Thursday, October 28, 2010

FOI Disclosure Stories Oct 2010

Michael Gove's ex-adviser given £500,000 free schools grant - The Guardian 28/10/2010
Pro-free schools lobby group run by Gove’s 25-year-old ex-advisor won project work – which was not advertised – to offer impartial advice on the proposals, FOI request reveals.

How the state failed to protect vulnerable children - Belfast Telegraph 27/10/2010
The summaries of four confidential Case Management Reviews on the deaths of vulnerable children in Northern Ireland highlight raise concerns about how their cases were dealt with by social services and other agencies.

British forces exposed over Afghan attacks – The Guardian 27/10/2010
Ministry of Defence releases documents linking three military units to bulk of civilian casualties.

Liberty challenges immigration detention of children - Morning Star 26/10/2010
A landmark case challenging the government's continued detention of children was launched at the High Court in London. Liberty obtained information under the Freedom of Information Act showing that in 2009 alone, 1065 children were held in immigration detention.

40 deaths linked to child vaccines over seven years – The Sunday Times 24/10/10
Data, disclosed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that, since 2003, there have been more than 2,100 serious adverse reactions to childhood vaccines, some of which were life-threatening.

MoD papers reveal catalogue of nuclear safety failures – The Herald 17/10/10
Potentially catastrophic lapses in nuclear weapons safety at the Clyde naval base have been exposed by secret Ministry of Defence reports released after a three-year freedom of information battle.

Porton Down film shows Cold War plague tests on animals – BBC 10/10/2010
An amateur historian uncovered a top secret film from the 1950's showing testing of a biological bomb on animals by scientists from Porton Down in Wiltshire.

London 2012: A Rubbish Olympics - Games Monitor 26/09/2010
A campaign group watching the Olympic Games in London has produced a detailed report of the radioactive waste contamination on the Olympics Site based on documents disclosed under the FOI act.

Seminar on how to deal with vexatious requests

The Centre for Freedom of Information in Scotland’s autumn seminar series continues with an event on Wednesday 17 November 2010, looking at how to deal with vexatious requests.  The event will be in the Dalhousie building, University of Dundee.  A buffet lunch is served at 1pm, and the seminar will run from 2pm to 4pm.  Speakers are:
  • Jane Munro, Junior Counsel, Ampersand.  Jane will share her thoughts on the various legal perspectives of ‘vexatious’ in civil litigation. What does it mean in the wider context, and how does its specific meaning within the FOI Act in Scotland compare?   
  • Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for FOI – Maurice is travelling up from England to share his thoughts on the Commissioner’s decisions which relate to section 14 of FOISA, ‘Vexatious or repeated requests’  
  •  Valerie Malloch, Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.  The SPSO has undertaken work looking at how to deal with difficult behaviour in the complaints process.  Valerie will share their current thinking and practical thoughts for discussion, and look at where FOI fits into this bigger picture.
Why should you attend this seminar?
  • This is a topic which past delegates tell us is of particular interest to them.  We seek to add direct and current value to ensure that attendance is worthwhile in these difficult economic times; 
  •  The seminars provide access to some of Scotland and the UK’s biggest experts in FOI and other related matters; 
  • Sessions are intentionally brief, focused and audiences relatively small, to ensure that delegates get the greatest personal benefit from attending.
The full programme for this seminar is available from www.centrefoi.org.uk/. If you would like to attend, please email centrefoi@dundee.ac.uk or download and post the booking form to Donna Hendry, School of Law, Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee DD1 4HN.

Meeting between ICO and higher education sector on implications FOI/EIRs

The Information Commissioner's Office has published the note of a meeting between the ICO and representatives of the higher education sector to discuss the implications of Freedom of Information for the sector on 29 September 2010.

At the meeting it was agreed to establish a working group representing the HE sector to work with the ICO in developing sector‐led and sector‐specific guidelines around the issues of research data, teaching materials and IPR.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Church of Scientology rates relief information disclosed

The City of London has disclosed information relating to the decision to grant the Church of Scientology Religious Education College (COSREC) mandatory relief from business rates for its premises at 146 Queen Victoria Street in London. The disclosure follows a ruling from the Information Commissioner (FS50265544) that minutes of a meeting between the CoL and COSREC in August 2006 should be disclosed.  The CoL had sought to withhold the minutes under sections 31(1)(d), 41(1) and 40(2) of the FOI Act.

The Commissioner’s decision notice states:
The Commissioner considers that there is a significant legitimate public interest in obtaining information about the process that led to COSREC being granted mandatory rate relief to enable the public to better understand how this organisation qualified for this form of tax relief. Particularly as the COSREC is controversial, there is significant public concern about the relief being awarded to this organisation, the amounts involved are substantial and the cost of mandatory rate relief is met by the public purse.

The documents made available by the CoL also include:

A legal opinion by Jonathan Crow QC from October 2008, correspondence with the Department for Communities and Local Government and a report considered by the Finance Committee at a meeting on 27 September 2010, where it was resolved to maintain the grant of mandatory relief.

The minutes were requested by William Thackeray.

Friday, October 15, 2010

PQs on compliance by departments being monitored by ICO for delays

Updated: 20 Oct 2010

19 Oct 2010 : Column 640W
Dr Huppert: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps her Department is taking to improve its level of compliance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [16939]

Lynne Featherstone [holding answer 13 October 2010]: The Home Office has recognised that its performance in handling Freedom of Information requests must improve. We have taken a number of steps to achieve this, including a full review of the process for handling requests and better monitoring and reporting procedures. These measures have led to an increase in each of the last three months in the proportion of requests answered

14 Oct 2010 : Column 408W
Dr Huppert: To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what steps his Department is taking to improve its level of compliance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [16998]

David Mundell: The Scotland Office endeavours to handle all FOI requests in accordance with statutory requirements and good practice. Internal procedures have been reviewed to ensure that all requests are answered as quickly as possible; all relevant staff have been briefed on the Information Commissioner's recent report; and the Scotland Office senior management team monitors performance on a monthly basis. For the most recent quarter, the Scotland Office exceeded 86% within 20 working days, which is above the Information Commissioner's acceptable level of performance.

13 Oct 2010 : Column 338W
Dr Huppert: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what steps his Department is taking to improve its level of compliance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [16940]

Steve Webb: The Department takes very seriously its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. It has experienced a significant increase in the number of Freedom of Information requests received. Despite this, internal monitoring shows that more than 90% of the Department's Freedom of Information requests were dealt with on time in June, July and August this year, the most recent months for which figures are available. The Department is also committed to increasing the transparency of its responses.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NCVO guide on using FOI in campaigning

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) has published a new guide Voicing your right to know: A guide to using Freedom of Information in campaigning.
This new guide illustrates how the Freedom of Information Act has been used as a powerful and versatile campaigning tool from the local to the national level. It's findings show how campaigners are at the forefront of developing our ‘right to know’, making government more transparent.

Illustrated by five case studies, Bliss, Corner House, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, TreeHouse and the Campaign for Clean Air in London, the guide explores ways in which Freedom of Information requests have been used in campaigns from developing the evidence base of a campaign or to gain crucial information on how decisions are made.  It also explores why and how campaigns can benefit from using Freedom of Information requests and tackles some of the potential difficulties that can arise.
The guide has been put together by Philip Hadley for Campaigning Effectiveness, NCVO. 

Cabinet minutes released for the first time

The government have complied with a ruling by the Tribunal and disclosed the minutes of the 1986 cabinet meeting where Michael Heseltine resigned over the Westland affair. The minutes were requested by the BBC's Martin Rosenbaum in February 2005. Martin's blog post on the disclosure is here.

This is the first time that cabinet minutes have been disclosed under the FOI Act. The previous government vetoed the release of cabinet minutes on the Iraq war and cabinet sub-committee minutes on devolution from 1997.

Lib Dem criticises Met Commissioner on FOI fees

In response to a report in The Guardian, that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson has lobbied the Home Secretary to introduce a fee for making freedom of information requests, the Lib Dem London Assembly policing spokeperson, Dee Doocey, has said:
It is appalling that the Met Commission is seeking to restrict freedom of information requests being made to the Met. Records already show that the Met has an appalling record in answering requests within the legal deadline, so instead of trying to improve their systems it seems the Met is just seeking to wriggle out of being held accountable.

Of course a few freedom of information requests might seem trivial, but overall such legislation goes a long way to demonstrating the openness and accountability of any public organisation.

Many freedom of information requests have also revealed wasteful expenditure, so often end up saving public money in the long term.

Sir Paul should think again.

ENDS

On the 1st October the Information Commissioner's office published a list of 30 public bodies that have been flouting the Freedom of Information Act. The Metropolitan Police Service was listed as one of these 30 organisations:

http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/freedom_of_information/notices/list_of_ico_monitored_bodies.pdf
See:
Keep to the law and stop complaining - Dee Doocey criticises Met proposals to limit FOI requests
Protect police from lawsuits, says Met chief - The Guardian, 10 October 2010

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

FoI discussed at Lib Dem fringe meeting

The Campaign for Freedom of Information held a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool on 18 September 2010. The meeting was addressed by Lord McNally, the minister responsible for freedom of information, and Sir Alan Beith MP, the chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee. A brief summary of what they said is available here.

At the meeting, Lord McNally confirmed that an announcement would be made later this year following a review of FOI issues.  He said: "what the coalition has committed itself to is an examination of how the Freedom of Information Act has worked, where it could be extended within its present powers and where it might be extended by primary legislation."



Guidance for central govt on publishing spending over £25,000

The Treasury has published guidance for central government on publishing spending over £25,000 from November 2010. This was one of the specific government commitments set out in the Prime Minister's letter to government departments on opening up data of 31 May 2010.

The guidance and a template showing the expected format of published data can be downloaded from:
http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/psr_transparency_index.htm

The FOI Officer's perspective

Readers might like to know about an interesting new blog on FOI written by a FOI practitioner:
I’ve been keen for some time to find a forum to write about FOI. When I talk to colleagues or people I meet who have not really understood the benefits of this legislation, I have wanted to address their concerns. When I read other blogs or articles in the Press about FOI, criticising fellow FOI Officers, dismissing the use of exemptions, berating organisations for their seeming lack of openness, I have wanted to read somewhere of the other point of view. Sometimes there are good reasons for refusing requests. Sometimes it is as frustrating for the FOI Officer themselves that they have failed to persuade colleagues or superiors to disclose information. Sometimes I am annoyed by the attitudes of public sector bodies myself and want to point out that their reasoning is wrong.

So this blog looks at FOI from a new point of view. From the inside.
The FOI Man blog is at http://foiman.com/

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Scottish Information Commissioner Decisions

The Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland is running two half-day training courses in Glasgow on 1 February 2011 and Aberdeen on 2 February 2011. The training will be lead by Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign.

While the courses will focus on the decisions issued by the Scottish Information Commissioner and Court of Session, they will also cover decisions issued by the UK Commissioner and Tribunal that have implications for Scottish public authorities.

Download the course leaflet here.

Friday, October 01, 2010

ICO publishes list of bodies being monitored for FOI delays

The Information Commissioner's Office has today published a list of public authorities which it is monitoring because it appears they are not meeting the FOI Act's time limits:
In putting the list together the ICO looked at the number of complaints it had received, published data showing where less than 85% of requests had received a response within appropriate timescales and also occasions where authorities had exceeded time limits by a significant margin.

The ICO’s Deputy Commissioner, Graham Smith said:

‘In the five years since the Freedom of Information Act was brought into force, a significant number of the complaints we receive are about organisations that take too long to respond to information requests.

‘We will monitor the authorities named today for three months, but may take action during this timeframe if an authority’s standard of compliance is revealed to be particularly poor, or if it is unwilling to make the improvements necessary.

‘This is a perfect opportunity for the authorities named to get their houses in order and demonstrate that they take freedom of information requests seriously.’
See:
Full press release
List of monitored bodies