Monday, July 27, 2009

FOI Disclosure Stories 20 - 26 July 2009

Secret Labour tax on having a patio - The Daily Mail 26/07/09
“Shocking new details of a stealth tax of up to £600 for householders with views of any kind, patios, conservatories and even a nearby bus stop are revealed for the first time today. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show millions of homes have already been secretly assessed by Labour in preparation for council tax hikes expected to target the middle class after the Election. Homes have been given 'value significant codes' which will make virtually every desirable feature taxable.”

Billion rubber band ball comes bouncing into view for Royal Mail
- Telegraph.co.uk 26/07/09
“The Royal Mail is using more than 871 million rubber bands a year, it has emerged, enough to stretch nine times round the world. The figure could soon break the billion mark with the number of bands being used rising from 753 million in 2005/06 to the latest figure of 871,695,000 in 2007/08.”

‘Lords-for-hire’ peer faces new quiz - The Times 25/07/09
“Lord Truscott, one of the peers in the lords-for-hire row, lobbied for the interests of clients at a meeting with government officials despite telling a House of Lords inquiry that he had attended only for ‘information purposes’. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Labour peer pressed officials from the business department to speed up the roll-out of smart meters for domestic electricity customers.”

OGC publishes traffic light status of Gateway reviews - ComputerWeekly 23/07/09
“The Office of Government Commerce has published the ‘traffic light’ status and recommendations of Gateway reviews of 23 high-risk IT-related projects - three years after Computer Weekly requested them. The disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act cover projects such as the ID cards scheme and ‘Impact’, a police intelligence system which Sir Michael Bichard recommended after an inquiry he chaired into the murders by school caretaker Ian Huntley of two 10 year-old girls.”

Solo GPs face more GMC hearings – BBC 22/07/09
“Figures obtained from the General Medical Council raise more questions over the future of GPs who work alone. They reveal that GPs who work on their own are six times more likely to be summoned to a disciplinary hearing than GPs working in group practices… The GMC figures, which Newsnight has obtained, show that 17 so-called 'single-handed' GPs and 67 GPs working in group practices came up in front of a 'fitness to practice' hearing in the last year. According to the National Health Service in England, Scotland and Wales there were 38,728 GPs in multiple practice and 1,589 'loners' for the relevant period.”

UK councils rec'd 315K noise complaints during the last year - Pro Sound News Europe 21/07/09
In the last 12 months, 315,838 noise-related complaints were received by local authorities, and 8,069 noise abatement notices were issued by environmental health offices, according to information released under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition, 715 anti-social behavirour orders (ASBOs) were secured by councils on the basis of noise.

Regional

Number of hoax bomb alerts almost double - Belfast News Letter 20/07/09
“Hoax bomb alerts in Ulster have almost doubled over the last year, the News Letter has learned. Figures released via a Freedom of Information request show that between April 1, 2008, and March 31 this year, 426 ‘bomb hoax-related crimes’ were recorded. Such crimes include placing, conspiring to place or attempting to place an article causing a bomb hoax, dispatching or conspiring to dispatch an article causing a hoax, and communicating false information causing a hoax.”

Scotland

£103m paid over 5 years to victims of violent crime
- The Herald 26/07/09
“More than £103m in compensation has been paid in the last five years to victims of violent crime in Scotland. New figures show there have been 35,954 applications since 2004 to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) which has awarded £103.2m to 22,310 of them. In total £9.8m was paid to 2130 victims of knife crimes. The figures were released following a Freedom of Information request to the CICA by the Scottish Liberal Democrats.”

Pandemic could kill 63,000 in Scotland - The Guardian 22/07/09
“A severe flu pandemic could kill more than 63,000 people in Scotland within a few weeks and overwhelm mortuaries and crematoriums, an official study has concluded. The document, released to the Guardian under freedom of information regulations, also warns that at least 5,100 people in Scotland could die even if the flu virus was relatively mild and infected only a quarter of the population… The previously unpublished study was written last year to help councils and health authorities plan for a pandemic, before swine flu hit the UK, leaving at least 31 people dead and infecting an estimated 85,000 people since April.”

SIC newsletter July/August 2009

The latest edition of Inform, the Scottish Information Commissioner's newsletter, has been published:
In this edition of Inform I compare the actions of Westminster MPs following the order to release expenses details with that of their counterparts at Holyrood. I also provide an update in recent international visitors to my office, and announce the date of the 7th Annual FOI Conference.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Reflected Glory? - Freedom of Information in Scotland

The lectures given by Kevin Dunion, Scottish Information Commissioner and Natasa Pirc Musar, Slovenian Information Commission, at a Centre for FOI seminar on 5 June 2009 can be downloaded here.

FOI Disclosure Stories 13 - 19 July 2009

UK Government invites human rights abusers to arms fair - Ekklesia 16/07/09
“Countries involved in conflict or internal suppression or having a record of human rights abuse have been invited to the London arms fair by the UK government. The list of invited countries was released after a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT)... Of the 53 countries, plus the United Nations (UN), who have been invited to attend Defence Systems & Equipment International (DSEi) in September, at least 15 have serious conflict and human rights concerns or urgent development needs.”

Huge rise in antibiotic incentive schemes - Pulse 15/07/09
“Half of PCTs are now running incentive schemes to cut GP antibiotic prescribing rates- with 40% of them set up in the past year - as trusts desperately try to tackle rising rates of antimicrobial resistance, a Pulse investigation has found… Responses to a Freedom of Information request from 116 English PCTs reveal that 56, or 48%, have such schemes with 40% set up in the past year as a direct response to concerns about rising antibiotic resistance.”

Prison drug seizures rise by 50 per cent - Channel 4 14/07/09
“Ministers say they are winning the battle against drugs in prisons. But Channel 4 News can reveal figures showing that more drugs are being seized from inmates. A Freedom of Information request for More 4 News shows that drug seizures from prisoners went up almost 50 per cent over the last five years. The rise comes despite a host of new initiatives that have succeeded in stopping drugs being brought into jails by visitors.”

Hospitals moving patients to hit four-hour A&E targets - Nursing Times 14/07/09
“Hospitals are routinely moving large number of patients from their A&E departments in the last few minutes of the four-hour target time for treatment in emergency departments, Freedom of Information figures have revealed. More than 20% of patients left the A&E department where they were being treated in the last 20 minutes of the target time at five hospitals, and more than 15% of patients were moved out of A&E at the last minute in 20 hospitals. The figures, revealed through FoI requests from the Liberal Democrats, show that 16 hospitals had a higher spike in last minute A&E discharge activity than Mid Staffordshire Hospital.”

'Political club' numbers 29,000 – BBC 13/07/09
“The number of politicians and their advisers on the UK public payroll now tops 29,000, BBC research has found. The figure includes councillors, MPs, peers, MEPs, members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies and their staff. Their total cost is estimated at more than £499m for the year 2007/8. The figures, from Freedom of Information requests for BBC Radio 4's The Political Club, suggests numbers have increased 10-fold in 30 years.”

Regional

KCC staff 'sell' leave - for half a million pounds
- Kent Messenger 15/07/09
Kent County Council staff sold more than 3,700 days of their holiday back to the authority last year at a cost of more than half a million pounds. A total of 660 employees exercised their right to sell untaken holiday time between April 2008 and March 2009. KCC says the leave sold – which is provided to employees as a lump sum and is not pensionable - was valued at £531,205.
Over the same period, 227 county council staff also “bought” 1,360 days extra leave on top of their usual holiday entitlement, costing them £171,971...The details of the buying and selling of leave were disclosed to the KM Group under the Freedom of Information Act. It follows our revelation that KCC chief executive Peter Gilroy had sold part of his leave entitlement for nearly £12,000 last year.

Assembly officials' £700,000 credit cards bills - Wales Online 13/07/09
“Credit card bills totalling more than £700,000 in a year have been run up by Assembly Government officials working abroad, it was revealed tonight. Information obtained by the Welsh Liberal Democrats under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed what the party described as ‘a culture of shocking spending excess’ within the administration’s international offices… Figures showed that 34 Assembly Government credit card holders, working in offices around the world on behalf of the Welsh taxpayer, spent a total of £718,434.17 over the past 12 months.”

Scotland

New wing at Fife's Victoria Hospital to cost £520m - Dunfermline Press 16/07/09
“NHS Fife will be paying over £17 million a year for 30 years – a total of almost £520 million – for the new PPP Victoria Hospital wing in Kirkcaldy. The Press obtained the sky-high figures for the annual payback – described as 'value for money' – through a freedom of information request. With the whole project for the new build priced at £170 million, it means the health board will be paying back over three times the actual cost of the work.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Information Tribunal criticises ICO delays

The Information Tribunal has criticised the Information Commissioner's Office for delays in investigating Freedom of Information complaints. In the case of Student Loans Company Limited and Information Commissioner, the Tribunal said:
Mr Swain complained to the Commissioner on 18 July 2006. Regrettably, there then followed a period of 22 months’ delay during which, so far as we can tell, the Commissioner took no steps to fulfil his statutory duty under FOIA s50. His investigation only commenced on 16 May 2008. We are not in a position to say, and it is not for us to decide, to what extent that inordinate delay was due to lack of resources, or to deficiencies in the Commissioner’s systems of internal management, or to a mixture of those or indeed other causes. What is clear is that the volume of complaints to the Commissioner has been much higher than was predicted and, in cases where information ought to have been disclosed by the public authority, long delays in the commencement or conduct of the Commissioner’s investigations tend to frustrate the purpose of the Act and deny to the public the rights which the Act has created.

The investigation was concluded on or about 17 July 2008, but the Commissioner’s decision notice was not issued until 3 November 2008. Since the delays were not an issue in the case, we have no information on why such a long period elapsed from the conclusion of the investigation to the issue of the decision notice. The present case is not one of exceptional difficulty. We would have expected that in a properly resourced and properly managed office, following the conclusion of the investigation, three weeks would have been a sufficient period for the production of the Commissioner’s reasoned decision.
...
The overall picture in this case is disturbing. As we have indicated, the request for information was originally made on 21 March 2006, and the matter was referred to the Commissioner on 18 July 2006. From that point it took in excess of 2¼ years for the requester to obtain a decision from the Commissioner that the information ought to have been released. For many requests which are made under the Act, the timeliness of the release of information is important. Where public interests are served by the disclosure of information, they are usually better served by prompt release than by a disclosure which is held up for months or years. The Act is written on this basis: subject to certain exceptions, information is required to be disclosed by the public authority within 20 working days after the request. It seems to us that delays of the magnitude which occurred here seriously undermine the operation of the Act. The right to obtain information that ought to be made public loses much of its usefulness if it cannot be enforced within a reasonable timescale. While it may be that a requester could compel the Commissioner to act promptly by means of an application to the High Court for judicial review, most requesters are unlikely to possess the determination or the funds to make this a practical option. If public authorities come to expect that a reference to the Commissioner may take several years to be dealt with, they may be tempted to withhold information that ought to be disclosed, in the hope that the requester or the public will have lost interest in the topic by the time it is finally prised out of them, or that any embarrassment that might have been caused by prompt disclosure will be diminished because of the passage of time. Such a situation would be wholly unacceptable.
This ICO's decision in the Student Loans Company case was highlighted in the Campaign for Freedom of Information's report Delays in Investigating FOI Complaints as having the longest delay before the ICO's investigation began - 22 months.

ICO delays raised in Parliament

The Campaign for Freedom of Information's report on Delays in Investigating Freedom of Information Complaints by the Information Commissioner's Office has been the subject of two Parliamentary questions, one by Lord Lester in the House of Lords and one by Norman Baker MP in the House of Commons. Both received identical responses. It also featured in a short debate in the House of Commons.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: To ask Her Majesty's Government following the publication of the report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Delays in Investigating Freedom of Information Complaints, what steps they will take to ensure that the Information Commissioner's Office can complete its investigations in a timely manner. [HL4851]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Information Commissioner regularly review the resources required for the commissioner to discharge all of his freedom of information responsibilities. For this financial year, the Government have identified additional funding of £500,000 for the Information Commissioner's Office's freedom of information work, over and above the baseline funding of £5 million. We are discussing with the office how it can use this additional funding most effectively to reduce the number of outstanding cases.

In addition, the MoJ promoted a scheme last year where secondees from central government departments work for the ICO to help clear the freedom of information cases at their home departments’ expense. There are currently seven secondees working at the ICO.
Gordon Prentice MP, a member of the Public Administration Committee, raised the issue during the debate on the Summer Recess Adjournment. Citing the Campaign's finding that 25% of cases resulting in a decision notice from the ICO took between 2 and 3 years, he said:
In the long run, we are all dead and a Parliament runs for a maximum of only five years, yet people are waiting for years for the Information Commissioner to come forward with a decision—I am one of those people.
Mr Prentice used his own experience of making a Freedom of Information request to the Cabinet Office to illustrate the problem:
In November 2007, in the Public Administration Committee, I raised the case of Michael Ashcroft with the Cabinet Secretary. I did so because in March 2000, No. 10 issued a press release that said that Michael Ashcroft had given—I paused for effect there—

“a clear and unequivocal assurance”

that he would take up permanent residence in the UK by the end of the year—by the end of 2000. To this day, he refuses to answer the question on that. I, therefore, raised it with the Cabinet Secretary in the Select Committee in November 2007. Sir Gus O’Donnell got back to me, saying that the Cabinet Office has no jurisdiction over either House of Parliament and he did not see a role for him on the issue of the undertaking, as it was really not a matter for him. On the other question of residency, he said that it was exempt information because it involved a conferring by the Crown of an honour or dignity—that refers to Michael Ashcroft’s peerage. The second reason the information was exempt was that it related to personal information provided, by Michael Ashcroft, in confidence.

Those reasons were bogus and spurious, so I appealed. My appeal was considered by the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and it was turned down in March 2008. At the end of that month, I wrote to the Information Commissioner and the matter has been with the Information Commissioner ever since. To this day, I do not know why there has been a huge delay of 16 months. I am asking only for two simple pieces of information. I do not want to know how much tax Lord Ashcroft is paying, but I want to know the answer to the following questions: to whom did Michael Ashcroft give that assurance and what form did that assurance take—was it oral, in a letter or in an e-mail? I have been denied those two straightforward pieces of information for 16 months.
Mr Prentice added that if he didn't have the information within 4 weeks, he would raise this matter again when the House returns in October.

Monday, July 20, 2009

FOI Disclosure Stories 6 - 12 July 2009

Duke of York's expenses claims jump to £4000 a week - Telegraph.co.uk 10/07/09
“The Duke of York's expenses claims as Britain's trade ambassador have jumped to £4,000 a week, The Daily Telegraph can disclose. The figures, obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, showed a rise of 50 per cent over the previous year as the Duke billed the taxpayer for £207,000 in expenses for his overseas trips, excluding flights.”

NHS hit by a different sort of virus
– Channel 4 09/07/09
“A More4 News investigation finds that more than 8,000 dangerous viruses have infected NHS computers in the last financial year, with a significant number of cases impacting on patient care. On 18 November 2008, a computer virus called the Mytob worm caused havoc in three major London hospitals when it spread so quickly that it overloaded computer networks… But the same day, More4 News revealed that the trust could have avoided the incident if easily available security updates had been applied to their network months earlier.”

Millions Of People With Musculoskeletal Conditions At Risk Of Being Let Down By NHS
- Medical News Today 10/07/09
“One-in-five (21%) primary care trusts (PCTs) do not offer 'clinical assessment and treatment services' (CATS) for people with musculoskeletal conditions, denying them services deemed a 'keystone' of the government's 2006 musculoskeletal services strategy. A report based on Freedom of Information requests and published by the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance (ARMA) also reveals that just under half (45%) of PCTs do not define life-long conditions such as arthritis as 'long-term', meaning people with musculoskeletal conditions are being ignored in large areas of the country.”

Mind the gap - BBC 09/07/09
“Women are earning more than men in some public sector organisations - but only in the lower-paid grades, according to new research by the BBC. Female clerical and admin staff are taking home bigger salaries than their male colleagues in 14 out of 17 public sector bodies which responded to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request about pay... But higher up the career ladder it's a more familiar story, with male earnings outstripping females' and men outnumbering women in the senior management roles.”

Failed adoptions up a third in the past year
- The Times 10/07/09
“The number of adopted children who have been returned to care homes because their new parents cannot cope with them has doubled in the past five years. Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the number has increased by a third in the past year alone as parents struggle with often challenging children who have suffered years of neglect or abuse in their natural families.”

Ofcom coughs 3G coverage maps
- The Register 08/07/09
“The UK regulator has finally released nationwide maps of the 3G coverage available, and it will come as no surprise that anyone planning to take a dongle to the Highlands will be out of luck… The release of the maps (pdf) comes despite Ofcom's response to a Freedom of Information request, lodged by Simon Fluendy, that the regulator didn't have such a thing... now we can all see how much 3G coverage each operator has.”

Regional

Gloucestershire criminals owe £3.6m - Gloucester Citizen 11/07/09
“Criminals in Gloucestershire owe more than £3.6million in court fines. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show the outstanding bill for uncollected court fines, which includes compensation for victims, stands at £3,624,734.21.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Govt plans to extend FOI Act "disappointingly modest"

Campaign for Freedom of Information
Press release 16 July 2009
The government’s plans to extend the Freedom of Information Act to just 4 bodies or classes of organisation is “a useful but disappointingly modest result”, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The four are the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Financial Services Ombudsman, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and Academy schools. ACPO had volunteered to be brought under the Act, which the Campaign said “reflects well on the organisation”.

But the Campaign said it was disappointed at the narrow scope of the proposals. The Act allows contractors providing services on behalf of a public authority to be brought under its scope, if the provision of the service is a function of the authority. However, the government is not proposing to designate any contractors.

The Campaign had argued that private health bodies providing surgical or diagnostic services under the NHS should be subject to the Act as should providers of social care services and educational and criminal justice services. People’s rights to know about the quality of a public service they receive should be the same, whether the service is provided by a public authority itself or by a private body under contract to the authority, the Campaign said.

The Campaign highlighted the fact that the government has decided not to bring private prisons under the Act, although last month the Prime Minister’s spokesman cited private prisons as an example of the kind of body that would be covered (Afternoon press briefing, 10.6.2009, http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page19602). The government’s October 2007 consultation document on extending the Act also referred to private prisons as an example of the type of body that could be designated.
See:

A Ministerial Statement also confirmed that a revised records management code of practice under section 46 of the FOI Act has been issued. However, the expected publication of the Government's formal response to the review of the 30 year rule has now been deferred.

On 10 June 2009, the Prime Minister announced that the 30 year period before old official papers are made public would be reduced to 20 years, but Cabinet documents and information relating to the Royal Family would be made exempt from the FOI Act altogether for 20 years, an extremely retrograde step. The MoJ Statement said "The Government are considering carefully the practical details of implementing a new rule and aim to publish their full response in late summer".

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Using the FOI Act - courses for new & experienced requesters

Do you want to learn how to use the Freedom of Information Act? Are you already using the Act, but want to know more about how the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal are interpreting key provisions?

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is running two half-day courses for FOI requesters in London on 20 October 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 from the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal and explain how they can help you obtain information.

Details on how to book a place will be available from the Campaign's website shortly. Please email us if you would like to be notified when these become available.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Information Commissioner & Tribunal Decisions courses

The next 'Information Commissioner & Tribunal Decisions' courses which the Campaign for Freedom of Information runs will be in London on 30 November 2009 and Birmingham on 3 December 2009.

The courses, which are aimed at those with a good working knowledge of the legislation, highlight key developments in the way the exemptions, the public interest test and the legislation's procedural requirements are being interpreted.

Details on how to book a place will be available from the Campaign's website shortly. Please email us if you would like to be notified when these become available.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

New ICO guidance

The Information Commissioner's Office has published the following new pieces of guidance:

Section 17 - Refusing a request (Version 1, 1 July 2009)

Section 17 - Writing a refusal notice (Version 1, 1 July 2009)

Enterprise Act 2002 and Freedom of Information Act 2000 (Version 1, 1 July 2009)

FOI Disclosure Stories 29 June - 5 July 2009

Workers protest over job cuts as colleges waste millions on consultants and agency staff - UNISON 03/07/09
“New figures revealing that £51,213,507 has been spent on expensive agency staff and paying consultant fees by further education colleges has been slammed by UNISON and UCU as a waste of money… Seventy nine colleges in England that had refused to give staff earning less than £17,000 an agreed pay increase of £550 in 2008/09, or a pay offer of 3.2, were targeted in the survey. 

And the results show that those employers spent a total of £29,533,507 on agency workers and £21,680,000 on consultants last year, bringing it to a massive £51,213,507.”

Transport for London in spending row over £2,761-a-day consultants - Guardian Unlimited 02/07/09
“Transport for London spent more than £14m on consultants in just one department over a two-year period, it emerged today. The Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union used a freedom of information request to unearth figures showing TfL is paying up to £2,761 a day per consultant in its congestion charging and traffic enforcement department.”

UK's bloody Afghan legacy - Channel 4 01/07/09
“The British Army has paid out compensation for, or is in the process of investigating the deaths of, at least 104 civilians killed in clashes in Helmand in just 18 months, Channel 4 News can reveal. A freedom of information request by this programme has revealed a large number of claims by Afghan civilians against British forces in one of the most violent regions of Afghanistan, in which UK forces have been the main Nato force for five years.”

Darzi centre funding dwarfs GMS cash - Pulse 30/06/09
“Our investigation shows funding per patient at GP-led health centres is almost three times as high on average, and in some cases as much as seven times as high, as at GMS practices. Some 25 PCTs released details of contracts under the Freedom of Information Act, although many more refused, claiming the release of figures would prejudice future tendering processes. Trusts are paying an average of £180.92 per registered patient to GP-led health centres in their first year, far outstripping estimated average funding of £63.24 per patient for GMS and £78.63 for PMS contracts.”

Are private prisons working? - Channel 4 29/06/09
“Britain's private prisons are performing worse than those run by the state, according to data obtained under the freedom of information act by More4 News. The findings, based on the overall performances of 132 prisons in England and Wales, appear to undermine claims by government that private prisons are raising the standards for over 80,000 prisoners held across both the state and private-run sectors.

 Separate figures from the probation officer ombudsman, also released under an FOI, show nearly double the number of prisoner complaints are upheld in private prisons as they are in state-run institutions.”

Danger of airplanes' birdstrike - The Mirror 29/06/09
“Nearly two aircraft a week are involved in potentially fatal collisions with birds, safety statistics reveal. Pilots have been forced to issue Mayday alerts or make emergency landings as their jet engines dangerously lost power after a birdstrike, the Civil Aviation Authority said… In Britain, the CAA dossier reveals 100 birdstrike incidents last year.”

Regional

4,000 noise complaints in Notts in one year - Nottingham Evening Post 01/07/09
“There have been more than 4,000 complaints about noise pollution in Notts in the last year. The figures were released by Rockwool insulation company after a Freedom of Information Act request. Of the 4,414 complaints, 2,038 were in the city council boundary.”

More than 250 Met officers facing racism allegations
- This is London 01/07/09
“A total of 255 Metropolitan police officers are facing accusations of racism, according to new figures. Some 238 complaints were submitted by members of the public and a further 17 involve internal allegations of misconduct. The figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act record the number of complaints of racism made against officers in individual boroughs and police squads.”

Scotland

Anger at 'soft' jail terms for serious attacks
- The Scotsman 04/07/09
“The Scottish Government has been accused of presiding over a ‘soft touch’ justice system after it emerged that thugs convicted of attempted murder and serious assault had been given prison sentences of less than six months. New statistics – released under Freedom of Information rules – reveal that since 2003-4, 335 of those found guilty of serious assault were given sentences of less than 182 days. A further three people convicted of attempted murder were also given terms of less than six months.”

ICO Annual Report 2008-09

The Information Commissioner's Office has published the Annual Report for 2008/09:
Foreword by Richard Thomas:
Transparency and openness have become part of the standard political vocabulary. The public's right to know has become a success story. Wider debates are underway about democratic renewal, public engagement and constitutional reform. Freedom of information, a somewhat fragile flower for most of its lifetime with few vocal friends in Westminster and Whitehall, is now a permanent fixture and a core part of the fabric of public life. The talk now is of extending the legislation.
...
The first four years have involved a massive learning curve for everyone. Many transitional problems have been caused as public bodies have resisted disclosure of material which had been written without an expectation that it could reach the public domain.

As we move into a more mature business-as-usual phase, public sector culture must continue to shift in favour of openness being the norm. There is no need to wait for requests. These can be sporadic, burdensome and disruptive. I have frequently advocated the 'crown jewels' approach - public bodies need to show they recognise the imperative of accountability (and make life easier for themselves) by identifying what absolutely has to be kept secret and the proactively publishing other official information as a matter of routine.
...
It is not easy (and anyway too soon) to measure freedom of information achievements by reference to rationales of trust, confidence, accountability, improved decision-making or reduced impropriety. But it can be said that the impact on the general public appears to have been substantial. Our annual survey shows marked increases in public attitudes towards the benefits of access to information held by public authorities. Those agreeing that freedom of information "increases knowledge of what public authorities do" rose from 54% in 2004 to 84% in 2008. Those agreeing that it "increases confidence in public authorities" went up from 51% to 75%.
The annual report, annual report summary and the slides from the launch are available here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Laws that slip in the back door

Telegraph
6 Jul 2009
Labour's methods of law-making have made parliamentary debate and openness impossible, argues Philip Johnston.
...
Oddly enough, the one measure that has begun to redress the balance is the one that Labour dragged its heels about introducing: the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. While this by no means works perfectly – not least because it is still the devil's own job to extract information from the state or its agencies that should as a matter of course be put in the public domain – it is none the less available to the Press and public if they have the patience and wherewithal to keep pounding away. It was the diligence of journalists and campaigners seeking information about MPs' expenses under the FOI Act that finally brought Westminster's dirty secret into the light.

When the Act came into force in 2005 - five years after it was actually passed – Lord Falconer, then Lord Chancellor, hailed it as "a constitutional change of great significance… a presumption of openness… a radical and permanent change in the relationship between the citizen and government. Fears that the need-to-know culture would still triumph have not been realised."

In truth, of course, the Government had hoped it would not work quite that way and would, as Hamlet said, be more honoured in the breach than the observance. But it has allowed us, if not exactly to storm the citadels of governance, at least to peep through the keyhole to see a bit of what is going on. As Francis Bacon said, knowledge is power and a country is less free if it is all in the hands of the state. Public bodies should be legally obliged to place in the public domain every piece of physical or electronic information that they generate, unless there are overwhelming reasons of privacy or national security. That would be an easy, practical and straightforward way to underpin press freedom and the public's right to know.

Full article here.

Friday, July 03, 2009

"Severe delays" in investigating freedom of information complaints "undermining" FOI Act

Press release 3 July 2009
Campaign for Freedom of Information
Long delays by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in investigating freedom of information complaints are undermining the effectiveness of the FOI Act, according to a new report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The report analyses nearly 500 formal decision notices issued by the ICO in the 18 months to 31 March 2009. The decisions were made under the FOI Act and the associated Environmental Information Regulations. It finds that -

  • on average it took 19.7 months from the date of a complaint to the ICO to the date on which the ICO’s decision on the complaint was issued
  • in 46% of cases it took between 1 and 2 years from complaint to decision
  • a quarter of formal decisions took between 2 and 3 years while 5% of cases (23 complaints) took more than 3 years
  • the longest case took 3 years and 10 and a half months
  • only 24% of decisions were issued within 12 months of the complaint.
The report also found that on average the ICO’s investigation into a complaint did not begin until 8 months after the complaint had been received. In 28% of cases, there was a delay of more than a year before the investigation began and 19 cases waited more than 18 months. One complaint had been with the ICO for 22 months before the investigation began.
Read the full press release.

The report published today is in 2 parts, a report plus a table providing data on all 493 decision notices considered in the study:

1) Delays in Investigating Freedom of Information Complaints Report (pdf)

2) Table of decision notices 1.10.07 to 31.3.09 (pdf)