Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fees announcement

The government announced today that it has decided not to proceed with its proposals to amend the FOI fees regulations. Instead it has announced measures designed to make government more open including a review of the 30 year rule and consultation on extending the scope of the FOI Act.

In a speech on liberty the Prime Minister said:
"In the last ten years in Britain we have created a new legislative framework requiring openness and transparency in the state's relationships with the public. The Freedom of Information Act has been a landmark piece of legislation, enshrining for the first time in our laws the public's right to access information.

Freedom of Information (FoI) can be inconvenient, at times frustrating and indeed embarrassing for governments. But Freedom of Information is the right course because government belongs to the people, not the politicians.

I now believe there is more we can do to change the culture and the workings of government to make it more open -- whilst of course continuing to maintain safeguards in areas like national security.

When anything is provided without cost, it does risk being open to abuse. However the Government does not believe that more restrictive rules on cost limits of FoI requests are the way forward. And so Jack Straw has decided, and has announced today, that we will not tighten FoI fees regulations as previously proposed.

We do this because of the risk that such proposals might have placed unacceptable barriers between the people and public information. Public information does not belong to Government, it belongs to the public on whose behalf government is conducted. Wherever possible that should be the guiding principle behind the implementation of our Freedom of Information Act.

So it is right also to consider extending the coverage of freedom of information and the Freedom of Information Act. And we are also today publishing a consultation document to consider whether additional organisations discharging a public function - including in some instances private sector companies running services for the public sector - should be brought within the scope of Freedom of Information legislation.

Freedom of Information is not simply about current discussions within government but about the restrictions we place on the publication of historical documents.

It is an irony that the information that can be made available on request on current events and current decisions is still withheld as a matter of course for similar events and similar decisions that happened 20 or 25 years ago.

Under the present arrangements historical records are transferred to the national archives and are only opened to public access after thirty years or where explicitly requested under the FoI Act. It is time to look again at whether historical records can be made available for public inspection much more swiftly than under the current arrangements.

There are of course cost and security implications of a more open approach which we will need to examine thoroughly. So I have asked Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief of Associated Newspapers and member of the Press Complaints Commission - working with Sir Joe Pilling, former Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office, and the eminent historian David Cannadine - to review this rule. And we look forward to receiving their proposals in the first half of 2008."
The Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed the announcement in a press release. The Campaign's director Maurice Frankel said:
"We are extremely pleased that instead of restricting the Act the government is proposing to extend it. The original proposals would have severely undermined the legislation and suggested that the government regretted introducing the FOI Act. Now for the first time we are seeing signs that it is taking pride in it instead."
The Government's response to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee’s Report, 'Freedom of Information: the Government’s proposals for reform' has also been published today. Commenting on the Government’s response, Chairman of the Committee Rt Hon Alan Beith MP said:
“Obviously we greatly welcome the fact that the Government has seen sense and accepted our position - and that of the many people and organisations who have made good use of freer access to information - and not changed the charging regime as they had planned. To go ahead with their proposed changes would have been a great mistake – as the expression goes; it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it.
The government's response to the fees consultation and a summary of the responses is available here.

The consultation on extending the scope of the Act - 'Freedom of Information Act 2000: Designation of additional public authorities' is available here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

SIC orders release of NHS Lothian PFI contract

News release: 24th October 2007
The Scottish Information Commissioner has told NHS Lothian that it must disclose full details of its contract with Consort Healthcare covering the provision of building, maintenance and support services for the new Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.The Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, rejected the claim by NHS Lothian that the whole PFI contract was confidential, and in his decision highlighted shortcomings in the way in which NHS Lothian responded to the initial freedom of information request and his subsequent investigation.

The Commissioner found that NHS Lothian had:

• only belatedly established the full extent of the contract documentation - with over 5,000 additional pages being discovered well into the investigation;

• failed to provide justification for withholding all of this information as confidential;

• failed to provide arguments for withholding any specific portions of the contract as confidential;

• incorrectly claimed that the cost of providing the information would be excessive.

Kevin Dunion, Scottish Information Commissioner said:
"It is the responsibility of NHS Lothian to provide detailed justification for withholding the information requested. In this case it sought to claim that a blanket exemption of confidentiality covered every one of the thousands of pages of this detailed contract. However, other than broadly indicating why Consort Healthcare did not wish the information disclosed, NHS Lothian provided me with virtually no arguments to justify withholding the contract. As a consequence I have ordered that the contract must be disclosed."

Read the SIC decision

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Information Rights User Group

The minutes of the seventh Information Rights User Group meeting held on 12th September 2007 have been published by the Ministry of Justice. The minutes confirm that an announcement on the outcome of fees consultation is imminent.
"The Government would announce its plans to take forward freedom of information, in the wake of the consultations on the Fees Regulations, in the autumn. There is enthusiasm for an iterative, non-adversarial and holistic approach to Information Rights generally, taking account of all aspects of publicly held information."
Read the minutes (Pdf).

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

FOI and medical records of the deceased

In Mrs P Bluck v Information Commissioner and Epsom and St Helier University NHS Trust, the Information Tribunal has ruled that the medical records of a deceased person are exempt under section 41 (breach of confidence) of the FOI Act.
"...we conclude that a duty of confidence is capable of surviving the death of the confider and that in the circumstances of this case it does survive."
"We have concluded, therefore, that the Trust would breach the duty of confidence owed to Karen Davies if it disclosed the Medical Records other than under the terms of the FOIA and that the breach would be actionable by the personal representatives of Karen Davies. Accordingly the Medical Records constitute exempt information for the purposes of FOIA section 41 and should not be disclosed to the Appellant."
The Tribunal also concluded that Article 8 of the European Convention on Europe Rights did not amount to a statutory prohibtion on disclosure under section 44 of the FOI Act.

Read the full decision (Pdf)
FOI statistics April to June 2007

The central government quarterly monitoring statistics for April-June 2007 have been published.
Executive Summary

Departments of State reported receiving 4,084 “non-routine” information requests during the second quarter of 2007 (Q2). Other monitored bodies received 3,904 requests. Across all monitored bodies, a total of 7,988 requests were received, of which 93 per cent had been processed at the time of monitoring. This includes 154 requests handled under the amended Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) which came into force on 1 January 2005. [see Table 1]

The 7,988 requests across all monitored bodies received in the second quarter of 2007 is just a dozen more than the 7,976 received during the corresponding quarter of 2006. [see Table A]

During Q2 of 2007, 91 per cent of all monitored bodies’ requests (excluding those “on hold” or lapsed) were “in time”, in that they were processed within the statutory deadline* or were subject to a permitted deadline extension. This figure is the same as in both of the previous two quarters, but a little lower than in the corresponding quarter of 2006. [see Table 2 and Table B]

Of all “resolvable” requests received during Q2 of 2007 (i.e. requests where it was possible to make a substantive decision on whether to release the information being sought), 61 per cent were granted in full, a slightly smaller proportion than in the previous quarter. [see Table 3 and Table C].
Although the number of requests received by all monitored bodies was more or less the same as the corresponding period of 2006, the number of requests received by government departments actually fell by 5%.

Given the renewed emphasis that is being placed on vexatious requests, it would also be helpful if figures on the use of this provision could be included within Table 4 in future.

Read the full report.