Tuesday, November 24, 2009

SIC survey finds public confused over information rights

Scottish Information Commissioner
Press release 23 November 2009
Research published today by the Scottish Information Commissioner has revealed that, while the Scottish public's general awareness of freedom of information (FOI) remains high, their understanding of what the FOI right means in practice has decreased significantly. The research, which was conducted on behalf of the Commissioner by Progressive Scottish Opinion, reveals that while a general awareness of FOI stands at 76%, those understanding that FOI provides a legal right to access any information from public authorities, subject to certain exemptions, has dropped to 39% in 2009 (from 49% in 2008).

Commenting on the findings, the Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion said:

"It is surprising that understanding of freedom of information legislation has decreased. There have been many examples reported in the media of people and organisations using freedom of information legislation to access information, most recently in relation to MPs' expenses, and from this coverage we might expect understanding of FOI rights to be increasing. The finding of this research highlights the importance for Scottish public authorities, when responding to requests, to inform people of their FOI rights, and more generally to include clear information about FOI on their websites.

"With this in mind I have instituted a programme of Practice Assessments to ensure that Scottish public authorities are following good practice in terms of FOI."

Full press release here and research report here.

Reports from the Practice Assessments carried out to date are available from the Compliance & Enforcement pages of the SIC website.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Freedom of Information and Royal Household

The following Early Day Motion was tabled on 18 November 2009 by Lynne Jones MP:


Lynne Jones
Norman Baker
Mr Ian Davidson
Mr Gordon Prentice
Dr Doug Naysmith

That this House disagrees with the proposed removal of the public interest test for access through the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to information held by public authorities relating to the Royal Household's function and activities, and with the blanket ban on accessing Royal documents that would result; and instead supports the removal of the exemption of the Royal Household from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Ordnance Survey to open up data

Number 10 website
17 Nov 2009
The Prime Minister has announced that the public will have more access to Ordnance Survey maps from next year, as part of a government drive to open up data to improve transparency.

Communities and Local Government website
Read more about the Make Public Data Public project

Gordon Brown said the government and Ordnance Survey, Great Britain’s national mapping agency, will open up the data relating to electoral and local authority boundaries, postcode areas and mapping information.

Mr Brown made the announcement at a Smarter Government seminar at Downing Street this afternoon.

He said:

“I think we’re on the verge of a revolution that can transform public services and the public sector. I’m speaking very specifically about how government can change to meet the needs of the times. I think we are determined to be the first government in the world to open up public information in a way that is far more accessible to the general public.”
The announcement follows The Guardian's 3 year Free Our Data Campaign.

See also OS mapping data: a new landscape unfolds, The Guardian 19/11/09

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Obama says access to information a universal right

Remarks by President Obama at Town Hall Meeting in Shanghai, 16 November 2009:
None of this was easy. But we made progress because of our belief in those core principles, which have served as our compass through the darkest of storms. That is why Lincoln could stand up in the midst of civil war and declare it a struggle to see whether any nation, conceived in liberty, and "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" could long endure. That is why Dr. Martin Luther King could stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and ask that our nation live out the true meaning of its creed. That's why immigrants from China to Kenya could find a home on our shores; why opportunity is available to all who would work for it; and why someone like me, who less than 50 years ago would have had trouble voting in some parts of America, is now able to serve as its President.

And that is why America will always speak out for these core principles around the world. We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation. Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future.
Full statement here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New European register gives public access to information on emissions from industrial facilities

European Environment Agency
Press release 9 Nov 2009
The European Commission and the European Environment Agency today launched a comprehensive new European pollutant release and transfer register – E-PRTR. The register contains information about the quantity and location of pollutants released to air, water and land by industrial facilities throughout Europe. It includes annual data for 91 substances and covers more than 24 000 facilities in 65 economic activities. It also provides additional information, such as the amount and types of waste transferred from facilities to waste handlers both inside and outside each country.
Full press release here.
Access the E-PRTR register here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

DEFRA must disclose information relating to Lord Hunt and Mayor of London meeting

The Information Commissioner has ordered DEFRA to disclose information relating to a meeting between the former DEFRA minister Lord Hunt and Mayor of London Boris Johnson. The actual request was for “any minutes, papers, correspondence or other material" relating to the meeting, at which the requester believed the air quality of London and extension of the congestion charging zone were discussed.

DEFRA refused to disclose the information citing the exception for internal communications in regulation 12(4)(e) of the Environmental Information Regulations.

The IC's decision notice states:
Defra’s guidance at paragraph states that the exception applies to “government administration in the broad sense” and that “the proper scope of the exception for ‘internal communications’ is communications internal to the whole area of the state covered by the definition of ‘public authority’ in Article 2(2)”.

22. The ICO disagrees with this approach, for the following reasons:

• regulation 12(8) makes specific mention of communications between government departments being covered by this exception. This regulation would serve no purpose if any statecommunication was to be deemed internal for the purposes of regulation 12(4)(e); and

• it would extend the scope of regulation 12(4)(e) to cover any communication sent between public authorities and therefore potentially reduce the availability of information to the public.

23. Communications between two separate public authorities, for example between a central government department and a local authority, or between two local authorities, will not constitute internal communications for the purpose of regulation 12(4)(e).

24. A similar approach was taken by the Scottish Information Commissioner in his Decision 052/2008 under the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations 2004 (paras 57 to 63).

25. The above explanations and examples provide insight into the reasoning behind the Commissioner’s decision in this case and arguments that the Mayor of London’s office is not considered to be a government department. It is within this context that communications between Defra and the Mayor of London cannot be defined as being internal.
Read the full decision FER0272686 here.

DEFRA EIR slides published

The slides from DEFRA's recent EIR seminars for Whitehall departments are now available to download from the DEFRA website:

Seminar slides (2009) (690 KB): the differences between the EIRs and FOIA, including background and purpose, the definition of environmental information, using the ICO model publication scheme for proactive publication, and developing case law.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Extension of FOI Act to ACPO

In a debate on the Policing and Crime Bill, Home Office minister Lord West of Spithead, confirmed that a Section 5 Order extending the FOI Act to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) would be introduced early in the 2009-10 parliamentary session:
On 9 September the Government wrote to ACPO inviting it to outline any matters that it thought the Secretary of State should take into consideration before deciding whether it is appropriate to include it in a Section 5 order and asking for its views on the length of time that ACPO would need between making an order and its commencement. It is clearly important that any new body being brought within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act is given sufficient time to prepare, and that includes establishing a publication scheme and training staff so that they are adequately resourced to deal with requests. It is quite something to get all that in place, as I know from being in the Home Office.

The Government propose bringing forward the Section 5 order early in the 2009-10 Session and it is a requirement of the Freedom of Information Act that the order be debated in both Houses. As the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said, ACPO is a private company limited by guarantee and is not established by statute. It is, however, referred to in statute. Both ACPO and the APA are referred to in the Police Act 1996, for example, where Section 37A places a duty on the Secretary of State to consult both ACPO and the APA on strategic priorities. I hope that that clarifies the issue.
Read the Hansard here.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

FOI Disclosure Stories October 2009

Peers stop claiming discredited expenses - The Times 31/10/09
“A number of high-profile peers stopped claiming overnight allowances for attending the House of Lords after The Sunday Times began exposing colleagues who were abusing the expenses system. Lords Birt, Jay, Rees-Mogg and Richard were among those who ceased claiming overnight subsistence of up to £174 a night in May this year, according to documents released under freedom of information laws. On May 3, this newspaper first raised doubts about the Lords expenses system when it discovered that Baroness Uddin had claimed £180,000 on an empty flat that she said was her main home.”

Thousands of children on antidepressants - Telegraph.co.uk 30/10/09
“Prescriptions of the controversial drugs have increased rapidly with pills for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder up by one third in two years and antidepressant use in children under 16 rising by six per cent, according to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 9 [by the Conservatives]. The figures show there were 420,000 prescriptions issued for ADHD medication to children under the age of 16 in 2007, meaning around 35,000 children were on the drugs in England. This is up by one third since 2005.”

UK home-school cases soar - Channel 4 27/10/09
“A freedom of information request uncovers evidence that more and more parents are giving up on state education… 134 local education authorities in England, Scotland and Wales replied to our freedom of information request. Of those with year-on-year trends, 103 - or 80 per cent - reported an increase in the number of children they knew were being home educated. And in those authorities with figures for the last five years, there's been an average increase of 61 per cent in the number of children being educated at home."

90% of dodgy MP exes waved through no questions asked - News of the World 17/10/09
“We can reveal House of Commons staff waved through more than 90 per cent of claims without even the most basic checks to ensure they were genuine… The Department of Resources admitted that in 2006-07 just seven per cent of claims were queried. In 2007-08 it was a paltry five per cent and in 2008-09, eight per cent.”

Unison lashes out at huge sums spent by councils on obstructing equal pay claims
- HR 14/10/09
“Millions of pounds money is being spent on fighting legal battles to stop low-paid women winning equal pay, trade union Unison has claimed. Unison research of 50 councils found local authorities are spending up to £1.3 million each on private barristers' and solicitors' fees and up to £1.2 million on their own staff's time attempting to resist the fight for fair wages. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Unison also revealed more than £11.5 million has been spent to obstruct equal pay - a figure the union believes is ‘the tip of the iceberg'.”

Iraq bodyguard bill soars - Channel 4 09/10/09
“The cost of employing 'bodyguards' to protect officials in Iraq and Afghanistan has passed the £150 million mark, new figures reveal. The government payments - released after a Freedom of Information (FoI) by Channel 4 News online - show the huge increase in cost to the UK of trying to make sure rebuilding plans in both countries do not go off the rails. The disclosure shows £150 million has been soaked up by four firms in just three years."

New students still without funds - BBC 09/10/09
“Up to 175,000 students in the UK may still be waiting to receive their student loans and grants, a week after most courses started. Of the record one million students who applied for funding this year, 16% have not yet received any loans or grants. First years have been hardest hit, with just 72% of applications dealt with, details given under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed. The Student Loans Company blamed late applications and technical problems.”

Councils' agency spend revealed - BBC 09/10/09
“UNISON have revealed to the Politics Show that councils across the East Midlands are spending around £90 million on agency workers and £61 million on consultants. According to UNISON, Wellingborough Council has spent 13% of its staff budget on consultants. Leicester City Council has forked out £18 million on agency workers - 6.8% of their staff costs. The amount involved is almost twice as high as any other city in the East Midlands.”

The documents that revealed secret meetings between NHS and private sector
- Pulse 07/10/09
“The NHS secretly courted private companies at a series of high-level meetings to encourage them to compete for the new wave of polyclinics and GP-led health centres, Pulse can reveal. Directors, chief executives and other senior figures from a who’s who of private health providers were invited to regular off-the-record briefings, held every six weeks, to get their advice on tendering and procurement of GP-led health centres and London’s polyclinics. Details of the meetings, at which no minutes were taken, emerged only this week after Pulse successfully won a nine-month appeal under the Freedom of Information Act.”

Elderly forced to sell homes to pay care costs - Channel 4 07/10/09
“Patients in some parts of the country are being forced to sell their homes to receive residential care, as councils neglect to use discretionary powers which would prevent such sales, it has been found. Almost 50 per cent of councils opted not to use these special powers in the past financial year - meaning families had to sell up - a series of Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to local authorities showed today.”

Social worker conduct cases take two years on average - Community Care 29/09/09
“The General Social Care Council took more than two years on average to process conduct cases that went to a full hearing from 2007-9. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that, on average, 789 days passed between the date of initial referral and the final outcome for cases that were concluded between April 2007 and March 2009. The finding comes with the GSCC's conduct system under intense scrutiny after a backlog of 203 unresolved cases – 21 of which involve public protection concerns – was identified in July..."

Tower blocks ‘potential disaster’
- BBC 28/09/09
“Councils across London may be risking the lives of thousands of residents - because hundreds of tower blocks have not been assessed for fire safety. A BBC London investigation has found at least 300 social housing high-rises have no valid fire check from their local authority - a criminal offence. Lambeth Council, the worst offender, has only carried out risk assessments on two of its 112 tower blocks… In July six people died during a fire at Lakanal House, a 12-storey block in Southwark now thought to have been unsafe.”
(See also: More ‘danger’ tower blocks found - BBC 30/09/09)

Family is paid £189,000 in housing benefit - The Times 03/10/09
“Some families have been paid almost £200,000 each in housing benefit to live in some of the country’s most expensive areas, figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show. The highest-paid include a family in Oxford who have received £189,694 since January 2004 for a seven-bedroom house. It costs the taxpayer £521 a week in rent. A similar total has been paid to a family in Camden, north London."


Full cost of repairs bill fiasco revealed - Waltham Forest Guardian 16/10/09
“More than £114,000 of taxpayers' money was spent on trying to overturn a legal ruling preventing the council's property manager from billing leaseholders for repair works, it has emerged. A response to a request made by leaseholder Mick McGough under the Freedom of Information act reveals that £114,652 was spent on fees including £3,445 on solicitors, £4,500 on junior counsel and £9,000 on a Queen's Counsel… Ascham Homes had billed hundreds of leaseholders up to £32,000 for works carried out under the Government's Decent Homes programme without properly consulting them.”

Asbestos in 400 schools across - North Wales Daily Post 06/10/09
“More than 400 schools are still waiting to have deadly asbestos removed from their buildings. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Daily Post asked every council in North Wales to tell us how many schools contain asbestos and what was being done about it. They revealed 357 primary, secondary and special schools still have asbestos, including 115 in Gwynedd.”

Internal report highly critical of Mid Staffs hospital bosses
- Birmingham Post 01/10/09
“An internal investigation into the conduct of the former chief executive of shamed Stafford Hospital, where at least 400 patients died unnecessarily due to cuts, concluded that there were ‘serious failings’ in his leadership. The Birmingham Post has gained access to the report into Martin Yeates’ performance, which Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust wanted to keep private, through the Freedom of Information Act."


Secret nuclear swap is denied - The Press and Journal, Scotland 12/10/09
“The Scottish Government has been accused of turning the country into the world’s ‘nuclear dustbin’ amid claims foreign nuclear waste could be stored at a plant in the Highlands. Details released under freedom of information legislation have revealed more than 600 tonnes of the waste is to be kept in Scotland, despite promises by governments and the nuclear industry that it would be sent back to the countries from where it came. Records shows the government has secretly proposed to store waste at the Dounreay nuclear plant in Caithness, and that under a swap scheme, waste from Sellafield, Cumbria – which has been stored in a different form – will be returned instead.”

Fury after £25m paid out in Scots prisoner appeals - Daily Express 10/10/09
“Taxpayers have been hit with a £25million bill to help prisoners ­appeal against their convictions and make compensation claims over the past five years. Figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws reveal the Scottish Legal Aid Board awarded £20million for appeals against convictions or sentences. Convicted criminals have also been handed £4,074,000 to pursue compensation claims under European human rights laws between 2004 and September this year. The board made 2,210 payments to prisoners during that period, including 325 so far this year – more than double last year’s total of 115.”

Holyrood maintenance spend rises sevenfold - FM World 07/10/09
“The annual cost of maintenance at the Scottish Parliament building has increased sevenfold since it opened in 2004. In 2004 the total cost of planned and unscheduled maintenance at Holyrood was £133,796.52. By 2008 that figure had ballooned to £978,076.03. The figures were released under a freedom of information request.”

Most lenient judge freed child sex abuser and robbers - The Sunday Times 04/10/09
“A sheriff who allowed two robbers who committed knife attacks on strangers, a child sex offender, and two men who assaulted paramedics, to walk free, has topped a table of Scotland’s most lenient judges. In the past six years, Deirdre MacNeill QC has had five sentences that were challenged by the Crown Office and overturned on appeal. Data on all sentences passed by judges and sheriffs that were appealed against by the crown during that period was obtained by The Sunday Times under freedom of information legislation.”

Trump ‘threatened to sue’ over refusal to back golf resort - The Scottish Herald 4/10/09
“The American billionaire tycoon Donald Trump threatened to sue Aberdeenshire Council for failing to back his luxury golf resort, the Sunday Herald can reveal. Private correspondence released under freedom of information legislation shows that Trump’s lawyers accused the council of a ‘flawed decision-making process’ after it rejected the controversial development at the Menie Estate near Balmedie in 2007.”

Huge physiotherapy waiting list
- The Press and Journal 02/10/09
“The Scottish Government came under fire yesterday after it emerged that more than 20,000 people across Scotland are on NHS waiting lists for physiotherapy… Information released under freedom of information laws showed that 3,661 people in the NHS Tayside area are waiting for treatment. Some 1,340 people are on NHS Highland waiting lists, 120 in Orkney and 127 in the Western Isles.”

Law graduates ‘being left on the scrapheap’ - Daily Express 28/09/09
“Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has accused Scottish universities of neglecting the needs of law students after new figures revealed that just one in four will find jobs as solicitors when they graduate. Mr MacAskill hit out during a meeting with the Law Society of Scotland, which represents the interests of solicitors. [The minute of the meeting was disclosed under the FOI Act]"
(See also: Law scholars object to minister’s ‘selfish’ charge - Times Higher Education 30/09/09)

Monday, November 02, 2009

White House visitor records online

As part of President Obama's commitment to transparency, the White House has begun providing records of visitors to the White House online.

In a statement announcing the policy on 4 September 09, the President said:
For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis. We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent administration in history not only by opening the doors of the White House to more Americans, but by shining a light on the business conducted inside it. Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.
The Voluntary Disclosure Policy is in full here.