Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ministry of Defence criticised for freedom of information handling

The Information Commissioner's Office has issued the Ministry of Defence with a practice recommendation ordering it to improve its handling of internal reviews and ensure its standard target for completing internal reviews conforms to the Commissioner's guidance. The guidance states that reviews should normally be completed within 20 working days and in no case should the time taken exceed 40 working days.

The practice recommendation states:
Having viewed the available evidence, the Commissioner was concerned that the MOD was failing to conduct reviews promptly and that in so doing was failing to adhere to his published guidance in this respect.
...
In addition to his concerns that the MOD was failing to conform to the Code and to his guidance, the Commissioner also found that the standard target for internal review completion set in the MOD’s procedure and in correspondence it sent to requesters was 40 working days. It appeared to the Commissioner, therefore, that non-conformity to his recommendations was built into the MOD’s review procedure.

In October 2008...the Commissioner, via his FOI Good Practice and Enforcement Team, wrote to the MOD and informally sought assurances that its internal review procedure would be amended to reflect his recommendations.

The MOD provided the Commissioner with statistics regarding the timeliness of its reviews. It acknowledged that its performance required improvement and gave assurances in this regard. The MOD declined to make the recommended changes to its internal review procedure, despite being advised that failure to do so would increase the likelihood that a practice recommendation would be issued, particularly if further complaints regarding this issue were received.

The MOD’s failure to follow the Commissioner’s informal recommendations and the evidence of its continuing poor performance has led to the issuing of this practice recommendation
ICO press release here.
The practice recommendation is here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Guidance on publishing FOI monitoring data

The Ministry of Justice has produced new guidance to help local government and other sectors outside central government to publish FOI monitoring data:
This guidance is for all organisations covered by the Freedom of Information Act that do not currently report statistics through the Ministry of Justice statistical release process.

Its purpose is to encourage local government and other bodies subject to the legislation to publish to the same standard as the central government and Crown-body information that is currently produced by the department.

The guidance includes a section that covers various aspects of the Ministry of Justice's freedom of information monitoring statistics, including monitoring proformas and a series of presentational tables that can be used for quarterly and annual reporting.

Its purpose is to encourage local government and other bodies subject to the legislation to publish to the same standard as the central government and Crown-body information that is currently produced by the department.

The guidance includes a section that covers various aspects of the Ministry of Justice's freedom of information monitoring statistics, including monitoring proformas and a series of presentational tables that can be used for quarterly and annual reporting.
The guidance and Excel files can be be downloaded here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Civil servants should be able to expose ministerial cover ups

The Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has published a report calling for better and more accessible procedures for civil servants to raise concerns about the conduct of government. The report makes the following five recommendations:
• The Civil Service Commissioners should have the power to report to Parliament evidence indicating that the government was misleading Parliament or the public or the fact that the Civil Service has refused to act on a justified complaint;

• The Commissioners should also conduct independent investigation of breaches of confidentiality by special advisers, and report their findings to Parliament if ministers do not act on them;

• The leaking of information should only be a criminal matter where there is a breach of the Official Secrets Act or there is evidence of serious criminal misconduct in addition to the leak itself, for example accepting payment; and

• The Cabinet Office, Heads of Departments and the Civil Service Commissioners should do more to ensure that potential whistleblowers know how to raise concerns and have the confidence to come forward with them.
The Committee's inquiry was launched following the arrest Damian Green MP and Christopher Galley, in connection with leaks from the Home Office. The report states:
Leaks are damaging to trust within government and trust in government. In particular, they endanger ministers' confidence in an impartial Civil Service. However, we recognise that leaks can raise matters of genuine public interest and that the Freedom of Information Act has changed the legal landscape in favour of the open disclosure of government information.

...
The Freedom of Information Act established the principle that government information should be made public, subject to exceptions, and provides a mechanism by which the public interest merits of disclosure can be determined. Government needs to recognise that this changes the principles that apply to the disclosure of official information, balancing the traditional duty of confidentiality to ministers with the statutory duty to provide information to the public. This means that there may be circumstances in which a civil servant could properly take action to prompt a request under the Act.

The existence of Freedom of Information provides a legitimate alternative to leaking information and in so doing should weaken the public interest case for leaking. This will only be the case, however, if government departments act within the spirit of the legislation, in particular by proactively publishing as much information as possible and by ensuring that requests under the Act are responded to quickly and fully.
Leaks and whistleblowing in Whitehall, Tenth Report of 2008-09, HC 83, 10 August 2009

FOI Disclosure Stories 3 - 9 August 2009

500 children a year abducted from UK - Guardian Unlimited 09/08/09
“Almost 500 children were abducted from the UK and taken abroad illegally last year, according to figures released to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act. There were 336 cases of child abduction reported to authorities in the UK in 2008, an increase of 20% on 2005 figures. These cases involved an estimated 470 children last year. More children were taken illegally to Pakistan than any other country (30 cases in 2008), followed by the USA (23), Ireland (22) and Spain (21). Other abduction hotspots included Australia, France and Egypt.”

Quangos spend at least £500000 on 'pointless' celebrity appearances - Telegraph.co.uk 09/08/09
“Quangos have spent at least half a million pounds of public money over the past three years hiring celebrities to host events or make after-dinner speeches, even if they have little or no connection with the cause. BBC news presenters including Kirsty Wark and Evan Davies, former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton and GMTV doctor Hilary Jones are among the household names to have received thousands of pounds in public appearance fees from the taxpayer…”

Scale of pest infestations in NHS hospitals revealed - Telegraph.co.uk 07/08/09
“Data released under the Freedom of Information Act shows NHS hospitals in England have dealt with almost 30,000 pest infestations since 2006. Exterminators were called to deal with black ants, wasps, rodents, cluster flies, biting insects, silver fish, woodlice, bird mites, maggots, pigeons, red spiders, may bugs, mosquitoes, ladybirds, bees, mice and fleas. The pests were found in all areas of hospitals including patient wards, operating theatres, maternity units, A&E and children's wards as well as in kitchens, maintenance, offices and staff accommodation."

Couples face an IVF postcode lottery - Daily and Sunday Express 06/08/09
“Couples are being denied IVF treatment on the NHS based on regional variations in eligibility guidelines. The study, released today by Tory MP Grant Shapps, was based on freedom of information requests to England's primary care trusts on the availability of the therapy. It found 80 per cent of trusts were ignoring guidelines introduced in 2004 that allow women under 40 years old three free cycles of IVF. Mr Shapps described the service as a 'postcode lottery' because of the regional criteria discrepancies. Women in the East Midlands were able to have one full cycle of treatment while those aged between 23 and 39 in the South East were denied access at almost half of the trusts."

Fury as hospitals rake in £111m from car parks
- The Daily Mail 06/08/09
“Hospitals were accused of 'taxing the sick' last night after it emerged they are charging more than £111million a year for car parking [according to the figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats under the Freedom of Information Act]... Some 23 hospitals collected more than £1million each from parking in 2007-08. Top of the list was Addenbrooke's, in Cambridge, which raked in £2.8million from patients, relatives and staff. Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry was close behind, on £2.7million.”

Council workers sacked for snooping personal details - ComputerWeekly 05/08/09
“Nine staff have been sacked from their local authority jobs for snooping on personal records of celebrities and personal acquaintances held on the core database of the government's National Identity Scheme. They are among 34 council workers who illegally accessed the Customer Information System (CIS) database, which holds the biographical data of the population that will underpin the government's multi-billion-pound ID card programme... The CIS database, run by the Department for Work and Pensions, stores up to 9,800 items of information on 92 million people, including sensitive data, such as ethnicity, relationship history, whether someone is being investigated for fraud and whether they have special needs.”

How GPs are earning up to £380,000 a year – Daily Mail 04/08/09
“Family doctors are earning up to £380,000 a year, a Daily Mail investigation has revealed. GPs take home 'jaw-dropping' sums thanks to bonuses and overtime payments. They are being paid more than £200 an hour for evenings and weekends - work they did for free before the bungled introduction of a new contract in 2004. Six years ago GPs were paid around £70,000. Now Freedom of Information requests by the Mail have uncovered the astonishing way their pay has risen, even though the average GP is working seven fewer hours a week. The investigation found one GP earning £380,000 a year and a number pocketing more than £300,000.”
(Figures in this article are in dispute. See also “BMA hits back at £380,000-a-year pay claims” by Pulse and “PCC to investigate Daily Mail over £380,000-a-year GP pay claims” by Pulse)

U.K. Royal Mint Doubles Gold Output as Demand Swells – Bloomberg 04/08/09
“The U.K.’s Royal Mint, established in the 13th century, doubled production of gold coins in the second quarter as demand surged for bullion to diversify investments. Output climbed to 16,910 ounces from 8,030 ounces a year earlier, according to data obtained by Bloomberg News under a Freedom of Information Act request. First-half production jumped 86 percent to 45,406 ounces, the figures show.”

Trusts still falling short on KSF commitment - Nursing Times 04/08/09
“Nurses could be missing out on vital training and development opportunities because NHS organisations are failing to use the Knowledge and Skills Framework (KSF) scheme, according to exclusive Nursing Times research. The KSF was set up as an integral part of the Agenda for Change pay system... Of those trusts that could provide information, the proportion of staff receiving a KSF outline was 79%, 59% had had an appraisal and 58% had a PDP."

BBC spends licence fee payers' money on luxurious villa to entertain in Cannes
- Guardian Unlimited 03/08/09
“[A] luxurious villa perched on a hilltop overlooking Cannes has had more prosaic guests in the last three years – executives from the BBC who have been using it as a base and for entertaining. In figures released to the Guardian after a Freedom of Information request, the corporation admitted spending £90,530 on five separate hirings of the villa and related travel and hospitality since 2006, most recently in April.”

Larger wine glasses and ladette culture blamed for rise in women drink drivers
- Telegraph.co.uk 03/08/09
“Almost 12,000 women were convicted for drink driving in 2007, compared to more than 8400 a decade earlier, the latest Ministry of Justice figures show. The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed the number of men found guilty of the offence fell by almost a third over the same period, from 91,777, to 77,529. Women now account for one in every eight drink-drivers caught on the road compared to one in every 12 a decade ago although men still commit the majority of the offences.”

Regional

Households in Sheffield have fluoride added to their water - Yorkshire Post 03/08/09
“Fluoride is being added to the drinking water of more than 50,000 households in Yorkshire. Around 56,000 homes in the Sheffield area receive supplies mixed with the mineral. The figure, released under the Freedom of Information Act, comes as an official investigation into the pros and cons of mixing Yorkshire's drinking water with fluoride takes place. The measure, which is intended to stave off tooth decay in children but has raised health concerns from critics, is being investigated by the Yorkshire and Humber Strategic Health Authority (SHA).”

Thursday, August 06, 2009

DEFRA reports on access to environmental information

DEFRA have published the following two reports on the operation of the Environmental Information Regulations, which implement a EU directive on public access to environmental information, and provide a parallel right of access to the Freedom of Information Act:
Report to the European Commission

Member States are under an obligation to report by 14 August 2009 to the European Commission on the experience gained in the application of the European Directive 2003/4/EC on public access to environmental information. This Directive was transposed into UK law as the Environmental Information Regulations 2004.

Public access to environmental information – Experience gained in the application of Directive 2003/4/EC

Members of the public are welcome to submit their views. If you let us have your comments by mid-October we will arrange to forward them to the European Commission.

Our contact details are:

Environmental Information Unit
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Area 1B, Ergon House,
Horseferry Road,
London SW1P 2AL
Email: environmentalinformationunit@defra.gsi.gov.uk

The Local Authority Survey 2008

In late 2008 Defra carried out a questionnaire-based survey of local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to gather views on their experience of applying the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (the EIRs). The survey was aimed at finding out

  • whether local authorities found Defra’s EIR guidance useful
  • how the website could be improved, and
  • how local authorities were dealing with the disclosure of environmental information in general.
Read the report on the survey (PDF 275 KB)

FOI Disclosure Stories 27 July - 2 August 2009

Half of UK architecture schools have no black teachers - Building Design 31/07/09
“Almost half of the architecture departments at UK universities do not have any black staff members, new research has revealed this week. An audit of 24 schools of architecture using the Freedom of Information Act has found 11 — including Oxford Brookes and the Bartlett — have no black teaching staff, raising concerns about a lack of role models for students starting out in a notoriously exclusive profession.”

UK arms officials defy EU military embargo on China - Ekklesia 31/07/09
“Officials from the UK Government's arms export agency, UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation (UKTI DSO), have met with military representatives from China - despite the fact that the country is still subject to a European Union (EU) military embargo. The existence of such meetings was revealed after a Freedom of Information (FoI) request by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) to UKTI DSO. The People's Republic of China was placed under an EU military embargo following the Tienanmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989, when over a thousand students and other civilians were killed by Chinese army units.”

£37m for police sickies - Daily Express 31/07/09
“Stressed out police officers took 225,000 days off sick last year leaving the taxpayer with a £37million bill. Every day 600 officers were missing from duty due to psychological problems including tension and depression. More than 40 police took the entire year off, according to Freedom of Information statistics.”

Landsbanki action is 'concerning' - BBC 29/07/09
“Guernsey investors have accused the Chief Minister of not doing enough to help them over the failed Icelandic bank Landsbanki. Lyndon Trott met with depositors in October 2008 and pledged to help them. But a Freedom of Information Act request showed the State's treasury had held no meetings on the matter with the British Ministry of Justice… [The chairman of the Landsbanki Guernsey Depositors Action Group (LGDAG)] said: ‘We were told repeatedly that countless meetings had been taking place with the Treasury and the Ministry of Justice. The key issue is that the Ministry of Justice is responsible for representing Guernsey from an external threat and the Icelandic banking crisis is an external threat.’”

Scotland

Scot university bosses launch crackdown on yobs and cheats - Daily Record 28/07/09
“Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow universities have all seen increases in cheating and disciplinary problems, and the figures for Aberdeen and Edinburgh have more than doubled. At Edinburgh University, 261 students were disciplined last year - more than twice the total of 129 for 2006/7… Officials at Aberdeen University have also seen a large rise in cheating and other types of bad behaviour, with 118 cases in 2007/8 compared to 48 in 2006/7… At Glasgow University, 53 students were disciplined in 2007/8 for offences including downloading porn, disruptive behaviour and cheating.”

ICO guidance on information produced or received by councillors

The Information Commissioner's Office has produced the following new guidance for local authorities:

Information produced or received by councillors (Version 1, 4 Aug 2009)