Tuesday, April 29, 2008

SIC guidance

New 'Future Publication' and 'Relations within the United Kingdom' guidance has been published by the Scottish Information Commissioner.

Read the guidance here.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Scottish Executive FOI disclosures

A couple of interesting recent disclosures on the Scottish Executive's disclosure log:

SIC Decisions 040/2008 and 052/2008: Information relating to the possibility of building new nuclear power stations or proposals to extend the lives of existing nuclear stations.
The Scottish Government has been required by the Scottish Information Commissioner (Decision 040/2008) to release copies of 4 papers, previously withheld, relating to building, and extending the life of nuclear power stations.
28/04/2008 - Government

SIC Decisions 052/2008 and 040/2008: the possible siting of new nuclear power stations in Scotland.
The Scottish Government has been required by the Scottish Information Commissioner (Decision 052/2008) to release copies of 4 papers, previously withheld, relating to building new nuclear power stations.
28/04/2008 - Government

SIC Decision 039/2008: Information relating to the drafting of response to UK Energy Review.
The Scottish Government has been required by the Scottish Information Commissioner (Decision 039/2008) to release copies of 8 papers, previously withheld, relating to the UK Energy Review.
22/04/2008 - Government
Local Govt Ombudsman FOI petition

There is an E-Petition on the Downing Street website calling for the removal of the statutory prohibition on disclosure in section 32 of the Local Government Act 1974, which prevents the Local Government Ombudsman from disclosing information obtained in the course of, or for the purposes of, an investigation under the FOI Act.

See http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/LGOandFOI/ for further details and to sign the petition.

Friday, April 25, 2008

CFOI submission to 30 year rule review

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has responded to the review of the 30 year rule set up by the Prime Minister. The response summarises the 7 Information Tribunal decisions to date dealing with advice or internal discussion and points out that in almost every case the Tribunal has held that disclosure should have taken place at the time of the request, a few years or months after the decision. It says that this material should now be proactively released after 15 years, though if necessary, the reduction could be brought in in two stages, starting with 20 years initially.

Read the full response here (pdf).
Freedom of Information: Private Sector

House of Commons Written Answers
24 Apr 2008 : Column 2248W

Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what progress he has made in his assessment of the desirability of extending the remit of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to private companies deemed to be delivering public functions. [201309]

Mr. Straw: The Government received over 130 responses to its consultation on extending the coverage of the Freedom of Information Act to organisations exercising functions of a public nature. The consultation officially concluded on 1 February 2008 but a number of responses received up to a month later were accepted and are being taken into account.

The Government are continuing to analyse the responses and assess the desirability and implications of designating additional public authorities under the Act.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

More new SIC guidance

Updated guidance on the 'Court Records' and 'Communications with Her Majesty' exemptions has been published by Scottish Information Commissioner.

The guidance is available here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Survey of FOI requesters
The Constitution Unit, based at University College London, is carrying out a survey of FOI requesters and is keen to hear the views of anyone who has used the Act. The survey is part of a research project aimed at evaluating the impact of the Freedom of Information Act on central government.

If you would like to take part in the study, please click the following link to complete the survey online http://tinyurl.com/622yto. Or, if you prefer, contact Ben Worthy at b.worthy@ucl.ac.uk or on 020 7679 4974 to ask more about the study.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

FOI statistics Oct-Dec 2007

The quarterly monitoring statistics on FOI implementation within central government have been published for the period October to December 2007.
Number of requests
Departments of State reported receiving a total of 4,078 information requests under the Freedom of Information Act and the associated Environmental Information Regulations during the quarter from 1 October to 31 December 2007 (Q4). Other monitored bodies reported having received 3,726 requests. Across all monitored bodies, therefore, a total of 7,804 requests were reported.

This overall total for Q4 of 2007 is 2 per cent fewer than in the corresponding quarter last year (i.e. Q4 of 2006). The number of requests received by Departments of State fell by 10 per cent compared to the same period last year, while the total received by other monitored bodies increased by 7 per cent. Departments of State accounted for 52 per cent of all requests received by monitored bodies in Q4 of 2007.

Timeliness of response to requests
The FoI Act requires public bodies to respond to written requests for information within 20 working days of receipt (with limited exceptions, for example to allow additional time for the consideration of public interest). Across all monitored bodies, 83 per cent of requests received during Q4 of 2007 were sent a response within this standard deadline. Ninety per cent of requests received during Q4 were “in time”, in that they either received a response within the standard deadline or were subject to a permitted deadline extension. Both of these measures are slightly lower than in the previous quarter and in the equivalent quarter last year.
Download the Q4 2007 stats here.

Initial outcomes of requests
Of the “resolvable” requests received during Q4, 60 per cent were granted in full, 12 per cent were withheld in part, and 20 per cent were withheld in full at the time of monitoring. The remaining 8 per cent had not yet received a substantive response.

The proportion of “resolvable” requests granted in full in Q4, 60 per cent, was higher than in the previous quarter (58 per cent). The proportion of requests in Q4 that were fully withheld, 20 per cent, was slightly lower than in the previous quarter.
Download the Quarterly statistics: October to December 2007 (pdf)

Monday, April 21, 2008

PPP plan approved against expert advice

Rob Edwards
Sunday Herald
A former Labour minister rejected advice from senior officials to delay a deeply flawed and highly controversial £100 million plan for new schools and homes in Stirling and Dunblane, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

Top-secret documents disclose that the deputy communities minister in 2005, Johann Lamont, was strongly urged by government planners to call in the application for consideration by ministers. The plans were lambasted by advisers as "questionable", "worrying" and "poor".

Stirling Council, which promoted the development, was also accused of "procedural failings" and of maximising profit at the expense of decent housing. "Stirling Council's judgement in carrying out its statutory duty under the terms of planning legislation has been heavily clouded by its conflict of interests," warned the official advice to the minister...

Jim Thomson, an SNP councillor in Stirling, used freedom of information legislation to request the advice that had been given to ministers.

Despite being ordered to release the advice by the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, the then Scottish Executive kept it secret, taking the highly unusual step of appealing his decision to the Court of Session.

Last week, however, the new Scottish government decided to abandon the appeal, and released the advice to Thomson. "It's hardly surprising it was denied us," he said. "Every aspect of the planning approval was deemed flawed, including the funding arrangements. The entire process has proven to be a sham." Thomson accused the Labour councillors who ran Stirling Council at the time of putting their political interests before those of the communities they represented. Their failure had been compounded by Lamont's failure to heed the advice of her officials, he alleged.
Read the full story.

See also Scottish Executive's disclosure log:
Scottish Information Commissioner Decision 231/2006: Jim Thomson - Information on related planning applications regarding Wallace High School, Stirling.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Panels ordered to shred all RAE records

Zoe Corbyn
Times Higher Education
A funding council team has secretly instructed panels assessing academics' work as part of the research assessment exercise to destroy all records of how they reach their conclusions, Times Higher Education has learnt.

The move, which has been condemned by a freedom-of-information campaign group, is aimed at avoiding challenges to panel decisions by academics using freedom-of-information or data-protection laws. It will see evidence such as notes and minutes explaining the panels' decision-making process shredded before the final RAE results are published.

In a confidential letter sent to panel members last November, Ed Hughes, head of the team managing the RAE on behalf of the UK's four funding bodies including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, sets out a timetable for the destruction of records. These include personal notes taken by panel members and the panel secretariat, workbooks recording emerging decisions about each submission and draft minutes of meetings.

The letter, leaked to Times Higher Education, warns that if academics on the panels make personal notes and hold them for longer than 20 days they may need to be released to comply with legislation if a "relevant request for information" is received.

"We strongly wish to avoid dealing with such requests and the associated burden they would place on panel members and the secretariat. It is for this reason that we ask you to exercise caution in creating personal notes, destroy them at the latest 20 days after creation and do not disseminate them," it says.

The RAE is currently in its assessment phase. Fifteen main panels and 67 sub-panels of experts are judging the quality of research in departmental submissions. The results are due to be published in mid-December and will translate into research funding from 2009-10.

Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, described the approach as "extremely negative" and said that the RAE team had "lost all sense of proportion"

....

He added that the "overriding objective" of the instructions seemed to be to ensure that Hefce was in possession of nothing that could be requested under legislation, rather than to protect the integrity of the decision-making process.
Read the full story
ICO supports extending FOI Act coverage

The Information Commissioner supports extending the coverage of the FOI Act to bodies that carry out functions of a public nature and to contractors who provide services which are a function of that public authority. The Commissioner's response to the consultation on the designation of additional public authorities states:
The Commissioner has observed that there is public interest in extending the Act beyond its current coverage and therefore supports extending in principle, but cautions that the benefits of certain coverage and the timing of introduction requires careful consideration. He would like to highlight potential resource implications if the Act’s extension increases the number of complaints received with the effect of increasing the complaints backlog.

The Commissioner also observes the fast pace of change in the delivery of public functions and services in terms of public and private sector remits, for example in the Health Service. It is vital that the FOI Act keeps pace with these changes in order that public confidence in the regime is maintained and compliance with right to know legislation cannot be reduced by funding external organisations to carry out functions or contracting out. Where public authority functions are transferred to other organisations in principle FOI obligations should follow.
The response says the Commissioner favours a series of section 5 orders to progressively widen coverage of the of the Act. It also suggests that setting the bar at £1m might be appropriate for bringing public sector contractors within the Act.

Read the ICO's response (pdf)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Health Service Journal

Letters, 10 Apr 08

Freedom of Information rules

Many public authorities find that freedom of information requests sometimes raise complex questions that can be hard to get right.

They nevertheless make a conscientious effort to answer them. But some assume that inconvenient requests can simply be set aside and ignored. Hounslow primary care trust is a case in point. The PCT ignored not only the requester but even a legally binding notice by the information commissioner. Only the threat of contempt of court proceedings has forced it to respond properly.

The trust's website states that it strives to be an "open", "responsive" and "innovative organisation that recognises the needs of its local community". Such objectives are not compatible with a dismissive approach to freedom of information. Authorities that hope to be trusted by the public cannot afford to respond to requests for information only when forced to do so by the law.

Maurice Frankel, director, Campaign for Freedom of Information

Friday, April 04, 2008

MPs' allowances

Written Answers 3 Apr 2008

Mr. Carmichael: To ask the hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, pursuant to the answer of 26 March 2008, Official Report, column 89W, on Freedom of Information to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, what further steps the Members Estimate Committee plans to take regarding FoI requests for data held by the House. [199136]

Nick Harvey: The House has appealed to the High Court against the Information Tribunal decision that full details of the additional costs allowance for 14 Members should be disclosed, on the grounds that the tribunal had misdirected itself in law, in particular in ordering the disclosure of private addresses.

Further decisions by the Information Commissioner now need to be addressed. The Members Estimate Committee has taken the view that two such decisions,

3 Apr 2008 : Column 1143W

which require that the House should disclose less detailed information about the allowances of seven Members should not be appealed. This information will be released to the requesters shortly.

The same principle will also be applied to requests for information on the claims of 14 Members about which the House has appealed to the High Court. Data on these 14 MPs will only be disclosed now to that lesser level of information (by category of expense but not down to receipt level). The appeal relates to more detailed information about addresses and receipts.

The same level of information (i.e. by category—not down to receipt level) will be released about the expenses of all Members in the autumn, for the years 2004-05 to 2007-08. For the future, information compiled on a similar basis will be released quarterly, starting with the information relating to the first quarter of 2008-09 (April to June). This release of information will also begin in the autumn.

The MEC remains committed to reviewing the allowance system and ensuring that there is probity and transparency.
Department of Health must improve FOI request handling

The Department of Health has become the second government department to be issued with a practice recommendation by the Information Commissioner's Office. An ICO press release states:
The Department of Health has failed on numerous occasions to offer appropriate advice and assistance to people making requests under the Act and is delaying the conduct of internal reviews beyond a reasonable timescale. Existing guidance highlights that public authorities should conduct internal reviews within 20 working days (40 days in exceptional circumstances) yet the Department took 90 days in one case and 80 days in two other cases.

The Department has repeatedly applied blanket exemptions to requested information with the effect, in some instances, of withholding entire documents from release. The Department has also been extending the timescale for consideration of the public interest test, exceeding the limits set out in ICO guidance.

The practice recommendation follows an ICO decision earlier this year involving the Department after it breached the Act several times over a request for information relating to its electronic recruitment service. The ICO had numerous concerns, including that the Department could not find numerous documents, filed between August 2003 and September 2004, relating to its electronic recruitment service. This prompted the ICO to carry out an audit of 40 complaints received about the Department. The Information Commissioner is concerned that the Department’s current levels of resource may not support the volume of FOI requests. The Information Commissioner recommends that the Department reviews the staffing and resource given to freedom of information in order to improve request handling.
A practice recommendation cannot be directly enforced. However, failure to comply with a practice recommendation may lead to a failure to comply with the Act which could end in the ICO issuing an enforcement notice.

Read the practice recommendation

Decision notice FS50083381 Department of Health
Waste companies must open files to public

Friends of the Earth
Press release 31 March 08
An important decision under freedom of information laws will now allow members of the public to directly request environmental information from waste companies.

Following a formal complaint by Friends of the Earth, the Information Commissioner has ruled that a private waste management company is required to make environmental information public because it is classed the same as a public authority under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

Phil Michaels, Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth's Rights & Justice Centre said:

"The Information Commissioner has made a very important decision that private waste companies can be subject to environmental information legislation. In the past, waste companies have tried to wriggle out of releasing information to the public. Now it is clear that the public is legally entitled to know how their waste is treated by these companies. People all over the country can now get hold of information they may need to challenge controversial proposals, like plans to build new incinerators."

In March 2006, Lewes District Friends of the Earth wrote to South Downs Waste Services Ltd requesting information about the environmental assessments of its proposal for an incinerator in Newhaven. South Downs Waste Services Ltd is part of the Veolia family of companies, one of the largest waste management companies in the UK. The company replied stating that the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 did not apply to it as it was not a public authority and that it was not required to release the information.

Lawyers in the Friends of Earth's Rights & Justice Centre wrote to the Information Commissioner on behalf of the group complaining that the company had misunderstood the legislation and that it was, in fact, a public authority for the purposes of the Regulations. In his Decision Notice the Information Commissioner found that the company was a public authority because it was under the control of East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council as a result of its contract with those councils.
Read the decision notice (pdf)
ICO orders the release of waste management contract

Press release
28 March 08
The Information Commissioner has ordered East Riding of Yorkshire Council (East Riding) to release details of its contract with an independent waste management company, Waste Recycling Groups (WRG).

East Riding refused a request to disclose the contract with the waste management contractor. The council argued that the contract was subject to commercial confidentiality. It claimed that releasing the contract would amount to a breach of confidence which would be detrimental to the economic interests of the council and the contractor.

In his decision, the Information Commissioner highlighted the public interest in waste management and how it can affect all parts of a community to a degree. The Information Commissioner ruled that the public interest in disclosing the following information, in this particular case, overrides the public interest in maintaining the commercial confidentiality exemption:

• All information relating to pricing contained within the contract other than that highlighting specific costs or profits of the contractor
• All operational information contained within the contract other than the names of preferred subcontractors
• All information about emission levels or likely emission levels held within the contract
• All planning and development information held within the contract, other than that containing systems and technical information falling within the scope of the exception

In his decision, the Information Commissioner highlights that the decision to disclose pricing information in this situation does not equate to a decision to disclose this sort of information in all cases.

Read the decision notice (pdf)