Thursday, March 31, 2011

Scottish Govt challenges disclosure ruling on local income tax information

Scottish Ministers have appealed to the Court of Session after the Scottish Information Commissioner ordered documents detailing the financial implications of a proposed local income tax scheme be released to the Daily Telegraph.

On February 9, 2011, following a two-year dispute, the Scottish Information Commissioner ordered the information be disclosed:
“The information therein would contribute significantly to public understanding of how and why changing financial and economic circumstances in the period since 2007 had affected the viability of the Ministers’ policy to replace council tax with a local income tax. This could in turn allow informed discussion of the longer term viability of any such plans as economic circumstances have changed in the period since the revised revenue projections were prepared.”
The new appeal means the information will now not be released until well after the Scottish Parliament general election in May.

Read the Scottish Information Commissioner’s decision and the Daily Telegraph story.

ICO seminar on privacy and anonymous data

ICO news release
30 March 2011
Being anonymous ‘an ever increasing challenge’ in 2011, says Information Commissioner

Advances in the internet, the scale of personal information that is collected by public bodies and businesses, and the pressure to share data in the name of efficiency, make being anonymous in 2011 ‘an ever increasing challenge’ Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, will say today at a seminar the ICO is hosting on anonymisation.

Leading academics and experts from the public sector and business will gather at the Wellcome Trust in London today to consider different perspectives and approaches to anonymisation – the process of removing personal identifiers from information. Speaking alongside the Information Commissioner are Paul Ohm from the University of Colorado, Mark Elliot from the University of Manchester as well as representatives from the Cabinet Office and the Office of National Statistics.

The ICO will publish a report in the coming weeks that will summarise the seminar’s key discussion points as well as setting out next steps.
Full press release here.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Scottish Information Commissioner Newsletter March 2011

The latest edition of Inform, the Scottish Information Commissioner's newsletter, has been published covering the period January to March 2011 and the launch of the Commissioner's Annual Report.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Local Government Lawyer interviews Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith

As local authorities and other public bodies continue to grapple with freedom of information and data protection, Philip Hoult speaks to Deputy Information Commissioner (and former local government lawyer) Graham Smith about monetary penalties, vexatious litigants, spending cuts and the inexorable rise of requests for information.
Full interview here.

FOI Disclosure Stories March 13-24

Patients died following delay in treatment – Lancashire Evening Post 23/03/11
In one incident, ambulance crew lost a patient for almost five hours while transporting them to hospital. The patient was found in the vehicle in the ambulance station garage at midnight. The findings were revealed by the North West Ambulance Service, following a Freedom of Information request about the number of Serious Untoward Incidents (SUIs) recorded.

GP reforms’ leaders on boards of private firms – Pulse 23/03/11
One GP in 10 on the boards of new commissioning consortia also holds an executive-level position with a private provider, exposing the serious potential for conflict of interest in the Government’s NHS reforms according to data released by PCTs under the Freedom of Information Act.

Doctor 'enraged' by £3.5m bill for consultants over 30 months - The Sentinel 23/03/11
A GP has clashed with leaders of a health trust after revealing they spent £3.5 million on private consultancy fees in 30 months. Dr Sunil Angris told North Staffordshie Primary Care Turst directors that fellow doctors and healthcare professionals were "shocked, alarmed and enraged" by the sum, which he obtained using a Freedom of Information request.

Royal Mail send 25 million items a year to the shredder - Daily Mail 21/03/11
Royal Mail has admitted it destroys an average 25 million letters, packets and parcels every year. The company has destroyed 152 million items of post that could not be delivered or returned to sender in the last six years, according to figures obtained following a Freedom of Information request.

Haringey Young People's Counselling Service axed by Haringey Council - Haringey Independent 17/03/11
A counselling service for young people will close in two weeks as a result of budget cuts, Haringey Council has confirmed. The Haringey Young People's Counselling Service provides one-on-one therapy to vulnerable teenagers, but will be axed after the council cut the youth services budget by 75 per cent. This was revealed in a freedom of information request by members of pressure group Save Haringey Youth Service.

Neurology 'lottery' as costs vary 10-fold - Pulse 16/03/11
GP commissioning consortia will inherit an ‘idiosyncratic’ postcode lottery for neurology services from PCTs. Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggests the price trusts were paying for new consultant outpatient appointments for neurology in 2009 varied from £67 to £592.

English football's tax debt was £22m 'at low eb' in 2010 - Sporting Intelligence 15/03/11
Clubs from the Premier League owe millions of pounds in tax payments, including VAT, despite being rich enough to pay player’s salaries that run into six figures per week in some cases, according to findings from a Freedom of Information inquiry.

Green spaces sell-off? Bristol City Council has no plan B - Bristol Evening Post 15/03/11
Bristol City Council has never looked at ways of paying for the £87 million parks improvement plan that didn't involve selling off green spaces. The council has repeatedly stated a plan based around developers' money would not be enough. But following a request under the Freedom of Information Act, the authority has been forced to admit it has never actually looked at the detail of such a plan.

Pledges to protect ‘frontline’ officers worthless because no definition exists – Western Morning News 15/03/11
Freedom of Information Act requests have confirmed that neither the Home Office, or Devon and Cornwall Police, actually know what a "frontline"officer is. Neither said theyhad definitions for the role, although the Home Office said it was under "consideration".

Troubles team is accused of bias – Newsletter 15/03/11
A recent freedom of information release has revealed that all but one of the 71 Historical Enquiries Team arrests have been loyalists, leading the Lagan Valley MLA to warn of “considerable unrest” if the continuing peace process “does not recognise that the majority of killings were carried out by the Provisional IRA”.

Travel insurers cash in on NHS - The Sunday Times 13/03/11
Travel insurers that pay out on medical claims have pocketed nearly £4.8m from the NHS since 2005. The figures were released following a Freedom of Information request by The Sunday Times.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Evidence to Protection of Freedoms Bill Committee

The Information Commissioner and Campaign for Freedom of Information gave oral evidence to the Protection of Freedoms Bill Committee on 24 March 2011. You can watch a recording of the evidence session here.

A note submitted to the Committee setting out the Campaign's views on the Bill is available here. The Information Commissioner's written evidence to the Committee is here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New working paper on the Right to Information and Privacy

World Bank Institute News
On first inspection, it would appear that the right of access to information and the right to protection of personal privacy are irreconcilable. However the reality is more complex. For the most part, these two rights complement each other in holding governments accountable to individuals. But there is a potential conflict between these rights when there is a demand for access to personal information held by government bodies.
Targeted for practitioners working in governance and transparency issues and as part of its Governance Working Paper series, the World Bank Institute has recently published a sixth working paper on ATI addressing some of these issues.
“The Right to Information and Privacy: Balancing rights and managing conflicts” by David Banisar, Senior Legal Counsel for Article XIX. Available here.
Focusing on the cases of Ireland, Mexico, Slovenia and the UK, while also looking at other experiences, this paper examines legislative and structural means to better define and balance the rights to privacy and to information.

BBC Interview with Lord Clark, author of the FOI white paper

The BBC's Daily Politics programme has interviewed Lord Clark of Windermere, author of the freedom of information white paper 'Your Right to Know', as part of a series of interviews, entitled Change Makers, with people who have radically changed Britain.
Lord Clark spoke to Susana Mendonça about how the act was brought in and claimed he was sorry about its impact on the reputation of parliament, but that it was the system and not the act that was to blame.
Lord Clark says the message given by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997 was "get this Freedom of Information [Act] up and running...we need it, we want it, I want it..."and he was surprised when Mr Blair said introducing the Act has been a mistake in his memoirs.

HT to the BBC's Martin Rosenbaum for this.

ECJ opinion of Advocate General in OFCOM v Information Commissioner

On 10 March 2011, an opinion was delivered by Advocate General Kokott in OFCOM v Information Commissioner, which the Supreme Court referred to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling on the issue of how the public interest balancing test in the Environmental Information Regulations should be approached when two or more exceptions to disclosure are engaged:
The courts of the United Kingdom disagree as to how this balancing exercise is to be undertaken where several interests deserving of protection are simultaneously undermined. Is each exception to be addressed separately, by considering whether the interest served by it or the public interest served by disclosure prevails (the view taken by the courts at the first two instances and by a minority of the judges of the Supreme Court submitting the reference for a preliminary ruling)? Or can the interests served by different exceptions be combined and then together weighed against the public interest served by disclosure (view taken at third instance and by the majority of the Supreme Court)?
The Advocate General backed cumulation and the view of the majority of the Supreme Court:
Contrary to the view expressed by Sweden and the Information Commissioner, the use of the term ‘interest’ in the singular does not preclude a cumulation of several interests...
Nor does emphasis on the particular case in which the balancing exercise is to be carried out proscribe cumulation. As argued by the United Kingdom, the more obvious interpretation is that the term ‘in the particular case’ means that it relates to the specific decision that is pending on the disclosure of information. 
Furthermore, the breakdown of interests meriting protection into different exceptions does not preclude their cumulation. As convincingly argued by the United Kingdom, these exceptions are not always clearly distinguishable from each other. Indeed, the interests meriting protection sometimes clearly overlap.
Consequently, the answer to the reference for a preliminary ruling should be that where a public authority holds environmental information, disclosure of which would have some adverse effects on the separate interests served by more than one exception under Article 4(2) of the Environmental Information Directive, but it would not do so, in the case of either exception viewed separately, to any extent sufficient to outweigh the public interest in disclosure, the directive requires a further exercise involving the cumulation of the separate interests served by the two exceptions and their weighing together against the public interest in disclosure.
The Court will now deliberate and its judgment will be pronounced shortly. Advocates generals opinions are not binding on the Court but are followed in the majority of cases.

Friday, March 11, 2011

FOI Disclosure Stories Feb 23rd-March 10th

New Rarer Cancers Foundation report finds that hundreds of Scottish cancer patients have been refused treatment – 09/03/11 Rarer Cancers Foundation
The report found that 360 patients have been denied access to life-extending cancer treatment in Scotland over the past three years and that nearly 2,500 patients have been forced to rely on exceptional case committees in order to secure access to the treatment recommended by their doctors. Figures were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from Scotland’s 14 NHS boards. See the report: The Scottish Exception? An audit of the progress made in improving access to treatment for people with rarer cancers

Councils could face legal challenges over job cuts says UNISON – UNISON 08/03/11
On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, UNISON is warning that councils could face legal challenges over job cuts on equality grounds. An FOI request by the union reveals that 72% of councils did not complete equality impact assessments (EIA) over their initial redundancy proposals and 78% of councils did not complete EIAs on their final job loss plans.

Police forces cut thousands of hours in overtime – The Times 08/03/11 (subscription only)
Police forces across the country are cutting tens of thousands of hours in overtime, an investigation by The Times has found, as they battle to reduce their spending as budget cuts start to bite. The figures, obtained from a Freedom of Information request, come as the Government considers plans to cut millions from the police pay bill.

West Midlands planning money remains ‘unspent’ – BBC 07/02/11
Almost £70m of planning "gain" money remains unspent by councils in the West Midlands. Freedom of Information requests to all councils across the region revealed some of them had not spent money given to them by developers.

Hospitals’ cockroach kitchens – The Sunday Times 06/03/11 (subscription only)
Three out of four hospital kitchens in Britain have breached basic food hygiene standards, a damning investigation by The Sunday Times can reveal. Fewer than 200 hospital kitchens were given a clean bill of health in the inspection reports obtained under freedom of information rules.

Private Security Firms paid £29m last year for contracts in Afghanistan – The Guardian 06/03/11
New figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, confirm that a growing reliance on private firms is underpinning Britain's war effort.

Email Trail as England 2018 bid eyed royal ties with Qatar – BBC 05/03/11
The confidential emails on England’s World Cup bid obtained under freedom of information requests by the BBC contain fascinating insights into the sorts of deals and discussions that were going on in the run-up to last year’s vote in Zurich. See the emails in full here.

Postcode lottery for care fees of neediest – Which? 05/03/11
Those with the highest, most complex health needs are supposed to have their full care costs funded by the NHS, whatever their financial situation. But Which? research has discovered there are huge variations in care funding across the country. Using Freedom of Information requests and analysing government data, we found that 8 times as many people per 50,000 in Plymouth receive funding than in Essex.

Ofsted forced to reveal survey findings – TES 04/03/11
Ofsted has released the results of staff and student surveys carried out during an inspection for the first time. Despite publishing the data for one school following a teacher's request under the Freedom of Information Act, the watchdog says that it has no plans to make the survey results available routinely.

GPs are accused of using profits from commissioning to meet practice expenses – Health Service Journal (subscription only) reported in the BMJ 04/03/11
GPs have been accused of lining their own pockets by using the savings made from practice based commissioning to provide basic practice equipment. Freedom of Information requests revealed examples amounting to several millions of pounds among 50 primary care trusts, covering 650 general practices.

Centre for Sustainable Energy publishes full UK public building energy data – Centre for Sustainable Energy 02/03/11
CSE has published the full Display Energy Certificate (DEC) Register for all UK public buildings, making it publicly available in one place for the first time. The dataset includes the address, floorspace, heat and power consumption, carbon emissions, and energy efficiency rating of 40,000 sites. We obtained the data from the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) under the Environmental Information Regulations.

Savings pressures mount on staff terms and conditions – Health Service Journal (subscription only) reported on Nursing Times 02/03/11
Documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show these cuts include £1.5m potential savings from freezing pay increments and £1m from decreasing annual leave by two-five days. Around £400,000 could also be saved from treating a bank holiday as a working day and a further £600,000 from reducing sickness entitlement.

The top 100 government suppliers – The Guardian 02/03/11
SA Mathieson used Freedom of Information requests as a way to gather information on government spending. All the 15 departments and organisations that were approached provided a list of their 100 largest suppliers.

PCTs slash GP out-of-hours spending – GP Online 03/03/11
A quarter of PCTs have cut spending on GP out-of-hours services since last year, a GP investigation reveals. Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show 20 PCTs forecast savings of around £4 million in total on out-of-hours in 2010/11 compared with 2009/10 spending.

Leicester Mercury wins battle to learn facts about ex-MPs’ cash payouts – Leicester Mercury 26/02/11
The Leicester Mercury has won a victory that will force the House of Commons to reveal whether former MPs took "golden goodbye" payments worth up to £60,000. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Commons authorities were asked to provide a list of MPs who had drawn the grant, paid out of public funds.

Volunteers uncover £50 million in corporate funds to UK universities – Corporate Watch 24/02/11
People & Planet uncover £50 million from oil, arms and big pharma being channelled into UK universities. The Reclaim Research group conducted interviews and sent Freedom of Information requests to 17 universities and are starting to reveal the hidden connections between research and corporations at universities.

Britain ‘gave Gadaffi’ police firearms training – The Times (subscription only) 23/02/11
A three-week “command and control” course for senior officers took place in Tripoli in January 2009, which included “use of force and human rights, introduction to the conflict management model and command of spontaneous firearms operations”, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Using the FOI Act - courses for new & experienced requesters

Do you want to learn how to use the Freedom of Information Act? Are you already using the Act, but want to know more about how the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal are interpreting its key provisions?

The Campaign for Freedom of Information is running a training course for FOI requesters in central London on Thursday 16 June 2011. The course is divided into two parts. The morning session will provide an introduction to the legislation covering both the Freedom of Information Act and the Environmental Information Regulations. The afternoon session will be more advanced and will examine some of the key decisions made under the two regimes and explain how they can help you obtain information. We think most people will benefit from attending the whole day, but experienced requesters may prefer to attend just the afternoon.

Further information and details on how to book a place are available here.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Scottish Information Commissioner's Annual Report 2010

The Scottish Information Commissioner has published his 2010 Annual Report. Launching the report, Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner said:
It is clear from the data published today that the public are increasingly making use of their rights to information. This is sure to continue in the current economic climate, as more and more people want to understand the rationale behind spending cuts.
When public authorities receive information requests they are often faced with a choice between disclosing the information, or refusing to release it. It may well be that the refusal of the request is appropriate, for example where it involves personal data. However, as my decisions over the past year have shown, there are still many cases where authorities have not been justified in withholding information, even where the information might expose them to criticism or adverse publicity.
The good news, however, is that our survey results suggest that public authorities are becoming more comfortable with disclosing information, rather than withholding it, and these conclusions appear to be supported by the levelling-off of appeals coming to my Office. This is a positive sign, and evidence that freedom of information is now beginning to “bed in” in Scotland, with the FOI principles of openness and transparency increasingly being accepted by authorities.
The bad news, though, is a widespread concern amongst authorities that a rise in often complex requests comes at a time when there is a reduction in the resources available to deal with them. Indeed, 41% of respondents to our survey identified this as the biggest FOI challenge they faced.
The Commissioner continued:
Scotland has led the way in the UK since the introduction of FOI six years ago, and the Scottish Government has demonstrated its commitment to FOI by removing exemptions that prevent the release of sensitive information after 15 years. However, the decision not to bring additional bodies, like Kilmarnock Prison or Glasgow Housing Association, under the scope of FOI in this parliament was a significant setback. Increasingly, public services are delivered by arms length organisations and private contractors, it is therefore extremely important that FOI rights continue to follow the public pound.
FOI in Scotland is at a crossroads, and now is not the time to diminish people’s rights. The public must be able to access information on how the decisions that affect public services and public spending are taken.
The Annual Report reveals that:
  • 408 FOI appeals were received by the Commissioner in 2010, following the refusal of information requests by Scottish public authorities;
  • The Commissioner closed 456 cases;
  • 249 formal decisions were issued, 50% more than in 2009;
  • The Commissioner issued his 1000th decision since the introduction of FOI in 2005. 1,188 decisions had been issued by the end of the year;
  • 74% of the applications were received by the Commissioner in 2010 came from members of the public;
  • The number of cases closed without investigation continued to decline over the year, with a drop of 16% on 2009 figures. This suggests that there is an increasing awareness amongst requesters of the FOI appeal process;
  • The Commissioner found that a public authority had breached the law in some way in 65% of the decisions issued;
  • The average age of cases being dealt with by the Commissioner continued to decline during 2010, meaning that individual applications are being resolved more quickly. The average age of cases closed during 2010 was 5.2 months.
The Annual Report can be downloaded as a pdf here.
An enhanced version of the Report including video footage, interactive tables, infographic and supporting statistics, can be viewed online here.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Caroline Lucas MP calls for FOI to be extended to major corporations

Green Party News
26 February 2011
Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader and MP for Brighton Pavilion, called yesterday for Freedom Of Information (FOI) legislation to be extended to banks, telecoms operators and other large corporations providing key services to the public.
In her speech to the Green Party spring conference in Cardiff, Lucas said: "We depend on these corporations in just the same way as we depend on schools or hospitals to deliver our services. When they fail, we all suffer - so they must be opened up to public scrutiny. That's why I am proposing that the current FOI act be extended to cover major corporations."
Under the proposal, the Information Commissioner would be empowered to determine classes of information that companies would have to publish, such as risk registers, payment to sub contractors, or tax payments made overseas.
 Full press release here.