Friday, January 30, 2009

Committee hears from next Information Commissioner

An uncorrected transcript of Christopher Graham's evidence to the Justice Committee on 27 January has been published.
Q24 Alun Michael: Could you say something about your philosophy and your approach to the role? This role started off in data protection and has moved to a much more sophisticated and therefore more challenging brief over recent years. Having seen the way that has been developed, particularly in the accumbency of the current Information Commissioner, how do you see yourself taking that forward? What is your attitude to the issue of information, data management, sharing and retention?

Mr Graham: My first reaction is that a challenging job is getting even more challenging. There are new powers and duties, some already have been granted and some that are in the Bill that you are considering. In the course of 2009/2010 the Information Commissioner is going to have significant new powers, particularly on the data protection side and one hopes the resources to use those powers effectively. You asked what my overall approach is. First of all, that the organisation should be well led and well managed, that it should be effective and efficient. I think that is the sine qua non, it is the licence to practice. The Information Commissioner has got to demonstrate that he is delivering a service across the responsibilities of data protection and Freedom of Information and so on, that we can tackle the backlog of delays on the Freedom of Information side, for example, and win the respect of all stakeholders, which I think then gives the Information Commissioner the platform on which to contribute to public policy debates around data protection and Freedom of Information and so on. I would emphasise very much the importance of the education and information side with the enforcement and the sanctions as the big stick in the cupboard. It is important that everyone knows it is there and will be got out only if necessary. There is the huge task of education and helping people to comply, which has always been my approach with the Advertising Standards Authority. I am not particularly interested in waiting around the corner saying, "Aha, we've got you," but that is necessary from time to time. It is much more important to put the resources in to making sure that public authorities and commercial organisations decide what their responsibilities are and they get on with it, but they have got to believe that if they get things wrong the Information Commissioner will be effective and will be prompt and, in addition to the reputational damage which necessarily arises from getting things wrong, there will be sanctions visited upon miscreants. And finally, my approach would very much be the need to convince the authorities and stakeholders in general of the absolute independence and integrity of the Information Commissioner. I think we achieve that by being absolutely evidence based, cool, calm, determined to defend decisions that are being properly arrived at, praised when necessary, but the first thing to do is to win the respect of all those who are interested in this area by manifestly running an effective operation at a time of great challenge and great change.

Read the full transcript.

Centre for FOI opens in Scotland

A new Centre for Freedom of Information was launched on 29 January at the University of Dundee. The Centre is a joint venture between Dundee Law School, University of Dundee and the Scottish Information Commissioner.

The Centre will provide:
  • Conceptual space to reflect on and discuss current FOI issues and practice.
  • A central point for the development of research into FOI issues, in particular modelling decision making and examining bureaucratic culture.
  • Access to expertise from specialists in constitutional and civil law, FOI practitioners and the Commissioner's office.
  • Opportunities to transfer knowledge and gain further learning.
Professor Alan Page, Dean of the Law School and Co-Director of the new Centre with Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, explained the background to the Centre, "Our culture is changing, transparency and openness are things we expect much more now. However, we haven't entirely moved into the light. We need to focus on the benefits rather than the costs of freedom of information and to find out what is actually happening in this area rather than relying on anecdotal evidence."

Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, sees the Centre as an opportunity to bring together both research and experience, a place to discuss and explore the current issues in freedom of information: "We must ensure that our legislation, practice and culture are continually examined and reviewed if Scotland is to be at the forefront of international freedom of information practice. The Centre is an exciting opportunity to enable us to review and refresh our thinking in an academic setting, to share our own experience and to evaluate it against that of other FOI jurisdictions throughout the world. ".

The Centre will host a Seminar Programme in early 2009 which will advise the development of a Research Programme. A Study Programme is also in development.

You can register for news about the Centre here.

See:
Lord Wallace open new Centre for Freedom of Information - press release 27/1/09, Scottish Information Commissioner
Centre for Freedom of Information website

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Welcome for proposal to halve "30 year rule"

Campaign for Freedom of Information
Press release: 29 January 2009

Proposals to automatically release government records after 15 years instead of the present 30 year period were welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information today.

The proposals are made by a committee chaired by Paul Dacre, editor in chief of Associated Newspapers, which had been asked to review the 30 year rule by the Prime Minister. Its report, published today, says that a new “15 year rule” should be adopted and phased in over a period of years, possibly taking full effect by 2025. Freedom of Information Act requests could still be made for individual government records, regardless of their age, but once records were 15 years old they would normally automatically become available in The National Archives.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “A 15 year rule would mean records becoming available while we can still remember the events they refer to. For most people what happened 30 years ago is ancient history. Disclosure after 15 years would throw light on decisions while their impact is still remembered, their consequences still felt and the ministers and other participants likely to still be around and able to answer questions about their own role.”

The Campaign said that documents about government decisions were increasingly becoming available under FOI after only months or a few years, and that delaying full disclosure for 30 years was anachronistic and reinforced a tendency towards secrecy.

The Campaign particularly welcomed the proposal that the government should consider amending the Civil Service code to require officials to keep “full, accurate and impartial records of government business”. It said such a duty was now essential in light of the government’s repeatedly expressed view that FOI was likely to deter officials from keeping frank records.

However the Campaign expressed reservations about the committee’s proposal that the names of civil servants should normally be blacked out from released documents. The Campaign said this conflicted with rulings of the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal which held that the identities of senior officials should normally be disclosed, in the interests of accountability, unless there was a risk to them or some other specific reason to conceal their identity and that anonymity was generally appropriate only for junior officials.

The committee’s report is available from: www.30yearrulereview.org.uk/final-report.htm

The Campaign's submission is available from: www.cfoi.org.uk/pdf/cfoi_30yr_submission.pdf

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

FOI disclosure stories 19-25 January 2009

Labour feared backlash over anti-Catholic reform - Sunday Times 25/1/09
"Donald Dewar, the former first minister, refused to endorse the repeal of the Act of Settlement for fear of alienating Ulster Unionists. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Dewar sympathised with calls to abolish the legislation but was not prepared to support it publicly... Under the act of 1701 no Catholic can inherit the crown and any member of the royal family who marries a Catholic is barred from succession unless his or her spouse agrees to renounce the faith... The newly-released documents highlight opposing views in Labour’s Scottish administration on how ministers should respond to SNP calls to repeal the act."

Tesco lobbies for right to cut pension payments - Observer 25/1/09
" Tesco has lobbied the government to push through reforms to the UK's retirement rules that would allow the supermarket to cut its final salary pension payouts if employees live longer than expected. Documents obtained under freedom of information rules reveal that the company told ministers that employers should be allowed more flexibility in administering their schemes in the light of rising retirement costs. The documents show for the first time that one of Britain's major employers is concerned that the rising costs of defined-benefit pensions will become an increasing burden under current rules. The revelation is expected to dismay unions at the supermarket, which is one of a dwindling band of employers offering guaranteed retirement benefits. "

Hundreds of BBC staff snaffle six-figure pay - Sunday Times 25/1/09
"The BBC was embroiled in a fresh row over executive pay last night after internal accounts revealed it is paying 339 managers more than £100,000 each. The figures, released under freedom of information (FOI) laws, reveal that the corporation’s top earners are being paid £44m in total... the figure of 339 does not include managers at the BBC’s commercial subsidiaries or members of the executive board, who are all exempt from the FOI disclosure... The new figures show that after the director-general Mark Thompson – who earns £817,000 with benefits – and his fellow executive directors, broad swathes of managers also enjoy high salaries."

PCTs take action over Choose and Book misuse - Pulse 23/1/09
"PCTs across the country have begun taking formal action over the misuse of Choose and Book, serving hospital trusts with performance notices to improve their operation of the system and stop them restricting slot availability. Information obtained by Pulse under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that seven trusts have now issued performance notices, as PCT bosses turn to contractual mechanisms in a bid to address persistent complaints... Pulse first revealed in December that East and North Hertfordshire PCT had brought a performance notice against East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust ‘for the trust’s below-expected achievement on the Choose and Book target’."

Information Commissioner's ruling could open doors to claims from failed job candidates - Personnel Today 22/1/09
"Job candidates may be allowed to see other applicants' details, including interview notes, following a decision by the Information Commissioner (IC) against Leicester City Council. The IC ruled that a council employee, who had applied for two internal vacancies, had the right, under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, to see various details of other candidates as long as their identities were kept secret. The complainant had his request for information about the recruitment process and other candidates turned down by the council."

Just Another Brick In The Wall? Inside Out on trail of asbestos in our schools
- BBC 23/1/09
"More than 90% of South East England schools still contain asbestos, a special investigation by the BBC's Inside Out South East will reveal. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the team conducts the first survey of asbestos in South East schools. Of Kent's 599 schools, 554 contain asbestos; in East Sussex, 185 of the county's 195 schools carry the substance. In post-war Britain the majority of state schools were built using the substance, which only becomes a threat to health once it is exposed and starts to crumble. Every school affected should have its own asbestos management plan, and under current guidelines areas where it is exposed should be securely sealed."

Gov't agencies fall short on data accuracy - ZDNet.co.uk 22/1/09
"Most government departments lack basic data-protection and error-correction policies, responses to a series of Freedom of Information requests have revealed. Garlik, a UK company that helps people find which of their personal information exists online, sent out the FoI requests between September and November last year. The FoI requests asked 30 government departments four questions about their handling of citizens' personal data... The results, revealed on Thursday, were described by Garlik as showing a "dangerous complacency regarding the accuracy of databases containing the personal information of British citizens"... "The government's complacent attitude towards managing and correcting our personal data is all the more shocking in light of the 176 public data losses that have occurred this year alone," Garlik chief executive Tom Ilube said in the company's statement on Thursday."

Child abuse unit paying for data - BBC 21/1/09
"The unit set up to tackle child sex abuse in the UK has had to pay tens of thousand of pounds to internet firms for information, the BBC has learned. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) has spent more than £170,000 since 2006. The money has gone to internet service providers (ISPs) which charge for their data. CEOP chief executive Jim Gamble said the situation was "ridiculous". The figure comes after a BBC request under the Freedom of Information Act... He [Gamble] added that for the money CEOP has had to pay ISPs, it could have employed two full-time investigators."

BBC outlines cash incentives for staff moving to Salford Press Association 19/1/09
"The BBC has released further details under the Freedom of Information Act of the relocation package available to journalists moving to Salford. BBC staff moving to the corporation's new base in the MediaCity on the outskirts of Manchester will be eligible for up to £3,000 to pay for new carpets and curtains. And BBC employees in London with houses to sell will also benefit from a guaranteed house purchase scheme, under relocation terms for those prepared to head north... It is one payment among a package of incentives, paid for out of the licence fee, to entice staff to move out of London."

NSPCC reveals 53 children are sexually abused every day - Guardian 19/1/09
"The scale of child abuse in England and Wales was revealed today when figures showed that 53 children a day are subjected to sex crimes. The victims range from babies and toddlers to teenagers and the offences from indecent exposure to rape and serious sexual attacks. But the statistics highlight just a small proportion of the total number of sex offences carried out against children because a third of child victims do not tell anyone that they have been abused, according to research. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children collated the figures by issuing freedom of information requests to all 43 police forces in England and Wales. The figures show that 20,758 children reported sexual offences to the police last year, including rape, gross indecency and incest."

Regional

Kingston University may lose £1m thanks to drop outs - Surrey Comet 24/1/09
"Kingston University may forfeit £1m of funding, after failing to declare hundreds of students who failed to complete their courses - and the university warned other institutions may have even bigger problems. Last year the university reported a 6.4 per cent non-completion rate, but an audit of 180 of the university’s 21,300 students revealed a higher figure of 8.6 per cent. According to documents obtained by the Surrey Comet under the Freedom of Information Act, a later examination of 9,000 student records revealed that the true rate could be high as 14.5 per cent."

£15k spent on paupers' burials in Burnley - Lancashire Telegraph 23/1/09
"BURNLEY Council has spent more than £15,000 since 2004 on so-called ‘paupers’ burials’. The council is responsible for arranging cremations when no family, or friends, of the deceased can be traced. The figures were released under the Freedom of Information Act."

Sunderland Echo City's shock car smash toll - Sunderland Echo 23/1/09
"More than 2,000 people have been injured in car accidents on Wearside roads in just three years... Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show there have been 9,514 accidents between 2005 and September 2008. And 2,264 of these incidents have resulted in minor or major injuries or death."

70 alcoholics claim disability benefit - Coventry Telegraph 22/1/09

"Seventy people in Nuneaton and Bedworth are claiming disability benefits because they are addicted to alcohol. The figures, uncovered following a Freedom of Information Act request, show the crippling extent of alcoholism in the borough. The group is claiming ­either incapacity benefit or ­severe disablement allowance, citing their main disability as alcoholism."

Guns and knives in city's schools - Salford Advertiser 22/1/09
"Children as young as 11 have been reported to the police for having knives on school premises, according to an investigation by the Salford Advertiser. Figures obtained exclusively by the Advertiser under Freedom of Information laws show that six weapons were found in Salford schools in the academic year 2007/2008. They include a knife, two BB guns and three starter pistols, which do not fire live rounds but look like real guns."

Two attacks a week on fire crews - Express & Star - Wolverhampton 22/1/09
"Yobs have attacked firefighters in the West Midlands almost 300 times in the past three years... Crews in the region have been pelted with glass bottles, stones and eggs as well as being spat at while giving out safety advice, bombarded with abuse while putting out fires and blocked in roads by cruel drivers while trying to rush to emergencies... The figures have been released to the Express & Star under the Freedom of Information Act. They reveal 95 incidents were reported in 2006, 119 in 2007 and 80 in 2008 – a total of 294. It means firefighters are being attacked on average around two times a week."

Ormskirk's top spots for parking fines exclusively revealed - Ormskirk & Skelmersdale Advertiser 22/1/09
"... statistics show that 19,808 tickets have been dished out in the top 10 parking ticket locations alone in the last five years. The figures, obtained using the freedom of information request, show that Two Saints car park tops the most ticketed 10 car parks in Ormskirk with almost 5,000 penalty charges notices (PCNs) issued in five years. Since Lancashire County Council’s parking enforcement arm ParkWise started patrolling car parks in the town in 2004 the tickets have been totting up."

Pensioner crime in Croydon on the rise - This is Croydon Today 22/1/09
"The number of pensioners being arrested in Croydon is rising while youth arrests are dropping... Figures released to this paper under the Freedom of Information Act shows the number of men aged over 65 and women aged over 60 arrested in the borough rose by 14 per cent in a single year... A total of 106 pensioners were nabbed by police in 2008, compared to just 90 in 2007... the greatest increase in arrests was among elderly women."

13 police officers have convictions - Rhyl Journal 21/1/09
"Thirteen police officers in North Wales have criminal convictions, it has been revealed.
In response to a Freedom of Information inquiry, North Wales Police have reported that six of the convictions occurred before the officers joined the regional force, the other seven since doing so. Three of the 13 are sergeants, whose convictions are for assault, common assault and possession of a controlled drug. The constables' offences range from speeding and owning a dangerous dog to being drunk and disorderly, forgery and a data protection offence."

26 North Wales police stations closed in 11 years - Daily Post 21/1/09
"North Wales Police has closed 26 police stations across the region in the past 11 years and shut an additional five front counters since 2004. Statistics released after a Freedom of Information enquiry show the force has made major cuts to its station network since 1997 – but also opened eight new premises in that time. A critic of the shutdown said the closures were making it harder for the public to report crime."

Agency worker paid £97 an hour by NHS - Derbyshire Evening Telegraph 21/1/09
"Agency staff brought in by the NHS in Derbyshire have cost up to £97 an hour. The figure, which would have been equivalent to an annual salary of £190,000, was revealed in answer to a Freedom of Information request by the Conservatives. Trusts running health services throughout the country revealed the highest amounts they paid for outside staff, including doctors, nurses and managers... Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: 'It's incredible that agency staff can be paid such high hourly rates when jobs are being cut at the same time."

Health chiefs under fire for walk-in centre 'farce'
- Norfolk Evening News 24 20/1/09
"...the consultation process into the closure of the walk-in centre (WIC) in Dussindale was a “farce”. Correspondence obtained using a Freedom of Information request has revealed that NHS Norfolk may have made the decision to close the popular WIC in Pound Lane in February 2008 - prior to the £67,000 public consultation... More than 5,000 names were collected on a petition against the closure and letters were written to NHS Norfolk opposing the plans but in November last year health chiefs announced the WIC would close." North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said this was a “horrifying waste of money”. He said: 'The chief executive has confirmed what we all knew all along - that the consultation process was a farce and it was merely a rubber stamping exercise."

Drugs, mobile phones smuggled into Winchester Prison - Southern Daily Echo 20/1/09
"Drugs, mobile phones and deadly weapons are being smuggled into a Hampshire prison. Almost 200 contraband items – including 43 mobile phones – were seized at Winchester Prison in 2007. Following a Freedom of Information Act request by the Daily Echo it is the first time confiscation figures have been released by the high security jail and sheds light on the extent of drug dealing behind bars. The revelation comes just one month after prison officer Luke Ryan was jailed for seven years for smuggling cocaine, heroin and cannabis into the jail."

Thousands of cases dropped - Ilkeston Advertiser 20/1/09
"Derbyshire Constabulary decided not to make enquiries into over 12,000 crimes this year – a 45 per cent rise in the number of reported crimes not investigated. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed police still “screened out” more incidents, despite the number of reported crimes dropping. Crimes are screened out when officers feel they are unlikely to be solved using available resources."

Compensation culture in Kirklees? £470k claims against schools - Huddersfield Daily Examiner 19/1/09
"Shock figures revealed today show just how much the compensation culture has taken over in Kirklees... Figures obtained from Kirklees Council under the Freedom of Information Act show the LEA had to defend claims totalling nearly £185,000 from December 2005 to December 2006. Some £245,000 was claimed in the following 12 months and almost £140,000 between December 2007 and 2008. Not all was paid out though. The highest claim was for £60,000, which was claimed by an employee who suffered a break or fracture caused by defective equipment on March 30, 2006 at Crow Lane Junior and Infants School in Milnsbridge. The council’s Cabinet member for schools Clr Jim Dodds is concerned that too many claims are being made. “There are more and more people jumping on the bandwagon and you can see that with the number of ads on the telly encouraging people to claim if they have had an accident.”

Nearly 100 council homes remain empty despite a huge waiting list - Gloucester Citizen 19/1/09
"Almost 100 council homes in Cheltenham are standing empty, despite more than 3,000 people waiting to be housed. Figures released to the Echo by Cheltenham Borough Homes under the Freedom of Information Act show 92 homes are unoccupied and have been for up to seven months. While there are 3,157 applicants on the waiting list for a council home."

Scotland

Drug curse of Glasgow children - Glasgow Evening Times 23/1/09
"UP to 50 youngsters under 13 are taking heroin in Glasgow, a leading drugs worker revealed today. Professor Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University said his studies indicated substantial numbers of children in the city were growing up in homes where drugs were available... new figures released to the Evening Times under Freedom of Information showed kids as young as 11 and 12 are ending up in hospital after overdosing on a variety of drugs. In the year 2007/2008 there were 173 hospital admissions for under 18s suffering from what medics class as self harm by drug overdose' across the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area. Two admissions last year involved 11-year-olds and four involved 12-year-olds."

£1850 a day: what the council gets in parking fines in Dundee - Dundee Evening Telegraph 22/1/09
"Dundee City Council is raking in £1850 a day from parking tickets slapped on the windscreens of cars across the city. Figures obtained by the Tele under Freedom of Information showed the authority’s parking enforcement officers issued 27,030 penalty notices during 2008, earning revenue of £678,990."

Council workers facing three attacks from public each day - Edinburgh Evening News 21/1/09
"Council workers in Edinburgh are facing up to three verbal or physical attacks from members of the public every day... The daily abuse includes being threatened with knives, spat on and shouted at. Figures released to the Evening News under freedom of information laws reveal there were 938 incidents of abuse reported in 2007-08 by council workers."

Police have DNA profiles for only one in 14 missing people - Daily Record, Scotland 20/1/09
"Scots police have DNA profiles for only seven per cent of long-term missing people... The Record has found, under freedom of information, that cops have genetic fingerprints for just 34 of the 460 individuals who have not been seen for more than two weeks. Chief executive Paul Tuohy [of the charity Missing People] said: "The procedures by which police forces match long-term missing people to unidentified bodies or body parts need urgent review and greater co-ordination across the UK."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Government should 'live with' Tribunal's decision on disclosure of Iraq cabinet minutes

The government should accept today’s decision of the Information Tribunal and release the two sets of cabinet minutes from 2003 discussing the decision to go to war in Iraq, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The Tribunal’s decision, made under the Freedom of Information Act, found that the balance of public interest favoured releasing the minutes.

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said: “The government has four choices. It can release the information and accept the Tribunal view that this is an ‘extreme’ case which does not set a precedent for the future release of cabinet minutes or require ministers to be more reticent at cabinet discussions. Second, it could appeal to the High Court, a process which could go all the way to the House of Lords, adding years of delay. Third, it could try and amend the FOI Act to remove cabinet minutes from its scope. We hope its recent unsuccessful attempt to do this over MPs’ expenses will persuade it not to repeat the exercise. Finally, ministers could exercise the veto which they have built into the Act and overturn the Tribunal’s decision without persuading any court of their case, a wholly unacceptable outcome. We hope it will accept the Tribunal’s decision, release the minutes and recognise that cases where the public interest favours disclosure of such material will be so rare that they can live with it.”

Monday, January 26, 2009

MPs' expenses: CFOI website updated

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has updated its webpage on the attempt to exclude MPs' expenses from the FOI Act. The Government has been forced to withdraw the proposal - at least for now. http://www.cfoi.org.uk/mpsexpenses.html has all the background information about the proposal together with what's been said about it by the Campaign and others.

Govt puts off response on extending FOI coverage

Written Answers 22 January 2009

Norman Baker: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice pursuant to the answer of 15 December 2008, Official Report, column 476W, on the Freedom of Information Act 2000, when the public consultation on section 5 of the Act concluded; and when he plans to publish his response. [249331]

Mr. Straw: The public consultation on section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act concluded on 1 February 2008. The Government continue to assess the merits of designating additional public authorities under the Act and will publish their response to the section 5 public consultation by the summer.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lords Comittee concerns over Order to exempt MPs' expenses

The House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instrument drew to the Lords' attention concerns over the the draft Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009. The Committee's report, dated 20 January, states:
This Order is drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that it may imperfectly achieve its policy objectives...
4. The supporting material is deficient: no justification is given in the EM why these additional measures are required over and above the previous SI, rushed through in July 2008[1], which was intended to deal in particular with MPs' concerns about their personal security. The EM states the purpose of the Order is to change the scope of the application of the Act but does not set out the policy objective this change is designed to implement. This absence of clarity makes it impossible for the Committee to make a judgement whether the Order actually achieves its policy objectives. When the Order is debated Members will wish to seek an explanation from the Government why the Order is necessary and what its objective is.

5. The Committee also records its dissatisfaction with the accelerated timetable imposed[2], which has prevented us from seeking any evidence on the Order, and limits our ability to make a considered report to the House. We would have wished to seek views from interested parties such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life, whose Chairman was reported in the press as saying "MPs above all should be subject to the Freedom of Information law since they are the ones who made it. I do not think that anyone has really made the case for this change." Similarly Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, is reported as commenting on the disparity this instrument would introduce, saying "Chief Constables, local authority chief executives and others have to release individual expenses claims" and arguing that MPs should be treated the same as other public figures. Members may well therefore also wish to seek an explanation for the haste which has limited the normal scrutiny process.
The proposals were raised at the Downing Street press briefing yesterday morning (21 January), before the Government announced the statutory instrument had been withdrawn from the Order Paper.
Put that the vote broke the spirit of the convention that MP’s had a free vote on such matters, the PMS replied that there were a number of votes tomorrow. The votes on the proposals to enhance transparency were matters for the House and were free votes. There was one vote that was on Government business and as people knew, normally Government business was whipped. But to be clear on this, we had sought to operate on a cross-party basis.

At every stage, there had been consultation with the main opposition party, on what the best way to proceed was...

Asked if the Government would still have done it if it had disagreed with what the MP’s had wanted, the PMS said that there were free votes on the substantive proposals. There was one proposal that required a change in legislation and there had been consultation across Parliament on that. It had been discussed with the Members Estimates Committee and it was the Government’s responsibility to take forward legislation to enact the will of the House.
And if you didn't see it, EnoughsEnough.org and Unlock Democracy had this full-page ad in The Times yesterday.

Pre-Appointment Hearing - Information Commissioner

The Justice Committee will take evidence from the preferred candidate for the post of Information Commissioner.

Details of the oral evidence session are as follows:

Tuesday 27 January in The Wilson Room, Portcullis House.

At 5.15 pm: Christopher Graham, preferred candidate for the post of Information Commissioner

A transcript of the sessions will be available (within 5 days) on the Reports and Publications page of the Committee's website: www.parliament.uk/justicecom/

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama pledges "new era of openness" on first day

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090121/ap_on_go_pr_wh/obama_executive_pay

In an attempt to deliver on pledges of a transparent government, Obama said he would change the way the federal government interprets the Freedom of Information Act. He said he was directing agencies that vet requests for information to err on the side of making information public — not to look for reasons to legally withhold it — an alteration to the traditional standard of evaluation.

Just because a government agency has the legal power to keep information private does not mean that it should, Obama said. Reporters and public-interest groups often make use of the law to explore how and why government decisions were made; they are often stymied as agencies claim legal exemptions to the law.

"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city," Obama said. He said the orders he was issuing Wednesday will not "make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be" nor go as far as he would like.

"But these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country," Obama said. "And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people, in the days and weeks, months and years to come."

Campaign welcomes decision to shelve "improper" attempt to conceal MPs' expenses

Campaign for Freedom of Information
Press release: 21 January 2009

The government’s decision to withdraw the proposed Order excluding MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act was welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Its director Maurice Frankel said “We are delighted that this proposal has been shelved.It was wrong in principle for MPs to try and conceal their expenses claims when all other public servants have to release theirs. It was improper for the government to try and rush the measure through without the public noticing or having time to object. MPs should not be legislating on the quiet to remove an existing right of access to information about their own expenses in the hope that no-one will notice.”

However, the Campaign suggested that it was possible that the measure would resurface in the near future in amended form. “Some MPs are clearly desperate to prevent the release of past expenses claims which are likely to have exceeded what could reasonably be justified to the public” Mr Frankel said.

Latest on MPs' expenses

32 MPs have now signed Jo Swinson's EDM 492 opposing the FOI (Parliament) Order to exclude MPs' expenses from the FOI Act. A copy of the motion and up to date list of the MPs that have signed is available here.

ConservativeHome blog: All Tory MPs will be ordered to fight Labour attempts to keep expeneses secret
The original Conservative plan had been for only the Tory frontbench to be whipped on this issue but following an agreement between Alan Duncan, the new Shadow Leader of the House, and David Cameron yesterday, all Conservatives MPs will be expected to vote against "one rule for the taxpayer and a different rule for MPs" - as Mr Duncan puts it.


Lib Dem press release: Nick Clegg vows to oppose plans to keep MPs' expenses secret
Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg has pledged that the party will vote against Government plans to allow MPs' expenses claims to be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Clegg has imposed a three line whip on Liberal Democrat MPs, meaning that they must vote against the measure.

Tory frontbench and Lib Dems fight move to hide MPs' expenses - Guardian 21/1/09
The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are to combine to fight the government's move to exempt MPs' expenses from the Freedom of Information Act when the order is debated in the Commons tomorrow.

The change in Tory tactics, initiated by Alan Duncan, the new shadow leader of the house and an advocate of freedom of information, leaves the government exposed to even greater criticism if it wins tomorrow's vote. It could also leave some Labour MPs, particularly those in marginal seats, embarrassed by their support for greater secrecy.

John Mann MP, Letters, Guardian 21/1/09
MPs remain their own worst enemy in maintaining respect for parliamentary democracy, as the current equivocation on MPs' expenses and freedom of information demonstrates (Ministers to exempt MPs from giving expenses details, 17 January; Letters, 20 January). Of course there are some complications in how we make available detailed information, including protecting employees and suppliers from possible targeting by extremists or deranged individuals. I myself have been threatened by both.

But this does not undermine the principle of open accountability, and there is no credible excuse for MPs exempting ourselves from aspects of the Freedom of Information Act on Thursday.

Labour MPs 'will be forced to vote in favour od withholding details of expenses' - Telegraph 21/1/09
Despite the workings of Parliament usually being subjected to a free vote, meaning MPs can act according to their conscience, Labour members will be subject to a 'three-line whip' forcing them to support the controversial measure when it comes before the Commons on Thursday...It has now emerged that despite opposition from a number of senior Labour backbenchers, including Kate Hoey, David Winnick and Frank Field, the Government will impose a three-line whip on the vote - meaning that Labour MPs will be forced to back the move or face disciplinary proceedings.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Campaign to stop bid to exlude MPs' expenses from FOI Act!

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is urging its supporters to write to their MPs opposing the Government's move to exclude MPs' expenses from the FOI Act. The measure is being rushed through Parliament at extraordinary speed with no public consultation or advance warning. You can read more about it on the Campaign's website here.

You can write to your MP via the WritetoThem website. Please ask them to vote against the Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 on 22 January and sign Early Day Motion 492 sponsored by Jo Swinson MP opposing the Order. A list of MPs who have signed the motion is available here. A list of who actually votes for or against the Order on 22 January will be published on the Campaign's website.

The detailed expenses of all public officials, across the whole public sector, are publicly available on request under the FOI Act. Only MPs’ expenses would be given special protection. No justification for this special treatment has been offered - and it is difficult to see what explanation there could be. The Campaign believes it deeply inappropriate - and damaging to Parliament’s reputation - that MPs should seek such special protection from a measure which they have deemed should apply to everyone else.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Access to MPs' expenses move criticised

Campaign for Freedom of Information
Press release 15 January 2009
The government's proposals, announced today (Jan 15) to prevent FOI requests being made for MPs' individual expenses claims have been criticised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Instead of allowing requests for spending on individual items, the government is proposing that annual totals should continue to be published, though broken down into more categories than in the past.

The Campaign's director Maurice Frankel said: “the individual expenses claims of senior officials across the public sector are publicly available under the FOI Act. There is no justification for allowing Members of Parliament to meet a lower level of scrutiny than senior officials across the public sector. Chief Constables, local authority Chief Executives, senior BBC executives and others have to release their individual expenses claims, and that should be the case for MPs too.”

The Campaign pointed out that the FOI Act was amended in July 2008, to exclude MPs' addresses from the scope of FOI requests and to prevent the disclosure of any regular spending on travel or future travel arrangements. These changes were justified as necessary to protect MPs' security. The new proposals cannot be justified on security grounds.

The new proposals are contained in a draft Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order published today (January 15th) and due to be debated in the House of Commons next Thursday, January 22nd. The government is also proposing to amend the House of Commons' publication scheme to require more information about expenses to be published, but only in the form of annual totals.

See also:
CFOI press release
The Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 and Explanatory Memorandum
Announcement by the Leader of the House in the Commons
Motion and explanatory memorandum relating to publication scheme of payments to Members

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dept of Health ordered to release information on MMR policy

ICO press release
12 January 2009
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has made three related rulings under the Freedom of information Act involving the Department of Health. Copies of three committees’ minutes*, which cover the period in which the joint MMR vaccine was introduced (1988), should be released by the Department. The Department initially provided redacted copies of the minutes citing a large number of exemptions** to withhold the requested material.

The ICO maintains that disclosing the information will help increase the public understanding of the development of the Government’s policy on this issue. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, believes that some of the controversy surrounding national immunisation policy has been fuelled by a perceived lack of transparency in the decision making process which fed into the policy and he believes that there is a public interest in countering this perception. Ultimately, knowing who said what and whose opinions were taken into account will facilitate greater openness, accountability and transparency.
Full press release
Decision notice FS50149373
Decision notice FS50149374
Decision notice FS50149375

Christopher Graham to be next Information Commissioner

The Ministry of Justice has announced that Christopher Graham, currently Director General of the Advertising Standards Authority, is the preferred candidate to take over as Information Commissioner when Richard Thomas retires in June 2009.

The Justice Committee held a pre-appointment hearing on 13 January and will be publishing a report on the his suitability for the post.

See:
MoJ press release 13 Jan 2009
ASA's Christopher Graham set to become information commissioner - Guardian, 13 Jan 2009

Information Commissioner's evidence to Justice Committee

Richard Thomas gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee on 13 January 2009 on developments to the role of the Information Commissioner during his time in office since 2002 and the key issues facing his successor. You can read his written submission to the Committee here.
"My overall conclusion is positive. But there are challenges ahead. The most important is to secure adequate and longer-term funding so that the ICO can recruit, train and retain experienced staff and reduce delays in resolving cases. At the same time, more (and faster) cases confirming where the boundary lines are to be drawn should reduce the burden on public authorities and allay any remaining worries about the “chilling effect” of FOI on good government. Looking further ahead, I foresee a gradual shift of emphasis away from individualised requests and complaints in the direction of much more routine proactive disclosure with only the genuine “Crown Jewels”staying secret."
See also:
Info chief makes no promises on ending FoI backlog - Press Gazette

FOI Podcast No. 16

Episode 16 of Ibrahim Hasan's FOI Podcast has been published.
In this episode, amongst others, we will be discussing decisions on:

• Information held by the private sector
• Vexatious requests
• What costs can be passed on to an applicant
• Section 30 and access to audit reports
• Names of child care managers
• Access to legal advice
• AND disclosure of consultant tender bids and scorecards

You can listen at http://www.informationlaw.org.uk/page10.htm

Sunday, January 11, 2009

30 year official secrets rule may be changed to 15

11 January 2009
The Independent on Sunday
The 30-year rule on government secrets should be changed to 15 years, allowing confidential papers from the Thatcher and Major administrations to be revealed, an official review is expected to recommend.

Secrets behind events such as the miners' strike, the poll tax riots and Black Wednesday may be laid bare as early as next year. A new 15-year rule would also see the battles of the first year of Tony Blair's government revealed in three years' time.

An independent review of the 30-year rule on disclosure of confidential government papers was set up by Gordon Brown in 2007, headed by Paul Dacre, editor of the 'Daily Mail'. The review team reported to the Prime Minister last year. Its findings are to be made public this month.
Full story

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Work of the Information Commissioner

Justice Committee

Press notice No. 4 of Session 2008-09
6 January 2009 / For Immediate Release

ANNOUNCEMENT OF EVIDENCE SESSION

Work of the Information Commissioner

The Committee will hold an evidence session on the work of the Information Commissioner over the last 6 years to inform its forthcoming pre-appointment hearing in relation to this post.

Details of the oral evidence session are as follows:

Tuesday 13 January in The Grimond Room, Portcullis House.

At 5.15 pm: Richard Thomas, current Information Commissioner, David Smith, Deputy Commissioner, and Simon Entwisle, Chief Operating Officer, Office of the Information Commissioner

A transcript of the session will be available (within 5 days) on the Reports and Publications page of the Committee's website: www.parliament.uk/justicecom/

Notes:
1. Committee membership is as follows: Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP (Chairman), Mr David Heath MP, Siân James MP, Daniel Kawczynski MP, Jessica Morden MP, Julie Morgan MP, Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, Robert Neill MP, Dr Nick Palmer MP, Linda Riordan MP, Virendra Sharma MP, Mr Andrew Turner MP, Mr Andrew Tyrie MP and Dr Alan Whitehead MP

2. The transcripts of previous evidence sessions can be found at on the Committee's website at www.parliament.uk/justicecom

Further Information:
Media Enquiries: Jessica Bridges Palmer (020 7219 0724)
email: bridgespalmerj@parliament.uk; Clare Mills (07795 662742);

Specific Committee Information: Tel 020 7219 8196/ 8198, email: justicecom@parliament.uk