me).

On top of continual [incorrect] denials by Heathrow came the bloody minded refusal by NATS to revert the changes when people started pointing out the impact it was having. Any request to consider going back to the old way of handling this route was welcomed with blanket refusals claiming it was done for reasons of safety (without if I recall correctly mentioning how safety had been improved, what risks had been mitigated or why – if there were such risks – they weren’t dealt with earlier).

In any case I strongly believe that any private sector organisation running services on behalf of the government ought to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This doesn’t apply to just NATS but all private sector organisations providing services to national or local government.

Private sector organisations such as NATS have a vital role to play but it’s equally vital that the public are in a position to know that the responsibilities entrusted to the private sector are being dealt with in an acceptable fashion. This can’t be achieved if said organisations are being run in an opaque way where only vague excuses need be given for decisions without any further consequences or additional oversight taking place.

I have started a petition on the No. 10 website asking for this to be changed. For some reason the confirmation page doesn’t contain the text of the petition (the people running the No. 10 website naively assume that nobody will ever change the text of the email they expect to be forwarded to trick people into sponsoring a petition).

UPDATE: The petition has now gone live, and can be accessed via the link below:

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