Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Free seminar: Access to information? … There’s a website for that!

The Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, is chairing a free seminar at the Festival of Politics in Edinburgh on 26th August. Titled “Access to information? … There’s a website for that!”, the event will cover how new media make it easier for people to ask for information, and how they have led to the creation of new kinds of information using government data.

Attendees will hear from local Edinburgh man, Michael Traill, who became interested in FOI when asking Lothian and Borders police for information some years ago, and now regularly makes FOI requests online. There will also be live demonstrations of websites which take raw government data and use it to provide new and useful services for the public.

The event will round up with a chance to discuss the issues raised with a panel including the Commissioner and speakers, chaired by Kirstie Shirra, a freelance campaigner who started out on her career as Scotland's only full time FOI lobbyist, when she was at Friends of the Earth Scotland.

To book a free place visit www.festivalofpolitics.org.uk or call 0131 473 2000.

Friday 26 August 2011, 13:30 to 14:30, in Committee Room 3, The Scottish Parliament

Scottish Govt drops fight to withhold local income tax information

The Scottish Government has released documents detailing the financial implications of a proposed local income tax scheme following a two-and-a-half year fight to prevent disclosure.

The documents, written by Dr Andrew Goudie, Mr Salmond’s chief economic adviser, explain how the projected revenue from this proposed local income tax had declined by up to £158 million. In order to fill this gap, the local income tax levy would have had to be 50 per cent higher than Mr Salmond claimed.

The legal battle began when the Daily Telegraph made a Freedom of Information request for the revised local income tax revenue projections from Scottish Ministers in 2009. The Scottish Government refused the request on the grounds that the information was exempt under section 29(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act, which applies to information relating to the formulation or development of government policy.

The case went to the Scottish Information Commissioner. The Commissioner ordered the information to be released because the decision by Scottish Ministers in January 2009 to delay the introduction of the tax until after the election in 2011 created a weighty public interest in understanding the projections available to Ministers at that time. The Scottish Government appealed this decision, taking the case to Scotland’s highest civil court, the Court of Session. The result of this legal move was that disclosure of the documents was postponed until after the Holyrood election in May.

According to the Daily Telegraph, opposition parties claim this was a cynical move on Salmond’s behalf to hide this embarrassing information in the run up to the Scottish elections.

The case was due to go to the Court of Session, however in a surprise U-turn ministers withdrew the appeal last week. John Swinney, Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth Secretary, said: "While this particular issue became academic given that the information is already in the public domain, we will of course continue to uphold the wider principle in regard to policy formulation.”

However, only one small part of the information had been leaked in a Telegraph article in April 2011. Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, is critical of how the government has responded:

“This has been a most extraordinary case, throughout which the Government has consistently challenged almost every aspect of my investigation.

It resisted my conclusion that the request was valid; it disputed whether certain information was relevant to the request; it took court action against a statutory notice requiring Ministers to provide information I needed in the course of my investigation; and finally appealed to the Court of Session against my decision which ordered the information to be disclosed.

Some two years of work and £60,000 in legal fees later I have received notice from my solicitors that the Government intends to abandon that appeal and meet my expenses.”

Read the full story in the Telegraph and the Scottish Government’s press release.

Monday, July 18, 2011

FOI Disclosure Stories June 19th- July 7th

More than 100 death risk leaks in North Sea oil rigs in two years – The Daily Record 07/07/11
More than 100 potentially lethal oil and gas spills took place on rigs in the North Sea in the last two years, a probe has highlighted. Damning statistics showing serious spills on oil and gas platforms at the rate of one a week were revealed under freedom of information legislation.

GPs left in limbo as PCTs shed staff and pay millions in redundancy costs – GP 05/07/07
PCTs have seen a mass exodus of staff almost two years before the transition to GP commissioning, with some already shedding up to a third of their workforce, a Pulse investigation reveals. Figures from 54 PCTs obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show they have each shelled out an average of £585,000 in redundancy and voluntary resignation costs – meaning the bill across England is likely to be more than £88m so far.

Revealed: The thousands of pregnancies aborted for ‘abnormalities’ including cleft palates and Down’s syndrome – The Daily Mail 05/07/11
Thousands of pregnancies were aborted last year for 'abnormalities' including 500 for Down's syndrome, new figures reveal. The statistics for 2010 in England and Wales were released after the Department of Health yielded to a Freedom of Information Request from the Pro Life Alliance, following a five-year legal battle.

One in three PCTs restricts prescriptions
– Gponline 04/07/11
One in three PCTs has issued guidance restricting prescriptions to 28 days' treatment at a time, despite opposition from patients and GPs, our investigation has found. Of 104 PCTs that replied to a Freedom of Information request, 32% said they had issued guidance advising GPs to limit prescriptions to 28 days' supply at a time. A further 11% said they promoted such practice.

Some families still receiving £100,000 a year in housing benefit, latest figures reveal – The Telegraph 04/07/11
As the Coalition Government faces mounting criticism over plans to cap housing benefit at £500 per week, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that some local authorities in the capital are still to paying private landlords up to four times that amount.

H.R.H. The Prince Minister: Charles accused of meddling after he summons seven senior Ministers to Clarence House in just ten months - Mail On Sunday 03/07/11
Prince Charles has been accused of meddling in Government policy after a Mail on Sunday investigation revealed he has had at least nine private meetings with Ministers in less than ten months according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act

Revealed: British government’s plans to play down Fukushima – The Guardian 30/06/11
Internal emails show a PR campaign was launched to protect UK nuclear plans after tsunami in Japan. Internal emails released by the Department for Energy and Climate Change show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with multinational companies to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.

Cataract treatment thresholds branded ‘false economy’ – Optomentry.co.uk 30/06/11
Arbitrary thresholds for cataract treatment being brought in by some PCTs are ‘false economy’ and are reducing the quality of life for the elderly in England, an RNIB report has concluded. Following a Freedom of Information Act request to all English PCTs, the charity has found that 53% of those who responded had an acuity threshold in place for treatment which goes against Department of Health guidance. Read the report here.

Police cash in on car crashes: It’s not just insurance forms making millions selling drivers’ details – 28/06/11 Claims Standards Council
Police are raking in millions of pounds from a ‘huge racket’ in which they cynically sell on the details of drivers who have had a road accident. The police demand a so-called ‘administration fee’ of up to £25 per vehicle. The evidence was compiled by the insurer swiftcover.com, using Freedom of Information requests.

UK Information Commissioner orders release of climate data – Nature 28/06/11
Nearly two years after an Oxford University professor filed the original freedom-of-information request, the United Kingdom Information Commissioner's Office has overruled the University of East Anglia and ordered the institution to release a pair of files containing weather station data.

Spending on older people’s care to be cut by 8.4 per cent this year reveals new Age UK research – Age UK 27/06/11
Age UK research launched today reveals that the likely cuts in older people’s social care of 8.4 per cent this year could hasten the collapse of an already crumbling social care system in England. Age UK made a Freedom of Information request to each English council with responsibility for adult social services, to reveal their planned expenditure on older people’s social care for the current financial year.

Memo reveals intelligence chief’s bid to fuel fears of Iraqi WMDs
– The Observer 26/06/11
The senior intelligence official responsible for Tony Blair's notorious dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction proposed using the document to mislead the public about the significance of Iraq's banned weapons. The memo, released under the Freedom of Information Act, has been described as one of the most significant documents on the dossier yet published.

Inspections reveal poor standards of care at homes for the elderly – The Scotsman 26/06/11
One in ten of Scotland's homes for the elderly are providing either "weak" or "unsatisfactory" care for residents, according to worrying new figures obtained by Labour from a freedom of information request.

Secret memorandum reveals Britain’s involvement in rendition – The Guardian 23/06/11
A secret memorandum of understanding between the UK and US on the treatment of prisoners captured in Iraq has been released for the first time. The 2008 document is one of a series of documents revealed through freedom of information requests put in by the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition. Read the MOU here.

An end to the ‘status quo of secrecy’ at Bolton Council? – Bolton News 19/06/11
The outside business dealings of senior town hall staff could soon be made public after Bolton Council was issued a High Court threat by the country’s information boss. The threat comes after transparency campaigner John Greenwood asked for details held on the council’s register of interests in a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner has now ruled that the details of the register of interests should be released.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

FOI amendments pressed during Localism Bill

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has been working on amendments to the Localism Bill tabled by Lord Wills, the former Labour FOI minister. The amendments sought to:

1) Require local authority executives and their committees to meet in public, unless regulations specify otherwise. The Localism Bill amends the arrangements for local authority governance, allowing councils to return to the committee system should they choose to do so. For authorities which operate executive arrangements, the Bill allows for new regulations to be made governing the circumstances in which meetings and documents must be open to the public (Clause 11 of the Localism Bill gives effect to Schedule 2 which inserts a new Part 1A into the Local Government Act 2000, and the proposed section 9GA(4) of that new part provides for these regulations to be made). But if the regulations are not made before the new arrangements come into force, the Bill would leave it to executives themselves to decide which of their meetings will be open to the public and which will be held in private (Sections 9G(1) and (2) of the new part 1A). They would be free to hold all their meetings in private, should they choose to do so. The amendment sought to reverse this position, so that in the absence of regulations, all meetings of the executive or its committees would have to be in public.

2) Ensure that future contracts entered into by local authorities would include a ‘freedom of information’ provision. This would stipulate that all information about the performance of the contract which is held by the contractor would be deemed to be held 'on behalf of' the authority for the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act or Environmental Information Regulations. The ‘Community Right to Challenge’ in Chapter 3 of the Localism Bill envisages that a growing proportion of local authorities’ functions will be carried out for it by other bodies. The intention of the amendment is that the public’s rights to information should be the same, whether a particular task is carried out in-house or contracted out.

3) Bring companies that are 50% or more owned by local authorities within the scope of the FOI Act. At present the FOI Act applies to companies that are wholly owned by a single public authority. The Protection of Freedoms Bill would extend that definition to cover a company which is wholly owned by more than one public authority. However, a company which jointly owned by a public authority and some other body, perhaps a private company, is not subject to the FOI Act at all, even where the public authority is the dominant shareholder. The amendment would bring such companies within the Act’s scope.

4) Require local authorities to publish annual statistics on their compliance with the FOI Act.

5) Bring the Housing Ombudsman within the scope of the FOI Act. At present, complaints about social housing matters are dealt with by two different ombudsmen. Complaints about housing associations go to the Housing Ombudsman; complaints about local authority housing go to the Local Government Ombudsman. The Localism Bill proposes that in future a unified complaints system should apply, with both types of complaint going to the Housing Ombudsman.

This transfer of functions, may be accompanied by a strengthening of the Housing Ombudsman’s enforcement powers. The Bill allows the Secretary of State by Order to give the Housing Ombudsman the power to make determinations which have the force of a court order (New paragraph 7C, which would be added to Schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1996 by clause 158 of the Localism Bill). Surprisingly, the Housing Ombudsman is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Localism Bill contains no provision to bring the Ombudsman under the Act, despite the fact that the Housing Ombudsman is to take over important responsibilities from the Local Government Ombudsman, who is subject to the FOI Act. The amendment would redress this anomaly.

The amendments were debated during the second day of the Bill’s committee stage on Thursday 23 June 2011. Responding to the debate, the minister Baroness Hanham gave a reassurance that the Government would make it clear there is a presumption of openess regarding meetings of local authority executives. But she did not support any of the other amendments.
I cannot say anything more than that we are very much in favour of open access to meetings of local authorities, but we recognise that there are occasions when confidential information has to be discussed – for example, information on contracts and members of staff. Meetings have to be closed sometimes, but we will make it clear that there has to be a presumption in favour of openness… 
We do not believe that it is necessary to extend the Freedom of Information Act to those bodies at present with information about contracts with public authorities, which can be requested from them. A local authority can be quizzed about any contract that it has and we are proactively publishing contractual information online.

Amendment 133C would introduce a statutory requirement for the publication of an annual report by every local authority, including the smallest parish councils receiving very low volumes of freedom of information requests. We do not think that this is a burden that should be borne...

Finally, on extending the Freedom of Information Act to cover the Housing Ombudsman, it is worth noting that we are planning to extend the Act to a considerable number of new bodies through legislation and we intend to keep those under review. While I do not say “in”, I do not say “out” at the present time.
In reply, Lord Wills pressed the minister to consider the amendments again in more detail.
I am grateful to the Minister for the spirit in which she engaged with these amendments. However, her response was not quite as welcoming instinctively as I would have hoped, so I ask her to scrutinise the amendments in more detail and perhaps to consult the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I do not say that because I discount any possible burdens put on local authorities or contractors or businesses. As someone who ran a small business in the past, I am deeply conscious of the need to avoid putting burdens on small businesses. These amendments were framed not to place a disproportionate burden on anyone. Perhaps on closer scrutiny that will become apparent.

I am willing to accept any suggestions for amendments and I am sure that the Government would be able to improve the drafting. The key point that I ask the Minister to take away is that, if the Government do not engage with the issues behind these amendments…that will mean, potentially, over time, a significant diminution of transparency in the operation of local authorities and those whom they contract to provide services for them. That is very serious for those who believe in freedom of information. It is in breach of a fundamental tenet of the coalition agreement, which is why I hope that this Government will take it seriously.
Read the full debate on the amendments here (begins Col 1433).

See also:
Localism Bill Explanatory Notes [HL Bill 71] ) (pdf)
Second Marshalled List of Amendments as at 21 June. Lord Wills' amendments were 52A, 133A, 133B, 133C and 181A.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Public Accounts Committee says Network Rail should be subject to FOI Act

A report by the Public Accounts Committee 'Office of Rail Regulation: Regulationg Network Rail's efficiency' published today, calls for the Department for Transport and Office of Rail Regulation to ensure that Network Rail is made subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The report states:
The internal operations of Network Rail are not transparent. We are concerned about Network Rail’s use of ‘compromise agreements’ with departing employees, and that a review by the Regulator has been required to investigate the delayed disclosure by Network Rail of an issue regarding level crossing safety. We are concerned that Network Rail was not able to tell us the total value of compromise agreements it had entered into. The Department and the Regulator should ensure that Network Rail is subject to the same transparency requirements as public bodies, with full application of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
It also says:
Pursuing the issue of transparency, we noted press reports of an internal Railtrack memorandum from 2001 regarding safety at the Elsenham level crossing, an issue which had not been made public until 2006. The matter is currently the subject of review by the Regulator, who will judge whether it was material to the public interest and was withheld deliberately. Network Rail is not currently subject to Freedom of Information legislation, but told us that it would not object to being included within the scope of the Act in future.
Does this mean Network Rail has had a change of heart? David Higgins, who took over as Chief Executive of Network Rail in February 2010, told the Committee he would have no objection to members of the public being able to make FOI requests adding that he had "been used to FOI in the last two jobs I have had".

Before the election both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promised Network Rail would be covered by FOI.  In April 2010, the Conservatives published 'Big ideas to give Britain real change in politics', which stated:
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.
But an announcement in January 2011 that the Government would extend the FOI Act to additional bodies did not include Network Rail, a decision which the Campaign for Freedom of Information expressed disappointment about.

See also:
We need a regulator with teeth to force efficiencies at Network Rail, says MPs - The Times, 12 July 2011 (subscription)
Network Rail chief in push for openness - FT, 27 Feb 2011

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Government to publish new data on health, schools, courts and transport

The Government has announced the next stage in its transparency agenda with a commitment to publish key data on the NHS, schools, criminal courts and transport. The new commitments are set out in a letter from the Prime Minister to Cabinet colleagues.
In his letter, the PM said transparency was "at the heart of the Government's agenda".

"We recognise that transparency and open data can be a powerful tool to help reform public services, foster innovation and empower citizens. We also understand that transparency can be a significant driver of economic activity. These commitments represent the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world."
The letter commits the Government to publishing the following new data sets:
  • Data on comparative clinical outcomes of GP practices in England to be published by December 2011, following the lead of the NHS in London which has agreed a set of 22 indicators with local GPs.
  • Prescribing data by GP practice to be published by December 2011, as per the Growth Review.
  • Complaints data by NHS hospital so that patients can see what issues have affected others and take better decisions about which hospital suits them. This commitment will be met by October 2011.
  • Clinical audit data, detailing the performance of publicly funded clinical teams in treating key healthcare conditions, will be published from April 2012. This service will be piloted in December 2011 using data from the latest National Lung Cancer Audit, commissioned by the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership (HQIP) as part of the National Clinical Audit and Patient Outcomes Programme (NCAPOP).
  • Data on staff satisfaction and engagement by NHS provider (for example by hospital and mental health trust) will be published from December 2011.
  • Data on the quality of post-graduate medical education by provider from April 2012.
Education and skills

Data enabling parents to see how effective their school is at teaching high, average and low attaining pupils across a range of subjects, from January 2012.
  • Opening up access to anonymised data from the National Pupil Database to help parents and pupils to monitor the performance of their schools in depth, from June 2012. This will enable better comparisons of school performance and we will look to strengthen datasets in due course.
  • Bringing together for the first time school spending data, school performance data, pupil cohort data and Ofsted judgements, from January 2012, in a parent-friendly portal, searchable by postcode.
  • Data on attainment of students eligible for pupil premium to be published from January 2012.
  • Data on apprenticeships paid for by HM Government, by organisation and by success rate to be published from July 2011.
Criminal justice
  • Sentencing data by court will be published by November 2011, enabling the public to see exactly what sentences are being handed down in their local courts, and compare different courts on a wide range of measures. The data, anonymised, will include the age, gender and ethnicity of those sentenced, the sentence given, and the time taken at each stage from offence to completion of the case in court.
  • Data on performance of probation services and prisons including re-offending rates by offender and institution. To be published from October 2011.
  • From May 2012, the national crime mapping website, Police.uk, will provide the public with information on what happens next for crime occurring on their streets, i.e. police action and justice outcomes.

In addition to opening up data owned by DfT and its arms length bodies, we are committed to working with the transport industry and data users to make public transport data open and freely available for re-use. Over the next year we will deliver:

  • Data on current and future roadworks on the Strategic Road Network to be published from October 2011, and subject to consultation to extend this during 2012 to Local Authority Streetworks Registers maintained under statute.
  • All remaining Government-owned free datsets from Transport Direct, including cycle route data and the national car park database to be made available for free re-use from October 2011.
  • Real time data on the Strategic Road Network including incidents, speeds and congestion to be published from December 2011. Office of Rail Regulator to increase the amount of data published relating to service performance and complaints by May 2012.
  • Rail timetable information to be published weekly by National Rail from December 2011.
Government financial information
We are working with the purchase and payment card providers to provide a consistent method of reporting government procurement card spend data for transactions above £500 in value, so this is available for publication on departmental websites, from end September 2011. 

See also:
David Cameron's article in the Telegraph on transparency
ICO statement on Cabinet Office transparency event

Information Commissioner's Annual Report 2010/11

The Information Commissioner's Annual Report for 2010/11 has been published. A press release accompanying the report highlights the continued progress made by the ICO in reducing the time taken to investigate freedom of information complaints:
Today's annual report also highlights the significant improvements the ICO has made in the time it takes to handle freedom of information complaints. There are now no cases over 12 months old, compared with three at the end of 2010/11, 117 at the end of 2009/10 and 418 two years ago. Process improvements and changes to the ICO's organisational structure made during the year enabled the ICO to complete more decision notices than ever before without sacrificing quality and no increase in the rate of appeals. 
The report is available to download here. A webcast of the report's launch with a presentation by Christopher Graham is available to watch here.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

DoH complies with High Court ruling on definition of personal data in abortion statistics case

The Department of Health has decided not to appeal the recent High Court ruling on the definition of personal data in Department of Health v IC [2011] EWHC 1430 and has disclosed the disputed statistics on the number of late of abortions carried out in England and Wales.

Following the Department's appeal to the High Court, Mr Justice Cranston held that the Tribunal had been entitled to find, from the evidence before it, that the proposed disclosure was of fully anonymised data, which would not identify or (in combination with other information) lead to the identification of any of the individuals concerned.

The key part of the judgement considered the meaning of a disputed passage in Lord Hope's judgement in the House of Lords ruling on Common Services Agency v Scottish Information Commissioner [2008] UKHL 47. This was the request for childhood leukemia statistics by census ward in Dumfries and Galloway.

Mr Justice Cranston found that:

• Lord Hope had recognised that the CSA could itself always identify the children involved from the original information which it held

• it did not follow that statistics derived from that data, if disclosed in a fully anonymised form would still be personal data. This is a point on which, he found, all members of the House of Lords demonstrated 'a shared understanding'.

• the House of Lords decision to refer the issue back to the SIC in that case was not to determine whether the process of barndardisation would transform the data into data that would no longer be personal data in the hands of CSA itself. (This is what the Tribunal had found in its ruling in the abortion statistics case.) The process of barnardisation (by which low numbers were randomly increased or decreased by 1 or left as they were) was not capable of doing this, since Lord Hope had expressly recognised that the CSA would still hold data identifying the children concerned. The point of the referring the case back to SIC was to determine whether bardnadisation could prevent the public from identifying any of the children involved.

•the Tribunal had made an error of law. It should have found that disclosure of fully anonymised abortion statistics to the public did not involve a disclosure of personal data, even though the Department of Health, the data controller, could still identify each of the women involved.

• any other conclusion would be 'divorced from reality'. The argument that the data remained personal data, even if disclosed to the public in fully anonymised form, because the data controller could identify those involved, would lead to the conclusion that to reveal that 100,000 women had an abortion in a particular year would be to disclose personal data about every one of them, which "is not a sensible result" and would seriouslty inhibit the publication of medical statistics.

See also:
Department of Health statement 5 July 2011