Thursday, January 31, 2008

Campaigners win key animal test FOI victory

Press release from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection:
The Government has been unlawfully withholding the details of the animal experiments it licenses in the UK, according to a key ruling from the Information Tribunal released today.

The case was brought by the BUAV after the Home Office refused to reveal basic information about animal experiment licences the organisation had applied for under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). It attempted to argue that only the information which researchers applying for such licences chose to publish in summaries could be released.

The basic information asked for by the BUAV covers the purpose of the experiment, what is to be done to the animals, how the applicant intended to limit animal suffering and, crucially, how they proved it was essential they used animals rather than alternatives in their proposed experiments. The BUAV is not and has never been interested in information that identifies who is or was involved or where the research is or has taken place.

...

The organisation first asked for the licence information of five separate applications as a FOI test case soon after the Act came into force in January 2005. The Government had attempted to fudge its duty to release information so far by releasing ‘summaries’ of the licence information spun for public consumption. The tribunal agreed with the BUAV that such summaries are biased towards emphasising the positive aspects of the research and said they amounted to creating a “perception of a positive spin”. The BUAV argues this inevitably means any negative aspects such as animal suffering are downplayed.

‘This is not just a victory for the BUAV – this is a victory for the British public who expect to access honest and open information about the nature of animal experiments that take place in the UK. The Home Office’s repeated refusal to release basic non-confidential information about animal experiments just goes to further prove they are afraid of how the public will react if they are given real information about what actually happens to animals in UK laboratories, often at tax payers expense,’ said BUAV chief executive Michelle Thew.

The Home Office has been directed by the Tribunal to conduct a proper analysis of what is, and what is not confidential within the licence applications in question following the ruling.

Ends

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Straw: "large array of safeguards" against "petty" FOI requests

Responding to a recent question in the Commons from Norman Baker MP, Jack Straw confirmed the Government believes the FOI Act should be extended to the private sector. In response to a subsequent question about the need for amendments to guards against "repeated, petty and often exorbitant" requests, he replied that "there is already a large array of safeguards in the Act and within the practice of the Information Commissioner."
Hansard 29 Jan 2008 : Column 156
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What plans he has to bring forward amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [182471]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has now been in force for three years and appears to be working well, although we keep it under continuous review. We are not proceeding with amendments to the fees regulation. However, we are consulting on whether to extend FOI coverage to a range of organisations that are in the private sector, but carry out public functions. An independent review of the 30-year rule is under way and due to report this summer.

Norman Baker: I welcome that response, and agree with the direction of travel that the Secretary of State is taking. Does he agree that it is a nonsense that the British Potato Council is covered by the 2000 Act but private water companies, which provide an essential and monopolistic service, are not? Furthermore, the British Railways Board, which simply exists in a cosy corner somewhere, is covered, but Network Rail is not. Will he sort that out?

Mr. Straw: I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and thank him for his earlier remarks. As the boundary between the public and private sectors for the delivery of what are essentially public services has moved, so we believe that the arrangements should move as well. That is why we are consulting on the matter.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Would the Secretary of State consider amendments to the 2000 Act that would protect the public’s right to the information but guard against repeated, petty and often exorbitant requests that are made frequently and do nothing to add to freedom of information?

Mr. Straw: There is already a large array of safeguards in the Act and within the practice of the Information Commissioner. If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples of concern to him, I am ready to follow them up, including with the commissioner.
Disclosure logs

Written Answers to PQs by Norman Baker MP show that government departments only include a tiny percentage of FOI responses in their disclosure logs:
25 Jan 2008 : Column 2271W
Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what percentage of Freedom of Information requests received by his Department have given rise to responses that have been published by his Department. [180214]

Mrs. McGuire: This Department has adopted a selective disclosure log whereby only the most interesting and high profile pieces of information released in response to Freedom of Information requests are published. In 2005 and 2006 around 1 per cent. of such responses were published on the Department's web-based Freedom of Information disclosure log. The Department does however routinely publish large amounts of information on its website including policy documents and research, analysis and statistics.

25 Jan 2008 : Column 2308W
Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what percentage of Freedom of Information requests received by his Department have given rise to responses that have been published by his Department. [180222]

Meg Munn: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has published 5 per cent. (165) of responses to 3,125 Freedom of Information Act requests received between January 2005, when the Act came into force, and the end of September 2007. The FCO has adopted a selective disclosure log whereby only the most interesting and high profile pieces of information are published.

23 Jan 2008 : Column 2045W
Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what percentage of freedom of information requests received by her Department have given rise to responses that have been published by her Department. [180211]

Mr. Dhanda: Communities and Local Government has adopted a selective disclosure policy whereby only the most high profile pieces of information and those of wider public interest are published as a matter of course on the disclosure log on its website at:

•http://www.communities.gov.uk/coporate/about/freedom-of-information/disclosure-log/

To date, 5 per cent. of responses to requests made to Communities and its predecessor Department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Environmental Information Regulations 2004 since 1 January 2005 have been published.

21 Jan 2008 : Column 1564W
Norman Baker: To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what percentage of Freedom of Information requests received by his Department have given rise to responses that have been published by his Department. [180223]

Angela Eagle: The number of requests to HM Treasury, along with those of other central Government bodies, is published by the Ministry of Justice in quarterly and annual reports. Information has so far been published up to September 2007 and shows that HM Treasury had received 3,260 requests.

HM Treasury website includes a disclosure log which publishes those disclosures judged to be of wider public interest. For the aforementioned period, the Treasury has published 78 disclosures on their website—2.4 per cent. of all requests received.

14 Jan 2008 : Column 883W
Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what percentage of Freedom of Information requests received by his Department have given rise to responses that have been published by his Department. [175708]

Derek Twigg: The following table details the number of requests received, and the number and percentage of these which have been published via the online Disclosure Log in each of the last three years since the FOI Act came into force. Figures for 2007 are currently available only up until the end of September of that year.



The Disclosure Log is available at the MOD's website at:

http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/FreedomOfInformation/DisclosureLog

and is easily accessible from the main FOI website, www.foi.mod.uk


14 Jan 2008 : Column 884W
Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what criteria are used to decide which of his Department’s responses to requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 are published on the Department’s website; and if he will make a statement. [175715]

Derek Twigg [holding answer 7 January 2008]: Where responses to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act are judged to be of wider public interest, the Ministry of Defence publishes them through the Department’s online Disclosure Log. In determining which responses are of wider public interest, the Ministry of Defence assesses whether responses meet one or more of the following criteria:
  • response to a request received from parliamentarians, businesses and academics;
  • response to a request received from the media;
  • response containing information relating to topical or high-profile subjects or judged to be of interest to the wider public, or that promote the transparency or accountability of MOD;
  • response to a repeated or common request; and
  • response to a request that asks for a copy of a response to a previous request.
These criteria are broadly in line with the “Best Practice Guidance on Disclosure Logs” issued by the then Department for Constitutional Affairs in 2005. However, these criteria are neither prescriptive nor exhaustive, and other responses are considered for publication if they are identified as potentially being of wider public interest.

Friday, January 25, 2008

ICO orders release of more information on MPs' spending

ICO press release: 22 January 2007
The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has ordered the House of Commons to release further details of some MPs’ spending, including incidental expenses and staff costs, on the grounds that such expenses arise from their role as public representatives and are reimbursed from the public purse.

The Information Commissioner has ruled that a breakdown of the total amounts claimed by some individual MPs for travel, incidental expenses, staffing, central IT provision, centrally purchased stationery and additional cost allowance should be released under the Freedom of Information Act. In the Commissioner’s view the legitimate public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the prejudice to the rights, freedom and legitimate interests of MPs.

This follows a request under freedom of information for details of spending relating to a number of MPs, including Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy, during the year 2003-2004.

The travel expense information requested in this case is the most detailed travel information considered by the Information Commissioner to date. After consideration the Information Commissioner has ordered disclosure of the individual amounts claimed for 2003-2004 broken down by mode of travel under the following headings, MPs’ travel (further broken down by European and travel on parliamentary business within the UK), family and staff’s official business travel and summary details of the number and cost of individual journeys.

In making his decision the Information Commissioner considered whether the information requested related to individuals acting in an official rather than a private capacity. In the Information Commissioner’s view if individual MPs had not been elected to carry out their role as public representatives they would not be entitled to claim the related expenses. However the Information Commissioner fully accepts that MPs are entitled to a degree of privacy and are entitled to expect that personal information about their private lives will be appropriately protected from disclosure.

The Information Commissioner ruled that it would be unfair to disclose the specific sums paid to named staff members during the year covered by the request. The Information Commissioner believes that releasing the total staffing costs broken down by month for the year requested and the number of staff this pertains to each month would not be unfair.
Read the decision notice
SIC newsletter Jan/Feb 2008

The first Inform newsletter of 2008 is available from the Scottish Information Commissioner's website:
Welcome to the first Inform of 2008. 2007 was a busy year for my Office, with over 230 formal decisions issued. Of these, however, only around 5% related to the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (the EIRs). In this issue I consider the relationship between the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and the EIRs in more detail while I also highlight a significant recent decision which provides guidance for authorities on managing this relationship.
Re-appointment of SIC

The Scottish Parliament yesterday approved a motion to reappoint Kevin Dunion as Scottish Information Commissioner. The reappointment is until 23 February 2012.
Official Report Col 5537
:
Scotland's freedom of information legislation is held in high regard throughout the world, largely because of Kevin Dunion's work. New Zealand is looking to adapt much of what we do and several other countries are looking to Kevin Dunion and his staff for help and advice on how to establish freedom of information regimes. Malawi, with which the Parliament has a close association, is one of those countries and is considering basing its freedom of information regime directly on that in Scotland. We are well ahead of what is happening south of the border.

Col 5538

That situation is due in large part to Mr Dunion and his excellent staff. He has never shied away from difficult decisions—the Scottish Executive has not always agreed with or welcomed his decisions. He has seldom been challenged and has never lost a court case. Mr Dunion has done an excellent job in establishing his office. I wish him every success in further developing the freedom of information regime in Scotland in the next four years.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

'Release dossier', ministry told

Chris Ames
Tuesday 23 January 2008
New Statesman
The Information Tribunal has today ordered the Foreign Office to release the secret draft of the Iraq WMD dossier written by former top spin doctor.

The move casts doubt over the government’s claim that the document played no part in the production of the dossier.

However, the Tribunal has allowed a handwritten note to be redacted which the Foreign Office claimed would be damaging to international relations.

The FCO has said that it is studying the Tribunal decision and declined to name the authors of the handwritten comments.

The secret draft was written by John Williams, the FCO’s then director of communications, on 7 and 8 September 2002, just days after Tony Blair announced that the government would publish a dossier of intelligence showing that Saddam Hussein threatened the world with his weapons of mass destruction.

It preceded what the government would later claim to be the first draft, written by Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett on 10 September.

See also:

'No more draft dodging' by Chris Ames on The Guardian's commentisfree

Read the Tribunal's decision

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Media update
Speaker's wife spent £50,000 on air travel - Telegraph 21/1/08
"Michael Martin, the House of Commons Speaker, was at the centre of a fresh controversy last night after it emerged his wife had spent £50,000 of public money on air travel. Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show Mary Martin has run up a £25,000 bill on foreign travel, on top of spending £24,000 flying to and from the couple's Glasgow home. MPs' spouses are usually entitled to just 15 flights a year at taxpayers' expense. But last year, Mrs Martin is said to have spent an average £250 a week on flights to Glasgow, as part of a special arrangement understood to have been negotiated when her husband became Speaker in 2000."

Lottery grants of £1billion to local councils instead of good causes - Daily Mail 21/1/08
"Nearly £1billion of National Lottery money has been given to councils to pay for staffing, equipment and traffic calming schemes. The grants have come from the Big Lottery Fund, which was set up to help charities, arts, sport and heritage. Stockport Council - led by the Liberal Democrats - was given £250,000 for a project to improve the way staff "manage moods". Gosport Borough Council in Hampshire was handed £10,000 to buy a shredder. The figures were uncovered by the Tories through Parliamentary answers and Freedom of Information requests...The Tories said £883million had been misdirected in this way."

Watchdog pays to train staff in how to cope with MPs - Guardian 21/1/08
"The Financial Services Authority has spent tens of thousands of pounds on training its top officials in fielding questions from MPs in parliamentary hearings. The financial watchdog paid political consultants to fire questions at its senior executives in a mocked-up parliamentary committee before executives were grilled for real by MPs in Commons sessions...The payout emerged in documents, released under the Freedom of Information Act to the Guardian, which shed light on how more than 100 public sector bodies have hired political consultants over the past year. The payments by the FSA add up to £75,000 since 2003."


Private firms cash in on hospital parking scandal - Express 21/1/08
"Hospital parking fees could rocket as NHS trusts sell off their parking rights to private companies to balance the books. The trusts could receive one-off payments in exchange for a share of the fees and fines...The Freedom of Information Act shows that The Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust – which last year made over £1million from its car park – sold a 15-year licence to run its car park at Treliske Hospital in Truro to Q-Park Limited of Leeds, for an undisclosed fee. The company now keeps all the income and fines from £40 penalty tickets. But last night the trust said all the money paid by Q-Park would be ploughed back into patient care. At the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust the rights to the £650,000-a-year car parks have been sold off to CP Plus, in London, which pays the hospital a fixed annual fee for the parking income and a share of the fines."

Freedom of Information appeals backlog to 2010 - Press Gazette 18/1/08
"The existing backlog of Freedom of Information appeals to the Information Commissioner’s Office is now so long it will take until March 2010 to clear. This was one of the details revealed to Press Gazette in a freedom of information release which reveals the extent to which the Information Commissioner’s office is falling behind...According to figures obtained by Press Gazette under the Act, the office’s caseload – the number of complaints assigned a case officer but waiting to be answered – has increased from 1261 in April 2006 to 1346 in December 2007. The number of resolved complaints rose from an average of 138.8 a month in April to December 2006 to 173.75 in 2007, though the number of new complaints received also went up from 144.3 to 162.4 a month. In April 2007 the backlog was reduced by 49 – the ICO’s most effective month since it began keeping records. If it repeats this performance every month the current backlog would clear in March 2010."

NHS overspends on statins - BBC 17/1/08
"The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) is urging GPs to switch patients from the expensive, branded versions [of cholestorol-lowering statins] to the cheaper generics when it is medically appropriate. For example, a brand-name version of Atorvastatin costs £18.03 for a month's supply. A generic version of Simvastatin, which many doctors say will do the same job for the majority of patients, costs £1.39. Despite that, using the Freedom of Information Act, the Politics Show has found that many primary care trusts in England are still prescribing a high percentage of the more expensive statins - wasting as much as £70m a year."

DVLA's 5m driver details giveaway - The Register 17/1/08
"Christine Grahame, an SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament, accused the [Driver and Vehicle Licensing] agency of recklessly handing out driver and vehicle requests to private companies. Grahame used a Freedom of Information request to discover the DVLA has sold 5.3m driver records since 2002/2003 when it was first allowed to sell the data...Private firms with "reasonable cause" can buy individual records for £2.50 each. If you want more than who the keeper of a vehicle was at a specific time - like a copy of documents or extra information about the vehicle's keeper - the DVLA will charge you £5. Last year the DVLA sold 1.3m records to private companies - a 54 per cent increase in five years. Grahame made the FOI request because several of her constituents were wrongly sent fines from private parking companies demanding payment."

The final reckoning - Guardian 14/1/08
"Nine months ago, 30-year-old rising star Josie Rourke, whose 2006 production of King John played at the RSC to rave reviews, joined the Bush [theatre] as artistic director. Last month, she received a letter [from Arts Council England] telling her the theatre faced a 40% cut in funding. Rourke and her team submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act to uncover the figures and rationale behind the letter. She received the figures last week - and found a huge error. Audience attendance at the Bush over the last year, which the theatre puts at around 40,000, had been grossly underestimated: the ACE's figure was 14,600. "I genuinely believe that the arts council is using evidence that contains factual errors," Rourke says. "We only found out because we asked to see the figures - but what if this is the case for other organisations facing cuts around the country?"

REGIONAL

Huge rise in on-the-spot fines issued by Kent Police - Kent Messenger
"The number of criminal offences being dealt with by Kent Police with on-the-spot fines has risen five-fold in just three years, according to official figures. In 2006-2007, Kent Police issued 7,383 Penalty Notice Disorders (PNDs) for what are called “low level” offences such as being drunk and disorderly, shoplifting and damaging property, the equivalent of 20 offences a day. That is nearly 6,000 more than were issued in 2004-2005 and 1,390 more than 2005-2006. Kent police has also revealed that close to half the fines it handed out last year were registered as unpaid. Offenders are supposed to settle fines within 21 days although in a statement, the police emphasised that offenders who did not pay were pursued through the courts."

1000s wait as homes lie empty - Express and Star 21/1/08
"More than 200 council homes in Wolverhampton are sitting empty and ready for new tenants, while 7,303 people are told they have to wait, figures obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Express & Star revealed today. The figures show 448 properties in the city have no-one living in them, with 218 suitable for someone to live in immediately. Many have been empty for so long they are boarded-up to prevent vandals attacking. Among the other 230, some are waiting for sales to go through under the right-to-buy process.
Others are awaiting demolition or need work done to make them habitable."

Police admit losing track of seven sex offenders - The Argus 21/1/08
"Police have admitted they have no idea of the whereabouts of seven sex offenders. Six of the those on the register are believed still to be in the UK but the seventh is thought to have fled abroad. The news, released by Sussex Police under the Freedom of Information Act, has alarmed support groups for people who have been victims of sexual abuse and attack...Sussex Police have 19 full-time officers who deal exclusively with monitoring violent criminals and sex offenders with a further three working part-time. Officers make unannounced homes visits to offenders in the very high risk category each month, high risk cases every three months, medium risk every six months and low risk once a year. The frequency of visits is determined by regular risk assessments of each individual case."

Transplant patient has new kidney removed after NHS computer blunder - thisislondon.co.uk 20/1/08
"A kidney transplant patient was forced to have the new organ removed after just a few hours – when it was discovered that the patient's blood type had been incorrectly recorded on a computer database. The mistake, believed to be the first of its kind in Britain, would have led to the organ being rejected – with possibly fatal consequences. The incident, which was only revealed in response to a Freedom of Information request, comes just days after Gordon Brown called for a system in which individuals are presumed to consent to the use of their organs for transplant unless they specifically stipulate otherwise. The error will intensify demands for fresh safeguards."

Radium thrown out as scrap in university blunder - Yorkshire Post 19/1/08
"A major alert was sparked last year when it was discovered that radioactive radium 226 had gone missing from a machine which had been dismantled by staff at York University's biology department. It was found four days later after being mistakenly sent to a scrapyard in York and then to a recycling plant in Sheffield. The results of an internal investigation have emerged which says staff who dismantled the machine failed to carry out a risk assessment and "did not recognise or realise the hazards". A report, published through the Freedom of Information Act, reveals that a lecturer who decommissioned the RackBeta Machine did not realise which part of the equipment contained radioactive material...A York University spokesman said an immediate and detailed investigation traced the missing "tiny" amount of radium 226 within four days and likely public exposure was minimal."

Stockport Primary Care Trust loses 4,000 patient records on memory stick - Computer Weekly 18/1/08
"The personal medical records of 4,000 NHS patients have been lost by Stockport Primary Care Trust, but health managers have chosen not to inform the individuals involved. The records were on a USB stick clipped round the neck of an NHS employee when they were lost. They contained the names, dates of birth and details of medical conditions of patients of Stockport Primary Care Trust, as well as their NHS and trust numbers and details of their GPs. The trust has since informed the Department of Health and GPs about the loss, but news only came to light publicly following a freedom of information request."

Ministers did hold victims' role talks - Belfast Telegraph 17/1/08
"An internal Stormont memo has revealed Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness had high level talks about re-running the hunt for the Victims Commissioner two weeks before their office denied they were planning to do it. The memo, released under the Freedom of Information Act, shows the First Ministers met the Commissioner for Public Appointments about their proposal on September 11 last year. According to the minute of the meeting, Mr Paisley told Felicity Huston, the public jobs watchdog, that he and Mr McGuinness were looking at "the possibility of running a new, OCPA-regulated appointments process". But on September 26, their office denied to this newspaper that the post would be re-advertised. On October 8, the ministers then announced that they were re-advertising the post. The hunt for the permanent Victims Commissioner has now dragged on for almost a full year."

Files reveal why u-turn was taken over bypass - thisisnorthscotland.co.uk 15/1/08
"The controversial last-minute choice of route for the Aberdeen bypass was far costlier than one which would have ploughed through a special-needs community, according to documents released last night. Correspondence between officials and ministers in the former Scottish Executive reveals the fear of a political fallout stopped the route going through the Camphill community at Bieldside. The file, released under freedom of information legislation, shows that the then transport minister, Tavish Scott, was worried at the level of opposition to the Murtle option, which was considered the most likely of five routes to be chosen."

Council parking spaces cost taxpayer £700,000 in lost fees - thisisstaffordshire.co.uk 15/1/08
"Reserved parking spaces for more than 1,000 city council staff and councillors are costing Stoke-on-Trent taxpayers almost £700,000 a year in lost revenue. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the bill for the city council's parking allocation scheme came to £683,400 last year. That is more than £250,000 higher than the cost borne by Birmingham City Council, the largest authority in the West Midlands employing more than 44,000 staff."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

FOI Podcast episode 10

Ibrahim Hasan has asked me to post details of his latest podcast:
This is episode 10 of the UK’s first Freedom of Information podcast by Ibrahim Hasan. In November and December 2007, the Information Commissioner published forty five decisions whilst the Information Tribunal published fourteen.

In this episode, amongst other things, we will be discussing:

• A Tribunal decision on vexatious requests
• Whether the time taken to redact exempt information is an allowable cost
• Disclosure of information about anthrax stockpiles
• When advice to ministers should be disclosed
• Blue sky thinking and the section 36 exemption
• Disclosure of information contained in a dead person’s social work records
• AND legal advice about s & m

The podcast can be listened to by going to http://www.informationlaw.org.uk/page10.htm

The raw feed http://informationlaw.jellycast.com/podcast/feed/5 for those of you with RSS feed readers.

Monday, January 14, 2008

30 year rule review

A website on the review of the '30-year rule' that was announced by the Prime Minister on 25th October 2007 has been launched. The review is underway and will report by summer 2008.

The terms of reference state:
"This review will centre on whether, in the light of Freedom of Information and other considerations, there should be any changes (and if so what) to the ‘30 year rule’ – the time span under which most public records are transferred to The National Archives and opened for inspection.

The review team will seek to strike the balance between more openness and how long, in the interests of good governance and national security, state papers need to be kept closed. It will identify options for change and for implementation, bearing in mind such factors as cost, whether as part of any new arrangements some categories of information should be prioritised for release, and any other issues the team believes are relevant to modernising the existing system."
You can submit your views until Friday 29 February 2008 via an online questionnaire or in writing to:

The Secretary
30-year Rule Review
c/o The National Archives
Kew
TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 020 8392 5210/ +44 020 8392 5375
secretary@30yearrulereview.org.uk