Friday, April 30, 2010

World Press Freedom Day 3 May 2010

UNESCO will celebrate World Press Freedom Day, observed yearly on May 3, with an international conference of media professionals entitled Freedom of Information: the Right to Know, in Brisbane on 2 and 3 May. In a message UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said:
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But around the world, there are Governments and those wielding power who find many ways to obstruct it.
...
This year’s theme is freedom of information: the right to know. I welcome the global trend towards new laws which recognize the universal right to publicly held information.

Unfortunately, these new laws do not always translate into action. Requests for official information are often refused, or delayed, sometimes for years. At times, poor information management is to blame. But all too often, this happens because of a culture of secrecy and a lack of accountability.

We must work to change attitudes and to raise awareness. People have a right to information that affects their lives, and States have a duty to provide this information. Such transparency is essential to good government.

The United Nations stands with persecuted journalists and media professionals everywhere. Today, as every day, I call on Governments, civil society and people around the world to recognize the important work of the media, and to stand up for freedom of information.
The conference programme is available to download here. The conference will be streamed live on the internet - http://www.wpfd2010.org/

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Conservatives promise to extend FOI Act

The Conservatives have promised to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act within weeks of the general election.
Expanding the Freedom of Information Act
We will expand the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to include taxpayer-funded bodies such as Northern Rock and Network Rail, together with bodies such as the Local Government Association. This will give the public access to a huge amount of government information currently available only to Ministers.

Background

Under Labour, the Freedom of Information Act excludes a wide range of taxpayer funded bodies which exercise power over areas ranging from railways to the Olympics budget to energy efficiency projects and road traffic penalties.

Conservative policy

A Conservative government will increase the range of publically funded bodies that are subject to scrutiny using Section 5 orders under the Freedom of Information Act. These bodies will include:
  • Network Rail
  • Northern Rock; 
  • The Carbon Trust; 
  • The Energy Saving Trust; 
  • NHS Confederation (in relation to activities in receipt of public funds); 
  • Local Government Association; and 
  • Traffic Penalty Tribunals
Section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act enables Secretaries of State to designate organisations that appear to exercise functions of a public nature to scrutiny under the legislation. We will extend the Freedom of Information Act to these organisations within weeks of the General Election.   
The plans were published in a document detailing nine Big ideas to give Britain real change in politics, which also included further details about the right to government data included in the Conservative manifesto (see earlier post here)
The Right to Data Act will give members of the public a legally enforceable 'Right to Data',  so that the public has the right to appeal if public bodies refuse requests for data collected by government.

This radical policy will put the public in the driving seat when it comes to requesting and receiving government datasets containing anonymised but socially or commercially useful information. Once published, there will be a continuing obligation to publish that data on a regular basis for as long as it is collected.

This legislation will be introduced as soon as possible, but even before the draft bill has  become law, a Conservative government will improve transparency by launching spending transparency and making a wide range of government datasets available to the public. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tribunal User Group minutes 11 March 2010

Minutes of the last First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) User Group meeting on 11 March 2010 have been published on the Tribunal's website.

Download the minutes here

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Manifesto commitments on freedom of information and open government

The Liberal Democrats are the only one of the 3 main parties to specifically mention Freedom of Information in their election manifesto. The Lib Dems are promising to:
Strengthen the Data Protection Act and the Office of the Information Commissioner, extending Freedom of Information legislation to private companies delivering monopoly public services such as Network Rail.
The Lib Dem manifesto also pledges the introduction of a Freedom Bill to restore civil liberties. A draft Freedom Bill published last year contained proposals to remove the ministerial veto from the FOI Act and limit the Act's exemptions.  

The Labour and the Conservative manifestos both promise to make more government data public. The Labour manifesto states:
Citizens expect their public services to be transparent. We will open up government, embedding access to information and data into the very fabric of public services. Citizens should be able to compare local services, demand improvements, choose between providers, and hold government to account.

We have led the world with the creation of data.gov.uk, putting over 3,000 government datasets online. Entrepreneurs and developers have used these datasets to unleash social innovation, creating applications and websites for citizens from local crime maps to new guides to help find good care homes or GPs. We will now publish a Domesday Book of all non-personal datasets held by government and its agencies, with a default assumption that these will be made public. We will explore how to give citizens direct access to the data held on them by public agencies, so that people can use and control their own personal data in their interaction with service providers and the wider community.
While the Conservative manifesto says:
we will create a powerful new right to government data, enabling the public to request - and receive - government datasets in an open and standardised format. Independent estimates suggest this could provide a £6 billion boost the the UK economy...

A Conservative government will bring in new measures to enable the public to scrutinise the government's accounts to see whether it is providing value for money. All data will be published in an open and standardised format.
The Conservative manifesto explicitly promises to:
  • publish all items of spending over £25,000 online, and he salaries of senior civil servants in central government will also be published.
  • require public bodies to publish online the job titles of every member of staff and the salaries and expenses of senior officials paid more than the lowest salary permissable in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale and organograms that include all positions in those bodies; 
  • require senior civil servants to publish online details of expense claims and meetings with lobbyists 
  •  apply these transparency principles to local government, with the threshold for publication and spending items and contracts set at £500, and for publication of salaries the same as at the national level
  • ...publishing in full government contracts for goods and services worth over £25,000; and 
  • increasing the accountability of EU spending by publishing details of every UK project that receives over £25,000 of EU funds
  •  publishing full details of British aid on the DFID website. This will include spending data on a project-by-project basis, published in an open and standardised format 
  • publish all performance data currently kept secret by the Department for Children, Schools and Families  
  • publish detailed data about the performance of healthcare providers online 
  • oblige the police to publish detailed local crime data statistics every month
The Conservative manifesto also repeats a promise made in their policy paper Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State, that they "will strengthen the powers of the Information Commissioner to penalise any public body found guily of mismanaging data". However, the manifesto does not mention the policy paper's commitment that in future the Information Commissioner would be appointed by Parliament rather than the Ministry of Justice.

UPDATE 21/4/10: The Green Party manifesto promises:
Free up information – allow us to see the data they have on us.We believe that citizens should be entitled to access to information held by Government except where specifically restricted. Restrictions should protect the privacy of individual citizens and national security. Information on policy formulation, the conduct of public affairs, the environment and health and safety should be freely available.
It also reports the following disclosure under FOI following a request from a Green councillor:
Green councillor earns fairer rents deal for seafront traders
After Conservative-led Brighton & Hove City Council hiked rent and other costs for many seafront businesses, members of the Seafront Business Association asked local Green Councillor Jason Kitcat for help. Through a Freedom of Information request Councillor Kitcat revealed a council deal with private chartered surveyors, who would receive a commission of 30 per cent on any rent increase they could negotiate with the seafront traders, on top of their fixed fee. As a result, the assessment of the majority of seafront rents has now been handed to a new in-house team; the result should be fairer rents for traders.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Information Commissioner interview with Public Servant magazine

There is an interview with the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham in the April 2010 edition of Public Servant magazine, which is now available online.
"We are off the back foot and organisations have to respond to a more robust ICO," he explains. "Some of them have learnt the hard way. For example, the London Development Agency didn't want to make information available about certain land acquisitions in connection with the Olympics. And they kept changing the grounds on which they were withholding the information, so we got to the position where we said 'we will publish the decision notice with the information we have to hand'.

"It can't go on forever. At some point, you have to call people's bluff. I also let it be known to the Cabinet Office that I wouldn't hesitate to issue an information notice – it's the sort of thing you only have to threaten. If anyone was tempted to game the system, that has now stopped.

"All the permanent secretaries heard me say recently that we are getting tougher. I borrowed the slogan from Sainsbury's – 'you'll taste the difference'. Nobody is under any illusion any longer that information requests can just be spun out forever.
...
But he acknowledges that large quantities of routine information are still not being published without legal challenge.

"An awful lot of public money is currently being wasted in rather futile fights over appeals and High Court cases," admits Graham. "We have one case involving the location of mobile phone masts that is going from the Supreme Court to the European Court and you just think: 'can this be right – how much money is going to m'learned friends?' The civil service mindset has to become a bit more modern.
"Because of the times in which we live and the impact of the internet, public authorities really need to get engagement with citizens. You get local authorities that are good at this and those old-fashioned councils that are bad at it. Where councils are on the front foot, people feel involved and consulted – whether it is over a 20mph speed limit on residential streets or how the money is spent on local parks.

"It is usually the same authorities that don't do FoI very well that also don't do things like children's services and financial management very well. I am a great believer in hitting people with the boring facts; they are usually much less interesting than the conspiracy theories."
Full article here.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Amendments to FOI and Public Records acts survive "wash up"

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which provides for a transition from a 30 Year Rule to a 20 Year Rule governing the automatic release of most government records, received Royal Assent on Thursday 8 April 2010.

Although key elements of the bill including plans to hold a referendum on the electoral system and to end hereditary peerages, were dropped in the dramatic last 48 hours before the formal dissolution of Parliament for the general election, the amendments to the Freedom of Information and Public Records acts survived. For a detailed explanation of the amendments see earlier post here

See also:
Ministry of Justice website here.
Marathon session to pass bills before dissolution of parliament, The Guardian 8/4/10

Friday, April 02, 2010

FOI Disclosure Stories March 2010

Details concerning the mounting financial crisis facing the Queen have been disclosed to The Independent after ministers agreed to hand over secret correspondence between Buckingham Palace and the Government. The documents reveal that at the same time the Queen was requesting more public money to pay for the upkeep of her crumbling palaces she was allowing minor royals and courtiers to live in rent-free accommodation. They show that as early as 2004 Sir Alan Reid, the Keeper of the Privy Purse, had unsuccessfully put the case to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for a substantial increase in the £15m a year public funding.“
"A woman died and another became seriously ill soon after being given morphine by paramedics, despite family members warning of the patients' allergies to the drug. The incidents were revealed in documents obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act and are understood to have taken place in Cambridgeshire within months of each other."

“Ghost recruits and widespread corruption are hampering the fight against the Taliban and delaying Britain's withdrawal plans. Corruption, desertion and drug abuse within the Afghan police are threatening its ability to take over the fight against the Taliban and the UK's chances of an exit from the country, government documents show.”

“As many as 140,000 non-medical staff, including porters and housekeepers, have access to sensitive NHS patient files, it emerged last night. The astonishing lack of privacy protection has been revealed by a Freedom of Information survey. Government guidelines say only staff involved in 'providing and supporting patient care' should have access to confidential information. But trusts are interpreting the rules so widely that administrators, porters and IT staff are all cleared to potentially delve into a person's medical file. Last night Tory spokesman Stephen O'Brien said the revelation would 'send a shiver down the spine' of NHS patients. The Information Commissioner's office said access to records should be strictly controlled and it would study the revelations to see if further action was needed.”

“The government is trying to change the law to protect the Prince of Wales from scrutiny when he intervenes in public affairs. Jack Straw, the justice secretary, has tabled an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to impose a blanket ban on anyone disclosing information about Prince Charles, the Queen and Prince William. The move comes after a freedom of information (FoI) application revealed how Charles scuppered a £3 billion redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks. The property developers Christian and Nick Candy discovered that his aide met planning officials to discuss scrapping the scheme.”

"PCTs may have diverted a large proportion of £150m in funding for dementia services to other priorities, an investigation by MPs has found. More than two thirds of PCTs were unable to say how they spent their share of cash allocated under the National Dementia Strategy for England, a report published on Thursday reveals. Responding to a freedom of information request by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on dementia, just 31% of PCTs said how they had allocated their share of the £150m funds. The same percentage of PCTs could not determine how much of the funding had been spent on dementia services because they could not distinguish the funding from other resources. The report, ‘A Misspent Opportunity', calls for better auditing and monitoring of how dementia funding is spent.

“Tax changes aimed at raising millions in extra revenue from non-domiciled residents have slowed the number of wealthy business people moving to the country and contributed to a small number leaving it, according to the first in-depth study into Britain’s population of the international super-rich. Treasury data obtained under Freedom of Information rules combined with a survey of 25 leading wealth advisers in London indicate that restrictions brought in by the Finance Act 2008 are leading to about 25 per cent fewer “non-doms” applying to move to Britain.”

“The Patients Association has released information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and analysis of the unweighted results of the National GP Patient Survey quarters 1 and 2 2009/10 of over a million patients which highlighted wide variations in spending and reveals a league table of poor patient satisfaction with out of hours care. FOI results from 90 Trusts reveal that the average spend per head of the registered patient population was £9.00 but there was significant variation with the lowest spending less than £1.50 and the highest over £20.00.”

Underground row changes tack- The Independent 11/03/10
The row over funding for the London Tube upgrade switched to a new, but equally incendiary tack yesterday after the independent Arbiter settled the value of the next slug of work at £4.46bn and immediately faced a threat of a legal challenge from Transport for London (TfL)...The two sides have already been at each other's throats for months over costs, culminating in a furore over the Victoria line upgrade. It took a Tube Lines' Freedom of Information request to prove that the £2.3m/km cost put up by LU to inform Mr Bolt's [the arbiter's] decision on a fair price for Tube Lines was far short of the £4.25m/km reality. Mr Bolt was convinced and his upward revision of the allowance for Tube Lines (from £2.5m to £2.7m) formed part of the increase in yesterday's determination.”

“Millions of pounds intended to fund respite breaks for voluntary carers in England has been spent on other areas of the NHS, according to two charities. The government announced in 2008 that it was doubling money set aside to allow long-term carers some time off - £50m this year and £100m next year. The Crossroads Care and Princess Royal Trust for Carers say only 23% of this year's cash is being spent on carers. NHS Trust representatives say money was moved to best meet local needs. The two charities say the problem is that the money was never ring-fenced by the government and simply added to existing health budgets. Some trusts have no idea how much money they received towards respite breaks, the charities claim.(…) The charities based their analysis on responses to Freedom of Information requests from 100 primary care trusts.”
“Lord Ashcroft, the Tory deputy chairman and its most high-profile donor, struck a private deal ten years ago to save himself tax on his overseas income, it emerged yesterday. The billionaire peer stunned many in his party when he revealed himself as a non-dom despite repeated assurances to the contrary by senior Conservatives (…) Lord Ashcroft issued his statement after the Cabinet Office was forced under freedom of information rules to publish terms of the deal under which he assumed his seat in the Lords in October 2000 after twice having his nomination rejected. He made the “solemn and binding” undertaking to Mr Hague on March 23, 2000. The document does not refer to tax. It gives his “unequivocal assurance” to take up permanent UK residence within the year.”

Regional
“A badger cull in West Wales was the “very first resort” of Assembly ministers “unwilling to listen to their own advisers”, a court heard yesterday. At a legal challenge by The Badger Trust to the cull in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, lawyers for the trust said Assembly Government officials were involved in a “cloak and dagger” meeting with Whitehall civil servants eight days before Rural Affairs Minster Elin Jones decided to cull badgers.”

“Campaigners fighting plans to build flats for homeless families off Newtown Road, Carlisle, have won a major concession from the city council. It has promised to consult nearby residents on the suitability of the proposed site, a former bowling green between Wood Street and Bright Street. There was an outcry when details of the £1.8m scheme emerged after our sister newspaper, The Cumberland News, used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information. A petition against it quickly attracted nearly 200 signatures. The council’s executive had been expected to release the land for the development yesterday. That will now not happen, at least until after the consultation.”

“It is "inevitable" that thousands of homes will be built on green- belt land at Clifton and Gamston, councillors have secretly been advised. The areas could help meet Government demands for 10,500 homes to be built in Rushcliffe borough, on the edge of the city, by 2026. A consultation has been launched to gather residents' views. But campaigners claim the advice to borough councillors – revealed under the Freedom of Information Act – shows there is little choice in the consultation.”

“A top-secret letter to the chairman of an inquiry into the closure of Wirral libraries - which to date has been kept from public view - has finally emerged. Wirral Council sought to keep their response to the draft report by inquiry inspector Sue Charteris under wraps. But a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has brought the document into the public domain. The council sparked a public outcry last year when it ruled that 11 libraries plus leisure centres, swimming pools and public halls should close. The plan was "called in" by the DCMS, which told the authority a local inquiry must be held. In the days before the inquiry's findings were revealed, the Labour and Liberal Democrat administration made the bombshell announcement that it had withdrawn the closure plan.”

“Woking Borough Council has been revealed as one of the 68 local authorities in England that has installed 'privacy-invading' microchips in its wheelie-bins. The discovery was made after campaign group Big Brother Watch sent a Freedom of Information Request to every council in the country to find out if they micro-chipped bins used for household rubbish collections. Local authorities have installed the chips to locate missing or stolen bins and return them to their owners, but the devices are also capable of weighing a bin's contents, in response to increased pressure from central government to reduce household waste and increase recycling. However campaigners have argued any monitoring is an infringement of human rights. The Big Brother Watch report states: "Placing microchips in bins capable of monitoring the content or weight of household refuse produces yet another piece of data for the state on an individual's private life that it has no right to have.”


Scotland
"Ministers were warned the Glasgow Airport Rail Link faced delays that could lead to it being completed only after the 2014 Commonwealth Games, despite a series of public assurances it was on track. Documents released to The Herald under Freedom of Information legislation have revealed that contingency plans factoring in delays due to difficulties in relocating facilities within the airport campus were drawn up by Transport Scotland five months before Garl was mothballed. The Government agency insisted yesterday it had drawn up separate plans that would have seen work completed by November 2013, and that Garl had been cancelled because of cuts imposed by Westminster, but it refused to provide details of the these plans.

“The provision of school nurses in Scotland has become the focus of the latest pre-election spat between Labour and the SNP (…) Labour published new figures yesterday which, it claimed, showed that the SNP administration had not only failed to live up to the school nurses pledge but that it would take 27 years to fulfil the commitment at the current rate. Jackie Baillie, Labour’s health spokeswoman, argued this just was the latest in a line of broken promises, referring to the Scottish Government’s failure to stick to its promises to provide children with two hours of PE and five days of outdoor education too (…) Labour obtained the figures under the Freedom of Information Act. According to these figures, the number of school nurses in Scotland has gone up from 308 to 330 since 2007. Labour insisted this increase fell short of the “doubling” which the SNP claimed it would achieve in office.”

“A Freedom of Information request has been lodged with the Scotland Office to find out what action is being taken against charities that claim on TV ads to be UK-wide but do not actually operate in Scotland. Mr Alastair McLean – who bears no relation to the Fundraising Standards Board chief executive of the same name – lodged the question a week ago after becoming annoyed at seeing a number of charities promote themselves on Scottish TV when they did not deliver services north of the border.”

International
“The European Union's promotion of plant-based biofuels will raise EU farm incomes and agricultural commodity prices, but could create food shortages for the world's poorest consumers, draft EU reports show. The EU has a legal target to get a tenth of its road transport fuels from renewable sources such as biofuels by 2020. For EU farmers hit by falling incomes, Europe's 5 billion euros-per-year ($6.84 billion) biofuels market is coveted as a source of new revenues. Impact studies drafted for EU policymakers -- included in 116 documents released to Reuters under freedom of information laws -- predict that current biofuel policies will boost EU farm incomes by 3.5 percent in 2020.”