Monday, May 31, 2010

Government data to be opened up to the public

Number10.gov.uk
Monday 31 May 2010
The Prime Minister has today launched a radical plan to open up Government data to the public.

In a letter sent to all Government departments, David Cameron has set out ambitious plans to open up data and set challenging deadlines to public bodies for the publication of information on topics including crime, hospital infections and Government spending.

The letter also announced that MySociety founder Tom Steinberg will advise ministers on the development and implementation of the transparency agenda.

Whitehall departments will begin to release new data to the public this week, starting with senior civil service salaries, MRSA infection data on a hospital-by-hospital basis and the Treasury’s COINS database of public spending.

In his letter, the PM said:

“Greater transparency across Government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account; to reduce the deficit and deliver better value for money in public spending; and to realise significant economic benefits by enabling businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites using public data.”

Key commitments set out in the Prime Minister’s letter include the publication of all new central Government ICT contracts from July 2010 and the publication of details of all DFID international development projects over £500 from January 2011.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude will chair a new Transparency Board, including experts such as Tom Steinberg, to drive the agenda across Government.

The PM spoke about plans to make Government more transparent in his first podcast released on Saturday.

See also:
This government is open to scrutiny - article by Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, in the Daily Telegraph

Monday, May 24, 2010

Government unveils Ministerial Code

Number 10
Friday 21 May 2010
The Government has today published three documents to ensure greater accountability and transparency for Ministers.

The Ministerial Code, published by the Prime Minister, sets out the standards of conduct expected of Ministers.

Read the Ministerial Code [Cabinet Office website]

The Code bars former Ministers from lobbying Government for two years; tightens controls on government cars and numbers of special advisers; and requires the regular publication of Ministerial meetings, hospitality, gifts and travel.

The Ministerial Code covers all aspects of ministerial life from access to official papers and appointments to the use of Government resources and the handling of Ministers’ private interests.

The Government has also published a list of Cabinet Committees which shows the membership of each committee and shows a significant reduction in the total number of Committees.

The third document is the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform which sets out the practical and operational arrangements for how the Parties will work together in coalition.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lord McNally confirmed as new FOI minister

The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that the Lib Dems' Tom McNally, Minister of State and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, will be responsible for freedom of information, data protection and data sharing.

Coalition programme for government on FOI and government transparency

'The Coalition: our programme for government' document published this morning (20 May 2010) promises to introduce a Freedom Bill and repeats the commitment to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act made in the earlier Coalition Agreement and by the both parties.

A Freedom Bill was promised in the Lib Dem manifesto. A draft Freedom Bill published by the Lib Dems last year contained a number of proposals to strengthen the FOI Act such as removing the ministerial veto. See http://freedom.libdems.org.uk/the-freedom-bill/17-strengthening-freedom-of-information/

The Coalition document also contains the 'right to data' and the proactive publication proposals from the Conservative manifesto. The relevant extracts of the document are:
3. CIVIL LIBERTIES
We will be strong in defence of freedom. The Government believes that the British state has become too authoritarian, and that over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. We need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness.
  • We will implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and roll back state intrusion.
  • We will introduce a Freedom Bill.
  • We will scrap the ID card scheme, the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports.
  • We will outlaw the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
  • We will extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
  • We will adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
  • We will protect historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
  • We will restore rights to non-violent protest.
  • We will review libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
  • We will introduce safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
  • We will further regulate CCTV.
  • We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.
  • We will introduce a new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.
  • We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties.
...

16. GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY
The Government believes that we need to throw open the doors of public bodies, to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. We also recognise that this will help to deliver better value for money in public spending, and help us achieve our aim of cutting the record deficit. Setting government data free will bring significant economic benefits by enabling businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites.
  • We will 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 permissible in Pay Band 1 of the Senior Civil Service pay scale, and organograms that include all positions in those bodies.
  • We will require anyone paid more than the Prime Minister in the centrally funded public sector to have their salary signed off by the Treasury.
  • We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.
  • We will also pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to remove big money from politics.
  • We will strengthen the powers of Select Committees to scrutinise major public appointments.
  • We will introduce new protections for whistleblowers in the public sector.
  • We will take steps to open up government procurement and reduce costs; and we will publish government ICT contracts online.
  • We will create a level playing field for opensource software and will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components.
  • We will require full, online disclosure of all central government spending and contracts over £25,000.
  • We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.
  • We will require all councils to publish meeting minutes and local service and performance data.
  • We will require all councils to publish items of spending above £500, and to publish contracts and tender documents in full.
  • We will ensure that all data published by public bodies is published in an open and standardised format, so that it can be used easily and with minimal cost by third parties.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nick Clegg New Politics Speech

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg today (19 May 2010) delivered a speech on the coalition government's plans for political reform. 
I have spent my whole political life fighting to open up politics. So let me make one thing very clear: This government is going to be unlike any other. This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state. This government is going to break up concentrations of power and hand power back to people, because that is how we build a society that is fair. This government is going to persuade you to put your faith in politics once again.
...
Today I want to talk about how we’ll get there. Three major steps, that will begin immediately:

One: we will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom. 
Two: we will reform our politics so it is open, transparent, decent. 
Three: we will radically redistribute power away from the centre, into your communities, your homes, your hands. 
However, the speech contained no more detail on the government's commitment to extend the scope of the FOI Act.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Campaign comments on Scottish Government's revised FOI good practice code

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has responded to the Scottish Government's consultation on revising its code of good practice under the FOI (Scotland) Act. The response expresses concern that the draft code's approach to requests which are phrased in terms of 'documents' rather than 'information' is restrictive and undermines the Scottish Information Commissioner's guidance on this issue. It suggests that the guidance on the provision of advice and assistance could be strengthened; that the loss of specific Scottish Government guidance on the EIRs may have unintended consequences; that the draft may lead to confusion between the FOISA exemptions on breach of confidence and substantial prejudice to commercial interests. It also says authorities should not be entitled to ignore a request for internal review which has not be made to a designated person.

The Campaign's response is here and the Scottish Government's consultation here. The Scottish Information Commissioner's guidance on the validity of requests following the Court of Session Opinion of 30 September 2009 is here.

Local newspaper editors say public bodies becoming more secretive

Local newspaper editors believe public bodies are becoming more secretive, according to a survey conducted by the Newspaper Society for Local Newspaper Week, which ran from 10-16 May 2010.
Nearly 80 per cent of local newspaper editors believe public bodies such as the local council, police or health authority are becoming more secretive, according to an NS survey.

Just 10 per cent of editors from weekly and daily titles said getting information from public bodies had become easier in recent years while 13 per cent said it was neither harder nor easier.

The online survey of local newspaper editors was conducted by the NS for Local Newspaper Week which this year is themed Your Voice.

It found that more than a third (35 per cent) of editors had experienced having a reporter prevented from attending a public meeting or prevented from reporting details from it. 

Eighty-two per cent of those who had encountered these obstructions had challenged them and more than two thirds (67 per cent) of those challenges were successful.
...
In the past year, the average local newspaper submitted 16 FoI requests and in 81 per cent of cases, the information requested was successfully obtained.
A recent paper by James Morrison, senior lecturer in journalism at Kingston University, also concluded that council decision making has become more secretive.
While Whitehall has been trumpeting its moves to improve monitoring of waste managers and care home owners, the machinery of local government in the here and now - short, the way political decisions affecting tomorrow's services are being taken - has become ever more opaque.
Morrison highlights the Local Government Act 2000 which led to the introduction of Westminster-style cabinets and executives and the appointment of political assistants modeled on ministerial special advisers:
The combined effect of these twin developments has been to maximise the ability of council cabinets/executives to take policy decisions in secret, while minimising that of the press, public, or indeed councillors shorn of 'frontbench' roles to scrutinise or challenge their actions. Meetings of council committees and the full council – once energetic arenas for public debate and knife-edge votes on controversial issues (not to mention sources of lively news copy) – have been reduced to little more than a rubber-stamp…With council meetings downgraded to the status of talking-shops, it’s little wonder that today’s local newspaper editors – faced with ever-tighter budgets and 24-hour deadlines for their web operations – are voting with their feet and ceasing to cover them.”
The paper quotes one response from a Yorkshire based paper:
We have experience of cabinets meeting both in public and privately. Our experience has been that the LGA has made councils more secretive and less open. The idea of cabinet responsibility has made it harder to question decisions and we have to rely on FOI more than I would like. For instance, ten years ago only the largest councils had press offices to field questions. Smaller district councils gave direct access to senior officers. This is no longer the case.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

FOI extension promised by Conservative/LibDem coalition agreement

The coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, published today, promises an extension to the FOI Act. The relevant section states:

10. Civil liberties

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

• A freedom or great repeal bill;

• The scrapping of the ID card scheme, the national identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point database;

• Outlawing the fingerprinting of children at school without parental permission;

• The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency;

• Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database;

• The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury;

• The restoration of rights to non-violent protest;

• The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech;

• Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation;

• Further regulation of CCTV;

• Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason;

• A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.