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‘Like nailing jelly to a wall’

Peter Gillson | Published:

NEXT WEEK the States will be asked to approve speed limit changes.

E&I president Barry Brehaut. (Picture by Adrian Miller, 23937371)

Although the committee approved these changes back in September, the Assembly has to approve the changes to the law, one of the ‘checks and balances’ of our system.

I am not going to rehash the whole issue of whether or not the limits should be changed, there will be enough debate in the States. It is opportune to just review how effective the freedom of information rules were.

A quick reminder of what happened:

Part of the PR exercise when the committee opened consultation was for Deputy Brehaut to appear on the BBC saying that they had masses of data supporting the changes; ‘…has been quite a colossal piece of work to go over every road… each road proposed, the staff have spent time there measuring speeds to give us the average speed, the speed of the average driver and the top end speeds… that is in the documentation which was presented to us at a political level…’

Being an inquisitive soul, I made a formal request for that information.

The questions I asked were:

1a – a copy of the report(s) provided to the committee upon which the committee based its proposals. The report(s) to have names of civil servants and their advice or opinions redacted so that the information provided does not fall within exemption 2.4 (2.4 internal discussion and policy advice).

1b – If the above request is refused, a copy of the raw data collected by staff used to inform their report to the committee.

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2 – In relation to request 1a above, an indication of the quantum of the data, that is, the volume of traffic measured in order to establish the averages Deputy Brehaut referred to.

3 – Copy of the evidence presented to the committee that the reduction in speed limits from 35mph to 25mph will improve road safety and reduce accidents.

The freedom of information rules provide a guideline of 20 working days for the information to be provided – an email arrived at 6.15pm on day 20.

As expected the reports were not provided, apparently there were many and it would have taken too long to redact them. However they did provide a mass of data.

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Since this is a States of evidence-based decision-making, it’s is a shame that, as I explained in a previous column, that data does not support the need to reduce speed limits.

Their reply ignored two of my questions, so the next day I emailed asking for my questions to be answered, as well as some clarification of the reply I had received. A week later my inbox received the reply.

Regarding my second question, the quantum of data – more than 500,000 vehicle movements measured over the past eight years.

When it came, the answer to my question about what evidence they had to support reductions from 35mph to 25mph was a little less clear.

The reply noted that the decision notice was being developed and it would ‘…clearly set out the evidence…’

To be fair, I know the pressure staff were under, so referring to a soon-to-be-published document is a reasonable reply.

Reasonable, except that the decision notice does not actually contain specific evidence that reducing limits from 35mph to 25mph will improve road safety and reduce accidents. There is reference to the very general, and correct, observation that higher speeds increase the risk of, and injury from, accidents but nothing quantifying the benefits of the specific proposals.

Two points jumped out at me: the argument is so general that it could be used to reduce all speed limits in the island and the contents of the notice actually supported even lower speed limits of 20mph.

Additionally, they did provide a list of nine international reports, described as ‘some of the research’ the committee had access to. These totalled 2,000 pages and, not surprisingly, I have not read them all, so do not know how much is duplication. For instance, do later reports use earlier ones as their sources?

I have mixed feeling about being given this list of reports. The one I have read was very interesting, but I would be surprised if staff presented the committee with 2,000 pages to read. Far more likely that the evidence in the reports was presented in a summary form, in which case why was that summary not provided as part of their reply?

My second email also asked for the number of reports the committee considered: a total of four reports between 2017 and 2018.

My final request was not provided on the basis it was considered flippant: how many pages in each of their internal reports? Earlier, they had noted that redacting the reports would be too time-consuming. Far from being flippant, knowing the size of the four reports would have given an idea of just how time-consuming redacting would, or would not, have been.

All in all, this was an interesting foray into using the freedom of information rules, and on balance a little disappointing.

I am left with the feeling of trying to nail jelly to a wall: originally Deputy Brehaut indicated lots of relevant local evidence which does not exist. The emphasis was changed to using more generic research. Two of my three original questions were not answered and just providing a list of external reports left me with the feeling of an attempt to justify by weight of evidence rather than relevance of evidence.

On the positive side: the replies were provided in a timely manner, especially the second email, which took only a week.

Finally, I appreciate all the work the staff did in providing the answers – let’s be honest, they do have better things to do than answer questions from me. But since we do have these freedom of information rules, then committees should take care to ensure they answer the questions actually asked. That would make the process more efficient.

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