Tuesday, December 16, 2008

FOI statistics July-Sept 2008

The quarterly statistics bulletin on the handling of freedom of information requests by central government bodies has been published.
Executive summary

Departments of State reported receiving 4,938 “non-routine” information requests during the third quarter of 2008 (Q3). Other monitored bodies received 3,887 requests. Across all monitored bodies, a total of 8,825 requests were received, of which 92 per cent had been processed at the time of monitoring. This includes 150 requests handled under the amended Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) which came into force on 1 January 2005. [see Table 1]

The 8,825 requests across all monitored bodies received in the third quarter of 2008 is 16 per cent greater than the 7,580 received during the corresponding quarter of 2007. [see Table A]

During Q3 of 2008, 88 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 marginally higher than in the previous quarter, but lower than in the corresponding quarter of 2007. [see Table 2 and Table B]

Of all “resolvable” requests received during Q3 of 2008 (i.e. requests where it was possible to make a substantive decision on whether to release the information being sought), 57 per cent were granted in full, a small decrease compared to the previous quarter. [see Table 3 and Table C]
Freedom of Information Act 2000 – Statistics on implementation in central government
Q3: July – September 2008

Information rights tracker survey

The Ministry of Justice has released the latest independent tracker survey carried out with members of the public to discover levels of awareness and attitudes towards information rights legislation. The fieldwork for the survey was carried out in October 2008.

Information rights tracker survey - key wave 11 results [PDF 0.06mb, 6 pages]

Monday, December 15, 2008

Using the FOI Act - courses for new & experienced requesters

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is running two half-day training courses for FOI requesters on 13 January 2009. The morning course will provide an introduction to the legislation, covering both the Freedom of Information Act and the parallel Environmental Information Regulations. The afternoon course will examine some of the key decisions made under the two regimes and explain how they can help you obtain information. Requesters can attend either or both courses, which will be in central London.

Download the course leaflet for more details.

Friday, December 12, 2008

ICO plans for possible funding cut for FOI

The possibility of a cut in the Information Commissioner's Office FOI funding has been raised. The ICO's Executive Team minutes from 11 November 2008 state:
6. Funding for FoI 2009-10

6.1. Richard Thomas gave an overview of 2009/10 funding. It is expected that funding across the public sector will be tight next year and the ICO will need to plan for possible reductions in grant in aid (affecting freedom of information). This was despite our understanding that the £5.5 million paid this year was a baseline figure.

6.2. Data protection funding may also be affected by the recession.

6.3. ET discussed the use of secondees from government departments to help in freedom of information case work, but noted that to make an impact; a large number would be needed. And whilst the secondees would be funded by their home departments, there were costs associated with training and accommodating extra staff which would fall to the ICO.

6.4. In respect of freedom of information funding and our view that the £5.5m was baselined, the ICO would need to discuss with the MoJ its understanding of the position.
The ICO's Corporate Plan 2008-11 assumes funding of £5.5m for 2009/10:
"This allows us to keep pace with the current volume of freedom of information complaints. We will not be able to reduce the number of cases held at any one time, which will remain at around 1,300."
Any reduction in funding would almost certainly lead to an increase in the backlog.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Petition on publicly-owned companies and FOI

The following petition on the Number 10 website is open for signature.

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to support a change to the law to make companies owned two thirds or more by public authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000."

You can sign the petition here. The deadline for signatures is 23 January 2009.

More details from the petition's creator, John Cross:

The public has a right to know how public money is spent.

At present Section 6 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 makes companies that are 100% owned by the Crown or by a single public authority subject to the Act.

The current law is not sensible - a company owned by one local authority is subject to the Act but a company owned by two local authorities is not.

Data Loss and Data Security Seminar

The Centre for Information Rights Law at Northumbria University School of Law is hosting its first networking seminar, considering “Data Loss and Data Security”. Further information and contact details to book on the seminar are included below. Please note that places are limited and will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

DATA LOSS AND DATA SECURITY
Wednesday 21 January 2009 from 12.30 – 4.15 pm, including lunch

This seminar is part of a programme of seminars which have been specifically designed to provide practitioners with an opportunity to hear, and engage in debate with well-respected speakers, and to facilitate wider discussion of current information rights law issues.

Venue: Northumbria Law School, City Campus East, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST

Programme:

12.30 - 1.30 pm Networking lunch

1.30 – 2.00 pm Data Security: A practical approach to keeping data secure Phil Tompkins, Dickinson Dees Solicitors

2.00 – 3.00 pm Open discussion session

3.00 – 3.15 pm Refreshments

3.15 – 3.45 pm PIAs – managing personal information risk Stephen McCartney, Head of Data Protection Promotion, Information Commissioner’s Office

3.45 – 4.15 pm Question and answer/discussion/networking session

If you require further information or wish to attend this seminar please contact Maureen Cooke at maureen.cooke@northumbria.ac.uk or tel: 0191 243 7597. Alternatively, send a cheque for £40 made payable to Northumbria University School of Law to Maureen Cooke, Legal Services Unit, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8ST stating that you wish to attend the Data Loss seminar and providing your name, address, telephone number and a contact email.

Public favours extension of freedom of information rights

News release
10 December 2008
Research published today [10 December 2008] by the Scottish Information Commissioner reveals that over two thirds of the Scottish population favour extending Scotland's freedom of information (FOI) laws to cover organisations other than public authorities, such as housing associations and privately run prisons.

The research, which was undertaken by Progressive Scottish Opinion as part of the Commissioner's annual public awareness survey, found that 66% of people favoured extending the FOI 'right to information' to prisons run by the private sector. This figure rose to 69% for housing associations, 73% for trusts providing local authority health and leisure services, 75% for private organisations that build and maintain local authority schools, and 79% for those that build and maintain NHS hospitals.

The publication of the research coincides with a major conference in Edinburgh at which speakers including Bruce Crawford, the Minister for Parliamentary Business, and Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion, will explore issues around extending the right to information. The extension of FOI is currently under consideration by the Scottish Government, which published a discussion paper on the matter in November.
Download the research report and underlying data sets:

Public Awareness Research Report 2008 (242kb)
Public Awareness Research Report 2008 - Data Sets (223kb)

Friday, December 05, 2008

ICO guidance on vexatious requests updated

The Information Commissioner's Office has updated its guidance on vexatious requests. The new guidance includes a number of examples from Tribunal rulings on vexatious requests.

Vexatious requests can be blocked, ICO press release 5 December 2008

Vexatious Requests (Awareness Guidance 22) version 4 3 December 2008

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Recriminalising the leaking of official information

Letters, The Times
4 December 2008

Sir, The Damian Green case and the unsuccessful prosecution of the journalist Sally Murrer raise the question of whether the offence of misconduct in public office is now being used as a way of recriminalising the leaking of official information.

For many years any leak of official information on any subject — damaging or innocuous — was an offence under Section 2 of the 1911 Official Secrets Act. The 1989 Official Secrets Act changed this. It limited the offence to unauthorised and damaging disclosures relating to the work of the security and intelligence services, defence, international relations and law enforcement or to the obtaining of information under certain warrants, for example to intercept communications.

The 1988 White Paper that announced the reform made clear that disclosures that were merely “undesirable, a betrayal of trust or an embarrassment to the Government” would not be punishable by the criminal law. Introducing the new legislation Douglas Hurd, then the Conservative Home Secretary, explained that it “will remove the protection of the criminal law from the great bulk of sensitive and important information — including policy documents, Cabinet discussions on education, on health and on social security, and economic information and budget preparations. None of them will any longer have the protection of the criminal law.” Such disclosures might lead to disciplinary action — but not prosecution.

The disclosures that the Home Office civil servant are alleged to have made not only fall within the broad class of information deliberately removed from these criminal sanctions but in some cases are likely to be disclosable under the Freedom of Information Act. How has the clock been turned back to make such disclosures the subject of police investigations, arrests and possible prosecutions?

Maurice Frankel

Director, Campaign for Freedom of Information

NZ Ombudsmen annual report published

Press Release
2 December 2008
Office of the Ombudsmen

Some public servants playing games with OIA requests

The Office of the Ombudsmen is concerned some parts of the public service have been deliberately delaying responses to Official Information requests.

In the office’s Annual Report to Parliament, Chief Ombudsmen Beverley Wakem says the practice is unacceptable and subverts the purpose of the legislation.

Beverley Wakem says the Office has observed an increasing tendency by a few government departments and Ministerial offices to ignore the provisions of the Official Information Act over the timing of responses to requesters.

“While in some cases this was clearly a misunderstanding of their obligations, there is also a regrettable tendency to game the system and delay responses until the complainants’ interest in the matter had passed,” she says.
...
She also says the Ombudsmen find it troubling that 25 years after the OIA came into force, many government agencies have still not recognised – and responded appropriately – to the fact that dealing efficiently and effectively with requests made under the legislation requires an ongoing programme of training for staff.

She notes that there has been a considerable turnover in agency staff and a loss of institutional knowledge of agency obligations in responding to Ombudsmen’s enquiries.

Full press release.

The Annual Report of the Office of the Ombudsmen can be downloaded from www.ombudsmen.parliament.nz.

See also the press release issued by Green Party's in response to the Ombudsmen's report 'Open government needs open information'

Qld to reveal cabinet documents sooner

The Age
December 4 2008

Queensland has become the first state to break the age-old tradition of keeping cabinet documents secret for 30 years.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said a website, which went live on Thursday, would provide a range of cabinet documents a month after they were considered by her ministerial team.

The website, as well as online processing of freedom of information (FOI) requests, is the first step in a major overhaul of the way the public can access Queensland government information on themselves and other matters.

Under the Westminster tradition of government, cabinet documents are released 30 years after they are considered.

Draft Right to Information laws, tabled in the Queensland parliament on Thursday, overturn the 30-year rule, with all cabinet papers to be released after 10 years and some to be provided on the website within a month of them being considered.

The laws also take information from a model where it has to be "pulled" out of the government, to a "push" model where the government proactively releases information.

FOI will also apply to government-owned corporations for the first time.

"Today Queensland is one step closer to becoming the most transparent, open and accountable government in Australia," Ms Bligh told parliament.

The government is still considering the issue of the cost of FOI searches, which journalists and other users believe is a block to greater access to government information.

But Ms Bligh said under the new laws an agency or minister would be forced to minimise the cost of applications.

A draft Information Privacy Bill, aimed at improving access to personal information held by the government, was also released on Thursday.

Comment on the draft laws has been invited until March 31.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ministerial veto scrapped in Australia

The Australian Government has introduced legislation to remove the power to issue conclusive certificates under the Australian FOI Act, the equivalent of the ministerial veto in the UK Act. This means that all exemption decisions in Australia will now be subject to full external merits review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Special Minister of State, Senator John Faulkner, said "I believe public confidence in government decision making is increased if those decisions are open to being fully tested by an independent review process. This Bill marks the first step in the Government's plan to undertake the most significant overhaul of the FOI Act since its inception in 1982."

However, Matthew Moore, the Sydney Morning Herald's freedom of information editor, writes that the timetable for further reform has been slipping.

All talk, little action from Rudd so far, Matthew Moore November 29 2008

Act Now training courses

Act Now Training has just published its 2009 programme of courses on information law/information management.

For more details click on the link below:

http://www.actnow.org.uk/courses/