Monday, January 30, 2006

Second edition of Your Right to Know

Second edition of YRTK: Call for input: call for comments on Heather Brooke's website
Media update

National News

Daily Telegraph - Queen sacked us over Diana interview, says BBC
"Internal documents obtained by the Sunday Telegraph reveal that BBC bosses were convinced the loss of its exclusive rights to the Queen's Christmas broadcast was directly linked to Martin Bashir's interview with the Princess in 1995."

Regional news

Eastern Daily Press - One in six hospital staff have flu jab
"Just one in six workers at a big Norfolk hospital has had a flu jab this winter. Figures show that 500 staff at the James Paget Hospital, Gorleston, have had the inoculation, out of a total workforce of 3000. The figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, could not be broken down into medical staff and support staff."

The Argus (Sussex) - Councils spend £43m on advisers
"Councils in Sussex have spent a staggering £43 million on consultants in the last two years - almost £55,000 a day. The figure, released to The Argus under the Freedom of Information Act, comes at a time when local authorities are making budget cuts and residents are facing council tax hikes of three times the rate of inflation."

Norwich Evening News - Councils in £8m pay-off to workers
"The Evening News today reveals the huge cash sums councils are coughing up to get rid of staff. A Freedom of Information (FoI) request has highlighted the millions of pounds in taxpayers' money councils are splashing out in redundancy and early retirement payments."

The Citizen (Gloucesterhsire) - HOW POLICE DRUM UP A WAGES BOOST
"Statistics obtained by The Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act show that a total of 23 serving officers have registered earnings outside their police work. And the results make quite interesting reading."

Daily Post (North Wales) - Foot and mouth made millionaire
"THE world's worst FMD epidemic created at least 37 instant millionaires among Britain's farmers. For the first time, the Daily Post can confirm that one was from Wales. Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act revealed that one pedigree cattle breeder pocketed £1.33m when his 336 animals were slaughtered...It follows a year-long FoI inquiry by rural ministry Defra which concluded disclosure of personal details would cause farmers too much distress. A Defra spokesman said: "We recognise there is a real public interest in transparency and accountability in the spending of public money. However, we also need to take into account the fact the foot-and- mouth out-break was a time of great distress for many living in the countryside, and there is strong evidence of ongoing trauma and health problems still affecting those whose livestock were compulsorily slaughtered."

Fife today - AIRCRAFT DETAILS SOUGHT BY MOD
"RAF Leuchars has confirmed it has been asked to supply details of aircraft using the base to the Ministry of Defence....Flight-Lieutenant Keith Wardlaw, the base's corporate communications officer, told the Citizen this week that the request came through the Freedom of Information Act through Strike Command. However, he said records at the base were only kept for three months before being destroyed."


Overseas FoI

BBC news - US plans to 'fight the net' revealed
A newly declassified document gives a fascinating glimpse into the US military's plans for "information operations" - from psychological operations, to attacks on hostile computer networks."

Daily Star (Bangladesh) - Right to information in Bangladesh
"The proposed Right to Information Act, drafted by the Bangladesh Law Commission in 2002, is now lying with the Ministry of Information for scrutiny."

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Local Government Act: new SIs

The following SIs have been passed, closing gaps between local government access to information provisions already in place and the FoIA:

Statutory Instrument 2006 No. 69
The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2006

Statutory Instrument 2006 No. 87
The Relevant Authorities (Standards Committee) (Amendment) Regulations 2006

Statutory Instrument 2006 No. 88
The Local Government (Access to Information) (Variation) Order 2006

background:

The consultation paper from Oct 2004 (PDF)

The Access to Information policy paper 2002 (PDF)
Trial of David Keogh and Leo O'Connor under the Official Secrets Act

The Times yesterday reported that "Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is to apply to the Old Bailey for proceedings against two men under the Official Secrets Act to be held in camera".

Is this an indication that the Government are not yet prepraring to allow any part of memo to become public?

Both men were remanded on bail at a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday (see BBC news). They are next in court on the 25th April.

The Official Secrets Act states: S11(4) Section 8(4) of the [1920 c. 75.] "Official Secrets Act 1920 (exclusion of public from hearing on grounds of national safety) shall have effect as if references to offences under that Act included references to offences under any provision of this Act other than section 8(1), (4) or (5).". A certficate would have to be issued giving reasons.

Similar applications were made by the Government for parts of the David Shayler trial under the Official Secrets Act to be held in camera. (Two were issued one in 2000, the other in 2002). The context was obviously different given Shayler's background as an ex agent - there was a much greater risk of new senstive information coming to light given his extensive inside knowledge and nature of the witnesses involved. Shayler attempted to resist this, as did the press. In this case the detailed evidence supporting the certficate was seen as too damaging, so this was given to the court as a "sensitive schedule". The certficates were accepted by the judge for parts of the trial.


There is now a useful "live" set of pages on Wikipedia on the Trial and the al-Jazeera memo (with the caveat that Wikepedia is an "open editorial" site free to edit by any user)
2005 media figures

Figures below are for the number of stories featuring the phrase "freedom of information act" during 2005

January 2005: 175
February 2005: 264
March 2005: 198
April 2005: 90
May 2005: 90
June 2005: 92
July 2005: 78
August 2005: 82
September 2005: 72
October 2005: 91
November 2005: 86
Decemeber 2005:113

By National newspaper:

Daily Mail: 141
Daily Star: 14
Daily Telegraph: 105
Express: 122
FT: 86
Guardian: 198
Independent: 141
Independent on Sunday: 37
Mail on Sunday: 42
Mirror: 80
News of the World: 35
Observer: 44
People: 8
The Sun: 42
Sunday Express: 36
Sunday Mirror : 13
Sunday Telegraph: 26
Sunday Times: 130
The Times: 178

(taken from the full text index database Lexis Nexis)

The figures showing an "averaging out" of interest in the National press with a fairly steady flow of stories appearing after the early peak and after the realities of using the Act have hit home. The figures for the individual papers show that all have shown some intrest and it is not just confined to the "liberal media" we may have expected.
Act Now Training courses


Most Act Now Seminars are accredited by The Bar Council, The Law Society and (ILEX) The Institute of Legal Executives.

The cost of all Act Now seminars is £199 + vat, which includes lunch, refreshments & workbook.

All Act Now seminars start at 10am and finish 4pm.

All venues are city centre close to transport links.

Act Now Training is running the following courses in February 2006.

February 2006 Seminars:

-2nd Annual Scotland FOI Conference, 7th February 2006, Edinburgh, Thistle Hotel (9.45am – 4.30pm)

Keynote Speaker Kevin Dunion, Scottish Information Commissioner

-NEW: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION Exemptions Workshop, 9th February 2006, London, Selfridge Thistle Hotel

-DATA PROTECTION: From A to Z, 14th February 2006, Edinburgh, Thsitle Hotel

-Freedom of Information: From A to Z, 16th February 2006, London, Selfridge Thistle Hotel

-NEW: Conducting an Information Audit, 20th Manchester 2006, Piccadilly Thistle Hotel

-NEW: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION Exemptions Workshop, 21st February 2006, Belfast, Wellington Park Hotel

-Freedom of Information, Contracts & Commercial Confidentiality, Manchester 23rd February 2006, Piccadilly Thistle Hotel

-NEW: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION Exemptions Workshop, 28th February 2006, Edinburgh, Thistle Hotel

Further details
Media update

National News

The Guardian -MPs link with human rights groups to get facts on rendition
"They are planning to use American laws, including the US freedom of information act, to get Washington to reveal how many CIA flights carrying detainees landed in Britain."

Specialist Press
Computer Weekly- Lords back CW on ID card secrecy
"Repeated refusals by the government to publish the results of Gateway reviews into the ID cards scheme were criticised during a parliamentary debate last week. The Earl of Northesk, a Conservative peer, referred in the debate on ID cards to Computer Weekly's efforts to persuade officials to publish Gateway reviews."

Regional news

Watford Observer - Great demand for Freedom of Information
"ALMOST 400 submissions were made to Hertfordshire Constabulary last year under the new Freedom of Information Act (FOI).Of these, 95 per cent were dealt with within the 20-working day target."

Birmingham Post - Incinerator proposal attacked
"Keith Kondakor, of Nuneaton Friends of the Earth, only discovered the plans when he put in a request under the Freedom of Information Act."

The Argus (Sussex)- Crimewave in hospitals
"Police were called out 2,300 times in one year to deal with crime in Sussex hospitals. Firearms incidents, sexual offences, violence, robbery and drug crimes are detailed in figures obtained by The Argus under the Freedom Of Information Act."

Truro packet -£10,000 paid by mistake?
"Cornwall county councillors, who are paid 50p a mile for driving their own cars to meetings, may be overclaiming thousands of pounds a year more than they are entitled to, a Packet investigation has revealed. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Packet has acquired copies of expenses claim forms submitted by the 82 county councillors over a three-month period last year and these have been analysed by comparing them to AA and RAC mileage data."

Nottingham Evening Post - Whitehall fears as women pickets were dragged away to the cells
"Today the Evening Post starts a four-day series of previously untold stories from the 1984-85 miners' strike. Using the Freedom of Information Act, we have secured Government documents which tell harrowing accounts of what happened during the strike - and how it was viewed by the country's top politicians."
Parliament of Macedonia adopts FOI Law

From the Macedonian Information Agency
"The law exercises the constitutional principle that guarantees free access to data and freedom to receiving and transmitting information.The law also stipulates setting up of a commission in charge of protecting the right of free access to public information."
Two IPF events

All You Need to Know About Exemptions - The Full Story
7th March 2006 (Birmingham), 9th March 2006 (Leeds) & 10th March 2006 (London)
Further details: Julie LeMasurier, 020 8667 8598
http://www.ipf.co.uk/governance/


Focussing on Data Protection - The Way Forward
2nd March 2006 (Edinburgh)
Further details: Julie LeMasurier, 020 8667 8598
http://www.ipf.co.uk/governance

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Constitutional Affairs Committee at the House of Commons today announced an enquiry into: "The operation of the Freedom of Information Act: one year on". Details are the Committee website


Constitutional Affairs Committee
Press notice 13 of session 2005-06
24 January 2006

Announcement of Inquiry

Constitutional Affairs Committee launches an inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information Act: one year on

The Constitutional Affairs Committee has launched an inquiry into ‘The operation of the Freedom of Information Act: one year on’. The inquiry will examine the first year’s experience of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which allows the public to request access to information held by over 100,000 public bodies. It follows the Committee’s earlier report The Freedom of Information Act 2000— progress towards implementation (HC 79-i), published in December 2004.

The Committee will consider the impact so far of the legislation. The inquiry will open with an evidence session with the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and will also seek the views of users of the Act and of representative public authorities.

Launching the inquiry, Committee Chairman Rt Hon Alan Beith MP said:

This is important, ground-breaking legislation. The first year of the FOI Act’s operation has raised a number of issues including the backlog of appeals at the Office of the Information Commissioner, the time it has taken some Departments to answer requests and the Lord Chancellor’s unexpected suggestion of possible fees for requesters. The Committee will consider how well the legislation and the preparations put in place in advance of implementation have operated in practice.

The inquiry’s terms of reference are:

»The role of the Information Commissioner in providing guidance, issuing decisions and participating in Information Tribunals;
»Requesters’ experiences of the first year of FOI implementation;
»Public authorities’ experiences of FOI implementation;
»The role of the DCA in providing central guidance, including the operation of the central government clearing house.

Details of the first oral evidence session are as follows:

Tuesday 14 March, The Wilson Room, Portcullis House
4.15pm
Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner

Details of further evidence sessions, to take place in March and April, will be announced in due course.

Transcripts of the sessions will be available on Reports and Publications page of the Committee’s website: www.parliament.uk/conaffcom/

Call for evidence:
Submissions relating to the terms of reference above are invited from relevant interested parties. These should be sent to the Clerk of the Committee at the address above by Monday 27 February. An electronic version in MS Word or Rich Text format should also be submitted, either by e-mail to conaffcom@parliament.uk or on a disk and this should be accompanied by a letter stating clearly who the submission is from, together with relevant contact details. Submissions should be as brief as possible, and certainly no more than 3,000 words. Paragraphs should be numbered for ease of reference, and it would be helpful to include a brief executive summary. Attention is drawn to the guidance on the submission of evidence which can be found at www.parliament.uk/commons/selcom/witguide.htm

Please note that the Committee is unable to investigate individual cases
Fees article

Professor Al Roberts (Maxwell School of Syracuse University) has published a short article on the fees debate. Available from the UCL Constitution Unit website

His book, Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age, will be published in February

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Request for internal review: Freedom of Information Act request

The response below is my request for internal review related to my request for the "al-Jazeera memo"

---------------------

Dear Mr Balmer,

This letter is in response to the communication received by myself from Nikil Rahti on the 22nd December relating to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 request I made for: “Any memos or notes that record President Bush's discussions with the Prime Minister about the bombing of the al-Jazeera television station in Qatar”.

I request an internal review of the non-disclosure decision relating to the information you state you hold. From this I conclude that you hold a memo or note that records President Bush's discussions with the Prime Minister about the bombing of the al-Jazeera television station in Qatar.

My request for internal review is based on the following arguments:

· Whilst you cite the reasons for using the exemption S27 1(a) “Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice- (a) relations between the United Kingdom and any other State”, the reasons you state are generalised and are class based as opposed to being specifically related to the information I have requested (that you have indicated you hold). The nature of the prejudice that may occur from the release of this information is not clearly defined or explicitly explained.

· The balancing of the public interest weighting is not discussed and explained in enough detail to justify non disclosure, I challenge that the public interest is weighted in favour of disclosure for the following reasons:

o The public has a right to know about the level of involvement of the UK Government in any potential action that would have been in breach of the Geneva Convention and would have involved civilian deaths if the Al-Jazeera offices had been hit by a bomb or a missile. The public interest is further enhanced by the fact that many UK Nationals work for Al-Jazeera. Article 48 of the Geneva Convetion states: “In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives”. The fact that any potential military action against al-Jazeera would have broken International law makes the grounds for the public interest overriding the considerations you set out in your response.

o Guidance note 3 from the Information Commissioner sets out the public interest in “bringing to light information affecting public safety”, I would argue that public safety includes the safety of any journalists working at Al-Jazeera and the potential threat any bombing or missile attack poses to them. The note also states that the public interest should be considered in relation to: “furthering the understanding of and participation in the public debate of issues of the day.”

o Part of the document I request has in part been discussed in the media and possible content alluded to and therefore information is already in the public domain. The content of the memo has been confirmed by a respected source, a Member of Parliament, Peter Kilfolye. It should be noted that guidance from the Department of Constitutional Affairs on the application of exemption S27 states: “Individual requests for information must be considered on their merits but you should take account of what is already in the public domain when assessing prejudice to international relations. The fact that similar or related information is already in the public domain may reduce or negate any potential prejudice” (See DCA website)

o The call to publish in the public interest the documents I have requested has been backed by at least 75 MPs in two Early Day Motions to date, an indication of strong public interest in the issue.

o The response given does not mention or supply evidence that the other State involved in the document (the USA) has been consulted about release and has indicated they do not want the information released.

o There is a public interest in resolving conflicting information available in the public domain: by stating you hold “information relevant” to my request there appears to be a direct conflict between the statement made by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons (Written Answers House of Commons Hansard 12th January 2006 & 28th November 2005: “Adam Price, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, PC: To ask the Prime Minister what information he received on action that the United States Administration proposed to take against the Al-Jazeera television channel. “Tony Blair (Prime Minister) Hansard source: None.) and

o A statement from the US White House calling such claims “outlandish” is also confusing and conflicts with the evidence of the Cabinet Office holding relevant information on the subject.

o If the memo is the record of a joke then the publication of the memo recording that fact will enable the public to understand the context of the reported information in the media.

· The Cabinet Office response to my request makes no attempt to indicate whether the memo could be released in part through the process of redaction to restrict the viewing of any other surrounding information that was not the subject of my request.

I request that any subsequent refusal to disclosure made after the internal review addresses each of the points made above.

I request that you acknowledge this request for internal review within one day of receipt, you supply me with full details as to what your procedures are for internal review under the Freedom of Information 2000 and an estimated date by which I may expect a decision to be communicated to me. At present I expect a decision within 15 days as listed in the complaints procedure on the Cabinet Office website.


Yours sincerely


Steve Wood

-----------------------------

Read the response I received to my original request

last week's background: Al-Jazeera Request | Press Gazette story Newsnight | Downing St denies
DCA mailing list

The DCA are offering an email subscription service for those wanting updates on information rights:

"If you want to be kept informed about our work on information rights, please subscribe to our information rights updates mailing list. We will use the mailing list to let you know when this site is updated, and pass on our ‘latest news’ about Freedom of Information and Data Protection. Your details will not be used for any other purposes without your express consent."

Monday, January 23, 2006

2005 Monitoring report

Oxford City Council have produced a succinct and useful 2005 monitoring report that overviews the application of the FOIA in 2005 at the Council. As there is no overall coordination of local government figures or mandated collection requirements this is a useful overview that other local authorities might want to consider as a template. The stats will be useful in way of comparison with the central government stats that are collected and available.
EU Re-use of Public Sector Information Directive

I know many of you working in the public sector are dealing with the above regulations alongside FOI.

The PSI Progress Report 1/2006 may be of interest. Figures quoted state:

This situation is reflected within the UK where the number of public sector bodies that mention the PSI Directive or its national implementation PSI Regulations 2005 SI 1515 on their web sites has yet to reach the critical mass where the Re-use of PSI becomes effective as the current statistics show:

Local government = 55
Central government = 13
Scotland = 3
National Health Service = 17

If you are new to the Regs: see the OPSI website for more information
Parliamentary update

Highlights of some recent PQs and debates that are relevant to FOI:

16 January 2006
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green, LDem) Hansard source
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in relation to the national DNA database (a) he has received and (b) have been successful; and if he will make a statement.

Charles Clarke (Home Secretary) Hansard source
holding answer 6 December 2006
The Home Office has received one request for information under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 concerning the national DMA database. In responding to the request; information was released setting out who was operating the national DMA database, additional funding budget, and the number of suspect offender profiles stored. It also set out the powers that the police were given under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to take, without consent, a non-intimate DMA sample. However, further information on how policy officials determined the guidelines on how a national DMA database would operate was withheld under Section 35(1 )(a) of the Freedom of information Act 2000 as it would stifle future debate and damage the quality of advice provided.

12 January 2006
Business of the House

David Heath
Finally, may we have a debate on the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000? The Prime Minister was reported to have said over Christmas that that legislation was the worst thing that the Government have done. Does the Leader of the House agree with that assessment, or does he believe instead that it was a very important Act that should not be subverted, either by new charging systems or further restrictions on the application of information—or is that something that he cannot tell me?

Geoff Hoone
I am very pleased with reports of the success of the freedom of information legislation, which gives people opportunities to secure information in a way that was not possible previously. I am only slightly disappointed that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome did not congratulate the Government on their efforts in that respect

13 Decemeber 2005

Peter Soulsby (Leicester South, Lab) Hansard source
To ask the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs what assessment she has made of the response of local authorities to applications under the Freedom of Information Act 2000; and if she will make a statement

Harriet Harman (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs) Hansard source
My Department does not formally monitor local authorities' performance in responding to applications under the Freedom of Information Act, to avoid imposing an administrative burden. However, the impression from independent surveys is that under the Freedom of Information Act the public are accessing a huge amount of new information.

12 December 2005
Peter Law (Blaenau Gwent, Ind) Hansard source
To ask the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs what assessment she has made of the adequacy of resources made available to the Information Commissioner to carry out his responsibilities; and what discussions she has had with the Information Commissioner on ways to speed up the processing of Freedom of Information Act appeals made to his office.

Harriet Harman (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs) Hansard source
The Secretary of State is in regular dialogue with the Information Commissioner about his responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner has analysed his current workload and concluded that the high volume of appeals that he is processing at present are a result of the initial influx of requests that public authorities experienced in the first few months of FOI implementation

28 November 2005
Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire, Con) Hansard source
To ask the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs pursuant to the answer of 13 October 2005, Official Report, column 593W, on the Freedom of Information Act, what guidance has been produced on the status of non-judicial inquiries not established under the Inquiries Act 2005 as public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Harriet Harman (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs) Hansard source

My Department has not produced specific guidance on the status of non-judicial inquiries not established under the Inquiries Act as public authorities under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

My Department has produced general guidance on coverage of the Act, which is publicly available on our website. It is not possible to produce specific guidance on the coverage of non-judicial inquiries not established under the Inquiries Act as they will be established in a number of different ways.

It is possible that most non-judicial inquiries will not be public authorities or part of other public authorities and so not covered by the Act. However, once an inquiry has been completed, its records are generally held by a public authority, such as a Government Department or the National Archives and become subject to the Act.

28 November 2005
Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South, LDem) Hansard source
To ask the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs pursuant to the answer of 24 October 2005, Official Report, column 6W, what the (a) statutory and (b) other basis is for the 100-year census closure policy.

Harriet Harman (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs) Hansard source
Requests to view information contained in the 1911 census returns are considered under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. So far it has not been possible to grant any requests received because they have all been covered by the S.41 exemption relating to breach of confidence.

The Government believe that a closure period of 100 years strikes the correct balance between the right of citizens to have information about themselves kept confidential and the rights of family historians and other researchers to have access to that information.

Since 1981 explicit assurances have been given on census forms that the returns will be kept confidential for 100 years. Opening the 1911 census before 100 years have elapsed could undermine public confidence in those assurances.

23 November 2005
Norman Baker (Lewes, LDem) Hansard source
To ask the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs how many contracts were signed by her Department in (a) 2005–06 to date and (b) 2004–05 for direct mail; and what the value was in each case.

Harriet Harman (Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs) Hansard source

My Department commissioned the following direct mailings detailed as follows. Information about newsletters is not held centrally; to collate that information would be disproportionate to cost.

Leaflets and posters sent to FOI Officers in public authorities, solicitors, Advice Centres, Jobcentres, GP surgeries etc. to raise awareness among staff of new responsibilities as a result of introduction of Freedom of Information Act £86,628.51

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These are some of the selected highlights, read more at the (great!) website: They Work for You.com
Ireland: report published on Review of Non-Disclosure Provisions

Taken from the Irish ICO website:

December 2005 Report to Joint Oireachteas Committee on Finance and the Public Service
Report of the Information Commissioner to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service for the purpose of Review of Non-Disclosure Provisions in accordance with The Freedom of Information Act, 1997 [section 32]

Section 32 of the Freedom of Information Act, 1997 (FOI Act) provides for refusal of access to certain records whose disclosure is prohibited, or non-disclosure authorised, by other enactments. This is a very important provision because, essentially, it subordinates the access provisions of the FOI Act to all non-disclosure provisions in statute except for those which are contained in the Third Schedule to the FOI Act.

Each Minister of the Government has provided a report to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service on the enactments, within their respective areas of remit, which contain provisions authorising, or requiring, the non-disclosure of particular records. In accordance with section 32(4) of the FOI Act, each Minister has provided me with a copy of that report. Pursuant to section 32(5) of the FOI Act, I now present my opinions and conclusions relating to those reports. Where appropriate, I include my views on matters associated with the reports and on the general operation of section 32.
Application of national freedom of information laws to the activities of international institutions

freedominfo.org IFTI Watch Update, January 20, 2006

Mexico Sets Precedent for Using National-Level Access Law
To Open Activities of International Financial Institutions

January 20, 2006 - Issa Luna Pla of the Mexican non-governmental organization LIMAC reports for freedominfo.org's IFTI Watch that Mexico this week established a landmark precedent for the application of national freedom of information laws to the activities of international institutions. On January 16, 2006, the Mexican National Bank of Public Works and Services released documents as ordered by the Mexican information commission last November, related to a $108 million World Bank loan to the state of Guanajuato, Mexico.

The November 16, 2005 decision by the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information (IFAI) sets a legal precedent and frees up new material about a major project to reform the water systems, the highways and the housing infrastructure in Guanajuato - the home state of Mexican President Vicente Fox, and neither the poorest Mexican state, nor one affected by emergencies and conflict. The newly released documents are currently being analyzed by Mexican NGOs.
Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Freedom of Information Act

Another example of a public body that will needs to be considered for addition under the Act.

Taken from the Spy UK Blog:
"We have had a reply from The Assistant Private Secretary to the Interception of Communications Commissioner regarding our Freedom of Information Act request regarding the "Wilson Doctrine" administrative exemption of Members of Parliament to telephone interception. The letter claims that "your request cannot be acted on" since the Interception of Communications Commissioner is not a "public authority" under the Freedom of Information Act."
Decision Notice

Case Ref: FAC0069504
Date: 05/01/06
Public Authority: Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO)
Summary: In January 2005 the complainant requested the names and nationalities of foreign diplomats alleged to have committed serious offences over the previous five years (the FCO had earlier provided the numbers and types of offences). The complainant later withdrew his request for the names of the individuals concerned. The FCO refused to name the countries involved citing the exemption provided by section 27(1) (disclosure of information and another State). The FCO argued that to provide the nationalities of alleged offenders would damage relations between the UK and the countries concerned and could affect their future willingness to cooperate in dealing with such individuals in the future. The FCO said that, unlike minor offences such as parking fines, the expectation of foreign missions was that information about serious crimes which has not been proven would not be published. The Commissioner accepted that section 27(1) was correctly applied to the information sought and that the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighed the public interest in disclosing the information. However, the Commissioner invited the FCO to review its pre-Freedom of Information policy on the disclosure of such information.
Section of Act/EIR & Findings: FOI s 27(1) - Complaint Not Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FAC0069504
Press Release - ICO

Press release from the Information Commissioner's Office
Freedom of Information – One Year on
"A year after the Freedom of Information Act came into force, the majority of public authorities say that the Act is beneficial and is helping to create a culture of greater openness in the public sector. The findings come from a survey carried out among 500 public authorities by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as part of its review of the first year of the Act. Increased openness and transparency, better records management, improved accountability and improved relationships with the public were all highlighted in the survey as benefits of the Act. Three out of five respondents said that their organisation released more information to the public as a result of the Freedom of Information Act."

Read the full press release (PDF)

The ICO have also released: Freedom of Information Disclosures Media Coverage Snapshot: October 2005
"The following pages provide a snapshot of the media coverage generated by the Freedom of Information Act in October 2005, illustrating the breadth and volume of information being released. It has been divided into categories for ease of access."
Download (PDF)
Media roundup

National news

Accountancy Age - NHS financial crisis: 81 investigated organisations revealed
"Names of health trusts obtained under Freedom of Information Act listed. As concerns deepen over the financial crisis within the NHS, Accountancy Age reveals the 81 Trusts and health authorities that were investigated by KPMG's turnaround teams in December."


The Guardian - Next generation of nuclear reactors may be fast tracked
"Documents obtained under freedom of information laws show that British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) wants to restrict the scope of local planning inquiries. Instead it proposes effectively discussing issues such as safety, security and environmental impact behind closed doors."

BBC news - School results kept out of tables
The government is refusing to give schools' English and maths GCSE results to the news media, to prevent their publication in the "league tables". Official tables due out on Thursday will be accompanied by information on English and maths GCSEs - ministers' new benchmark for school attainment.

The Mirror - £60MILLION FOR SICK COPS
"More than 250,000 working days were lost due to stress-related illnesses. Around 1,000 officers a day were signed off - although half blamed stress at home and not work. The figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed counselling helped officers get back to work."


Observer - BBC boss's £21,000 expenses
"He may earn more than £500,000 a year as the director-general of the BBC but it appears Mark Thompson still likes to look after the pennies. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the BBC released details of Thompson's expense claims for the past year. Totalling more than £21,000, they will no doubt be scrutinised by the corporation's 28,000 employees, one in seven of them facing the axe in cost-cutting ordered by their director-general."

Computer Weekly - Police to store number-plate data for at least two years

Regional news

Grimsby Telegraph - PERSISTENT TRUANTS FACE CLAMPDOWN
"In September, schools minister Jacqui Smith announced plans to clamp down on an estimated 8,000 persistent truants. The names of the schools - Matthew Humberstone School, The Immingham School and Hereford Technology School - were released this week after a request to the DfES under the Freedom of Information Act."

Oxford Student - Police called to colleges 350 times in 2004
"Police were called to Oxford colleges on 343 occasions last year, The Oxford Student can reveal. Last month Ian Bartlett was sentenced to 5 years in prison, after being convicted of burgling 20 Oxford colleges. Documents released to The Oxford Student under the Freedom of Information Act reveal all the incidents to which Thames Valley Police officers were called in the past twelve months."

Birmingham Post
- Council bill for rail facts is £9,000
"So many first class rail tickets were issued to officials and councillors last year by Birmingham City Council that the local authority is insisting on a £9,000 administration fee before disclosing its extensive travel arrangements."
Western Mail - Let's see fines for poor information

Bath Chronicle - COUNCIL JUSTIFIES THE PURCHASE OF ITS NEW LAPTOP COMPUTERS
"Mendip councillors have justified the £100,000 of taxpayers' money paid out for new laptops. The district council has spent £2,000 each on 47 computers which it says is a priority to bring up-to-date email and internet access to the fingertips of councillors...But under the Freedom of Information Act, it was revealed that ten out of the 46 Mendip councillors were refused a laptop."

Overseas FOI

Staroek News - The Guyana Freedom of Information Bill: a crucial opportunity to entrench good governance

Irish Examiner - Health and Safety exemption is a blow to your basic right to know
"Last autumn someone rang the office of Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly and asked staff there why investigations by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) were no longer covered by the Freedom of Information Act. The enquirer was met with by a stone-faced response - the information commissioner’s office was unaware that this change had happened."

Al-Jazeera - US troop numbers under pressure
"Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that the number of enlisted personnel leaving the military each year since US President George Bush launched his war on terror has increased from 8.7% in 2002 to 10.5% last year."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Text of FOI request made on behalf of Al-Jazeera

I have a copy available for download of the FOI request made by the law firm working on behalf on of Al-Jazeera that followed up on my orginal request and tried to take a different slant in trying to narrow the request down and make a public interest case with the application. I understand that Downing St have so far issued a formal acknowldegement to the request but not have replied formally (apart from the comments made at the press conference this week). It will be interesting to compare the responses.

Download the request (PDF)
Al Jazeera lodges FoI request to see if Bush planned to bomb its HQ

this story is taken from today's Press Gazette, it gives more detail about the different approach to the request and does reference my request:

"Lawyers for Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera have submitted a Freedom of Information request asking the Government to publish the conversation between Tony Blair and George Bush in which the American president is alleged to have talked of his plan to bomb the station's headquarters.

The FoI request has been made on behalf of the station and a number of its staff, including managing director Wadah Khanfar, by law firm Finers Stephens Innocent. It states that its applicants were not only the company, but "individuals whose very right to life is at stake"


Read the full story

Will post more soon

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Further log discolsure log:

Association for London Government
New disclosure logs

Index now updated with new logs for:

-Surrey Police

-HM Revenue and Customs

-New College Durham

-Sport England

(Thanks to Stephen for sending these)
Newsnight

Further to my previous post, it appears that Newsnight on BBC 2 discussed the memo on Monday night and discussed the new request and quoted my original request.

There is also a full transcript and audio file and other interesting discussion on the Blairwatch website.
Al-Jazeera Memo

The issue of FOI and the Al-Jazeera memo seems to have finally come out in the open. Other than the blogging community my request made in November had picked up little interest. It seems as though Al-Jazeera have made a request (perhaps phrased differently), following on from the one that I made late last year. They qoute my request on their "Don't Bomb" blog.

I received a response just before Xmas (right on the 20 deadline), the Cabinet Office confirmed that they held information that was relevant to my request but witheld under exemption 27(1)(a). I am currently formulating a detailed response for internal review.

The text below is taken from the Downing Street website:

Asked how Downing Street intended to respond to a request from legal representatives for the Al-Jazeera news network for transcripts or notes of a conversation between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that we would reply properly to any request made to us, however it was not the practice, and nor would it become the practice for Downing Street to release conversations between the Prime Minister and other world leaders, be they President Bush or anyone else.

We could however confirm, as we said yesterday, that the memo did not refer to bombing the Al-Jazeera television station in Qatar, despite various allegations to the contrary. Asked if it referred to bombing Al-Jaezeera stations elsewhere, the PMOS said that he was not aware of any suggestion of bombing any Al-Jazeera building. Asked if the memo referred to Fallujah, the PMOS said that whilst there was a specific issue with regards to Al-Jazeera, he would not get into speculation about the detail of the memo. Asked if, given that he had given some information about the memo, he was now obliged to divulge the entire memo under the Freedom of Information Act, the PMOS said no.

We were commenting on a specific allegation which had been made repeatedly, despite firm denials from the Government, and it was right to clarify that. However it would be wholly wrong to release details of private conversations between the Prime Minister and other world leaders. Asked when we would reply, the PMOS said that we replied to FOI requests within 20 working days.


Also see the BBC news report

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

BBC News

I have written a (brief) overview of 2005 in terms of FOI, which was published on the BBC news website yesterday. I have a more detailed academic article in the pipeline.
German FOIA

UCL Consitution Unit have published two translated German articles on their website. The German legislation came into force in January of this year.

-Der Spiegel magazine article (PDF)

-Süddeutsche newspaper article(PDF)

(thanks to Craig for the info)

-Background on the German FOIA, including full text of the Act in English

Monday, January 16, 2006

1911 Census debate

The Campaign for the release of the 1911 census rolls on, see website of the pressure group "The UK Centre for Census Access Studies"
"...has recently discovered that, in August 2004, the Information Commissioner’s Office advised the National Archives that “the Commissioner might experience considerable difficulty in agreeing that the release (of the 1911 census) could be delayed until 2011 in the event of a request under Section 1 of the (FOI) Act.” Nevertheless, for reasons that are not obvious, the Commissioner has not yet published his decisions on requests about this matter which he received in May 2005 – 8 months ago."

There is an early day motion , currently signed by 36 MPs
"That this House notes that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 repealed the 100-year closure period for decennial census records, but that, nevertheless, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the National Archives assert that it is Government policy that the 1911 Census shall remain closed to inspection for 100 years; and urges the Information Commissioner to take an early opportunity to publish his advice on this matter."

See the Parliamentary background at "They work for you.com"

The issue is complex - as it relates to a duty of confidentiality to those still alive in 2006 who were recorded when the Census was taken in 1911 and I suspect practical issues of resourcing the availabilty of the census that will attract a huge amount of interest. There is a strong argument that the duty may not be "actionable" given the time delay and the likelihood no one may be living at the addresses now and there would still be a consideration of public interest. Though it is understandable that the Government are proceeding cautiously given that the duty given on a census form is an important guarantee for public confidence in the system. Any ICO decisions will be interesting.
Derby City Council log

A new log has been added to the index for Derby City Council
Media roundup

National News

BBC news - Man's vigil at wrong hospital bed
"A series of errors led to a man holding vigil at the bedside of a woman he wrongly believed to be his sick mother."

The Guardian - Heseltine demands fresh inquiry into Westland affair
"Lord Heseltine today demanded a fresh investigation into the Westland affair and the release of paperwork relating to the crisis under the Freedom of Information Act."

Press Gazette - Too much freedom to block FoI requests is hampering progress
"By Maurice FrankelDuring more than 20 years of campaigning for a Freedom of Information Act, two questions repeatedly nagged me. The obvious one: would Britain ever get an FoI Act? And the more troubling one: if we did, would it be worth having? Well, the act is now here and, despite some problems, it is certainly working."

Daily Telegraph - Fears over loss of vital information
"Plans to charge for Freedom of Information requests are worrying organisations on small budgets, reports Roland Gribben."

Daily Telegraph - Tories demand inquiry into Prescott's £57,000 handout for second home
"Ms Spelman will launch a fresh attempt this week to uncover more information by tabling a series of parliamentary questions and requests under the Freedom of Information Act."

The Independent - Blair sets out to sell his nuclear power policy to the public
"Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that officials in the nuclear power industry want ministers to reduce public scrutiny on planning applications in order to keep down costs and secure the support of investors."

Computer Weekly - Outsourcing: keeping divorce private
"Public outsourcing failures could be laid bare by FOI, says Renzo Marchini."
International

India - Delhi newsline- Clerk booked for Rs 500 RTI bribe
"In probably the first incident of its kind since the Right to Information Act came into force here, a lower-division clerk in the office of the Commissioner of Industries was nabbed by the CBI for seeking a Rs 500 bribe to process an RTI application."

Ireland online - Govt accused over 'culture of secrecy'
"The Government has created a culture of secrecy within public bodies by repeatedly trying to gag the Freedom of Information Act, it was claimed today. The Labour Party, which introduced the legislation in the mid-1990s, vowed to extend its powers if elected into office."

Local News

Belfast Telegraph - Findings of confidential probe into loans firm to be revealed
"The long-awaited findings from an investigation into an Ulster company are to be examined at a Parliamentary hearing next month, it can be revealed today....Invest NI's refusal to publish the PwC report is currently the subject of a Belfast Telegraph complaint to the UK's Information Commissioner, the overseer of the workings of the Freedom of Information Act."

Hastings Observer - Hospital Trust refuses to divulge ex-chief's pay-off
"The news comes after the Observer demanded the information be made public by lodging a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act. But after a two-month delay the hospital Trust refused the request."


Serious about news (Bedfordshire)-US agencies hold Yarl's Wood files
"ONE HUNDRED documents on Yarl's Wood are held by American intelligence agencies. Requests were made by Bedfordshire on Sunday in November 2004 for their release under the American Freedom of Information Act."

Yorkshire - Prime Minister attacked over secrecy in supertram affair
"The Prime Minister's officials rejected a request for details from the Yorkshire Post, under freedom of information rules, claiming it could have a "detrimental effect" on the development of policies. They confirmed they held relevant information and that there was a public interest in releasing it, but insisted it was outweighed by the Prime Minister being able to have a "free and frank forum" which might otherwise be limited."

Eastern Daily Press - Yarmouth holidaymakers: the facts
"We all know that Yarmouth attracts a certain type of visitor but figures supplied under the Freedom of Information act now paint the most accurate picture yet of tourism in the town. TOM SMITHARD investigates."

Sheffield Star - 'Alley gates' blamed for increase in crime
"A DONCASTER protester has claimed the alley gates are to blame for a 33 per cent increase in crime figures in part of the borough. But Lawrence Parramore's campaign has been slammed by his neighbours in Nether Hall, who support the gates and fear his activities may delay their installation in other areas. He obtained statistics from South Yorkshire Police under the Freedom of Information Act, which show total offences in Balby jumped from 2,408 in 2003-4 to 3,239 in 2004-5."


Workington Times and Star
- Councillors wants news on future of Dump
"A group of parish councils forming the Derwent Forest Parish Council Liaison Committee wrote to the Northwest Development Agency demanding information under the Freedom of Information Act but were told that most of the information was commercially sensitive so did not have to be disclosed."

EU

EU Observer - EU ministers to open their meetings to public
"The EU Council, the member states' decision-making body, has decided to open its doors to parts of its meetings, in a move that has been termed by the European Commission as crucial in regaining the trust of Europe's citizen."


al-Jazeera Memo

The Guardian - Labour MPs leaked Bush's proposal to bomb al-Jazeera
"Two Labour MPs have defied the Official Secrets Act by passing on the key contents of the British document revealing that President George Bush wanted to bomb the Arabic TV station, al-Jazeera."

New York Times - Britons Face Trial Over Claim Bush Spoke of Attacking Arab TV
"A British civil servant and a former researcher appeared in court today in the latest chapter of an unfolding legal battle over claims that President Bush proposed bombing the Arabic language Al Jazeera television station."

Liverpool Daily Post - Kilfoyle may face jail over Bush bomb threat leak
"LIVERPOOL MP Peter Kilfoyle could be jailed for two years after admitting passing on secret details of George Bush's threat to bomb al-Jaazeera TV station....Mr Kilfoyle said: "I believed the document should be made public because it is a matter of national interest. It does not imperil anybody and it reveals the kind of person we are dealing with."

Friday, January 13, 2006

Kevin Dunion interview

Kevin Dunion, the Socttish Information Commissioner was interviewed on BBC "Newsnight Scotland" on the 11th January context of the Scottish Executive Review. In the course of the interview Kevin talked about fees, volume of requests from journalists, vexatious requests and his ruling in the mortality data case.

Find on the BBC website:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/ then open the 'BBC Scotland News Player' under 'News' on the left. Once the News Player opens scroll down through the programmes on the right. Newsnight Scotland is the 6th programme down.

(thanks to Katherine at the CFOI)
Latest decisions - encouraging signs for 2006

First decisions of 2006: the first case (DTI) is interesting as the ICO note:"It is open to question whether the request made on the 12th January 2005 was a valid request under section 1 of the Act as it was not expressed as a request for specific information.However the DTI did not challenge its status.". It also an important cases as it is a sign of the ICO starting to tackle the more complex cases involving public interest issue tests (in this case the S30 exemption -investiagtions and proceedings), in this case the decision states that the public interest was weighted in disclosure. Well worth reading the detailed discussion provided.
The second case is also important as it starts to deal with the issue of redacting civil servants names using S40: "The Commissioner’s decision is that this personal information can be disclosed without contravening any of the principles of the Data Protection Act 1998 and that therefore the exemption provided by section 40 is not engaged." The DFES refusal notice is also critcised for failing to:"explain what weight was given to these interests or what public interest arguments it had considered in favour of maintaining the exemption." This decision is the first time the Commissioner has ruled in favour of disclosure related to exemption 35(1)(a). Formulation of Govt Policy: "The Commissioner’s decision is that, in all the circumstances of this particular case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption does not outweigh the public interest in disclosing the information.....The Commissioner recognises that frank and honest debate is necessary for high quality policy formulation and that there is a public interest, in appropriate situations, in maintaining private space for discussion away from public scrutiny to formulate policy. But this is not to imply that all the records of all discussions relating to the formulation of policy must be kept confidential."

The implications are that for policy formulation, a blanket use of the exemption with generic reasoning is enough to justify disclosure and an assessment must always be made of what information in the actual context of the documents may be released and that detailed balancing the PI test must take place.

Again, well worth reading the full decision in full.

Case Ref: FS50068235
Date: 05/01/06
Public Authority: Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)
Summary: The complainant requested the reason for the investigation of a property management company. The DTI did not challenge whether this was a request for specific information and therefore treated this as a valid request under the FOI Act. The DTI refused to release the information citing the exemption provided by section 30 (1)(b) and 30(2)(i) and (b). Section 30 covers investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities. The DTI argued that disclosure could identify those complaining to it and prejudice its ability to carry out its functions effectively. The Commissioner has agreed that section 30 was applied correctly to the information sought by the complainant, but he has decided that in this particular case, the
public interest test in disclosing the information in outline terms, as
detailed in the Decision Notice, outweighed the public interest in withholding
the information.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.30 - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50068235


Case Ref: FS50074589
Date: 04/01/06
Public Authority: Department for Education and Skills (DfES)
Summary: The request was for minutes of senior management meetings at the DfES relating to the setting of school budgets in England between June 2002 and June 2003. Although some information was provided the majority of the information requested was withheld under section 35(1)(a), on the basis that the information related to the formulation and development of government policy. During the investigation the DfES also claimed that one particular minute related to Ministerial communications and so was exempt under section 35(1)(b) and that the identities of civil servants involved in the meetings were exempt under section 40(2) - personal information. Although the Commissioner accepted that the section 35 did apply to the majority of the information, the exemption could not be maintained in the public interest. Similarly the exemption provided by section 35(1)(b) could not be maintained in the public interest. The Commissioner decided section 40 was not engaged.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.35 - Complaint Upheld; s.40 - Complaint
Upheld.
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50074589

Thursday, January 12, 2006

New tribunal decisions

Two new Tribunal decisions have been published, both dismissed

- Mr E Simmons v The Information Commissioner (Inland Revenue/VO) (appeal dismissed)
- Mr R Bustin v The Information Commissioner (Cornwall CC) (appeal dimissed)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Media update

National news

Daily Mail - Morning-after pill handed to 13-year-olds
"Thousands of 13-year-old girls have been handed the morning-after pill by Health Service staff without their parents' permission, it has emerged.....But the figures - obtained under the Freedom of Information Act - renewed attacks on the strategy."

Western Mail - Labour rebuffs information chief
"THE Assembly Government has turned down a request by the Information Commissioner to disclose legal advice it was given concerning one of Labour's key promises at the last Assembly election. In 2003, Labour's manifesto promised "free breakfasts for all primary school kids", yet Education Minister Jane Davidson later made it clear schools would not be compelled to participate in the scheme."

Daily Record - LOCH NESS MONSTER SAVING LOONY PARTY
"SECRET files have revealed the government made plans to protect the Loch Ness monster from poachers. Officials feared Nessie would have no legal protection from trophy hunters if she surfaced."

Observer - A tragedy of errors
"Using documents and internal emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, unpublished witness transcripts from a 4,000-page inquiry report and internal army briefings, an Observer investigation can reveal for the first time serious allegations which are at odds with official accounts of the episode. They shine fresh light on an incident that still casts a pall over Britain's involvement in Iraq more than 30 months on."

The Times - Letters to the Editor - Freedom of information
Sir, Whitehall is not routinely failing to answer even the most basic requests (report, Jan 4). Figures published by my department show that in the third quarter of 2005 information was disclosed in full in 67 per cent of all requests. Contrary to your article, public authorities are not usually obliged to supply information which already exists in the public domain, and they proactively release information which does not.

The Government has no “secret” plans to amend the Freedom of Information Act. The framework of the Act is working and working well. However, it is right to keep the operation of the Act under regular review. We need to ensure that the benefits the Act was designed to deliver are being delivered, and that public resources are not wasted on frivolous requests such as how many windows a department has.

The Government will work to ensure that Freedom of Information continues to balance the rights of access to information with the needs of public authorities to deliver services effectively. This Government introduced the Freedom of Information Act and we stand by the principles of openness, transparency and accountability that underpin it.

CATHERINE ASHTON
(Baroness Ashton of Upholland)
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State

Local News

Norwich Evening News - We must assess risks of fire HQ
"Controversial plans to move Norfolk's fire control centre to Cambridge will put lives in danger because no local risk assessment has been carried out, a firefighters' union claimed today. The warning came after a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by the Evening News revealed that the Government had not investigated how the proposals to stop handling emergency calls at Hethersett would affect the county."

Carlisle News and Star - Are panthers and pumas on the loose in Cumbria?
"Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show there have been nine reported sightings of big cats in Cumbria in the last six years."

This is North Scotland - AIRPORT DEAL IS BRANDED 'A RIP-OFF'
"Taxpayers could fork out almost six times the true cost of the £6.5million private finance deal which built the Inverness Airport terminal building, according to figures obtained by the Press and Journal. A much-delayed Scottish Executive announcement is now expected within the next fortnight, sealing the public buyout of the construction contract. It has emerged from a Freedom of Information (FoI) inquiry that the inherited cost of the project is likely to be around £35million."

Bath Chronicle - EXECUTIVE COUNCILLORS MAY DO FOUR HOURS' WORK OR 40 HOURS A WEEK FOR THEIR £27,000 ANNUAL ALLOWANCE
"A Key aspect of the popular accountability of elected politicians - whether MPs or councillors - should be full transparency surrounding pay and responsibilities assumed via election. Mindful of this, and being concerned about the level and number of councillor allowances adopted since the Local Government Act 2000, I put freedom of information requests to B &NES Council to elicit (a) pay rates and attendance records of executive councillors and (b) linkages between accountability, responsibilities and pay of the new "champion" councillors."

Surrey Comet - Call for resignations over ‘unjust’ pay rise
"The Christian People's Alliance (CPA) has called for senior councillors to resign in the light of 18 per cent pay rises to top council officers last year. The party said it has, using the Freedom of Information Act, exposed fatal flaws in the Senior Staff Panel's decision to approve the pay increases. It said statistics released to the party revealed 85 per cent of bosses live outside the borough, while the report, which recommended pay increases, cited high property prices in Kingston as a justification."

Westmoreland Gazette - Freedom of Information growing in popularity
"HUNDREDS of people across Cumbria have used their powers under the Freedom of Information Act to quiz their civic leaders. Figures show that in the 12 months since the act came into force, residents asked wide-ranging questions."

Milford and West Wales Mercury - Useful tool, but no magic wand
"IT'S NOW 12 months since the Freedom of Information Act came into effect, but how much difference has it made?"
Public Service Guarantee For Data Handling

An FOI/DP officer has asked me to flag up the Public Service Guarantee For Data Handling produced by the DCA, that some people working in the public sector may not be aware of.

"A public service guarantee for data handling is now available for implementation by public bodies. This sets out people’s rights about how their personal data is handled by public authorities and the standards they can expect public organisations to adhere to. The Guarantee has been accredited by the Plain English Campaign and copies are available to download."

More Details

Monday, January 09, 2006

BBC - have your say

The BBC website is running a discussion on the FOI fees debate. An interesting mix of public officials and the public with some differing views.
Information Law Moves Into Gear in Azerbaijan

Baku today
"Azerbaijan has made a further step towards provision of a basic right of its citizens by enacting a law on the freedom of information.The Law on the Receiving of Information, signed off by the president on Dec. 19, relates to the acquisition of information, responses to enquiries, creation of information databases and others issues regarding the handling, use and release of information about private individuals."
Higher Education FOI survey

Press release
One year on: Higher Education meets the challenges of the public’s ‘right to know’

Survey results show how HE institutions have coped with the first year of the Freedom of Information Act

3rd January 2006. The Higher Education sector has responded both positively and successfully to the first year of the Freedom of Information Act, survey results published to mark the Act’s first anniversary reveal. The survey, a joint initiative by JISC, Universities UK and SCOP (the Standing Conference of Principals), show that the overwhelming majority of the requests being received by institutions are being answered fully, on time and free of charge.



The online survey was carried out between mid-October to mid-November and attracted a response rate of 50% of Universities UK and SCOP members in England & Wales. The results highlight the impact compliance is having on institutions and the resources being diverted to deal with its requirements, with the evidence suggesting that the impact of responding to requests is disproportionate to their quantity.

Over a quarter of those who responded said that an average of four members of staff are actively involved in responding to any one request; whilst for over half the requests recorded it has taken between five and the permitted maximum of twenty working days to complete them, although such figures possibly refer to elapsed time rather than hours of continuous activity. However, the survey found that the most time-consuming aspects of a response procedure included reviewing the information requested, consideration of any possible exemptions to disclosure, and locating specific pieces of information within large and complex organisations.

The survey results also reveal the high numbers of requests that institutions are fielding from the press, with journalists responsible for 45% of those requests where the enquirer could be identified. Perhaps related to this is the fact that matters pertaining to the management and administration of institutions top the list of favourite subject areas.

The results show that there appears to be no significant tailing off of use of the Act following an initial surge of interest, as many had initially predicted. This, compared with a widely reported rise in the number of requests for personal information received under the pre-existing data protection legislation, provides a timely reminder for institutions that the public is becoming increasingly aware of their legal ‘right to know’ and that these rights are here to stay.



Whilst the findings of the survey are a testament to the openness and accountability which has long characterised the HE sector, they also reinforce the need for continued efforts to ensure ongoing compliance. The organisations responsible for the survey have agreed to continue to support the sector with proposals already underway for a joint conference in the Spring focusing on compliance issues.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "This survey shows an impressive speed of response to FOI requests by HEIs despite the fact that the resources to deal with them have largely been found from within existing structures. Despite the inevitable disruption to normal business that FOI requests bring with them, it is clear that HEIs are open and transparent in their business and have made provision to ensure that this continues to be the case."

Dr Malcolm Read, Executive Secretary of JISC, welcomed the survey results, saying: “These results show that while higher education institutions are having to invest significant resources to ensure compliance with the Act, they are also discharging their responsibilities positively and effectively. JISC looks forward to working with partners to provide support for them as they continue to do so.”

full results of the survey

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Scotland: new advice on pseudonyms

From the Scottish ICO:

"As a result of legal advice, the Commissioner has changed his guidance on how public authorities should deal with requests made under a pseudonym. Although the Commissioner previously advised that an applicant could use a pseudonym, updated guidance makes it clear that for an application to be valid, the actual name of the applicant must be used. The Commissioner will not investigate cases where a pseudonym has been used. The Commissioner has prepared a new FAQ for public authorities, suggesting ways of dealing with applications made under a pseudonym."

See the FAQs page.

"Applicants who have made a request under a pseudonym may wish to contact the Commissioner for advice on how to proceed"

The first Scottish 50 decision notices

From the latest newsletter:

"By the end of December the Commissioner will have issued more than 80 decisions. On 21 November, the Commissioner issued his 50th decision notice. Analysis of the first 50 decisions shows that they have covered a wide range of public authorities and a wide range of subjects. The majority of cases decided so far involved central and local government, with 18% of decisions involving the Scottish Executive and its agencies and 60% involving local authorities, from the Western Isles to the Dumfries & Galloway."

"The Commissioner has found in favour of the applicant in 34% of those cases. He has found in favour of the public authorities in 42% of cases and has partially upheld the decision in favour of the applicant in 24% of cases. Where cases have been “partially upheld”, the Commissioner has often found that public authorities were correct to withhold information but that the authorities have failed to comply properly with one of the technical aspects of the freedom of information legislation, e.g. by failing to issue a proper refusal notice or by failing to provide adequate advice or assistance to the applicant."

"Two decisions have been appealed to the Court of Session. The Commissioner has been advised that it is unlikely, however, that the first case appealed will be considered by the Court of Session until November 2006."
Craig Murray publishes documents despite FCO ban

This hasn't got much detailed mainstream media coverage but a lot of bloggers are covering it:

Craig Murray was "Britain's outspoken Ambassador to the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, and helped expose vicious human rights abuses by the
US-funded regime of Islam Karimov"

"The British Foreign Office is now seeking to block publication of Craig Murray's forthcoming book, which documents his time as Ambassador to Uzbekistan. The Foreign Office has demanded that Craig Murray remove all references to two especially damning British government documents, indicating that our government was knowingly receiving information extracted by the Uzbeks through torture, and return every copy that he has in his possession.

Craig Murray is refusing to do this. Instead, the documents are today being published simultaneously on blogs all around the world."

Read his blog posting containing the documents

The Guardian coverage

VNUnet coverage

Some interesting discussion at the Blairwatch website
New fees proposals?

Taken from The Times: Secret pay per view plans for Freedom Act files
"People will have to pay for information about their local schools, hospitals and councils under secret plans being considered by ministers, The Times has learnt."

Also see: FT.com: Anger at freedom of information fees proposal

BBC news - Openness law 'facing fees review'

Ministers may be planning to amend the Fees Regulations by Statutory Instrument without amending the FOIA 2000

Background: DCA guidance on fees

Also see my previous postings on fees relating proposed charges in 2004:

-August 2004 post on minutes of fees working group

-2004 early Day motion

-Proposed charges May 2004

-Further documents from 2004

Plus:

-The Guardian May 2004 - "Treasury accused as cost of information soars"

-Campaign for FOI on proposed charges in 2004

It is hard to comment in detail as these are just rumours at present, but I would caution against any changes to the fees regime too early into the fees regime and would point to the Irish experience as the example of the negative impact (70% reduction). I will post a more detailed response at a later date.
Xmas and New Year media update

A selection of the key stories over the holiday period:

National News

The Guardian - MoD cites asbestos fear in rejecting information pleas
"Thousands of the government's most sensitive secret documents are being held back from publication under the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that they may be contaminated by asbestos."

The Guardian - Revealed: from nuclear tip plans to Blair's 'barmy' Simpsons star turn
"A brief guide to some of the official facts disclosed in the Freedom of Information Act's first year."

The Guardian - Lord Falconer - It's not about toilet paper
"Freedom of information was introduced to give power to the people, not to satisfy journalists' feverish curiosity."

The Guardian - For your information
"With the Freedom of Information Act now a year old, Rob Evans assesses the government's reaction to the new spirit of openness. And here he looks at some of the more bizarre requests made by the public."

The Guardian - Ask a silly question
"Freedom of information is commonly thought to be about important matters of state, but some people evidently had other things on their mind."

The Guardian (letters) - Princess Diana and restrictions on FOI
"What puzzles me, though, is what he or the author of your news story finds "irresponsible" about our request for information about the government's response to Princess Diana's death."

Sunday Times (comment) - Foreign Office threatened Meyer with visit from the heavy mob
"Jay, Meyer recalls, even threatened him with the FO’s hitman Jack Straw. “You called me to say that people ‘over the road’, as well as Jack Straw and Patricia Hewitt, were concerned about things that I had said or been reported to have said,” correspondence from Jay obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals. “You added that I should myself be concerned to have disturbed such major figures. Jack Straw might even call me.”"

FT.com - BUSINESSES wary of new regime's risks
"A year after the Freedom of Information Act took effect, businesses
remain concerned about the risks of commercially sensitive information
being disclosed (reg req.)

Daily Telegraph - Falconer plans information curbs
"The Freedom of Information Act could be tightened under government plans to reduce the number of "frivolous" and "irresponsible" inquiries, the Lord Chancellor said yesterday."

Daily Telegraph - Fury grows over firm's failure to withdraw deadly pacemakers
"There is growing outrage that British heart patients were given pacemakers with a potentially deadly defect, long after the manufacturer became aware of the problem. More than 500 people in Britain were fitted with the device, which could fail at any time, according to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."

The Mirror - IN THE CLUTCHES OF THE MOORS KILLERS
"A sinister photograph, published for the first time, shows a 12-year-old girl who survived the evil reign of Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley...The picture is one of a series just released under the Freedom of Information Act....After Hindley and Brady were convicted, the photos, witness statements and other documentary notes were transferred to the National Archives in London."
Specialist press

The Register - Undelete those deleted emails, FOIA ruling tells Government
"'Deleted' Government records needn't necessarily be treated as deleted after all, according to a ruling by the Information Tribunal, which deals with appeals against rulings under the Freedom of Information Act. But don't get too excited - although in theory this means that data that can be undeleted, restored from backups or reconstructed by specialists can still be supplied in response to FOIA requests, in practice the whole show will still collapse when it encounters the haphazard shambles that UK Government backup regimes amount to."



Egov monitor- Higher Education meets the challenges of the public's right to know
"The Higher Education sector has responded both positively and successfully to the first year of the Freedom of Information Act, survey results published to mark the Act's first anniversary reveal. The survey, a joint initiative by JISC, Universities UK and SCOP (the Standing Conference of Principals), show that the overwhelming majority of the requests being received by institutions are being answered fully, on time and free of charge."

Irish Medical times - Women travelling to give birth in Britain
"A BBC investigation has found a growing number of women from overseas are travelling to Britain to give birth in NHS hospitals, a practise that is costing some trusts hundreds of thousands of pounds a year."

Local News

News and Star (Cumbria) - 500 police officers hurt in thug attacks
"Figures obtained under the Freedom Of Information Act also reveal more than 2,200 various injuries have been suffered by officers and force civilian staff during the same period."

Shrophsire Star - County drivers flouting car phone law
"New figures released to the Shropshire Star under the Freedom of Information Act show that nearly 6,000 people in the West Mercia police force area have been fined for using a hand-held mobile phone at the wheel since it became an offence two years ago."


Western Mail - Will Euro aid work this time?
"SENIOR Plaid Cymru politicians are demanding to know whether the Assembly Government is pressing Gordon Brown to provide all the funds necessary to make Wales' second round of top-level European aid a success....Material released to the Western Mail earlier this year in line with the Freedom of Information Act showed Alun Michael, the Assembly's first leader, had pleaded in vain for match funding to be provided by the Treasury."

South Wales Echo - The truth about the Beeb's workforce
"BBC Wales' workforce has rocketed to more than 1,360 - 28 per cent more than before devolution. Back in May 1999, when the National Assembly was set up, the number of employees stood at 1,058. But six years on, the size of the workfoce has grown rapidly to 1,362, according to figures released to the Echo under the Freedom of Information Act."

BBC Wales - Freedom culture change 'needed'
"A year since the Freedom of Information Act became law, one of Wales' chief watchdogs says there is still a long way to go to achieve more openness."

Manchester Evening News - Council minorities 'more likely to be sacked'
"ETHNIC minority council workers in Manchester are more likely to be sacked or suspended than their white counterparts, figures reveal."

Overseas

New Zimbabwe - British officials feared Mugabe backlash over wife's treatment
"BRITISH government officials feared a refusal to grant residency to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's late wife, Sally, would harden his policy towards Britain in an independent Zimbabwe."

Oped news - Bush Administration Refuses to Comply With FOIA Request on Pre-War Intelligence