Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Latest ICO decision notices

Case Ref: FS50102786
Date: 21/11/2006
Public Authority: Doncaster MBC
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: EIR 5 - Complaint Upheld , EIR 9 - Complaint Upheld , EIR 14 - Complaint Upheld
Full transcript of decision notice FS50102786

This recently published decision by the ICO under the Environmental Information Regulations is important reading for practitioners in that it focuses again on the issue of whether information is "held".

In the Doncaster case the complaint related to noise data that Doncaster MBC had access to (rather than physically held). The decision draws upon the Information Tribunal decision (Mr G Marlow v Information Commissioner 31/8/06), the Marlow case was under FOIA but covered similar issues (access to information held on an online legal database).

The decision also illustrates a more rigorous approach that the ICO is now taking to investigations and this is being documented in the decision notcies in greater detail; details about how the ICO case officer and an IT specialist visited the premises of Doncaster MBC to investigate for example.

Other decisions issued this month:

Case Ref: FS50071319
Date: 22/11/2006
Public Authority: Warwick District Council
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI 17 - Complaint Upheld , FOI 41 - Complaint Not upheld , FOI 42 - Complaint Not upheld
Full transcript of decision notice FS50071319

Case Ref: FS50088779
Date: 22/11/2006
Public Authority: The Governing Body of Garforth Community College
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI 17 - Complaint Upheld , FOI 40 - Complaint Not upheld
Full transcript of decision notice FS50088779

Case Ref: FS50105898
Date: 21/11/2006
Public Authority: HM Treasury
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI 29 - Complaint Not upheld , FOI 35 - Complaint Not upheld
Full transcript of decision notice FS50105898

Case Ref: FS50125936
Date: 21/11/2006
Public Authority: Marine Accident Investigation Branch part of Department for Transport
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: FOI 12 - Complaint Not upheld
Full transcript of decision notice FS50125936

Case Ref: FER0085943
Date: 15/11/2006
Public Authority: Salisbury District Council
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: EIR 13 - Complaint Not upheld
Full transcript of decision notice FER0085943

Case Ref: FER0078604
Date: 14/11/2006
Public Authority: Stafford Borough Council
Section of Act/EIR & Finding: EIR 12 - Complaint Not upheld
Full transcript of decision notice FER0078604
Media update - news about FOI or uses of FOI

Guardian comment (David Hencke) - The freedom to find things out
"Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of Britain's Press Complaints Commission, has made an extraordinary claim. He said that it was now more difficult to get information out of the government than 10 years ago... don't know what planet our former ambassador to Washington is on. But both statements are horribly wrong."

New Statesman - Iraq: the new cover-up
"The government is withholding a secret draft of the Iraq WMD dossier that was never disclosed to the Hutton inquiry, the New Statesman can reveal...The existence of the secret draft has been confirmed by the Foreign Office, but it has refused to release it despite repeated freedom of information requests."

Campaign against the Arms trade
- The UK's universities own shares in the arms trade worth over £15million
"45 universities and university colleges have admitted that they own shares in at least one top arms company. Three institutions - UCL, Trinity Hall Cambridge and the University of Liverpool - each hold arms shares worth over £1million."

University of Manchester - Terrorist hotbeds 'a fantasy', says researcher
"Research at The University of Manchester has found that Muslim terrorists are no more likely to come from towns and cities with large Muslim populations than anywhere else....'The CrownProsecution Service were reluctant to provide a more comprehensive list - which is why we have used media reports in the Guardian and BBC Online. 'But we've made an application under the Freedom of Information Act which will hopefully allow us to carry out this research in more detail.' "
BBC - Police Scientology gifts inquiry
"Some received free invitations to a charity dinner, with Tom Cruise as the
guest of honour, details from a Freedom of Information Act request showed."

BBC Open Secrets - No more stories like this one?
"The BBC has just revealed the impact of lengthy delays at the professional body which hears complaints about alleged misconduct by nurses."

The Herald
- Arms flights prosecution ruled out
"According to papers released under the Freedom of Information Act, Prestwick Airport's freight-handling department was told only verbally about the dangerous cargo, when the operator should have had special written permission to "carry munitions of war in UK airspace".

- Scotland 'unprepared' for disaster
"A comprehensive report by the Centre for Disaster Management has identified key shortcomings in current plans drawn up by the Scottish Executive, emergency services, councils, health and other public services for a major incident."

Taxhack -Freedom of Information petition
"I've made occasional use of the Freedom of Information Act to ask about big tax cases, and the government's view on non-domiciliaries (the latter being surprisingly successful, in that the Treasury sent me a document detailing the £1bn annual presumed cost of the rule). The government is however proposing restrictions to the Act. It can reject claims if they are too expensive to answer, and it proposes to include 'reading time' in that figure."

Regional news

The News (Portsmouth) - Are they closing the door on democracy?
"However, The News reveals an alarming level of secrecy within parts of Portsmouth City Council. In fact the situation has reached a level where councillors – those elected by the people to make decisions – are having to use the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to get access to information they believe is vital for them to carry out that responsibility."

The Welwyn & Hatfield Times - The cost of moving on traveller
"IT cost council taxpayers more than £3,000 in one year to move on travellers camped illegally in Times Territory we can reveal. With legal fees the total for the 2005/2006 financial year was £5,000."

Redhill And Reigate Life - Freedom of information carries high price tag
"A Croydon resident claims Croydon Council wanted to charge him more than £450 for a simple Freedom of Information request.Peter Morgan's request for a list of meetings between the council and Transport for London (TfL) to discuss the Tramlink extension was turned down because the town hall said it would cost them more than £450 to carry out." - this article is a bit confused but is a good example of how discrepancies can emerge when two authorities process requests for the same information

IC Wales - Assembly pays out for legal advice
"The Assembly Government has spent more than £6.7m getting legal advice from external lawyers - even though it has a fully staffed legal division of its own employing 84 people."

ICWales - Costs worries put 101 number pilot plan on hold
"PLANS to roll out a key Government pledge on introducing the 101 non-emergency number have been frozen over cost worries - despite official documents showing the scheme is under budget."

Brighton Argus - Ministers care more for the media than patients
"Tony Blair's recent assertion that decisions over hospital cuts in Sussex are yet to be made is contradicted by documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. These documents show that, as feared, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals (BSUH) NHS Trust is one of the 77 trusts most at risk of cuts because of existing significant deficits."

Oxford Mail - Cheap holidays blamed for truancy
"The equivalent of 321 pupils a day are skipping school in Oxfordshire with some missing vital lessons to jet away on cheap holidays with their families....Figures obtained by the Oxford Mail using the Freedom of Information Act showed unauthorised absences were falling year-on-year, but it remained a huge headache for teachers."

This is Chesire - Council could be pressing for more cash from the developers
"The Government recently said 40 per cent of major schemes in the UK get these section 106' agreements. But figures obtained by the Warrington Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act show Warrington has got them for only 20 per cent of major schemes since 2000."

Edinburgh Evening News - City universities report rising number of coursework cheats
"HUNDREDS of students have been caught cheating after Edinburgh's universities introduced computer software to catch them out...Figures obtained by the Evening News through the Freedom Of Information Act show that Napier has recorded the highest level of cheating in the city."

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Blair bows to media pressure on FOI consultation?

Taken from Hold the front page( 28th) :

The Prime Minister has agreed to "consult very widely" over proposals to restrict use of the Freedom of Information Act. Speaking at the Newspaper Conference Annual Lunch, for regional press political editors and their guests, Tony Blair said: "We will certainly consult you and others very widely on it."

We need to wait whether this is confirmed by the DCA

Also see the Guardian today: Ministers plan to break pledge on freedom of information

Monday, November 27, 2006

Latest Tribunal Decision

A decision worth noting for those working in public authorities about the importance of the S16 "Duty to assist & advise" and the S45 Code of Practice relating to S16, plus also to requestors about being clear and consistent about what you require throughout the process to appeal.

Dr C Lamb v Information Commissioner (16 November 2006)

The Tribunal finds that the Information Commissioner was wrong in law in issuing a Decision Notice upholding the Cabinet Office’s determination that the Cabinet Office did not hold any information of the type purportedly requested, on account of a failure on the part of the Information Commissioner to take into account properly or at all the admitted lack of clarity in the complainant’s original request.

The Tribunal substitutes a new Decision Notice requiring disclosure within 28 days of the date of this Decision in the following terms, namely:
On consideration of part (ii) of the complainant’s request of 31 March 2005 the Cabinet Office should have asked the complainant to particularise the said request in order to identify the precise information requested, asking in particular whether the said request sought information with regard to the author or authors of any legal advice or opinion provided to the Cabinet Office (other than by the Attorney General) irrespective of whether the said legal advice or opinion was provided by governmental or non-governmental source.
Information Rights User group

The minutes of the user group meeting from the 25th Oct (post publication of the Frontier report) are now online and do indicate a little more detail than previous minutes. Some opposition is registered to the proposed changes to the fees regime (though not attributed to names). One point worth highlighting:

She (Baroness Ashdown) welcomed further comments in writing and was very willing to discuss the matter with other groups. She was very keen to keep the Group informed of developments and to engage with them on the issue. It was proposed that at the next meeting the Group would discuss the drafting of the regulations and guidance.

This would appear to indicate that a draft statutory instrument in the form of new fees regulations could be presented on the 14th December. This does mean that anyone who wanst to send comments to the DCA or lobby on this issue should do soon....
CFOI Response

The Campaign for FOI has submitted a formal response to the Department for Constitutional Affairs about the proposed changes to the FOI Act.
Frontier economics report: DCA release some costs data

The DCA have disclosed some of the information they previously refused to release to the Campaign for FOI and the BBC. They had requested the background data related to the costs review of the FOIA (and used in the Frontier economics report). What we can now see is each request covered by the survey listed by a unique no against data for time spent, outcome etc. The breakdown by Dept asked for by the CFOI has not been released. You can't also see what the requests were about in terms of a title or summary for the request. The data released is in PDFs and can't be placed into any other application for further analysis. I will post some further comment after some more detailed reading.

Details: see the DCA disclosure log entry. They have released the following:

-Data collection template [3 pages]
-Statistical data from government departments [53 pages]
-Analysis of statistical data [4 pages]

Martin at Open Secrets has made two posts on the issue & points out some interesting issues comparing this data with the final Frontier report:

-Why did the DCA change its mind?

-DCA backs down on release of FOI data
High Court Decision on DPA

The following High Court decision has been published: "for judicial review of a decision of the National Security Appeals Panel of the Information Tribunal ("the Tribunal") of the 28th July 2005". The application was dismissed.

In its decision, the Tribunal allowed an appeal by the Commissioner under s 28(4) of the Data Protection Act 1998 ("the 1998 Act") against a certificate signed by the claimant on the 31st March 2004 pursuant to section 28(2) of the Act, and quashed the certificate. The certificate in question was signed by the Rt Hon David Blunkett M.P., was directed to the Commissioner and certified that exemption was required from Part V of the 1998 Act in respect of any personal data not identified in a Schedule to the Certificate, for the purposes of safeguarding national security.

For these reasons, as I have said, I consider that the Tribunal was right in the conclusion to which it came. I consider that the way in which this matter was progressed in correspondence was entirely sensible. Particularly it seems to me that the letter to which I have referred in paragraph 8 above sets out the procedural position entirely correctly. The service of the section 43 Notice was a sensible method of bringing the issue to a head
FOI petition on No10 site

The No 10 website has a new e-petition system and now contains a petition on the proposed changes on the fees regs. You can register and sign online. The petition has been proposed by Tom Griffin of The Green Ribbon.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

FOI requests and responses

In preparation for building their Freedom of Information Filer and Archive, the team at MySociety are collecting examples of requests you’ve made under FOI, and the responses received.

Send your repsonses via this webpage

More about the Freedom of Information Filer & Archive project

I hope to add details of a selection of my requests soon

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ministry of Defence (MoD) apologises about FOI request

Taken from Rob Edwards' website:

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has apologised for behaviour that was "neither reasonable nor acceptable" in dealing with a request under freedom of information legislation.

Jane Lewis, a senior official in the MoD's information directorate in Whitehall, has admitted to long delays and a series of "handling errors" when responding to a request for information on safety incidents at the nuclear weapons base on the Clyde near Glasgow.

Read the full story
FOI Fees proposals - consultation

The Campaign for FOI are urging people to send in comments on the proposed changes to the fees regulations:

It now appears that there isn't going to be any formal consultation on the proposals, though the Government has said it will consider any responses that are received. Therefore if anyone wishes to comment on the proposals, it's important to do so now.

Responses should be sent to Lord Falconer at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, Selborne House, 54 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QW.

The Campaign for FOI's press release from 16th Oct, offers their views on the issue

I will be sending my formal response this week.

Friday, November 17, 2006

CFOI Scotland training course 22 November: RE-SCHEDULED for 17 January 2007

The Campaign for FOI in Scotland have re-scheduled their planned November 22nd course to January 17th. More details.
International news

Two press releases from the Open Society Institute:

-Justice Initiative Lauds Adoption of Freedom of Information Bill by Nigerian Senate
"The Open Society Justice Initiative today hailed the Nigerian Senate’s approval of a freedom of information bill and urged President Olusegun Obasanjo to sign it into law quickly."

-Council of Europe Urged to Recognize Broad Right of Access to Information
"Three leading freedom of information organizations are calling on the Council of Europe to ensure that its future treaty in the area of freedom of information provides a robust safeguard of the right to access information.". The briefing, including an analysis of the current working document and the comparative study, can be downloaded at
Hacking democracy film - US election voting machines -lessons for the UK?

I attended the e-Democracy 2006 conference in London yesterday - I did attempt to make my first ever live conference post to my blog- my wifi worked but sadly my battery did not! The conference proved to a very interesting and enjoyable day - also very refreshing not to have any PowerPoints used and let open speaking and discussion prevail.

One of the highlights of the day was the first ever screening of the film "Hacking Democracy" (from HBO films) - this film has been creating quite a stir in the US as it was shown just before the US mid terms. I found the film a pretty chilling insight into the risks of electronic voting. The film follows an activist from Seattle who tries to unravel the secrets behind the voting machines used in the US that are controlled by major corporations, even election officials are not allowed access to the code. The film does contain suggestions of possible election fraud, whilst not uncovering evidence of fraud, the film proves how unsecure the systems are and the links between the corporations producing the machines and the Republican party. One interesting aspect of the film was the activists' use of the state level FOI laws in trying to access information relating ballots and machines used - the film suggested this had some success but didn't clearly focus on the outcomes of the requests.

View a snippet from Youtube below. Apparently there isn't a UK TV deal for the film yet - if you want to see it - why not contact BBC or channel 4?

The activists' site: black box voting is still available.

It is worth noting that the e-voting issue is still on the agenda here in the UK - the DCA are inviting expressions of interest from English local authorities seeking to run electoral modernisation pilots at the May 2007 local elections. Also see this posting on Jason Kitcat's blog he points out that "the Electoral Commission's own figures for the 2003 pilots showed that e-voting had no significant impact on turnout."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Tory plan to reveal expenditure

I've posted a few times recently about the website and database in the US and the recent Accountability & TransparencyAct passsed in the US to set a comprehensive expenditure database; the Tories are now making a push for one here in the UK. It will interesting to see if cross-party support develops, I do wonder whether the Treasury will baulk at the cost of such a project given the complexity of maintaining and managing the data, plus the current problems with large IT projects. It will also be important to follow closely any plans related to how the resuable the data will be - whether the raw data will available for others to reuse - free or at a cost. See my posts: on and US Accountability & Transparency Act. In the US the blogging community got heavily involved in lobbying for the Bill to passed.

See BBC News:
"The Conservatives will unveil plans to allow taxpayers to go online and find out how their money is being spent. Shadow chancellor George Osborne is publishing legislation requiring the Treasury to set up a website revealing every expenditure over £25,000."

Also see the Conservatives' website

Monday, November 13, 2006

Academic use of FOI

My post on academic use of FOI has prompted some interesting correspondence- the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority have said that 87 of their 250 requests since Jan. 2005 have been from academics/students. Whilst this is a fairly specialist agency it does illustrate that academic use is taking place in some sectors and is worth further inevstigation in my view. The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority also kindly sent a breakdown of the requests (names redacted).
Tony Benn Speech

Last week Tony Benn gave at talk about his Diaries and Archiving Material:‘The Importance of Keeping our History’at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Members’ Day. He discussed FOI as part of his speech. Read the full the full transcript.

Friday, November 10, 2006

FOI Day for researchers and archivists, National Libarary of Wales

I went to interesting conference on wednesday of this week at the National Library of Wales - the focus of the day was looking at uses of the FOIA for academic researchers and the impact on archives, specifically in the social sciences.

One of the most interesting papers was by Professor Duncan Tanner of Welsh Institute for Social and Cuktural Affairs, University of Wales, Bangor. He has been trying to use the Act to research Welsh devolution. He outlined how he has benefited from the proactive release programmes of the both the National Archives and the National Library of Wales: the National Archives archives offer a "click to review" option on closed files on its website. He also outlined some of the problems he has had trying to retrieve information from the Home Office about Poltical violence and the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles - most files were exempted under S24 and S31 - "it would not be in the public interest to disclose police tactics for dealing with terrorist threats in the past as disclosure would undermine current and future operation for eadling similar threats". According to Professor Tanner many of the 1960's tactics used were common knowledge and ammounted to bugging public telephone boxes and infiltrating public meetings. Professor Tanner has been working hard in trying to promote potential uses of the Act by historians and researchers in the social sciences (he also recently wrote to the Guardian about the potential impact on his research of the proposed changes to the fees regs).

In the other general discussions about the fees regs that emerged it was interesting to remember that the Welsh Assembly's Code of Practice on Access to Information sets out that the requests to the Assembly will be free and will not use the cost limit. The Code also sets out that the Assembly will intpret exemptions using an additional substantial harm test. The Code isn't a legal document but sets out the principles in which the assembly will handle FOI requests.

I gave a general paper offering an overview of the FOIA so far:Download my presentation

I am also currently interested in trying make the case for academics to make greater use of the Act and am unclear about academic levels of usage (if you are an academic using the Act, from any discipline I'd like to hear from you). To this end I am hoping to get some funding for an academic study into use of FOIA by researchers. Last month I outlined some of my thoughts on the FOIA and implications for researchers in a paper I gave to the Research Information Network (RIN) (including issues such as archiving of requests, training and materials to encourage use.) There is also an issue of getting responses from National Academic Bodies on the possible impact of the proposed changes to the FOIA whilst an opportunity for consultation exists. The proposed changes in adding reading, consideration & consultation, plus further aggregation could have similar impacts on researchers as have been outlined by journalists.

Whilst not workable in our "applicant blind" FOIA it is interesting to note that when I've used the US FOIA I've been able apply for a fee waiver due to academic nature of my work.

The paper I delivered to the RIN Oct 2006: FOI & its implications for researchers
US FOI: Is there a "Secret Hold" on the Freedom of Information bill?

I've reported a few times here about the progress of the Open Govt Bill through the US Congrees, this article on open the points to a delaying tactic holding it up, things may obviously change now

"The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on Sept. 21 that would greatly strengthen government openness - but one sponsor suspects it is being blocked by a parliamentary device called a "secret hold."

One aim of the Bill is create a form of Ombudsman's Office for the US FOIA called the Office of Government Services. See my previous post on the Bill
Impact of exchange controls on the Beatles in 1974

Interesting disclosure from the HM Treasury disclosure log:

Subject: Impact of exchange controls on the Beatles in 1974

Date: 7 November 2006

Text of request:

A request for the disclosure of a closed file retained by HM Treasury. File reference: T 295/1118 The Beatles. Dated 1974 Jan 01 - 1974 Dec 31.

Text for disclosure:

The disclosure relates to the application of the Exchange Controls Act 1947 in relation to some of the Beatles's business transactions.

PDF file of Impact of exchange controls on the Beatles in 1974

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Information on beneficiaries of CAP payments

Transparency: Commission facilitates access to Member State information on beneficiaries of CAP payments

EC Press release

To further improve openness and access to information, the European Commission is publishing on its EUROPA website a page with links to Member State websites containing information about end-beneficiaries of payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This step is part of the European Transparency Initiative (ETI) Full transparency should be ensured with the publication of all end-beneficiaries of CAP payments in line with the Commission's proposals introduced in the Financial Regulation. The Council has agreed to start this process from 2009, and discussions are still ongoing with the European Parliament.

Further information

Member State websites providing information on
beneficiaries of CAP payments under shared management:

Beneficiaries of Grants

Beneficiaries of Public Contracts

European Transparency Initiative

Modified proposal to the Financial Regulation

UK Background: Rural Payments Agency 2005 FOI disclosure of CAP payments
Ireland - latest decisions

Two recent decisions from the Information Commissioner in Ireland that may be of interest, some relevant comparability with the UK in relation to the application of the public interest test and exemptions relating to legal professional privilege, third party information, parliamentary privilege:

- Case 040025 - Mr. John McCarthy and the Department of Agriculture and Food
"Request for access to records - whether a briefing note given to a Minister falls outside of the scope of the FOI Act - section 46(1)(db) - whether an exemption on the grounds of legal professional privilege is applicable - section 22(1)(a)"

"Having carried out a review under section 34(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, 1997 as amended, I hereby vary the decision of the Department of Agriculture and Food. Apart from the first paragraph of record number 6 (Vol. IV) which the Department has agreed to release in any event, I direct that it also release to you the extracts identified above in record numbers 1, 2, 5, 8 and 9 (from Vol. IV), 2, 3 and 6 (from Vol. V) and 1 (from Vol. VI)."

- Case 050166 - Mr. Eamonn Murphy and the Industrial Development Authority (IDA)
Request for access to records - whether the public interest favours release of records that disclose positions taken for the purpose of negotiations - section 21(2) - whether an exception to the legal professional privilege rule may apply - section 22(1)(a) - whether release of relevant records would constitute contempt of court - section 22(1)(b) - whether access could reasonably be expected to prejudice or impair the fairness of civil proceedings in a court or other tribunal - section 23(1)(a)(iv) - whether the public interest favours release of a record that would disclose personal information about a third party - section 28(5)(a).

"Having carried out a review under section 34(2) of the Freedom of Information Acts, 1997 and 2003 I hereby vary the decision taken by the IDA, and direct that the records listed above be released."
Fifth Annual Information Rights Conference

You may want to mark your calendar for the -
Fifth Annual Information Rights Conference for the Public Sector: FOI Live 2007

Thursday 24 May 2007 at the Victoria Park Plaza, London

Details of this year's conference in May
Natural England - new disclosure log

New public body Natural England has made a disclosure log available. (Also listed in the disclosure log index).

(NE was formed by bringing together English Nature (EN), the landscape, access and recreation elements of the Countryside Agency (CA) and the environmental land management functions of the Rural Development Service (RDS).)
1999 Home Office Paper

In my previous post I referenced the Home Office background paper from 1999 that was unavailable in the DCA site - thanks to Nick at my2p who has found a copy lurking on the National Archives website.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

FOIA Fees regulations review - a practitioner's view

I received this interesting view from a senior FOI practitioner from a government agency this week, they have agreed for me to publish their comment in anonymised form- illustrates that not all practitioners are in favour of the proposed reform and again reiterates the important point that the changes are central government led and not necessarily supported by the rest of the public sector and that is very early in the life of the FOIA to be considering changes. They also make the same point I made in my earlier post about whether there needs to be better application of existing rights to aggregate and other aspects of the FOIA(S14, S16).

My personal view on these proposals is mixed, but mainly unfavourable. I can see why central government want to make the change but this is really based on evidence from the first few months of the Act, which always were going to be challenging for large central government bodies given the retrospective nature of the Act. I think, at present, most public bodies have sufficient tools in place to manage the impact of wide-ranging requests but wonder whether enough of them use the aggregation option effectively. The duty to advise and assist applicants also offers an option for minimising the impact of requests while still achieving customer satisfaction. It seems too early in the life of new legislation to retrench like this, and I fear that were the proposed new fees regulations to come into effect and then were consistently applied by the public sector it would result in a far greater number of complaints being referred to the ICO (and, by extension, more work for the public authorities). I believe it will be especially difficult to account for reading/consultation time and that this aspect of any fees breakdown supplied by public bodies to information applicants will constantly be challenged. I also believe that there will be frequent problems with aggregation. Say, for example, a public body receives a request from a national newspaper in the new year and comfortably reaches the ?450/?600 appropriate fees limit owing to the complexity of the request. Would that public body really then prevent anyone from the newspaper making an additional request under FOI for a three-month period? Far from promoting openness and transparency, a change of the sort under consideration would seem to be inviting the media to mount a campaign about secrecy in the public sector.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Comparative paper on USA, Canada & UK FOI

Recently published by UCL's Consitution Unit:

"Freedom Of Information: History, Experience And Records And Information Management Implications In The USA, Canada And The United Kingdom"

"This paper, prepared by the Unit for the ARMA International Educational Foundation, explores freedom of information in practice in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Highlights include comparative sections on use of exemptions, practical issues for authorities and points relevant to records managers, as well as national case studies on media use of FOI in the UK and use of the National Security Exemption in the US since 9/11."

download the paper from the ARMA website.
"Call to Bloggers" to stand up for freedom

From Amnesty International:

"Amnesty International today issued a ‘Call to Bloggers’, asking them to get online and stand up for freedom of expression on the internet. The organisation says this is a critical time when fundamental rights – particularly freedom of expression and privacy – are under threat from governments that want to control what their citizens say, and what information they can access."

For more information on Amnesty’s campaign for internet freedom see:

Technorati tags: | blogs
Labour MP makes comment about FOI fees debate on his blog

Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East has posted a comment about the fees debate on his blog that is broadly supportive of govts proposal.
Media update

BBC - Sunk Falklands ship safety 'poor'
"An inquiry into the sinking of HMS Sheffield at the height of the Falklands War has said crew were poorly trained and equipment was inadequate. The ship sank on 4 May 1982 with the loss of 20 men after being hit by an Argentine missile fired from a plane. Details of the inquiry into the sinking have emerged in previously classified documents released under the Freedom of Information Act."

BBC news - Council accused over bypass delay
"Campaigners for the Boston Bypass scheme have accused the county council of a "catalogue of errors and delays" in the town's transport plan. The Boston Bypass Pressure Group said paperwork obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed slow progress on the Boston Transport Study."

The Guardian - No 10 coy over £200 gift from Blair to Bush
"Such is the sensitivity in Downing Street to the inconsistency, however, a request from the Times under the Freedom of Information Act for details of gifts sent across the Atlantic was turned down. But descriptions of Mr Bush's presents from No 10 have already been made public by the White House."

Daily Telegraph
- NHS carbon trading sees millions go up in smoke
"Hospitals have lost nearly £6 million since a controversial Government scheme to cut carbon emissions was introduced. The chaos caused to essential public services by Labour's participation in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme is revealed in a series of emails and documents released under the Freedom of Information Act."

Daily Telegraph - More homes face flooding risk as budget is slashed by £24m
"The Government has slashed the budget for protecting five million people and property worth £200 billion in Britain from the growing risk of flooding caused by climate change. Information obtained by the Conservatives under the Freedom of Information Act undermines the Government's commitment to the environment despite pledges from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to set an example to the rest of the world."

IC Croydon - Cancelled operations at Mayday hit a five-year high
"A TOTAL of 13,634 operations were cancelled at Mayday Hospital over the last year - almost half of all scheduled surgery. The figures were released following a Freedom of Information request by the Advertiser and show that the number of postponed operations is at a five-year high."

Eastern Daily Press - Councils failing to measure power - MP
"Council spending on energy in Norfolk has shot up 46pc in the last three years to nearly £11m, but most authorities are failing to measure how much power they use, an MP claimed last night. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act to North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb indicate that combined spending by all seven district councils and the county council went from £7.3m in 2003/04 to £10.6m in 2005/06."

Press Gazette - Sunday Telegraph team outline fears over FoI plans
"Fourteen Sunday Telegraph journalists have written to Lord Falconer to outline their concerns about proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act."

International news

US - The Guardian - 1999 War Games Foresaw Problems in Iraq
"WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. government conducted a series of secret war games in 1999 that anticipated an invasion of Iraq would require 400,000 troops, and even then chaos might ensue. In its ``Desert Crossing'' games, 70 military, diplomatic and intelligence officials assumed the high troop levels would be needed to keep order, seal borders and take care of other security needs. The documents came to light Saturday through a Freedom of Information Act request by the George Washington University's National Security Archive, an independent research institute and library."

Ireland - - Labour to propose repeal of Freedom of Information fees
"Labour Party is to publish proposed legislation next week to repeal
fees introduced by the Government for requests made under the Freedom of
Information Act."

Friday, November 03, 2006

House Lords Qs on Frontier econonics report

House of Lords Written Answers on 2 Nov 2006

taken from

Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat) Hansard source

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What were their criteria in choosing Frontier Economics Limited to review the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs) Hansard source

Frontier Economics was selected from the HMRC framework agreement list for pre-approved consultancy services on the basis of their expertise in economic consultancy. They have a proven track record of producing high quality work for a number of government

Lord Lester of Herne Hill (Liberal Democrat) Hansard source

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why the terms of reference of the review of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by Frontier Economics Limited prescribed four options for amending the regime, rather than permitting Frontier Economics Limited to consider other options.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs) Hansard source

Frontier Economics was asked to consider the impact of four options for change which could be introduced by secondary legislation. Frontier Economics was asked to focus its study on these four options but was not confined to these options. The report shows that it explored variations of these broad options
Frontier economics report - FOIA review

Here are some further comments about the Frontier report. My position is: the changes the government are minded to make are based on the evidence in the report, the evidence in the report in my view is not clear in enough in explaining, in detail the rigour and comprehensiveness of the research methods used, sampling and the basis for assumptions. Until more background information about the research is published it is hard to understand the rationale for changing the fees regulations. The other issue is that taking a purely economic approach is only part of the jigsaw: it is unclear that any further research will be done on the impact of the proposed changes: what types of information are likely to be excluded and how will this impact on the understanding of information relating to policy formulation in particular. The crude analogy in the report is based on very subjective language and assumptions - "expensive" requests must be reduced, the current level of efficiency in request management is acceptable, the level of ministerial involvement with FOI requests is accceptable.

There is also not enough discussion about the likely impact of the proposed changes (to include reading, consideration consultation plus wider aggregation) on the ICO caseload and the increased complexity of adjudicating on such subjective issues as reading (even if a methdology is developed as Frontier suggest).

My view is: there may be some abuse of the Act going on that is burdensome but the evidence needs to gathered in a transparent and well thought process over a longer period of time combined with a wider consultation. Why not link in with the wider study UCL are conducting? (that DCA are part funding) Greater consideration needs to be given as to whether improved practice in terms of application of S14 and existing allowances of aggregation could not offer efficiency improvements.

Some further comments I've got on the Frontier report: the government can hardly be suprised about the costs of the dealing with FOI requests: research was carried out by the Home Office in 1999 (see Home Office (1999) Freedom of Information: preparation of draft legislation: background material: annex A: the financial consequenes of freedom of information, unfortunately now archived off the DCA website). This document is not referenced in the Frontier report Whilst this research this research was carried out having to project forward without opertaional knowledge of FOI: much of the evidence makes interesting reading and this was information available when the current fees regs were drafted. Some of the key information is in annex A of the 1999 document:

- The net incremental cost of implementing the legislation is assumed to be up to £125 million a year (in 1999 £125m is 0.05% of total public expenditure) (there isn't a detailed breakdown how the figures were derived - it is hard to know how comparable this is with the £35m quoted in the frontier report)

- Average estimate costs for govt depts range from av cost of a PQ (£62) to the highest - £350 the FCO for Code requests

-Annex B of 1999 report contains various tables based on low and high cost assumptions and different forecasts of requests. Table 6 is based on a demand forecast of 133,000 (close to the total figure of estimated requests from 2005) and an average cost of per request of £350. The net incremental cost in this model is £90m. The Frontier report makes no acknowledgement that these high cost projections had been considered 7 years previously.

- The point I'm making about the above is that work has been done on costs before and there is little reference to it in the frontier report, the costs of FOI should hardly be a complete suprise to the govt given this knowledge.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Frontier report is the speed at the which the the report was put together and the lack of explanation of some of their reasoning behind assumptions.

Some other issues in the report that haven't yet been picked up by other commentators:

-In the report section 1.2 outlines the "approach" to carrying out the review, the quote "Given the short timescale for the work it has not been possible to undertake any primary data gathering." is telling. The range and sampling of the data used is very unclear: what week was use for the sample and why was it chosen, what information was logged? what data was received from the clearing house?

- There is no acknowledgement at all of the Environmental Information Regulations in the report and specifically the different wording of relating to charging (EIRs S8(3)"A charge under paragraph (1) shall not exceed an amount which the public authority is satisfied is a reasonable amount") and how the proposed changes could be challenged under the EIRs as unreasonable.

-The DEFRA guidance on fees under the EIRs states: "Above these FOI appropriate limits differences apply. An EIR request cannot be refused solely on cost grounds. Nor is it advisable to classify any request over the limit as "manifestly unreasonable " solely on the grounds of cost."

- The example of an expensive request in para 2.3 ( request to DTI about carbon emissions) is not a relevant example to use. The Frontier team don't consider the EIRs S12(9): "To the extent that the environmental information to be disclosed relates to information on emissions, a public authority shall not be entitled to refuse to disclose that information under an exception referred to in paragraphs (5)(d) to(g)." that should have reduced the complexity of readings and consideration and the above guidance on EIR fees.

-Because the report only gives us selected examples there is no opportunity to conduct a proper cost/benefit analysis and understand the nature of the the types of information that would not be released under the proposed new measures.

It is also worth noting that the report also makes the following recommendations (that the govt have not yet indicated whether they will accept):

-RECOMMENDATION: CONSIDERATION SHOULD BE GIVEN TO CHANGING THE WORDING OF SECTION 14 OF THE FOI ACT FROM VEXATIOUS ‘REQUEST’ TO VEXATIOUS ‘REQUESTOR’ It is very hard to see how this can work in practice and would likely to be incompatable with Human Rights legislation to designate an individual as vexatious. The report makes no attempt to anayse current use of S14.

- RECOMMENDATION: THE COST PER HOUR FIGURE USED TO CALCULATE THE APPROPRIATE LIMIT SHOULD BE REFLECTIVE OF THE ACTUAL COSTS OF DELIVERING FOI. As has been pointed out in other articles the figures used are inflated due to the use of £300 per hour for Ministerial and Private Offices (no evidence has been offered for how £300 is arrived at)


-RECOMMENDATION: CONSIDERATION SHOULD BE GIVEN TO INTRODUCING A FEE FOR CERTAIN TYPES OF REQUESTORS INSTEAD OF/IN ADDITION TO A FLAT FEE. This recommendation attacks the "requestor blind" principles of the FOIA and would introduce a new overhead of proof of identity that public authorities would be required to administer.

Already the following queries have been raised about the data used the report:

-The BBC have challenged the data about the number of requests the report projects the BBC has made and their costs

-The Guardian have a made a similar challenge about the number of their requests extrapolated from the data

Campaign for FOI request for survey used by the report

Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for FOI has has made a request to the DCA for the "survey carried out in January 2006 of the time needed to respond to FOI requests", that has formed part of the evidence used the develop the estimates and costing in the Frontier Economics report. The request has been refused: "The DCA maintained that the information fell within the FOI exemption (S35) relating to the “formulation and development of government policy” and that the balance of public interest favoured withholding the information". The Campaign have now applied for an internal review. The repomse is well written I certainly agree with arguments put forward that this information should be released and as Mauruce argues runs contrary to the DCA's own advice on S35.

Read the DCA's response to Maurice's request and the Appeal

Round up of some of the further coverage and debate

Martin at the BBC Open Secrets blog has also made some useful obervations about the Frontier economics report:

-False economies

-Always read the footnotes

-Costing the maximum or maximising the cost

The Times has made available the full transcript of a long interview with Richard Thomas, he is asked a question about fees:

Q: Where are we on the question of charging for FOI requests?

R: Well at the moment, in the vast majority of cases there’s no charge. There’s for central government a £600 threshold. If the costs of collecting the information exceeds £600 – which is fairly rare – then they don’t have to deal with your request. Figure for the rest of the public sector is £450. The government has announced last week the cost of FOI is about £34m. Now whether that’s a very high figure or very low figure is for others to speculate. I haven’t get got to the position of any public comment on the fees and charges issue. And I’m not able to give full answers yet, but we only saw this last week and we will have a considered view probably in two or three weeks’ time.

Also see from the Guardian from Monday:

Leader: Stepping back into the dark
"When it comes to ID cards and CCTV, ministers like to argue that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. With freedom of information, they should apply the same logic to themselves."

Cabinet confidential

"The government's plan to restrict Freedom of Information requests from the media is not an efficiency drive but brazen censorship, argue David Leigh and Rob Evans"

The importance of our right to know

October 30: Bad government is ruled by secrecy and that's what we've had in the UK for decades. Decisions made in secret do not lead to good value for money or good public services. By Heather Brooke.
US Citizen Access Project

I mentioned this project a few years ago but thought it was worth flagging up again, the goal of the Citizen Access Project is to "allow citizens and public officials to better understand public access to local government information in all 50 states.". The site uses "legal research to examine the individual statutory provisions controlling open meetings and open records in the 50 states, regardless of where the provisions are found in a state's statutory compilations. In addition, the project evaluates relevant state appellate court decisions and constitutional provisions.". You can browse the access to information by category and view the ranking for each state. A new section recently added is a state-by-state ranking on Election Records.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

DCA Information Rights User Group meeting

I understand the above group met last week and discussed the Frontier report and use of the FOIA by commercial companies, minutes will be on the DCA site soon, with hopefully more detail than previous versions.
Waking up to a surveillance society

This has been heavily featured in the media this morning and is certainly a good starting point for a serious debate on these issues:

ICO press release:

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, is today launching a public debate on the implications of living in a surveillance society. The Information Commissioner’s Office is hosting the 28th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners’ Conference, which starts today in London, where Richard Thomas will warn that we are waking up to a surveillance society.

Today also marks the publication of ‘A Surveillance Society’ - a detailed report which has been specially commissioned for the conference. It looks at surveillance in 2006 and projects forward ten years to 2016. It describes a surveillance society as one where technology is extensively and routinely used to track and record our activities and movements. This includes systematic tracking and recording of travel and use of public services, automated use of CCTV, analysis of buying habits and financial transactions, and the work-place monitoring of telephone calls, email and internet use. This can often be in ways which are invisible or not obvious to ordinary individuals as they are watched and monitored, and the report shows how pervasive surveillance looks set to accelerate in the years to come.

A Report on the Surveillance Society For the Information Commissioner, by the Surveillance Studies Network:

-Summary Report (MS word)
-Public Discussion Document (MS word)
-Appendices (MS word)
-Full report (MS word)

Deatils of the Conference

Electronic NHS records system

This report "From cradle to grave, your files available to a cast of thousands" in the Guardian yesterday also exposed privacy fears about the new NHS database. A doctor I spoke to yesterday did express concerns about the lack of safeguards, from what I understand already some "demographic data" is available nationally to enable the "choose and book" system. This demographic data about patients appears to open to all GPs with only basic safeguards.

The Government published this response today to the Guardian article

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The secret policeman's fall

Monica Macovei,Romania’s minister of justice made an interesting post to the Guardian's "comment is free" blog last week regarding progress towards transparency and openness in post-communist Romania. Macovei links Romania's strong commitment to freedom of information with its progress toward European Union membership.
Latest FOI Podcast by Ibrahim Hasan

This is the second episode of a monthly podcast program, by Ibrahim Hasan (an information law solicitor and trainer). In this issue Ibrahim examines:

-The implications of the Government’s proposals to change the FOI fees regulations
-The Information Commissioner’s FOI Progress report
-The vexed question of access to information about dead people
-Whether details of a compromise agreement are disclosable
-And a number of other decisions from the information Commissioner’s Office and the Information Tribunal.

There are interviews with Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information and also Ilyas Bulbulia of IBA Solicitors.

More details at
EDM - fees and costs

EDM 2699 now has 126 signatures and still rising. It is worth still contacting your MP if you disagree with proposed amendents to the fees regulations. I've written to my MP Louise Ellman) and received a response this week to say that she has now signed.