Friday, September 29, 2006

Celebrating Freedom of Information Around the World


The following events took place around the world on Right to Know Day Yesterday

Also see The Year in Openness: Freedom of Information Makes Headlines Around the World in 2006

Thursday, September 28, 2006

My Society to develop FOI archive

Today is International Right to Know Day and I have a very interesting announcement. My Society (the people behind the award winnning, and in my view brilliant websites and have announced the winner of their call for proposals: "the Freedom of Information Filer and Archive; a searchable, readable, googlable user-created archive of FOI requests and their responses."

Read the announcement

Apart from the National Security Archive in the US there isn't anything comparable out there and this will be a world first I believe.

This is very exciting news and I have already been in contact with MySociety and hope to get involved in some capacity, I hope blog readers will support the project. The project should complement the work we have aready developed in the area of disclosure log harvesting in HE as part of the JISC Information Governance Gateway.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

ICO launches publication scheme initiative

Press release from ICO

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is marking International Your Right to Know Day (Thursday 28 September) by launching a new initiative on Freedom of Information publication schemes.

The move follows a review of publication schemes in 2005 which highlighted the need to develop and improve the dissemination of public sector information.

The initiative will seek feedback from anyone with an opinion on publication schemes – whether a freedom of information professional, practitioner or user.

This will be followed by a series of sector specific workshops to be held between January and August 2007 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Practitioners and representative bodies from each of the sectors – central government, local government, police, health and education - will be invited to participate.

In addition, the ICO is also enrolling an Advisory Panel of experts and interested parties who will provide a sounding board for ideas and provide feedback where appropriate.

The output of the workshops will be published as sector specific publication scheme guides, containing the core classes required for approval and good practice tips on dissemination, maintenance, training, promotion and review. This process will be rolled out between September 2007 and March 2008. Public authorities will then be required to submit their schemes for re-approval between June 1 – 31 December 2008.

Dawn Monaghan, senior manager with responsibility for good practice in freedom of information at the ICO, said: “We want to work closely with public authorities to help them improve and enhance their publication schemes. We hope this process will help to steer all sectors towards a culture of proactive disclosure and ensure a consistency of core classes of information across public authorities.

Also see ICO Policy on publication schemes
Canada: Freedom of Information Audit 2006

Canadian Newspaper Association - 2nd National Freedom of Information Audit Reveals Major Barriers Remain
"Published in newspapers across Canada today, the CNA’s second National Freedom of Information Audit, which tested access to information systems in 10 Canadian provinces, shows that Canadians are likely to face unreasonable barriers in obtaining basic, uncontroversial information that should be readily available. Out of more than a hundred information requests submitted by reporters from 39 newspapers and the Canadian Press news agency, the information requested was denied or provided only in part in nearly one third (31%)."

Canadian Newspaper Association - Transparency Missing-in-Action from Federal Accountability Act
"It’s not too late for Parliament to ensure that the Federal Accountability Act (FAA) includes measures to improve transparency in government, for without transparency, accountability is impossible, the Canadian Newspaper Association (CNA) told a Senate committee reviewing the legislation today."
US FOIA - new FOIA Bill approved by Senate : Senate Panel: Speed Up FOIA Requests
"The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday to close gaps in the Freedom of Information Act and speed release of government documents. Sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., the bill would penalize federal agencies that don't respond to FOIA information requests in a timely fashion."

Also see

Read the full text of the Bill, (Note:it is yet to pass through the House.)

The Bill moves the US closer to an ombudsman model of FOIA with the establishment of the Office of Government Information Services. The penalties for delay are also interesting in that if an agency breaches the time limit in the USA FOIA the number of exemptions available to use are vastly reduced to smaller core number, related to national secuirty and personal info etc.

Thomas Susman wrote an article about the Bill last year in Open Government

Add your comments below - would any of the provisions in the Bill be worth considerng here in the UK?
Media roundup

Independent - The wrong climate for cutting greenhouse gases
"For all the Environment Secretary David Miliband's tough talk on tackling climate change, his department is about to come under attack from the environmental lobby. In the past financial year, Miliband's staff at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have clocked up fees of more than £1.75m on airline travel.According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, nearly £1m of that figure was spent on flights outside the EU, an increase of two thirds on the previous year. Around £255,000 of it was spent just on flights within the UK."

VNUnet - Civil servants struggling with move away from paper
"Nearly half of civil servants have admitted sending out wrong documentation, while some government departments still rely on paper rather than electronic documents, according to new research. The information management survey carried out by researcher YouGov on behalf of software supplier Hummingbird, suggests that Whitehall departments are struggling to meet efficiency and accountability targets."

The Guardian - Is there anybody out there? How the men from the ministry hid the hunt for UFOs
"The Ministry of Defence went to extraordinary lengths to cover up its true involvement in investigating UFOs, according to secret documents revealed under the Freedom of Information Act. The files show that officials attempted to expunge information from documents released to the Public Records Office under the "30-year rule" that would have revealed the extent of the MoD's interest in UFO sightings."

IC Scotland - Documents appeal partly upheld
"The Scottish Executive has been ordered to hand over communications it had with the Home Office over children held at an immigration detention centre. The ruling came from Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion, who said no "substantial" harm would be caused by disclosing the records. His decision partly upholds an appeal by SNP MSP Christine Grahame against the Executive's decision to withhold information she sought under the Freedom of Information Act."

BBC News - Drug 'administered too quickly'
"data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Dispatches revealed that the MHRA could have calculated the speed at which the drug should have been given."

The Herald (Scotland) - Britain spends £150m on mercenary bodyguards
"Britain has spent £150m on mercenary bodyguards for diplomats and other officials in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act."

Daily Telegraph - How David Beckham tried to control the National Portrait Gallery's use of his picture
"Beckham's portrait was unveiled in April 2004. Files released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that he fought to secure copyright of the image and required the gallery and artist to sign contracts with him and his company, Footwork."

Regional News
Nowrich Evening News - Hospitals on the critical list
"Doctors and nurses at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital worked under “red alert”- the second highest danger status possible - 292 times between January 2005 and June 2006. The alert means wards and services are nearing capacity and measures to alleviate the strain could include cancelling planned operations, early discharge of patients and drafting in more staff....the figures, released to the Evening News under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the N&N was regularly placed under critical alert status throughout the year."
CHRI launches new publication on Implementing Access to Information

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI - has released its new publication on 'Implementing Access to Information - a practical guide to operationalising freedom of information laws'. The report sets out a step-by-step guide on how to overcome entrenched bureaucratic cultures of secrecy, inconsistent legislation, process and system constraints and a lack of understanding of the law by officials to ensure effective implementation of freedom of information laws.

The report is split into four sections setting out the four key areas of change required to ensure implementation in a correct and effective manner. These include:
-Entrenching a Culture of Openness
-Crafting a Supportive Legislative Regime
-Putting in Place Good Systems
-Monitoring Implementation.

Download the Report (PDF)

CHRI is releasing the report ahead of international Right to Know Day on 28 September, a day on which advocates of freedom of information from across the world will be celebrating the day by holding a number of awareness raising events.
CHRI launches new publication on Implementing Access to Information

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI - has released its new publication on 'Implementing Access to Information - a practical guide to operationalising freedom of information laws'. The report sets out a step-by-step guide on how to overcome entrenched bureaucratic cultures of secrecy, inconsistent legislation, process and system constraints and a lack of understanding of the law by officials to ensure effective implementation of freedom of information laws.

The report is split into four sections setting out the four key areas of change required to ensure implementation in a correct and effective manner. These include:
-Entrenching a Culture of Openness
-Crafting a Supportive Legislative Regime
-Putting in Place Good Systems
-Monitoring Implementation.

Download the Report (PDF)

CHRI is releasing the report ahead of international Right to Know Day on 28 September, a day on which advocates of freedom of information from across the world will be celebrating the day by holding a number of awareness raising events.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Scottish parliament is open and trusted

Does devolution lead more trust and openess in politicians?

Taken from
"In the survey 49 per cent of respondents think that government is more open now that we have a Scottish Parliament, with 44 per cent agreeing that it gives Scottish people more power over important decisions affecting its future. However, 57 per cent agree with the proposition that the Parliament spends too much time debating issues over which it has no power."

In contrast: Recent findings from the Committee on Standards in Public Life (based at Westminster) - Survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life found that "Views in Scotland are very similar to the national average, but fewer people in Northern Ireland would describe standards as very or quite high (35%) and 17% rate standards as very or quite low."

Other key findings from the Committee's survey:

As in 2004, people rate overall standards of conduct of public office-holders in moderately positive terms.

• Across Great Britain, fewer than half rate standards as very or quite high (45%), with 40% saying standards are neither high nor low, and 12% describe them as very or quite low.

• Only 27% of people think all or most Ministers or MPs tell the truth in practice and there is a significantly greater degree of doubt than in 2004 about Ministers and MPs taking bribes: the last survey found 80% saying few or no MPs take bribes and only 3% that they did not know. This survey found 21% saying “they don’t know” with the result that only 63% now say such abuse is rare. The shift in opinion was similar for government ministers.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Conference: Where Now for Freedom of Information in Scotland?

20th November 2006, Edinburgh


Agenda (subject to change)
09:00 Registration and Refreshments

09:45 Welcome and introduction by the conference chair
Brian Taylor, Political Editor, BBC Scotland

Session One: Two Years On
At the conference, the freedom of information (FOI) regime will have been in operation for 22 months. This first session sets the scene of how the system has worked so far and whether it is achieving its aims.

09:55 Keynote address
Kevin Dunion, Scottish Information Commissioner
The Scottish Information Commissioner delivers a keynote address on the lessons of the Act’s first two years and the future for FOI

10:25 A Culture of Openness?
David Hencke, Freedom of Information Correspondent, The Guardian
Has the FOI regime made authorities more open and accountable, and has it improved public trust in government and administration? Were these realistic aims to begin with?

10:45 Questions, Discussion and Electronic Audience Response

11:10 Refreshments

Session Two: FOI Around The World
As the Scottish Executive’s review progresses, delegates will have an opportunity to hear from leading authorities on two other international FOI regimes and the lessons from these systems for Scotland on the issues identified during the review.

11:30 The Irish Experience
Emily O’Reilly, Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, Republic of Ireland
Fulfilling a unique dual role as both FOI watchdog and also the public administration ombudsman, the Irish Commissioner addresses the issues identified during the review

11:55 The Swedish Experience
Helena Jäderblom, Director, Constitutional and Administration Law Division, Ministry of Justice, Sweden
With FOI having existed there since 1766, longer than anywhere else in the world, Sweden’s lengthy experience of making FOI work is brought to bear on the Scottish scene

12:20 Questions, Discussion and Electronic Audience Response

12:45 Lunch

Session Three: Information and Accountability
The issue of accountability is at the heart of the FOI regime.

13:45 Panel Discussion Including Questions from the Audience and Electronic Audience Response

14:45 Refreshments

Session Four: The Future of FOI
The final session looks to the future and how the regime might develop further, and hears from experts in the media and legal fields, before closing with a summary from the Scottish Information Commissioner.

15:05 The Public Response to FOI
Media Representative
How have the public reacted to the FOI regimes in Scotland and England, and what do they think of attempts to reform them?

15:25 The Review and Next Steps
Hazel Moffat, Partner and FOI Specialist, DLA Piper
How might the issues identified in the review be resolved, and how might the Scottish and English reforms proceed differently?

15:45 Questions, Discussion and Electronic Audience Response

16:05 Summary and conclusions
Kevin Dunion, Scottish Information Commissioner responds to the issues raised during the day
Canada - Names of those making requests being revealed

Taken from Montreal Gazette
"Federal government officials appear to be breaking Canadian law by violating the shroud of secrecy that is supposed to protect the identities of citizens who ask to see government documents under the Access to Information Act. Revealing the name of someone requesting documents under the Access to Information law is a violation of the Privacy Act. However, the identity of some requesters appears to be being shared widely among several departments, reaching right up to the Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office and his director of communications."
Presentation given to FOI user group on the Clearing House

I've receieved a copy of the presentation referenced in the last meeting minutes of the FOI user group. Belinda Crowe, Head of Information Rights Division, Department for Constitutional Affairs, gave a presentation on the role of the Central Clearing House, the presentation sheds a little more light on the clearing house and we now know that it costs in excess of £500K a year to run and their rationale behind rejecting requests about cases in the CH database -"Parl created IC to enforce the Act, not individual requestors making requests about their own requests". The notes to the slides are also worth reading.

I have previously managed to get some information via an FOI request from the CH database about cases relating to MP requests. Also see Prof Al Roberts' notes about the clearing house and his article for Open Government - What's wrong with coordination?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

ICO research into FOIA/DPA

Back in August the ICO issued a press release about their annual track research on DPA/FOIA - I've now been sent the full details of the research:

2006 Annual Tracking Report - Organisations

2006 Annual Tracking Report - Individuals

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Campaign for FOI article on fees

An article by the Campaign's Director Maurice Frankel, expressing serious concern at leaked government proposals which could significantly reduce the amount of information disclosed under the FOI Act and lead to application fees being charged, has been added to the Campaign's website.
New research into FOI from Demos

Martin at Open Secrets has picked up news of a new project by think tank Demos that will explore:

"..the the new relationship to knowledge, spurred on by cultural and legislative changes such as the Freedom of Information Act. We want to understand how the emerging channels for freer access to information are changing how people live."

This will be important work as often oversimplified links are made about FOI/Access to Info. legislation and the value the information can provide. FOI should be a means to an end and we must look at the end. The information provided is often part of a wider mosiac of information that the user then has to filter and analyse in context (information is not the same as knowledge). As I've found myself - using the FOIA will not always lead straight to clear understanding of a topic (though is this down to the legislation and the way public authorities assist applicants?) There is also the issue of re-use barriers to the information once it has been received as well.
Top 100 Political blogs

Ian Dale (right of centre political commentator) has produced an interesting report on political blogs . It is obviously quite subjective but interesting showing how important blogging is becomming as a media tool in politics. Martin Rosenbaum's Open Secrets makes the non aligned list at no 90.

The Spy blog has published an interesting response creating an alternative ranking based on bloglines subscriptions. If my blog was included in this ranking it would scrape into the top 20, though perhaps I'm not political enough(?) to make Ian Dale's list.....

Monday, September 18, 2006

Open Source Records Management

The costs of electronic document and records management systems (EDRMS) can be prohibitive to many public authorities considering how to improve records management systems. So it is interesting to note that an open source records management solution has come into the market, via the Alfresco Open Source Enterprise Content Management system. The system is US DoD approved but not National Archives approved.

Read more

The unsupported version is free to download and they do offer hosted trials.
Civil Society Launches Transparency Charter for International Financial Institutions

17 September 2006

A new global charter seeking significantly improved transparency standards across all international financial institutions (IFIs) was launched today by the Global Transparency Initiative (GTI) in Batam, Indonesia, as part of civil society’s parallel events to the World Bank-IMF annual meeting taking place in Singapore. [1]
Drawn from international law and best practices adopted by democratic states, the GTI “Transparency Charter for International Financial Institutions: Claiming our Right to Know” is a forward-looking statement of the standards to which IFI access to information policies should conform.

More information
Media update

The Times - Call for inquiry into NHS ploy
"Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Health Secretary, tabled 31 requests for information about the secret meeting from the Department of Health under the Freedom of Information Act."

Accountancy Age - 500 property schemes in one year
"Disclosure rules relating to Stamp Duty Land Tax have applied since August of 2005, just over a year, and in that time promoters of schemes – largely in-house and legal teams – have revealed 506 of them to the taxman. The figures are revealed in Freedom of Information requests recently put by Private Eye magazine."

The Guardian - National Archives squares the data circle
"The National Archives, once the dusty haunt of academic historians, solicitors' clerks and UFO conspiracists, are now an international e-publishing phenomenon. Some six million people visited the archives electronically last year, to view records or order documents from a thousand years of British history." also see clarifciations and corrections

Sheffield Today - Expenses claim puzzle for MP
"SHEFFIELD MP David Blunkett has spoken of a "bizarre and unbelievable" situation after he was ordered to reveal details of his travel expenses. Following a complaint from an unidentified person, the Sheffield Brightside MP was told to release details about the number of rail warrants issued to him. But Mr Blunkett says he has never refused to reveal any details – and says he is totally bemused by the whole issue."

Scotsman - Cumming hits out at Jack's 'racist' own goal
"Scotland on Sunday has obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act which reveal the extent and bitterness of the backlash against McConnell from English voters following his comments. Letters to McConnell's office revealed some people cancelled holidays to Scotland in protest, saying they wouldn't spend money where they felt unwelcome."

Regional news

Inside Housing - Camden keeps silent over its empty homes
"Camden Council has refused a developer access to its list of empty homes, claiming the disclosure could prevent it from getting a good price to buy the properties itself. ‘If this information was released into the public domain, we feel that the ability of the council to negotiate favourable prices with property owners would be affected,’ a statement from the authority said. ‘The council would have to compete with property developers whose primary motivation is to make profit.’"

This is Bradford - Bill for external NHS advisers tops £1m
"Information obtained by Conservative MP Grant Shapps under the Freedom of Information Act details how much had been spent in 2004/05, 2005/06 and latest data available for a three-month period in 2006/07."

International news

USA - Privacy group tackles US government on e-spying
"The EFF is using the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) as a springboard to introduce information requests and litigation that it hopes will show the extent of government monitoring of web, email and other electronic communications."

Senator Cornyn - Senate Passes Bill To Create Internet Database Of Federal Spending
"The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act will create a Google-like search engine and database to track approximately $1 trillion in federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans. The bill has forty-three Senate co-sponsors. It has been endorsed more than 100 organizations across the political spectrum as well as newspaper editorial boards across the country."

Canada - Information commissioner raises alarm about job ad, description
"The fix may be in for a candidate to replace Canada's information ombudsman, warns the man who currently holds the job. John Reid, the outgoing information commissioner of Canada, raised the alarm Tuesday, saying a recently posted job notice strongly suggests the Conservative government wants to fill the coming vacancy with a senior bureaucrat rather than someone more independent."

Address by Emily O'Reilly, Information Commissioner at Deputy Information Officers' Forum - Johannesburg, South Africa.
69 freedom of information applications

Envinromental journalist Rob Edwards has placed an overview of the 69 Foi requests he has made since January 2005 and the outcomes - highlighting slow reponses and delays at both the UK and Scottish Information Commissioner's Offices. Whilst illustrating issues of delay it is also interesting to note way FOI requests can be used to build up a body of knowledge about an issue and how requests have to sent to many public bodies - something which the proposed changes to the fees regime could make too costly.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Information Commissioner rules against Ofcom on mobile phone base stations

Press release from the ICO, no full text of the decision available as yet, the decision was made under the Environmental Information Regulations rather than FOI. Ii is also interesting that it relates to a full set of data held in database and the intellectual property defence in using an exemption (I presume S43) has been rejected. This is also interesting in relation to the current "Free our Data campaign".

The Information Commissioner has served a Decision Notice under the Environmental Information Regulations ordering Ofcom to provide all data on mobile phone base stations held within its Sitefinder database. Cellular base stations receive and transmit signals to and from mobile phones. The Sitefinder database was set up in response to the Stewart Report. The report set out the findings of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones which was established to assess the state of research into possible health risks from mobile phones.

In reaching his decision, the Commissioner carefully considered each reason that Ofcom put forward for withholding grid references and the database in its entirety in a searchable format. These included national security, public safety and intellectual property rights. The Commissioner decided that none of the exceptions cited by Ofcom were appropriately applied. As with the Freedom of Information Act, the Environmental Information Regulations contain a presumption in favour of disclosure.

The Information Commissioner found that Ofcom has not presented sufficient evidence to suggest there is a particular risk to the security of base stations, particularly in light of the information that is already available in the public domain. The Commissioner also determined that, although database rights and copyright exist, this should not prevent Ofcom from disclosing the requested information.
Government - data sharing

The DCA have recently published their vision for data sharing, previously trailed in The Guardian

HM Government: information sharing vision statement [PDF 400kb, 11 pages]
Government is committed to more information sharing between public sector organisations and service providers. This statement sets out our vision for better, more customer-focused services supported by greater information sharing which will protect and support individuals and society as a whole. [13 September 2006]

Read Government Computing article
House of Commons issues certificate banning disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act

Heather Brooke has had a request for names and salaries of MPs staff paid refused by the House of Commons and for the first time the HoC has issued a certficate under S36. Under S36(7) a certicate issued by the HoC is conclusive.

Also see The Guardian

The decision is not yet on the ICO website, the concept of "fairness" under DPA does have an element of "public interest", given the breakdown of trust between MPs and the public, e.g Public 'has little trust in MPs'(BBC)surely the public interest in this situation overides the rights of secretaries who perhaps as junior staff in other public bodies would not normally be subject to such scruntiny, but then working in Parliament is not a normal job and with it comes unique responsibilities and issues?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

EU-China Information Society Project

At invitation of UCL last week I attended a meeting with a delegation from the Chinese Government. The delegation were interested in the UK approach Freedom of Information. Interest in Freedom of Information China is growing, as an important method to expose corruption at local levels and the link between transparec in administrative improvement and economic growth. The visit was part of a wider programme of the EU-China Information Society project.

I had previously highlighted an interesting series of articles on Open Government in China in Government Information Quarterly .
International news

Ireland - Eighth Report by the Minister for Finance on Freedom of Information January - December 2005 (PDF)

"The statistics show continuing intensive usage of the FOI Act. At end 2005, some 107,600 FOI requests had been received by public bodies. Approximately 72% of these have been granted either in full or in part, 8% were the subject of an internal review and 3% were appealed to the Information Commissioner. Over 14,600 requests were received by public bodies last year, an increase of 16% on 2004. 82% of requests were made by members of the public, business users accounted for 5.5% of requests with journalists accounting for 6.5%. Members of staff of public bodies account for 5%. The remaining 1% of requests were submitted by public representatives."

Canada - Blank v. Canada (Minister of Justice), 2006 SCC 39
The Globe and Mail - Top court ruling opens door to information
"he Supreme Court of Canada struck an important blow in favour of freedom of information and the right to pursue a lawsuit yesterday, opening up a potential gold mine of information to future litigants. The 5-2 judgment was sweet vindication for a Winnipeg man who has spent 10 years battling the government for files it had suppressed relating to his prosecution on environmental offences."
New book - Transparency: The Key to Better Governance

This forthcoming book may be of interest to blog readers:

Transparency: The Key to Better Governance (Proceedings of the British Academy) Edited by Christopher Hood, Gladstone Professor of Government, Oxford University and David Heald, Professor of Financial Management, University of Sheffield

Order from Amazon

'Transparency' is widely canvassed as a key to better governance, increasing trust in public-office holders. But transparency is more often preached than practised, more often referred to than defined, and more often advocated than critically analysed. This volume exposes this fashionable doctrine to critical scrutiny from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including political science, philosophy and economics
Media update

BBC news - Axed police mergers cost millions
"Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money was spent preparing for police force mergers which were later abandoned, the BBC has learned.
Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show 27 police forces spent £6.1m preparing for the move."

BBC news - NHS external manager bill 'soars'
"The NHS in England is set to spend £172m this year on external management consultants - a rise of 83% in two years - the Conservatives have claimed.
Welwyn Hatfield MP Grant Shapps used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain figures from 76% of NHS trusts."

Independent - Restaurant 'scores' for hygiene to be shown online
"Does The Ritz have dirty kitchens or Claridge's mice? Soon diners will be able to find out. From the end of this year, cleanliness ratings for thousands of eateries from the local café to the grandest Michelin-starred restaurant will be revealed online - with potentially embarrassing results. In a victory for freedom of information campaigners, the Food Standards Agency has persuaded 44 local authorities to publish summaries of visits made by environmental health officers to restaurants, cafés, pubs and other food outlets."

Monbiot blog
- The emerging disaster at Dounreay is a powerful argument for open government
"But perhaps above all it is another argument for open government. None of this could have taken place if Dounreay’s operations had been open to public scrutiny. The disasters there happened for the same reason as the disasters in Iraq: the government used “security” as its excuse for hiding the truth from the public."

Daily Telegraph - Police force puts a name to its most prolific criminals
"A police force has inadvertently named and shamed its local criminals – and then linked them to the crimes they are most likely to commit. The list was compiled by statisticians following a request under the Freedom of Information Act."

Scotsman - Complaints against staff double
"COMPLAINTS lodged against doctors, nurses and other health service staff have rocketed in the past year, according to figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday. Statistics released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that almost 4,000 official complaints were raised against NHS workers in 2005/06, more than double the number from the previous year."

Daily Mail - The legal drugs that could kill you
"Documents obtained recently by another journalist via the UK's Freedom of Information Act showed that the industry privately drew up its own detailed blueprint of how the MHRA should be run, proposing to "build on the excellent working relationship between the industry and the regulator".

In the news - Freedom of information ambitions heightened
"The Freedom of Information Act will only be successful if more, rather than less, people use the legislation to gain access to government documents, an academic has claimed. Michael Hunt of Sheffield Hallam University argues in today's issue of the Public Money & Management periodical that Whitehall has to live up to the government's promises and shed its "prevailing veil of secrecy" if the spirit of the act is to be met in reality."

Regional news

This is local London - Asthma rises but ‘car is still king’
"THE number of people diagnosed with asthma has almost doubled in the past year.A total of 970 patients have been diagnosed with the respiratory condition in the past two years....News Shopper got the figures after putting in a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The hospital claims the reason for the rise in figures is it has improved the processes in recording the diagnosis."

Norwich Evening news - Other councils are saying no to masts
"Councils across Norfolk are inconsistent when it comes to making money by placing potentially harmful mobile phone masts on their properties. The Evening News told last week how both Norwich City Council and Norfolk County Council were raking in thousands of pounds from telecoms companies by renting land to them for masts. The city council has earned around £400,000 through the process, while the county council profits to the tune of £60,000 a year. However, a Freedom of Information request has found that neighbouring South Norfolk District Council, Broadland District Council and Yarmouth Borough Council have no masts on their land, while doubts remain over the safety of installing them."

IC South London - £5.9m row over asylum seekers
"When asked if other councils were being pursued for similar asylum grants, the Home Office refused to confirm or deny. The South London Press has now put in a request to the Government under the Freedom of Information Act to find out if this is the case."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Information Commissioner orders disclosure of MPs’ travel expenses

The ICO has released the following press release about a further case relating to MPs' travel expenses, this is adding to the emerging case law about the interaction between the Data Protection Act 1998 and the FOIA 2000 section 40 exemption. In February of this year the ICO upheld other complaints realting to requests for breakdowns of the travel expenses claimed by individual MPs.

View PDF of Decision Notice FS50071194 and Decision Notice FS50072319

The House of Commons have appealed the notice issued in February and the case will reach the Information Tribunal, 7th December 2006.

Also see Ibrahim Hasan's discussion in Open Government on the subject of personal data and the FOIA

The Information Commissioner has ordered the travel expenses of two MPs to be released by the House of Commons after ruling on four appeals under the Freedom of Information Act.

Three complainants requested a breakdown of travel claims made by Anne Picking MP (now known as Anne Moffat MP) for herself and for her spouse. A further complaint requested the number of rail warrants issued for Rt Hon. David Blunkett MP.

The House of Commons refused to release the information on the basis that it was exempt personal information and disclosure would contravene the Data Protection Act.

The Commissioner does not accept that disclosure of the requested information would contravene the Data Protection Act. His view is that the information relates to individuals acting in an official, rather than a private capacity, and that the journeys for which an MP may claim reimbursement, relate to official business. They are paid for out of public funds.

When considering the request for the travel claims of an MP’s spouse, the Commissioner finds that the information requested still arises from the MP’s position as a holder of public office. The costs incurred by an MP’s spouse - when travelling between the MP’s constituency and Westminster - can be claimed by the MP from public funds.

The Commissioner has ordered that the information be released within 35 days of the issue of his Decision Notice.

International Right to Know Day was established to mark the founding on 28 September 2002 of the global Freedom of Information Advocates Network. In 2006 the 4th International Right to Know Day is being celebrated.

The aim of Right to Know Day is to raise awareness of every individual’s right of access to government-held information: the right to know how elected officials are exercising power and how the tax-payers’ money is being spent.

Activities Around the Globe!
In 2005 around 45 civil society organizations in over 30 countries around the globe marked Right to Know Day with activities that included:

(1) An all-day conference on current challenges to Freedom of Information.
(2) Release of reports by NGOs on different aspects of open government including secrecy policies, transparency of political finance contributions, and results of monitoring studies.
(3) Presentation of Awards
oAwards for institution with the best system of providing information
oAwards for best web site from the perspective of the access to information law
oAwards for a media outlet making best use of information requests in preparation of its publications and/or broadcasts
oAwards for best article/broadcast prepared on the basis of information received using an FOI law.
oAwards for NGOs that have contributed most to the promotion and protection of the right to information.
oAwards for a citizen who had exercised his/her right of access to information for the benefit of the community.
oNegative awards for institutions not fulfilling their obligations under the FOI Law.
oNegative awards for “the most ridiculous answer to an access to information request”.
(4) A public debate on openness between government officials and journalists/NGOs.
(5) Selection and dissemination of interesting news stories over the past year that were based on information released under the FOI law.
(6) Selection and dissemination of the most strange, stupid and/or funny responses to requests and refusals to provide information
(7) Selection and dissemination of the most shining examples of attempts by public officials to help the public with their search for information.
(8) Publication of a "Black List" of those public officials/institutions who impaired and infringed the right to access to information.
(9) Publication of posters, banners, cards, brochures, and pamphlets with "Right to Know" slogans.
A record of the Right to Know Day activities of FOI Advocates Network members can be found at

What You Can Do …

if you are an NGO / civil society organization … hold an event, a debate, an award ceremony …. write a press release … hold a discussion with a local community group or in the local school … print up posters and t-shirts and hand them out in the streets … get people involved and, best of all, get them exercising their rights by filing request for information!

if you are an individual … file a request for information, write a letter to your local newspaper, ask your local town hall to put up notices telling people about the right to information, or ask them to put more information on their website … write to your local council or to your member of parliament and ask them what they are doing to promote government transparency!

if you are a teacher or pupil … have a discussion in class about the right to know and why open government is important … think of some requests you can file with your local authority or with a government body such as the Ministry of Education … find a local issue that you would like to know more about such as the quality of the drinking water or the budget for the sports centre and file requests for more information!

if you are a librarian or write an Internet blog … you already understand the value of information, so make sure you inform your members/readers about Right to Know Day!

if you are a journalist … write an article about Right to Know Day around the world and/or about local transparency issues … if you have never filed a request before using your national access to information law, now is the time to start, and then make a story out of what happens!

if you are an Information Commissioner … join in the publicity for the day by holding an event or issuing a press release … hold a competition that will encourage openness such as the best government website or the department with the fastest average response time for answering requests … publicize examples of information disclosure that has helped strengthen the relationship between the public and the government … send a memo to government departments reminding them that 28 September is International Right to Know Day and emphasizing that transparency is nothing to be afraid of because everyone is doing it!

if you are a public servant or elected member of government … ask yourself you are doing to help promote open government … find out what the department you work in is doing to be more open … think about how you can manage information better so that it’s easier to provide to members of the public … put some more information on your website so that the public has a better idea about what you are doing … and if your country has an access to information law, talk to the people in your department who are responsible for giving out information and find out what you can to do help them respond to requests within the timeframes established by law!

if you are still not sure what to do … take a look at the FOI Advocates Network website ( ) for more information about what the members are doing and what you can do … we can also put you in touch with the local access to information organization in your country … and please, send us your reports and press cutting so that we can make our Right to Know Day Map as full as possible this year! Thank you.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Latest Information Tribunal Decisions

The latest tribunal decisions are below - the BBC decisions confirm the previous media stories that the Balen report could be subject to FOI as it was "held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature", the BBC is unusual in that it is listed as public body (Part VI Sechdule 1) in a restricted way to protect press freedom and its position in a commercial market where other comptetitors are not subject to the same. The decision illustrates that the tribunal and subsequent ICO decisions will look at the boundaries in detail and interpretation of the journalism aspect will be tightly drawn. It is also interesting as the decision covers the interaction with the Human Rights Act and the right to freedom of expression.

Another small point - it appears from the tribunal information that the applicant used an assumed name rather his real name to apply. This issue has often been debated by practitioners - how should requests under assumed names be dealt with? the FOIA does state under S8 1(b) that the requests should state the applicants' name. In balance though because the Act does not prescribe that identities should be checked an assumption must be made that all requests should be handled with the presumption of information going into the public domain in general and there would only be the possibility to reject a request if there was clear evidence to suggest that this was not the applicants real name. (guidance under the Scottish Act by the SICO does address this issue explictly, the DCA guidance less so.)

The issues of the BBC's coverage by FOIA also again raises the question of the whether the Press Complaints Commission should be added to the coverage of the FOIA.

The Melton decision is also worth reading for the discussion of what constitues as information as "held" by a public authority in relation to a subscribed database service.


Mr G Marlow v Information Commissioner (31 August 2006) (PDF 80KB) (Melton Borough Council - subsitute decision notice issued

Mr S Sugar v Information Commissioner – Decision on Derogation (29 August2006) (PDF 369KB) (BBC)
"At this preliminary hearing the Tribunal finds that at the time of the request made by Mr Sugar to the BBC for a copy of the Balen Report it was held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature. The Tribunal substitutes a partial decision notice to this effect and requires the parties, within 20 days of the date of this decision, to provide written submissions as to how they consider the Tribunal should now best dispose of the appeal."

Mr S Sugar v Information Commissioner – Decision on Jurisdiction (29 August 2006)
(PDF 369KB)(BBC)
"The Tribunal finds that it has jurisdiction to hear this appeal."
Australia: High Court decision on FOI Australia: High Court Sides with Bureaucrats, Rolling Back Right to Information
"The Australian High Court yesterday dealt a crushing blow to the country's 24-year-old Freedom of Information Law, setting a precedent that permits government bureaucrats to deny public requests for information on the basis of broad claims of potential harm."

Full text of the decision

Also see Sydney Morning Herald - High Court backs bracket creep secret
"The High Court has narrowly rejected a landmark appeal on Freedom of Information laws upholding the view of the Treasurer, Peter Costello, that it was not in the public interest to release documents about the First Home Owners Scheme and bracket creep.In a three to two majority, the court found no error in law when the Treasurer signed documents called conclusive certificates which state the release of the documents was not in the public interest. In what was widely regarded as the most important court test on Freedom of Information law since its inception 24 years ago."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Free software

Practitioner Adam Pope has a new website and new versions of the free software he has developed, that many practitioners have used and customised to their own needs. Adam offers the software for free under shareware principles but does ask for donations.

He offers two software tools

- The Information Auditor
"designed to allow you to conduct an inventory of your organisation's information assets and create a register of files and records you hold. Loaded with drop-down boxes and automated fields the Information Auditor will make your survey so much easier."


- The FOI Monitor
"designed to allow you to track your access to information requests with ease - even sending an email to alert staff when requests are nearing their due-by date. Loaded with drop-down boxes, template letters, reports compliant with the DCA and automated fields the FOI Monitor will make answering requests so much easier."

Both are MS Access based. Adam also provides help pages. His website also contains articles about FOI and records management.
Department of Constitutional Affairs' Information Rights Journal

The DCA have published issues 3 & 4 of their Information Rights Journal

Articles of interest in the Journal

-The section 16 duty of advice and assistance
-Records management: FOI and beyond (Author: Natalie Ceeney, Chief Executive, The National Archives)
-Article: Information rights in local government and future challenges
RSS feed and blog improvements

A few people have pointed out that they have had problems viewing the XML RSS feed from this blog because it is in blogger's atom XML format. I've now created a new feed that should work in nearly all RSS readers. Paste the link below into your RSS reader.

If you're new to RSS try setting up an account to read RSS using bloglines

I've also had some feedback about using categories for posts to enable better navigation. This is something I've been wanting to do for some time but the blogger software didn't offer the facility to create categories. I have looked into moving to new software but I'm not sure if I'm ready for the stress of migrating three years worth of content. A few weeks ago blogger announced that they upgrading a to new version that will allow categories - my account has not been upgraded yet but I will be able offer this soon.
Actnow Autumn training programme

Autumn 2006 Course Programme.

Regular courses include FOI from A-Z, Data Protection from A-Z, Records Management, Handling Requests for Personal Data under DP & FOI, Surveillance Law and RIPA, SPoc Accreditation and many more.

NEW courses include:

- FOI Update: Exemptions, Refusals and Cases
- Conducting an Information Audit with Steve Wood
- Internet Law & Security with Dai Davis
- Making the case for an (ERDMS) Electronic Records and Document

Monday, September 04, 2006

New information law website

Ibrahim Hasan (a director of Act Now Training) has set up this new website. It contains lots of articles to download & has details about Ibrahim’s services in the area of in house training and legal advice on information law.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Media update

The Guardian - Labour's £2bn army of consultants
"Our findings paint a disturbing picture of millions of pounds wasted on controversial or abandoned schemes and huge differentials in pay between civil servants and consultants brought in to do similar jobs. Data drawn from internal Whitehall sources, ministers' answers to MPs, and freedom of information requests"

The Observer -Revealed: bonuses paid to Home Office bosses
"Senior civil servants in the Home Office have been paid more than £2m in bonuses over the past two years despite the myriad scandals that have engulfed the department, The Observer can reveal. The bonuses were agreed by the Prime Minister....They were released by the Home Office under the Freedom of Information Act, and disclose the scale of hundreds of 'performance-related' bonuses being paid out by the Home Office to the majority of its top mandarins. The sums range from £3,000 and £15,000."

The Sunday Times - Pay £180bn: you've been quangoed
"It can also use quangos for concealment: many do not have to provide answers under the Freedom of Information Act. For those who sit on the governing bodies they provide a lucrative source of income. Some quango heads earn more than £100,000 a year for just a few days’ work each month."

Scotland on Sunday - MoD finds vital body armour on sale at eBay
"Documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation also show MoD detectives also found fire-fighting equipment, Navy survival suits, radios and even the cockpit section of an RAF trainer for sale."

Sunday Herald - Trident fleet’s safety alerts double
"The internal reports, released by the Ministry of Defence under the Freedom of Information Act, claim the increasing number of incidents did not indicate the Clyde bases were becoming less safe. More events were being recorded because staff were more aware of the need to report mishaps, they suggested."

Press Gazette - BBC loses landmark FOI case over Middle East coverage
"The Information Tribunal has ruled against the BBC in the first case testing the exposure of the corporation's journalism to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The tribunal decided that the corporation had been wrong to deny a request for an internal report about its coverage of the Middle East using a blanket derogation in the law that exempts the BBC from releasing information about its journalism."
(note: this decision doesn't appear to be on the tribunal website yet)

International news

Australia - Tasmanian Times - Omb forces Tas Gov to release Cabinet Documents
"Ombudsman forces Tasmanian Government to release Cabinet Documents Rick Snell The result will be a revolution in the way that Tasmanian government decision-making can be scrutinised and understood. There may be flow on effects in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia in the short term."

Herald Sun - MPs' petrol bills secret
"VICTORIAN MPs and their families have pumped more than $500,000 of free petrol into their taxpayer-funded cars -- but their bills are being kept secret."

Friday, September 01, 2006

RecordKeeping magazine

The summer edition of RecordKeeping magazine is now available to read online. RecordKeeping is a quarterly publication from the National Advisory Services for archivists, records managers and all those involved and interested in archives and records. In this issue we bring you case studies from the Coal Authority and the Paradigm project - preserving digital personal records. We also celebrate 125 years of the Purchase Grant Fund as well as bringing you news from The National Archives and the wider archives and records management sectors.
New ICO website

The Information Commissioner's Office have relaunched their website. It is a big improvment on the previous one. The structure does seem clearer and there are some new features. The most welcome one is a new decision notice database, you can now browse and search for decisions by name of authority, date and section of the FOIA/EIRs. They have also made the decision notices available as an RSS feed. This will enable users to view the notices alongside other news feeds using an RSS reader (if you are new to RSS see the BBC site). This site for example also has an RSS feed.

Because the decisions are now available as RSS this enables me the "scrape" this information using a script and we now have an decision notices page on the blog that will be automtically updated. At the momemt the public authority name is not appearing in the RSS - I'll ask the ICO about this.