Monday, July 31, 2006

USA FOIA updates

from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2006, Issue No. 84
July 28, 2006


United States Government Accountability Office
Preliminary Analysis of Processing Trends Shows Importance of Improvement Plans
Full report (PDF)
Campaign for Freedom of Information Press release:
New information charging rules would “reverse openness trend”

Press release: Monday 31 July 2006

New information charging rules would “reverse openness trend”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information reacted with concern to reports that the government is considering measures to reduce the amount of information disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

At the moment FOI requests are normally answered free of charge, apart from photocopying costs. Government departments can refuse to answer a request if it would cost more than £600 to find the information and other authorities can refuse if that cost exceeds £450. This corresponds to 24 hours of staff time for government departments and 18 hours for other bodies.The government is now considering making it easier to refuse FOI requests on cost grounds.

According to reports of a leaked cabinet document, authorities would be allowed to take into account the time officials spend considering whether to release information as well as the time they spend looking for it. This means that the cost limit would be reached more quickly and more requests would be refused on cost grounds - even if the information itself was not exempt.

The Campaign's director, Maurice Frankel, said:

“These proposals would make it harder for requesters to ask penetrating questions and easier for authorities to avoid scrutiny. As the Act begins to bite we have finally begun to see some weakening of the traditional obstacles to openness. The last thing we need is to reverse this process by giving authorities better armour to defend themselves against requests. Instead of making it easier to refuse requests, government should be encouraging authorities to become more open by publishing more information without being asked, handling requests more expertly and organising their records more efficiently.”

The leaked document, reported in this week's Sunday Times says that at least 17% of requests which are now being dealt with would be refused on cost grounds in future. Official statistics show that some 800 requests to government departments were refused on cost grounds during 2005. The Campaign said that if the new proposals had been in force more than three times that number, more than 2,600 requests, would have been refused.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Sunday Times: Government U-turn on free information

This fairly worrying story appeared in the Sunday Times today, it appears the stories from earlier this year about possible changes to the fees regime may be true and fixed fees are on the agenda:

MINISTERS are to perform a U-turn on their commitment to open government by seeking to reduce the amount of information released to the public.
A confidential cabinet paper reveals that 18 months after Labour introduced laws allowing free access to government documents, it wants to block “the most difficult requests......He is also considering introducing a flat rate fee for requests, which he argues will have a “deterrent effect” and “inhibit serial requesters”. He estimates this would cut information requests by a third.

In a memo on July 17, Falconer admits that the government will come under fire for the moves. ....To counter critics, he is to commission a cost-benefit analysis of the effect that a fees regime would have. He argues that this will give a “solid evidence base” to make changes after the summer recess.

The proposal is a deeply worrying development for the future of the FOIA at such as an early stage in its life plus we are still essentially in the dark about what is being proposed (this is just a leak) and no form of consultation with the FOI user community has taken place. The cost-benefit anaylsis whilst sounding a good idea needs to be carried out by an organisation completely independent of Government otherwise the benefits could assessed in a completely subjective manner.

As an academic I want to be shown evidence (in detail) about the what the problems are (across all sectors, not just central government - which Lord Falconer seems to be focused on) and then assess the range of options available , taking a holistic and long tern view of the possible effects of each of the options. Why has there been no public consultation and information about the fees review?

The approach in the leaked paper runs contrary to much of the evidence given the to the recent Select Committee Inquiry into FOI and the final conclusion of the Committee.

The bottom line is that while the changes may stop for example an "irritating" freelance journalist sending lots of requests about ministerial wine consumption, the changes (especially a flat fee) may also pu off someone on benefits sending a request about a crucial issue that really does effect their quality of life e.g housing. There is no mention of any fee waivers for certain groups.

I would in theory not be against some changes to the fees regime if they were proportionate and based on evidence, however the proposals put forward to Cabinet would be very much a sledgehammer to crack a nut ("Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?"). Read Al Roberts' brief overview of the effects of flat fees in other jurisdictions. (Al is an associate professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the Constitution Unit, UCL London).

The issue of adding the cost (to the set limits of £450/£600) of "reading time" for officials to assess information (for exemptions etc) will end up being very subjective - it will be very hard for the Information Commissioner to decide about application of the cost calculations and further delays and complications in the appeal process will be likely. The Information Commissioner himself in his evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into FOI stated: "We think the existing regime (fees) has worked pretty well from the perspective of requesters and, indeed, from my own office; so we are comfortable with the existing regime....It is extraordinarily difficult for an office like mine to get involved in how much time was being spent on considering a case, at what level inside the Department, what is reasonable to charge on a per hour basis? The existing fees regime does have all the advantages of being simple, clear and straightforward and not being a deterrent" (see Q99 and Q100)

I would suggest that if you feel these type of proposed changes are unfair, start to lobby MPs about forming opposition against the proposals: a similiar position did arise when a harsh fees regime was proposed in May 2004 pre the 2005 implementation: an Early Day Motion was signed by over 180 MPs and the Guardian ran some high profile stories to highlight the issue. Read the 2004 background. The blog in 2004 offered a letter to download and send to MPs - we can try and do something again - as blogs are much more prevelant now I would also call for blogs to cover and feature the issue, perhaps a banner image can be developed as well for blogs to use.

The BBC have also covered the story and featured the DCA's response:

A Department for Constitutional Affairs spokeswoman said: "We said we would review fees and a proper review covers everything.

"However, it is unlikely that there will be a flat rate for Freedom of Information requests."

Lord Falconer said the government was "not keen" to stop people obtaining information that could embarrass the government.

"What you find is that some requests ask for a list of files, then say 'could you disclose all of the files', unaware of what's in them and simply keen to have a fishing exercise," he told the BBC's News 24 Sunday programme.

Read my previous posting about possible changes to fees and the DCA's approach to frivilous requests

There is a discussion thread on the topic at the new UKFOIA forum (I mentioned a blog reader had started this forum a few weeks ago - it hasn't been used much yet - now might be a good time).

Friday, July 28, 2006

Seminar: A New Open Europe: public access to documents and data protection

The European Institute of Public Administration (EIPA) and its Antenna in Barcelona, the European Centre for the Regions (EIPA-CER), have organised a new seminar on “A New Open Europe: public access to documents and data protection” that will take place in the premises of the European Commission/European Parliament – Representation in Barcelona (ES) on 14-15 September 2006.

Full details

Campaign for FOI Course: Why your FOI requests are being blocked - and what you can do about it.

A half day course in London on October 25 2006. Are your freedom of information requests running into a brick wall? Are you being told that the information you want is exempt or would cost too much to provide? Are you unsure whether these arguments are legitimate? This half day course in central London will help you decide whether refusals are justified or should be challenged - and help you argue your case. It will also improve your requests by sidestepping exemptions and focussing on information that is difficult for authorities to refuse. Download the course leaflet and booking form.
Holidaymaker wins right to information on Legionnaire’s disease

ICO press release:

The Information Commissioner has ordered the Health Protection Agency to release information relating to an investigation into a reported case of Legionnaire’s disease at a hotel in Malta.

The Commissioner’s decision follows a request to the Health Protection Agency from a holidaymaker who contracted Legionnaire’s disease during a holiday at a hotel in Buggiba, Malta in June 2004. The individual requested the results of the Maltese investigation into the Legionella outbreak at the hotel and also the results of a previous investigation that took place in the same year at the same hotel, in order to support an insurance claim for compensation.

The Health Protection Agency refused the request on the grounds that the information was provided in confidence. Following a review under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) the Information Commissioner ordered the information to be made public.

Under the EIRs, information relating to emissions released into the environment must, in most cases, be made available to the public. This case is the first time that the emissions clause in the EIRs has been applied by the Commissioner in a formal decision.

In his ruling, the Commissioner stated that access to information about the presence of infections would enable individuals to protect themselves from risks to their health and wellbeing. Revealing a hotel’s history of the incidence of diseases would also allow holidaymakers to make an informed choice about where to stay during their holidays.

The United Kingdom is one of 35 countries which make up a network committed to the control and surveillance of disease within the European Community. The Environmental Information Regulations are underpinned by an EC Directive which binds most of the countries within the network, including Malta.

The Health Protection Agency has 35 days to provide the individual with the requested information

Read the decision notice in full

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Review of the implementation of the Human Rights Act

The Lord Chancellor published a review on the implementation of the Human Rights Act on 25 July 2006. Contents:

Executive Summary
Introduction by the Lord Chancellor
Impact on development of substantive law
Direct impact on policy formulation and decision making
Myths and misperceptions
Analysis of overall effect
Possible solutions
Annex: The Convention rights

Full report [PDF 422kb, 52 pages]
Executive Summary and Introduction by the Lord Chancellor [PDF 87kb, 7 pages]

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

New Statesman New Media Awards

I attended the New Statesman New Media Awards ceremony last night, the blog didn't win, but did get high commended (I think this means "2nd place"). In my category - the Open Democracy was a highly deserved winner, do check the site out. The other notable winners were the two MySociety sites, pledgebank and writetothem - two truly useful,innovatory and brilliant sites and mostly done by volunteers. Read the winners list.

Thanks to everyone who sent some nice messages of support beforehand.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

DCA publish information about the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales

The DCA disclosure log has been updated with details a response to an FOI request about the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales:

Title of FOI release: The inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales
Date released to the requester: 21 July 2006
Date published on website: 21 July 2006

Information released:
Documents relating to the coroner's inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Response to freedom of information request [PDF 28kb, 3 pages]
Response to the Freedom of Information Request for documents on the departmental files relating to the reasons why the Coroner of the Queen's Household is holding the inquest and the delay in holding the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Home office circular - part one [PDF 504kb, 8 pages]
Home office circular - part two [PDF 477kb, 8 pages
Campaign for FOI publishes summary of 500 stories

Taken from the CFOI's website: "The Campaign has published summaries of 500 press stories based on disclosures during the first year of the Freedom of Information Act. They include disclosures under the UK and Scottish FOI laws, both of which came fully into force on 1 January 2005. The stories have been categorised by subject, newspaper and public authority and illustrate the wide range of significant information which has been released. N.B. This file is 1.9 Mb"

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Record 18-month FoI request delay incenses Sunday Telegraph reporter

The Home Office is not getting the best of press at moment......

From the Press Gazette:
The Home Office has just set a new record for tardiness in answering a Freedom of Information Act request — 18 months.

The unlucky journalist on the receiving end of the department's delays was Sunday Telegraph home affairs correspondent Ben Leapman.

The news value of the information he requested about the security lapses at Woodhill Prison — where Soham murderer Ian Huntley is caged — has now greatly reduced
New Media Awards

I'm off to London for the New Statesman New Media Awards on Monday, where the blog is a finalist in the "Indepedent Information" category....wish me luck!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Offical Secrets Trial Judge rules that al-Jazeera memo should be kept secret

The Guardian (19th) reports the decision of the Old Bailey Judge to keep the contents of the memo secret in the trial of O'Connor and Keogh under the Official Secrets Act.

"Any discussion of an already partially leaked document - in which Mr Bush purportedly said in April 2004 that he wanted to bomb the Arabic satellite TV station al-Jazeera, and Mr Blair expressed concern about US military tactics in the Iraqi city of Falluja - must be heard behind closed doors, Mr Justice Aikens ruled.....A number of newspapers are planning to challenge yesterday's ruling."

The Guardian - Secrecy ruling by judge on Blair-Bush talk

My posting last week highlighted the attempts I've made to request the memo under both UK and US FOIAs.
Information Tribunal decisions

Latest decisions from the Information Tribunal (the next stage of appeal after the Information Commissioner) have been published, the most important being the Thanet Council decision - which has important implications for Environmental Information - the Tribunal ruled that the the request (relating to legal advice about night flights at Kent International Airport should have been considered under the Environmntal Information Regulations (EIRS) (not FOIA) and the ICO's decision under the FOIA has been substituted for a new decision to allow the appellant the view the information. This highlights the importance for both users of the Act and Practitioners to very carefully consider whether information requested falls under the definitions in the EIRs (section 2c). The Tribunal useful restates the position: "where a request for information is made under FOIA there is an exemption under s.39 where the EIR apply, and the public authority is obliged to deal with the request under EIR." (see the DEFRA pages and this DCA document for a brief overview of the differences.

Mr N Slann v Information Commissioner (11 July 2006) (PDF 213KB)
Public authority:Financial Services Authority
Tribunal decision: appeal dismissed - IC decision upheld
Original ICO decision

Mr P Toms v Information Commissioner (20 June 2006) (PDF 210KB)
Public authority: Royal Mail
Tribunal decision: appeal dismissed - IC decision upheld
Original ICO decision

Mr M S Kirkaldie v Information Commissioner (4 July 2006) (PDF 84KB)
Public Authority: Thanet Council
Decision: The Tribunal finds that the Appellant made a valid request under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIR) and that the legal professional privilege exception does not apply. The Tribunal, therefore, requires that Thanet District Council allow the Appellant to view and examine the legal Opinion dated 12 January 2005 given by Toby Davey at their offices in Cecil Street Margate Kent CT9 1XZ within 10 working days of the date of this decision (the substituted Decision Notice).
Original ICO decision was under the Freedom of Information Act

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Media update

The Guardian - Met fears on De Menezes 'cover-up'
"Sir Ian Blair's own officers concluded that the Metropolitan police commissioner's decision to block an independent inquiry into the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes left the force open to accusations of a cover-up, the Guardian has learned....Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Guardian has obtained two documents setting out internal police views."

BBC Scotland - Crimes clear-up 'varies widely'
"The clear-up rate of serious and violent crime varies widely across Scotland, according to figures released under freedom of information laws."

Regional news

"A Document unearthed by the Evening Post shows what might have been if Nottingham Forest and Notts County had agreed to share a ground. It reveals just how ambitious the city council's 1990 plans were for a shared super-stadium on the site of the old Wilford Power Station. The document was released through a Freedom of Information Act request."

IC Southlondon - Facts were kept from pool campaigner
"A TOWN hall has been exposed for repeatedly failing to give out information to a member of the Save Ladywell Pool campaign. The Information Commissioner's Office ruled that Lewisham council breached the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000. Campaigner Mary Paul emailed the council in July last year asking for information relating to its Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project which could see a school built on the Ladywell site."

and finally....... one for half of my adopted city.......

Koptalk - Gerrard secrecy rumbles on
"Why does Steven Gerrard continue to be snubbed when the Queen's honours lists are published? That's the question that many people, including non-Liverpool fans, want answering. So much so that one member of the public has just had a Freedom of Information Act request for the publication of any papers relating to the snub turned down."

Monday, July 17, 2006

Cluster of ICO decisions relating legality of war in Iraq

The ICO have published a cluster of decision notices all relating to the legality of war in Iraq relating to Cabinet Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Legal Secretariat of the Law Officers (LSLO), more procedural than disclosure based.

Case Ref: FS50083138
Date: 07/07/06
Public Authority: Cabinet Office
Summary: The complainant requested information about how many legal advisors to the government, both before and after the invasion of Iraq, either fully supported the view of Lord Goldsmith or expressed doubts as to its legality.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1 - Complaint Not Upheld; s.16 - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50083138

Case Ref: FS50079971
Date: 07/07/06
Public Authority: Cabinet Office
Summary: The complainant requested information regarding the legal advice provided to government about the legality of war in Iraq.
Section of the Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1(1)(a) and 10 (1) - Complaint Upheld; s.35 and 42 - Complaint Not Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50079971

Case Ref: FS50062881
Date: 07/07/06
Public Authority: Cabinet Office
Summary: The complainant requested information related to the legal advice provided by the Attorney General to the Prime Minister on the legality of military action in Iraq.
Section of the Ac/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1(1)(a) and 10(1) - Complaint Upheld; s.35 and 42 - Complaint Not Upheld
Full transcript of Decision Notice FS50062881

Case Ref: FS50073718
Date: 07/07/06
Public Authority: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Summary: The complainant requested information regarding Foreign Office legal adviser, Elizabeth Wilmshurst's resignatio
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1(1)(a) and (b) and 10(1) - Complaint Upheld; s.17 - Complaint Partially Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50073718

Case Ref: FS50069105
Date: 07/07/06
Public Authority: Legal Secretariat of the Law Officers (LSLO)
Summary: The complainant requested information relating to the advice given by the Attorney General to the Government on the legality of military action in Iraq. The public authority refused to supply the information citing the exemptions in sections 27, 25 and 42 of the Act. The Commissioner has investigated this case together with a number of other complaints about requests for similar information, and the investigation resulted in an Enforcement Notice being served on the LSLO on 22 May 2006.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1(1) and 10 - Complaint Partially Upheld; s.27 - Complaint Not Upheld; s.35 and 42 - Complaint Partially Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50069105

Case Ref: FS50064590
Date: 07/07/06
Public Authority: Legal Secretariat of the Law Officers (LSLO)
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1(1) and 10 - Complaint Partially Upheld; s.27 - Complaint Not Upheld; s.35 and 42 - Complaint Partially Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50064590

Case Ref: FS50063472
Date: 07/07/06
Public Authority: Legal Secretariat to the Law Officers (LSLO)
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1 (1) and 10 - Complaint Partially Upheld; s.27 - Complaint Not Upheld; s.35 and 42 - Complaint Partially Upheld
Full transcript of Decision Notice FS50063472

Other decisions:

Case Ref: FS50069921
Date: 05/07/06
Public Authority: Cardiff University
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.42 - Complaint Not Upheld; FOI s.41 - Not Considered
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50069921

Case Ref: FS50066998
Date: 10/07/06
Public Authority: Eastern Health & Social Services Board
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.31 - Complaint Not Upheld; FOI s.36 - Complaint Not Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50066998
New discussion forum on FOI

A blog reader has set up a new discussion forum on the UK Freedom of Information at I hope this is something that takes off as we don't yet have a general FOIA discussion forum open to all at present. The forum is usefully structured with sections to post comments on from exemptions to ICO decisions etc. I will try to get involved and post accross stuff from the blog when time permits. I understand the aim is to attract both users, practitioners and experts on the Act to create a mix of views and information, but with an emphasis on practicalilty. You need to register to be able to post messages to the discussions.

Any problems with forum should be directed to the forum admin not myself
Information Commissioner's Office annual report

The ICO have published their annual report and accounts 2005-2006.

Some edited highlights from Richard Thomas' forward:

-The limited extra funding we secured from the Department for Constitutional Affairs for 2006-07 is not as much as we believe we need, but it is helping us to reduce the number of outstanding cases more quickly.

-Mirroring our effective regulatory approach in data protection, we will take a more robust approach toward the small number of public authorities that repeatedly fail to meet acceptable timescales. There are particular problems where time is taken to consider public interest considerations or carry out an internal review. A maximum of two months for each stage should be quite long enough in most cases. Where my office finds systemic non-compliance with the Act, I will be more ready to use my powers to serve Enforcement Notices and Practice Recommendations to ensure public authorities fulfil their obligations. We will be tougher with authorities who unnecessarily delay people’s requests.

The report also sets out the current position on the ICO workload and case handling, data on the number of FOI requests received by the ICO as a public authority itself (232) and the number of visits to the ICO website over time. The ICO also plans to introduce a disclosure log this coming year. It also outlines some of the operational changes made to the case reception of FOI complaints.

Some of the core data:

FOI Case work:
Received 2713
Closed 1666
Work in progress 1290
Guidance on handling persistent requestors and frivolous requests

The DCA have published some further advice on the issue of persistent requestors and frivolous requests. It links to the many comments that Lord Falconer has made this year about these type of requests (the DCA's definition may not be the same as the mine and yours) wasting public officials' time and public money. See his speech to the British Academy from earlier this year:

However, it is also true, inevitably, that this culture is being undermined by requests under the Act which arguably do not impact so positively - like what a central government department spends on toilet paper or make-up, or whether written proof can be provided under the Act of a Minister's existence.

Responsible users of the Act and supporters of the legislation would surely agree that these sorts of requests are frivolous, and sometimes even vexatious, and that spending time answering them is not how public resources ought to be used.......

My department will be issuing guidance complementing that from the Information Commissioner, to help public authorities handle these types of requests

Also see the BBC news story from January 2006 - Openness law 'facing fees review'

Read the guidance (PDF)

This guidance is seemingly the first step to make the approach to these types of request more consistent and more rigourous(with changes to the fees regime being the next step?).

The requests covered by this guidance are:
· Requests for file lists followed by requests for large numbers of entire files
· Requests for information of a frivolous nature
· Persistent requests which have the effect of harassing a public authority.

The guidance does not attempt to discuss the problem of definition and the caution that should be used in defining "Requests for information of a frivolous nature" - a highly subjective decision to make. The Act does not have an exemption with the term frivolous apart from under S50 when the ICO can dismiss applications for decicions "that the application is frivolous or vexatious". Section 14 exempts vexatious and repeated requests (the difference in langauge is important).

Read the ICO decisions so far relating to use of S14 Exemption "Vexatious or repeated requests". (link goes to UCL's decision index).

Read the ICO guidance on Vexatious and Repeated Requests

Friday, July 14, 2006

Information Rights User Group

I've flagged up the User Group established by DCA before, it has now met for the first time, there were concerns about the process of its setting up being rather secret and not that transparent.

We have established a panel of users to act as a sounding-board on how the Act is working in practice, and to inform the Government about their experiences of the Act.

The group will be provided with information on the operation of the Act and will be invited to provide feedback to us, which will help us ensure that FOI meets users’ needs properly and effectively. Overseas experience has demonstrated that sustained and committed effort devoted to fostering an active and widespread FOI constituency amongst users helps to promote the long-term success of the Act.

The group is chaired by Baroness Ashton of Upholland, and the members of the group are:

Steve Bailey JISC, University of Bristol
Jane Bacot-Kilpatrick Hampshire and Isle of Wight Strategic Health Authority
Paul Bettison Leader Bracknell Forest Borough Council
Peter Bottomley, MP
Judith Cullen Head of Environmental Information Unit, DEFRA
Maurice Frankel Campaign for Freedom of Information
Professor Robert Hazell University College London Constitution Unit
John Hipwood Chairman of the Press Lobby
Rosemary Jay Pinsent Masons
Anthony Kenny Intellect UK
Lord Lester of Herne Hill
Adrian Pollitt Head of the Office of Strategic Health Authorities
Ian Readhead Deputy Chief Constable, Hampshire Constabulary
Bob Satchwell Society of Editors
Richard Thomas (observer) Information Commissioner

The first meeting minutes are not exactly informative......

Minutes of the first meeting - 8 June 2006 (PDF)

See my previous posts : Nov 05 and Aprtil 06

Also see Heather Brooke's posts: With friends like these…? and Selection secrecy for FOI users group
Google trends - Inverness are top FOI searchers

The new Google Trends service can be fun to play around with, I've been looking at a few FOI related searches. Essentially Google trends allows you to access the rich data Google hold on what searches are made and when and where from(when they can track IP user data). You can also compare two terms side by side. The graphs also plot news stories over time against the graph. The service has great value for those planning to optimise sites for search engines and adwords etc.

A search for Freedom of Information Act focused on the UK, shows that the top UK city that searched for the term as Inverness, Liverpool is 6th (I wonder how many of those searches I'm responsible for!). You can also see the interest in the term over time and the spike in interest early in 2005 and fairly constant level of use since. Also, more people search for data protection act than freedom of information act.

I've created some searches as links below:

Freedom of Information Act (UK)

-Freedom of Information Act versus Data Protection Act (UK)

-Information Commissioner (UK)

-FOIA (worldwide)

-Open Government (Worldwide)

-Tony Blair versus Gordon Brown

Read about the service and how accurate the data is likely to be.

Post any others in the comments below

Thursday, July 13, 2006

UNDP Seminar Spotlights Complexity of Expanding Right to Know

July 12, 2006 - Fostering the right to know in developing countries requires multi faceted, flexible strategies, according to the minutes of a May 2006 seminar sponsored by the United Nations Development Program posted today at The 31 seminar participants, with practical experience in many parts of the world, reviewed the impediments to improving government transparency and shared insights on the ingredients for effective right to know campaigns, according to the report by's Toby McIntosh. Go to to read the full report.
al-Jazeera memo - update on my FOI requests

More on the al-Jazeera memo: a few days ago I received a response to the FOIA request I made to the US Dept of State for the records of the meetings relating to the memo - the response essentially gives a "no records responsive to your request were located". This request was made back in December and has taken over 7 months to complete. I have the right to appeal and will do my best to take this forward, though any advice from US users of the USFOIA would be appreciated. I find it hard to believe that no record is held given that Peter Kilfoyle MP who saw the orginal memo said that it notes that Colin Powell (at the time US Secretary of State) was present at the Bush and Blair meeting in the White House and he sided with Blair. (see the Mirror report). The other problem is that if a record is held at the White House, "the President's immediate personal staff or any part of the Executive Office of the President whose sole function is to advise and assist the President" are not subject to the US FOIA (the reason I directed my request to the State Dept). Requests for records originating from the White House are also subject to special treatment (see 1993 FOIA memo).

Read the response to my request from the US State Dept

Read the acknowledgement from March

My request for the memo under the UK FOIA is now at the complaint stage at the Information Commissiomner's Office, after my internal review was rejected by the Cabinet Office. My complaint to the ICO essentailly focused on the issue relating to the Cabinet Office "holding" the memo and the change of position from request response (held relevant information) to internal review and the fact they had not addressed the issues in my internal review request. I've also complained about their delay and handling of my internal review.

Summary of my previous posts on the memo:

-Internal review delay
-Internal review request
-Reply to FOIA request
-Trial of David Keogh and Leo O'Connor under the Official Secrets Act

Meanwhile Blairwatch reports that: "Keogh and Leo O'Connor will appear at The Old Bailey criminal court to face charges under Britain's Official Secrets Act in the leaking of the memo. As part of their defence, they will attempt to use the memo as evidence in court." Both pleaded not guilty when they appeared in Court on the 25 April 2006.

See the International Herald Tribune Story on the trial

Also see: The Guardian: Reid to toughen secrecy laws

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Media update

BBC - Open Secrets Blog
-How journalism works 2
"This revelation stemmed from documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. So was this a speedily made and answered FOI request from Newsnight? No - actuallly the documents had been sitting for months on the website of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport."
-Revealed: departments which delay
The government departments with the worst record of excessive delays in their dealings with the Information Commissioner are the Foreign Office and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, I can reveal.

BBC news - Whitehall fights ID costs demand
"The freedom of information watchdog ordered the Department of Work and Pensions to publish its findings about how the cards could fight ID fraud. "

BBC news - Private ambulance regulation call
"An investigation has been carried out into a private ambulance company in Plymouth after concerns about the care of an elderly patient. After a Freedom of Information Act request, the BBC learned she was taken to hospital by a Medic Air European worker who had said he was a paramedic. But he was not a paramedic and saying he was is against the law."

Daily Telegraph - Prescott met US billionaire seven times
"The Conservatives demanded a parliamentary statement about Mr Prescott's influence on casino policy after they used the Freedom of Information Act to unearth what they claimed was potentially damning new evidence about a visit he made to Australia."

The Times - Treasury to appeal pension decision
"The Treasury is to appeal against a ruling that it must release secret documents explaining why the Government chose to implement a £5 billion a year tax "raid" on the nation's pensions."

The Guardian - Trident convoys carry risk of nuclear blast
"The 36-page declassified summary is entitled Operational Safety Case for Transport of Nuclear Weapons. Large chunks of the text had been censored before release under the Freedom of Information Act."

Daily Telegraph - Second secret report on Saudi deal
"The list, released under the Freedom of Information Act and seen by The Daily Telegraph, also suggests the Ministry of Defence was aware of this second study."

Daily Telegraph - Homicides soar by a quarter under Labour
"But separate statistics, released by the Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act, show that most people caught with knives are let off with a fine or a caution. Only one in seven is jailed; and this month's crime figures will show a surge in robberies."

Daily Telegraph
- Cost of secrecy
"The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act has partly accounted for the increase in the Queen's official expenditure, although the Royal Family is exempt from the Act. Three new members of staff have been taken on to stop Government departments from revealing details about the Royal Family." - ICO: FOI report is helpful
"The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said today's report on the Freedom of Information Act is "genuinely helpful". The constitutional affairs committee report recognised that the act was working, but expressed concerns about delays in processing information requests and argued that the ICO should be made accountable to and funded by parliament."

"We sent Freedom of Information Act requests to all UK primary care trusts, NHS trusts and care trusts asking how many doctors, nurses and professionals are now suspended. Most have at least one. The numbers could be much higher as staff are often put on "gardening leave" - a way of forcing them to stay home without having to register it as a suspension."

The Guardian - More checks on reactors ordered after cracks found
"Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, published in the Guardian yesterday, show that the inspector who visited Hinkley Point B raised concerns over cracks that have appeared in graphite bricks in the core of the reactor since 2004."

British Nursing News - Beds in Scotland needs to increase
"The Scottish National Party (SNP) have said that the number of hospital beds in Scotland needs to increase after figures, obtained by the party under the Freedom of Information legislation, showed there were 39,668 beds in Scotland's hospitals in 1996-7."

Regional news

"Aberdeenshire Council is to contest an order from the Scottish information commissioner to release details about staff working at a north-east ski centre. The authority initially refused a request to give the names, job titles and job descriptions of its staff at the Huntly Nordic Ski and Outdoor Centre, on the grounds that it amounted to personal information."

Chester Chronicle - Armed forces face recruitment battle since war in Iraq
"THE Army and RAF have suffered a recruitment crisis in Cheshire since the Allied invasion of Iraq. Figures secured under the Freedom of Information legislation show that the number of people joining the Army has dropped by almost a third across the region."

Manchester Evening News
- 43 GMP officers in police racism claims
"Forty-three officers have made formal complaints of racism since GMP was branded "institutionally racist" eight years ago. In that time five police officers were sacked, two demoted and four fined following the accusations, according to statistics obtained by the M.E.N. under Freedom of Information laws. One of the officers who was sacked has now been reinstated."

Cambridge news - Police withheld expense details
"The News requested details of how much the constabulary had spent sending officers abroad during investigations under the Freedom of Information Act, but the information has been withheld following claims it would cost a massive £10,000 to retrieve from the force records."

This is Wiltshire - MP reports PCT in information row
"WEST Wilts MP Dr Andrew Murrison has reported West Wiltshire Primary Care Trust for failing to provide him with information requested under the Freedom of Information Act. He has written to the Information Commissioner, who promotes access to official information and deals with complaints about breaches of the Act."

Overseas FOI news

USA -Bryan College Station Eagle - US funds study on changing Freedom of Information Act
"SAN ANTONIO - St. Mary's University School of Law will conduct a government-funded study of possible alterations to the Freedom of Information Act aimed at fighting terrorism, a school official said. Jeffrey Addicott, head of the school's Center for Terrorism Law, said the yearlong project will examine ways of rewriting the open government law to prevent terrorists from getting sensitive information about water, sewer, electricity and transportation systems."
Latest decisions from the Information Commissioner's Office

Case Ref: FS50066998
Date: 10/07/06
Public Authority: Eastern Health & Social Services Board
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.31 - Complaint Not Upheld; FOI s.36 - Complaint Not Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50066998

Case Ref
: FS50069921
Date: 05/07/06
Public Authority: Cardiff University
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.42 - Complaint Not Upheld; FOI s.41 - Not Considered
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50069921

Case Ref: FS50089927
Date: 05/07/06
Public Authority: London Borough of Lewisham
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1 - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50089927

Case Ref: FS50093053
Date: 04/07/06
Public Authority: Charity Commission
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.41 - Complaint Not Upheld; FOI s.40 - Complaint Not Upheld; FOI s.31 - Not Considered.
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50093053

Latest decisions from Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner

04 July 2006 Mr Andrew Forsyth and the Scottish Executive
Request for information as to how the National Programme for Improving Mental Health and Well-Being intends to measure a Well Scotland and how the Scottish Executive will know if the programme is working and providing value for money.

03 July 2006 Mr John Egan and West Dunbartonshire Council
Request for information relating to the closure of Milton Primary School

Browse all decisions at OSIC

Cases currently under investigation at OSIC
Freedom of Information at the Investigative Journalism Summer School

Heather Brooke is running a module on FOI at the a Investigative Journalism Summer School, City University, 21-23rd July. Further details.
Act Now Information Law newsletter

The latest Act Now Information Law newsletter is available (PDF).

Also - Suffolk CC have alllowed Actnow to reproduce their detailed FOI/EIR flowchart (all 18 pages!) Download (PDF)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

FOI and Open Government books

The following books recently published may of interest to users and practitioners of FOI, I've reviewed each one briefly. Fuller reviews (by different reviewers) will appear in the next issue of Open Government .

Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age
By Alasdair Roberts (Camridge University Press)
Order from Amazon
Alasdair Roberts may be well known to the readers of the blog for his academic research and comment on FOI and Access to Information laws worlwide, especially Canada. Since 2005 he also taken an interest in the operation of the UK Act and Access to Information Clearing House in particular. The book is a very welcome addition to the other books on FOI on my bookshelf and is an excellent balance of well researched academic material (mainly secondary) combined with a very accessible style. The book does draw in perspectives from a philosphical/theoretical angle when relevant, but it doesn't dominate or reduce the readabilty. The book uses case studies and examples from around the world to assess case for FOI/openess legislation, reviews the way legislation operates and the problems that have emerged when those in authrority try prevent the release of information and circumvent openess laws. The book reflects on issues of openess compared to security in the post 9-11 world and discusses Bush Govt's management and control of information. This also a book that focuses on the future - looking at issues related to other quasi governemtal bodies (e.g. IMF), organisations and private sector bodies carrying out public functions and how they often operate beyond legislative provisions. The book has a practical value for requestors, the chapter "liquid paper" will be of particular interest: Al shows some of his methodology for making requests for information in the eletronic age; for metadata in electronic document and records management systems and how to compare the information to build up new patterns of government activity. This is not the first book for you to pick up if you want to learn in detail about differences about FOI regimes around the world - but it is a highly readible, well researched overview of about openess in the world today, why it is important and where it may be going - it raises vital questions that future generations will need to address. I would highly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in FOI and would say it would easily find a place on most reading lists in politics, govt and journalism depts.

Open Government in a Theoretical and Practical Context
Richard A. Chapman (Editor), Michael Hunt (Editor)
Order from Amazon
This text is a UK focused collection of chapters based on revised versions of papers given to PAC workshop on FOI held at Durham University April 2005. The text brings together a mix of academics, civil servants and a Peer. As the workshop took place in April 2005, some of the papers do have a slightly dated feel in when refecting on the Act itself as we now have over a years' worth of case law to now reflect on. Chapters 1-5 are well written and sum up well the case for FOI, the benefits and the historical background at Central and Local levels. Of greater interest to me were the chapters that focus on some more original areas of interaction with FOI and the accountability debate: the Hutton inquiry, the role of special advisors and the perspective from the Committee on Standards in public life. Richard Chapman's paper on the Hutton Inquiry is very good distillation of the key issues from the Inquiry but I was looking for some greater linkage with the wider context post-Hutton - for example the paper makes no reference to the "Final report of the independent review of government communications" by Bob Phillis that followed later in 2003, directlty influenced by Hutton that called for further changes to the FOIA to be made. As with Al Roberts' text the book also provides a forward thinking aspect, considering the impact and challenges of information technology in the paper by Taylor et al. Whilst some of the chapters run over familiar ground many of the papers in this text offer some fresh perpsctives on the topic from well respected authors.

Freedom of Information: Balancing the Public Interest (Second Edition)
by Megan Carter and Andrew Bouris, May 2006,
Report: 327 pp. + CD, £75
Order from UCL
This text will be of greatest interest to practitioners, it is a vastly updated second edition that draws upon an excellent depth of research about FOI legislation around the world (where relevant parallels can be drawn with the UK legislation). Consideration of the "public interest test" is one of the most difficult aspects of handling requests - many competing interests - internally and externally will present a case for the PI to withhold or release. An increasingly larger percentrage of decisions being issued by the UK ICO and OSIC have a public interest aspect. This text focuses this aspect of FOI by analysing both the UK and Scottish legislation and current (limited) case law from both Commissioners and then presents the operation of PI aspects of the legislation of the following countries (and States when different FOI laws apply): Ireland, Australia, NZ, Canada. There is a highly detailed and exhasutive approach taken to referencing and neatly summarising aspects and implications of the PI legislation and related case law. Whilst it is up to the practitioner to assess how relevant these examples may be to the context of their work, in general I would argue that the text is very useful tool to draw upon when the PI aspect not covered yet by UK case law or fresh perspective may help inform internal debate. I would also add this book might useful to those using the Act needing to develop detailed arguments for PI release at internal review, appeal to IC or tribunal. My main comment would be that the text could offer greater tabulation to enable greater cross comparison of some aspects of the legislation covered and a comparison section drawing together and discussing the PI issues covered and common themes.

Also see the books section of the blog for more books about FOI and Open Government
Craig Murray documents - FCO threatens injuction

I posted about Craig Murray a while ago; Craig is the former the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who has taken a stand over use of intelligence obtained by torture. Craig has been publishing official documents on his blog to support the claims made in his book "Murder in Samarkand". Craig received a letter from lawyers acting on behalf of the Foreign Office demanding that he remove the documents from his website by 4pm Monday 10th July or he will be issued with a high court injunction. It is alleged he is in breach of Crown Copyright. Read the letter on the Blairwatch website. some of the documents he has posted were obtained by FOI requests.

The situation is timely with respect to the recent campaign ( that has started up to try and reform copyright of public information and remove restriction such as crown copyright, in the US no such restriction exists (See here). Blairwatch have also made sure the documents are now in the public domain via a number of servers worlwide - making the purpose of the injuction largely pointless aprt from to silence Murray.

No mention seems to have made of the click use licences from the Office of Publis Sector Information (formerly HMSO) that can be applied for to re-use crown copyright information and the many waivers that are available. I have a licence to cover re-publishing of material I receive via FOIA from applicable public bodies.

Craig Murray's blog - includes response to the FCO letter

The background - Murder In Samarkand - Documents

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (c. 48) Section 163 covers Crown Copyright

Wikipdedia - Craig Murray

The mainstream media haven't given the issue much coverage, apart from:

The Guardian - Former ambassador posts censored passages from memoir on website
"The government is threatening to sue former ambassador Craig Murray for breach of copyright if he does not remove from his website intelligence material that was censored out of his newly published memoirs."

The Register - FCO takes on Murray and the blogs over Murder in Samarkand
"The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office is following up on its earlier moves against former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray with the threat of an injunction. Alongside the publication of his book, Murder in Samarkand, last week Murray posted a collection of supporting documents on his web site (here); the current FCO action demands the removal of these."

Ohmy News - Samarkand Shock
"Last week Gareth Buttrill wrote to Craig Murray, on behalf of the treasury solicitor, claiming that 13 of the 15 documents, and parts of a 14th, were governed by Crown Copyright on the basis that they were "produced by an officer or servant of the Crown in the course of their duties." As such, reproducing the documents was a violation of copyright. "Further, even if a document is released under the Data Protection Act or Freedom of Information Act that does not entitle you to make further reproductions of that document by, for example, putting them on your Web site or making further copies to be provided to third parties. The copyright remains enforceable," Buttrill wrote."
Home Office: clearing house response times

From Al Roberts:

In response to a FOI request, Home Office has provided a tabulation of time required for DCA's Clearing House to review cases sent to it by Home Office.

This is a very small window into Clearing House operations, but it is also the first time that a department has not relied on section 36 to avoid disclosure of such information

The recent select committee report on FOI made reference to the lack of transparency relating to the clearing house. We await the Govt response to the report.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Latest decision notices

Some interesting cases, especially the Cabinet Office one relating to dates of telephone discussions between the Prime Minster, Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond. The ICO comments about lack of clear explanations also rings true with many of my dealings.

The FCO/PFI case is also important in terms of "the moving target" that FOI cannot reach - illustrating how these types of PFI deals manage to keep away from the clutches of FOI - something that needs to be addressed by adding further authorities under Section 5.

Case Ref: FS50089927
Date: 05/07/06
Public Authority:
London Borough of Lewisham
Summary: The complainant requested information from the council but was not satisfied that the response contained all the relevant information. The Commissioner has upheld this complaint and so requires the public authority to respond in accordance with section 1(1) of the Act.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1 - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50089927

Case Ref: FS50086128
Date: 03/07/06
Public Authority
: The Cabinet Office
Summary: The complainant requested dates of telephone discussions between the Prime Minster, Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond. Although it was confirmed that the information was held it was refused on the basis that disclosure would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs. The Commissioner found that in this particular case the public interest required the disclosure of the requested information, provided that the Cabinet Office's records indicated that the discussions which had taken place were of an official nature. The Commissioner also concluded that when refusing the request for information the Cabinet Office should have provided a clearer explanation of both why it considered the information exempt and of its consideration of the public interest test.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.17, s.36 - Complaint Partly Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50086128

Case Ref: FS50083787
Date: 26/06/06
Public Authority
: Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Summary: The complainant requested copies of the successful bidding documents for the contract to construct GCHQ's new building. On the grounds that, in line with the government's Private Financial Initiative, this contract was between a contractor of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a sub-contractor, the Commissioner accepted that the information requested was not held by the Foreign Commonwealth Office.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.1 - Complaint Not Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50083787

Case Ref: FS0101193
Date: 26/06/06
Public Authority
: Lancashire County Council
Summary: The complainant has asked Lancashire County Council for details of prosecutions of traders for selling alcohol to children following investigations by the Council's trading standards officers. Disclosure of the information was refused by the Council under section 40 on the grounds that it contained personal information about those prosecuted. The Commissioner examined the information and considered the disclosure in anonymised form would not breach the data protection principles. He decided therefore that the withheld information should be released. The Commissioner required that a caveat be attached to the released information indicating that different businesses may now be trading from the addresses listed and that some individuals who had been prosecuted may no longer be associated with the premises in question.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s.40 - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50101193

Case Ref: FS50072714
Date: 23/06/06
Public Authority
: Hounslow Primary Care Trust
Summary: As a result of an earlier application, the complainant submitted a refined request on 14 February 2006, relating to correspondence between various parties in connection with the care treatment of his father-in-law. On 6 April 2006 the complainant informed the Commissioner that he had not received a response. The Commissioner wrote to the Trust asking for a response by a specific date, but the deadline has not been met. The Commissioner has therefore issued a Decision Notice requiring the Trust to respond to the request within 30 days of the date of service.
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI s 1(1) - Complaint Upheld
Full Transcript of Decision Notice FS50072714
Fears loom over costs review for info requests

Taken from the Press Gazette: "Lord Falconer has provoked fresh alarm that he plans to restrict the flow of information to journalists just as the Freedom of Information Act is "beginning to bite". The Department of Constitutional Affairs has confirmed it is pressing ahead with a review of the fees regime, despite opposition from a watchdog committee of MPs."

This is a major issue that appears to coming forward despite concerns expressed by many (including myself) in their evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into FOI about any changes that may restrict usage of the Act. My main point at this stage is for the DCA to carry out a public consultation and provide detailed research and evidence that shows the volumes/nature of certain types of requests that are causing the problems (that also couldn't be dealt with under current provisions within the Act). It is very early to start changing the fees regime when no clear patterns of usage have been built up and not taking into account the first year when there was a greater liklihood of misguided use and pent up requests that will always characterise bedding in of new legislation, that should then subside.

Read the current Fees Regulations and DCA Fees Guidance

Alasdair Roberts has written a useful short piece; "An open dialogue on FOIA fee reform" illustrating how increased or restrictive fees regimes have reduced FOIA usage in other jurisdictions

The excerpt below was my comment on fees from an article I published on the BBC website in January of this year:

But ministers have signalled they may reform fees, fearing too many requests are wasteful of public money - two examples being a request for the number of windows in government departments and the costs of toilet rolls.

Many public officials appear to share these concerns, as responses to the BBC's Have Your Say debate showed.

However, requests dropped by nearly 70% when the Republic of Ireland introduced a 15 Euro fee.

This is a balancing act. Taxpayers don't want to see public money wasted - but there is a fundamental right to ask questions and receive answers of public bodies in a democracy.

Whether these questions are "suitable" is subjective - the request for information about toilet rolls could have been made by a company undertaking serious research for a contract tender.

These concerns need to be put in context. Firstly, the Act says requests can be blocked if they are judged "repeated and vexatious".

Secondly, estimates for the cost of FOIA currently hit £100m. In contrast, the government spent £158m on advertising in 2004.

Over the coming year, the public will need to think about the true cost of Freedom of Information.

In the US, military officials once complained that Freedom of Information was a costly business. That was until they were told that it was still less than the cost of maintaining the military's golf courses.

Fees were a big issue pre 2005 and lobbying groups (particularly the Camapign for FOI) were able to exert pressure to gain the relatively well balanced regime we have at present. Read the history of the fees debate in this post I made in 2004 - Fees: reasons to be cheerful?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Robust Approach to FOI Complaint Cases

I've just picked up that in May the Information Commissioner's Office published a document entitled "A Robust Approach to FOI Complaint Cases" that illustrated an important change in the way cases will be handled and decision notices issued. Most of what is suggested seems to make sense in light of high volume of complaints received and the backlog. I had previously commented about the high number of decisions issued in 2005 that were merely procedural that appeared to be taking precedence over more substantive decisions based around use of exemptions in the Act.

The main point of the paper is:

In essence, our new approach is not to take up, or continue with, any FoI or EIR case where no useful purpose would be served if we were to proceed to an adverse Decision Notice. Such cases will be closed, or resolved in other ways if they appear to raise enforcement or similar issues.

The paper sets out an approach is well balanced and won't I believe "let public authorities off the hook" as its does clearly set out the position as to when the ICO will still use decision notices when for example a public authority has deliberately set out to delat a reponse to an applicant.

The ICO also lay down the gauntlet to those who wish to challenge a case closure:

If any complainant tries to insist that we should proceed, we should not enter lengthy correspondence. Some such cases many need to be reviewed within our complaints procedure. Others should be advised that they can challenge the Commissioner by seeking a Judicial Review of the ruling through the courts. (It may indeed be very helpful to have such a case in due course).

The paper also indicates that the ICO may start making greater use of section 48
Practice Recommendations, or section 52 Enforcement Notices rather than decision notices.

It may take until the end of the year before we can see what sort of effect this may have on both the backlog and overall experience of the compaints procedure.
Cost of publicising the Freedom of Information Act

The following information has been placed on the DCA's disclosure log following an FOI request

Information released:
Information about the different ways that the FOI act was publicised including the ways in which understanding was raised and the cost of raising awareness about it to the point that the Act came into force

Publicising of the Freedom of Information Act [PDF 27kb, 2 pages]

This is an interesting area, in terms of the addressing the issue of how FOI legislation should be publicised - the government has been quite tentative so far - spending a relatively low amount (387K) on promotion and awareness. The idea presumably being not to develop too high level of expectation or awareness that might have led to a deluge of requests. The Scottish Information Commissioner took a different approach - using TV adverts to promote the Act. (view here).

Earlier this year I highlighted that the Cabinet Office was using sponored links via yahoo when users searched on the term "freedom of information act" they were offered a link to the Directgov FOI page. My FOI request found out the amount (10p) they were paying per click and the number of clicks made. (see my previous post). Since then they have now also started using sponsored results on google (see this example)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Compliance with the Section 46 Code

At end of 2006/beginning of 2007 Central Govt will be assessed for compliance with the S46 Code of Practice on Records Management issued under the Freedom of Information Act (also see the National Archives S46 audit page: "The National Archives is developing a programme to assess the level of risk faced by government departments through poor information management and failure to comply with this Code".)

It appears that Central government will be physically audited whilst other public sector bodies may be required to complete a self assessment. This is the first time such an audit has taken place and will provide a snapshot of how RM is working in the public sector for the first time in the FOIA era. The National Archives have also published the final version of their S.46 compliance toolkit.

Background: The Freedom of Information Act encourages all public authorities to maintain their records in accordance with the provisions of a Code of Practice issued by the Lord Chancellor under section 46. The Information Commissioner is inlvolved in the process: there is a Memorandum of Understanding and a Service Level Agreement which sets out in more detail the support provided to the Information Commissioner by The National Archives in the in the issue of S46 assessment.

It is worth noting that the forward to the S46 Code states:
"The Information Commissioner will promote the observance of the Code by public authorities, acting as required by the FOIA. If it appears to the Commissioner that the practice of an authority in relation to the exercise of its functions under the FOIA does not conform with that set out in the Code, he may issue a practice recommendation under section 48 of the Act. A practice recommendation must be in writing and must specify the provisions of the Code which have not been met and the steps which should, in his opinion, be taken to promote conformity with Code."
I've highlighted in my Select Committe evidence that the ICO had not issued any S48 recommendations - perhaps this may change soon once the assessments have taken place.

I would highlight the importance of having conducted an information survey or record audit as part of the the S46 compliance process (see my article on information auditing).
Your righths under the Audit Commission Act 1998

Heather at Your Right to Know offers us a timely reminder of our rights under the Audit Commission Act of 1998 to "inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them" of Local Councils". Many of the accounts are commonly made available around this period.
68 Countries now have Access Laws has published a new Global Survey of Freedom of Information Laws for 2006, authored by Dave Banisar of Privacy International

Download "Freedom of Information Around the World 2006: A Global Survey of Access to Government Records Laws,":
[PDF - 1 MB] [Word - 1.3 MB]

Or click on any of the Country Pages to read about that country's access laws

Well done to Dave for such an exhuastive piece of research
New Disclosure logs

I've updated the Disclosure log index with the following new logs:

-Financial Services Authority
-Identity and Passport Service
-Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
-UK Passport Agency
-Southampton City Council
-Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust
-University of Wales Bangor
-Imperial College London
-Hampshire Constabulary
-Hertfordshire Constabulary
-Humberside Fire and Rescue Service
-University of Manchester

Do send me any new ones as they come online as the number available is starting to be a really useful resource, especially for cross sectoral comparison

Monday, July 03, 2006

UNDP's Information Disclosure

From Al Roberts' Wiki:

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative has written to the United Nations
Development Programme, asking that it complete the processing of a request
for information received exactly two years ago.

The UNDP's Information Disclosure Policy, adopted in 1997, is widely
regarded as a model scheme for international organizations. But the policy
is largely inoperative. A request for information which I made in June 2004
has been before the UNDP's Oversight Panel, a body established to enforce
the Policy, since August 2004. The Panel has never rendered a decision
under the UNDP Disclosure Policy.

The free-expression group ARTICLE 19 also urged the UNDP to complete its
processing of this request in a February 2006 letter. The Bank Information
Center USA did the same in a May 2006 letter.

In April 2006, the UNDP issued a report that said it could "play an
important role in promoting right to information in a number of ways,"
inclluding compliance with its own disclosure policy.

Copies of the initial request, letters of support, and the UNDP report, can
be found at
International news

International Herald Tribune
"VATICAN CITY The Vatican said Friday that it was releasing from its secret archives all the files on the pontificate of Pope Pius XI, which spanned most of the period between World War I and World War II.

Researchers will be allowed to access the files beginning Sept. 18. They cover the period from Feb. 6, 1922, to Feb. 10, 1939."

See: The Vatican Secret Archives

The Washington Post - We Need Fewer Secrets
by Jimmy Carter
"The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) turns 40 tomorrow, the day we celebrate our independence. But this anniversary will not be a day of celebration for the right to information in our country. Our government leaders have become increasingly obsessed with secrecy. Obstructionist policies and deficient practices have ensured that many important public documents and official actions remain hidden from our view."