Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Research Associate in Access to Information

The Constitution Unit are advertising the following job vacancy:
The Constitution Unit plays a leading role in the research of freedom of information in the UK. We are looking for a new Research Associate to lead and develop our work in this area. The Associate’s main task will be leading an ESRC-funded evaluative study of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, exploring whether the act has met the objectives set out for it and how it has impacted the Whitehall model. The Associate will also be in charge of coordinating an annual conference for FOI practitioners.

The post is funded from the research grant that funds the aforementioned project, profits from the annual conference, and income from consultancy work. In order to ensure the viability of the position, the Associate will be expected to write research proposals and submit them to research funding organisations. Future research topics could include local government and FOI; FOI and Parliament; FOI and public procurement; etc. There is also opportunity for bidding for consultancy projects, most of which are offered by public sector organisations. Successful bids would be carried out by the Associate, a Research Assistant and members of a team of ten FOI consultants affiliated with the Unit who are interested in information policy.

Candidates must be knowledgeable about and interested in freedom of information. They should also be familiar with data protection, information policy in general, e-government and records management. The successful candidate may have worked in FOI in an academic or professional capacity. Ability to generate research, conference, and consultancy income is essential, as is initiative, and the ability to work with the Unit’s team of FOI consultants. Secondments welcome.

Continuation of the post is dependent on generating sufficient revenue. Salary is in the Grade 7 range of £26,666 – 32,796 plus £2,572 London allowance per annum.

Closing date: Monday 17 September at 5.00pm. Interviews will be held at UCL in the week 24 to 28 September.


Please see the job description for further details on our website www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit

Applications should be sent to Victoria Spence at v.spence@ucl.ac.uk (0207 679 4977). Informal enquiries should be addressed to Sarah Holsen on 0207 679 4974.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Holyrood Magazine’s 5th Freedom of Information Conference

A Culture of Openness: Freedom of Information moving into a new era
25 October 2007, Edinburgh

Chair:
Iain Macwhirter, Journalist and Political commentator

Keynote Speakers:
Kevin Dunion, Scottish Information Commissioner
Maurice Frankel, Director, Campaign for Freedom of Information
Marie Anderson, Assistant Information Commissioner, Northern Ireland
Rob Evans, Investigative Journalist, The Guardian

This conference will examine the next challenge for Freedom of Information under the new administration at Holyrood. How will the public’s right to information change, what is the potential for extending the range of organisations covered and how can public authorities better develop their response?

Full details here.
FOI Podcast - Episode 7

Episode 7 of Ibrahim Hasan's FOI podcast is available:
In May and June 2007 the Information Commissioner published fifty seven FOI decisions whilst the Information Tribunal published six. Ibrahim Hasan guides you through the some of these. Amongst other things, in this episode he examines decisions about disclosure of information on:

• Empty properties
• Job evaluation criteria
• A councils vehicle towing policy
• A hospitals audit report
• The retirement packages of senior officers
• AND details of premium bond winners

Ibrahim also has comment and analysis from Andrew Maughan, of the London Borough of Bexley, who recently represented his council in an appeal to the Information Tribunal.
You can listen to the podcast at : www.informationlaw.org.uk

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Charter for responsible FOI requests

The Information Commissioner's Office has published a charter for responsible freedom of information requests. The charter is not a legal document but is intended as a guide to help requesters make effective use of the FOI Act:
"This charter sets out how the ICO believes these rights can be used responsibly for the benefit of all involved in the freedom of information process: applicants and public authorities."
"Responsible use

Requesters should consider the following factors when making requests:

Does the request impose a significant burden on the public authority in terms of expense or distraction?
Could the request be narrowed or refocused to avoid this burden?
Can the public authority help you refocus your request?

Does the request use language that could be seen to harass the public authority?
Are you using acceptable, everyday language?
Is this the latest in a series of similar requests?

Does the request relate to a complaint on a previous grievance that has been deemed closed and fully investigated by due process?
Will a request serve any purpose when it has been demonstrated by due process that no wrong doing took place?

Does the request have a serious purpose?
Can you justify the request as having a relevant purpose or value? (this is an issue for applicants to consider for themselves, as the Freedom of Information Act and Environmental Information Regulations do not require you to explain your purpose)
Could you justify the request to the organisation on whose behalf you are acting?

Is the request the latest in a series of requests that have already been made?
Will another request serve any further purpose?
If the request is about a changing situation, would it be better to allow a reasonable period of time to pass before making a further request?

Could the request be regarded as part of a campaign to disrupt the work of the public authority?
Can you refocus the request for information that you genuinely require?

Have you already had very similar requests refused before?
Have circumstances changed or do you have a legitimate reason for making the request again?"
Download the complete charter (Pdf)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Tribunal ruling on naming officials

The following note on a recent Information Tribunal ruling has been submitted by Jim Matthew.

The issue of release of personal information relating to members of staff (operating in a professional capacity) is one that has been exercising FOI professionals since the Act came into force in 2005. Although the Information Tribunal take pains to point out that their decision should not be seen as setting any precedents, in conjunction with previous decisions, Ministry of Defence v Information Commissioner and Rob Evans does help to clarify the situation somewhat (albeit that the typo in article 1 of the decision is particularly confusing (referring to “below” when the subsequent text makes it clear that it should be “above”)).

In general, 3 exemptions have been used to refuse to disclose the names of officials;

– Section 36 (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs)
– Section 38 (health and safety); and
– Section 40 (personal information).

Section 36 is the most contentious. The only justification for trying to use it is that any official would receive so many phone calls/e-mails/other correspondence as a result of being named that they could no longer perform the job they were being paid to do. Given how easy it is to screen e-mails, phone calls etc these days (or change them if required), not to mention any concept of public accountability for those performing duties which have a public impact, this has always seemed a bit tenuous when applied in general terms! However, it can be applied to junior staff members. Junior public servants might have a role to play in the creation of information but, even if they drafted a document, they are not expected to take responsibility for it (it would be written on instruction from, and reflecting the views of, a more senior official who would take responsibility), more often, they have probably only been copied in for information (or to ensure a document is correctly filed). There now seems to be a consensus (supported by this IT decision) in support of this view and section 36 can only be used to prevent the disclosure of names in very specific circumstances (in this particular instance, a simple staff directory, staff at or below B2 level – which equates roughly to Higher Executive Officer in the broader civil service – not in a public-facing role).

Section 38 has been commented on in some detail, including in this IT decision (but most clearly in decisions issued by the Scottish Information Commissioner), and it is now obvious that this can only be applied where there would be a real, genuine and demonstrable threat that the safety of staff members would be threatened if their name were made public (and, according to this particular IT decision, only if measures to protect the individuals concerned were not already in place).

Section 40 is perhaps the most interesting exemption. Both the Information Commissioner and the Tribunal accept that names, work phone numbers and work e-mail addresses of staff members are personal data under the Data Protection Act, and therefore covered by the exemption in section 40 of the FOI Act. However, this decision reinforces the Commissioner's guidance (Freedom of Information: access to information about public authorities' employees) which states that “professional” information should be handled differently from personal and private information (e.g. you should not get details of a staff member's disciplinary records which are personal data and clearly exempted under section 40, but details of that same staff member's involvement in determining policy etc), should be released.

This Tribunal decision therefore makes it even clearer that public authorities could only withhold staff names if;

- they are particularly junior (B2/HEO level in the latest IT decision), not immediately responsible for the requested information and their name is not already available elsewhere (or would be expected to be through their performing a public-facing duty); or

- there is a clear and demonstrable threat to that individual's health and safety if their name is made public.

Jim Matthew

21/07/07
FOI: Administrative Impact

A uncorrected transcript of the evidence given recently by Richard Thomas (Information Commissioner), Graham Smith (Deputy Information Commissioner) and Maurice Frankel (Campaign for Freedom of Information) to the Public Administration Select Committee has been published.
"Q1 Chairman:...What we are particularly interested in is some of the discussion that has surfaced about whether the conduct of central government is being compromised and inhibited by the FOI regime as it is developing. As you know, we have had sight of this letter that was leaked by Alistair Darling, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, who says, writing to Charles Falconer, who was then Lord Chancellor, "As you know, we are increasingly concerned that in a number of respects the demands of the Freedom of Information Act are placing good government at risk." That, I think, is the proposition that we would like to test with you for an hour or so this afternoon."
Read the transcript.