Thursday, August 18, 2011

FOI Disclosure Stories August 2011

Papers reveal fears over ports’ millions proposal – News Letter 16/08/111
Stormont minister Danny Kennedy was warned that moves to take funds from Belfast port could be challenged in the courts. The concerns were contained in briefing papers which were requested by the News Letter under the Freedom of Information Act. The Department for Regional Development intended to black out large chunks of the documents but actually highlighted the areas which it wanted to hide.

Gateways using nurses to screen GP referrals
– Pulse 10/08/11
GP referrals are being screened and bounced back to general practice by nurses, physiotherapists and even podiatrists employed by PCTs to staff referral management centres, a Pulse investigation reveals. Data supplied under the Freedom of Information Act shows PCTs that operate referral management centres to reduce the number of GP referrals to secondary care are commonly using non-doctors for triage.

Scottish Review celebrating a victory on salaries of ‘fatcat’ NHS board managers – The Drum 08/08/11
Scottish current affairs website editor Kenneth Roy is celebrating a major victory in a two-year battle to force NHS regional health boards to reveal the salaries of top managers. He achieved this by putting in freedom of information requests to dig up the salaries of the top execs.

Birmingham City Council awarded PwC £250k contract without tendering – Birmingham Post 04/08/11
An inquiry is under way after Birmingham City Council broke its own rules by failing to put a £254,000 contract with financial consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers out to tender. Details of the contracts for PwC and Taylor Haig emerged following a Freedom of Information Act question from Larry Brown, a member of the public.

Shortfall in affordable housing - Countryside Alliance 04/08/11
Research undertaken by the Countryside Alliance shows how local councils have failed to meet provision targets for affordable housing on average by over 76 per cent in the past year. A Freedom of Information request was sent to all local authorities in order to obtain the data.

Courts forced to disclose written arguments – The Times (subscription only) 03/08/11
A landmark ruling by senior judges has struck a blow for open justice that will force courts in future to disclose all the written arguments in cases before them. The Court of Appeal has ruled that HM Revenue and Customs must comply with a request made by a barrister under the Freedom of Information Act to disclose their outline arguments.

More than 2,000 charities and community groups face cuts – False Economy 02/08/11
More than 2,000 charities and community groups are facing budget cuts as local authorities reduce their funding – or in some cases completely withdraw it – according to research based on hundreds of Freedom of Information responses from local councils published by False Economy.

Police admit one in three crimes not investigated – The Times (subscription only) 02/08/11
Figures obtained by The Times according to responses under the Freedom of Information Act for 21 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales show that the overall rate of crimes being dropped from further investigation is remarkably constant nationally and runs at about 32 per cent.

Cuts threaten traveller children’s schooling – The Independent 02/08/11
The schooling of up to 100,000 children in the travelling community is being put at risk by cuts to council funding, an investigation by The Independent has revealed. Nearly half of 127 authorities have either abolished their traveller education service or drastically cut staff levels, Freedom of Information responses show.

Care homes cash in on resident’s death – The Times (subscription only) 01/08/11
Care homes are making tens of thousands of pounds each year from the deaths of residents. Council records show that care providers are taking up to six months to inform their local authority that a resident has died, meaning they continue to receive taxpayers’ money to fund that resident’s care. Of 20 councils surveyed by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, 14 admitted overpaying care home providers after the deaths of residents in the past year.

Public consultation on Digital Economy Act a sham? – Techradar.com 01/08/11
Freedom of information requests have revealed that Peter Mandelson, the UK's then Business Secretary of State, made the decision to sanctify aspects of the Digital Economy Act, even as the public consultation was under way.

Cuts leave patients waiting months for mental health help – The Times (subscription only) 01/08/11
A growing number of patients suffering from depression and other mental health problems are waiting more than three months for counselling in the latest sign of the impact of financial pressures on NHS services. Data collected from 120 Primary Care Trusts in England under the Freedom of Information Act shows that in those trusts that provide access to trained counsellors, more than 40 per cent leave patients waiting three months.

SNP rapped by water regulator – The Scotsman 31/07/11
Ministers have been told that their insistence on keeping Scottish Water in public ownership is hampering the company's efforts to fix the country's antiquated pipe network. Documents released under Freedom of Information legislation reveal an internal memorandum sent two years ago warning that bosses at Scottish Water were "increasingly concerned" they would not be able to afford repairs if the company remained funded solely by the government.

Private healthcare group lobbied competition body for NHS inquiry – Guardian 29/07/11
The close links between a private sector lobby group and an NHS regulator in the run-up to the launch of a groundbreaking inquiry into competition in the health service have emerged in a series of documents passed to the Guardian. Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the lobby group NHS Partners Network helped draft a letter requesting a formal investigation into how firms were being blocked from getting NHS work.

Monday, August 15, 2011

One Hundred Years of Secrecy - BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4 will broadcast the first in a series on 'Secret Britain' on Tuesday 16 August at 9.00 am.
Kicking off Radio 4's Secret Britain series, Peter Hennessy, the leading Whitehall-watcher, tells the story of the Official Secrets Act and explores the tension between Britain's culture of state secrecy and more open government.

One hundred years ago, in the hot summer of 1911, Asquith's Government exploited a scare about German spies and a panic over a German gunboat in a Moroccan port to rush a new Official Secrets Act through parliament. The measure was presented as being necessary for national security, but ministers seized their opportunity to extend the law much further. The Act included a 'catch-all' section that forbade the unauthorized disclosure of anything about the government's work, including innocuous matters that posed no possible threat to national security.

Peter Hennessy explains why Britain developed a culture of state secrecy and shows how politicians kept politically inconvenient information secret. He examines how reform of official secrets eventually came and explores the tension between the competing needs for secrecy that protects national security and more openness in a democracy.

Producer: Rob Shepherd.
See also:
The slow road to reform in a nation once ruled by secrecy - Telegraph, 15 August 2011

Equality and Human Rights Commission says information privacy laws flawed

15 August 2011
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is today publishing a report that shows current privacy law is failing to stop breaches of personal data privacy and is not keeping pace with the rapid growth in personal data collection.

In response to the research findings the Commission wants the government to bring in changes that will better protect personal information.

The report shows that the way government and its agencies collect, use and store personal data is deeply flawed. They may be unaware that they are breaking the law as the complexity of the legal framework means their obligations are unclear.

It also finds that it is difficult for people to know what information is held on them, by which government agency or private sector body, or how it is being used. For example, as there is currently no law regulating the use of CCTV cameras it would be very difficult for someone to find which organisations hold footage of them.

It can be hard to check the accuracy of personal data held, to hold anyone to account for errors in the data or its misuse and to challenge decisions made about someone on the basis of that information. Calling any public or private organisation to account is made more difficult because people often may not know what their rights are or know when a breach of those rights has occurred...

In response to the report’s findings, the Commission is making three recommendations to government:
  • streamline the current legislation on information privacy so that it is easier for organisations to understand their responsibilities and simpler for citizens to know and use their rights.  
  • ensure that public bodies and others have to properly justify why they need someone’s personal data and for what purpose. Any requirement to use personal data for any purpose other than for which it was collected should go through a vetting process. Organisations should ensure they comply with the current data protection and RIPA regimes, in addition to the Human Rights Act.   
  • all public bodies should carefully consider the impact on information privacy of any new policy or practice and ensure that all requests for personal data are justified and proportionate.
Full press release here and Protecting Information Privacy report here

Football Supporters' Federation calls for sports' governing bodies to covered by FOI

10 Aug 2011
FansNetwork/The Ugly Inside
The FSF believes that football’s governing bodies should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FoI). Sport’s governing bodies should be held accountable in the same manner as government departments, local councils, and civil servants.
Currently organisations like the Football Association (FA) are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act as are other sporting bodies such as the English Cricket Board, British Cycling Federation, and British Olympic Association (BOA).
The FSF argues that sports governing bodies should not enjoy the same privileges as private companies. Governance of sport is a matter of great public interest because of the huge amounts of public money spent on sport and sporting events.
Full story here.

Petition on fixed time limits for internal reviews of FOI requests

John Cross has started an e-petition calling on the Government to introduce a statutory time limit for internal reviews of FOI requests:
Introduce legislation to create a fixed time limit of 20 workings days for public bodies to complete internal reviews under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The present system with no statutory limit is open to abuse and long delays reduce public confidence in the work of public bodies and civil servants. Information is most valuable when it is current and up to date.
The petition's closing date is 12 August 2012. Sign up here.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Seminar on current developments in FOI in Scotland

The final speakers for the next seminar at the Centre for Freedom of Information in Scotland, have been confirmed. Dr Will Dinan and Kate Spence will share findings from the most recent phase of their research into the uptake of FOI by civil society. The qualitative research included interviews with voluntary organisations, public authority staff and campaigners. The three-year project aims to improve understanding of the issues facing the voluntary sector in their use of FOI.

The event takes place at the Dundee School of Law on Wednesay 7 September 2011, from 13:00 to 16:00. Other speakers confirmed already are Fiona Killen, the Commissioner’s external legal advisor, who will give a comprehensive update on key issues facing FOI in Scotland today, and Hugh Hagan, who worked on the Public Records Bill team and will discuss the implications the new records legislation for FOI.

Why should you attend?

The seminar offers a cost effective “one stop shop” to get up to speed with a wide range of policy and legislative issues which affect FOI in Scotland - FOI practitioners and users alike. It’s the first general update seminar the Centre has held since October 2010. It’s also an opportunity to engage in interactive debate with the speakers and with each other.

A booking form is available here, or simply email Donna Hendry at the School of Law on centrefoi@dundee.ac.uk.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Welcome for greater online disclosure - but concern that contracting out will encourage greater secrecy

Press release 4 August 2011

The government’s plans, announced today, to publish more information online about the quality of public services was welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. “The more that is published proactively, the less opportunity there will be for individual authorities to resist disclosure when the figures show that their performance is poor” the Campaign said.

But the Campaign said that some government policies, risked undermining openness. It highlighted the large-scale contracting out of local authority functions proposed by the Localism Bill. “The more council functions are carried out by contractors, the harder it is to rely on the Freedom of Information Act to scrutinise what is being achieved. There are potential solutions to this, which the government is so far refusing to support. Someone making an FOI request to the council should be able to obtain any information about the contract held by the contractor, unless it is exempt. At the moment, access can be blocked by a confidentiality clause agreed between the contractor and council.”

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Training for freedom of information 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 8 December 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 you're welcome to come to just the morning or afternoon if you wish.

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

Monday, August 01, 2011

FOI Disclosure Stories July

OK, climate sceptics: here's the raw data you wanted - New Scientist 28/07/07
Temperature records going back 150 years from 5113 weather stations around the world were yesterday released to the public by the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. The university were ordered to release data by the UK Information Commissioner's Office following a freedom-of-information request for the raw data from researchers.
See the data here.

Cataracts, hips, knees and tonsils: NHS begins rationing operations – The Independent 28/07/11
Hip replacements, cataract surgery and tonsil removal are among operations now being rationed in a bid to save the NHS money. The alarming figures emerged from a survey of 111 PCTs by the health-service magazine GP, using the Freedom of Information Act.

Exclusive: Cameron breaks his Sure Start promise – New Statesman 27/07/11
27 centres have been closed since May 2010 despite Cameron's promise to protect funding, according to information released after freedom of information requests were made by the New Statesman to the Department for Education.

Children and young people’s mental health services slashed by funding cuts – Young Minds 27/07/11
A survey of health trusts and councils has found that more than half have cut their budgets for children and young people’s mental health services for 2011/2012. A Freedom of Information request sent to 120 service providers and commissioners generated 55 responses, of which 29 said they would reduce spend in this area.

Ministry of Defence spends £1 billion on staff credit cards – The Telegraph 27/07/11
Over the past four years, the MoD spent £986,041,110 on department credit cards, far more than any other government body according to a data released by the Cabinet Office following freedom of information request. The disclosure will add to concerns over the management of the ministry, which is grappling with a multi-billion pound black hole in its finances.

Children endure seven-month wait for wheelchairs – Children & Young People Now 26/07/11
Hundreds of disabled children are being forced to wait more than seven months to be assessed and provided with the mobility equipment they need, an investigation by CYP Now has revealed through figures obtained from freedom of information requests sent to all 151 primary care trusts, and answered in full by 40 areas.

Substandard care linked to maternal deaths in London – BBC 25/07/11
Panorama used Freedom of Information requests to survey the provision of maternity services across the UK. The findings reveal that maternity units temporarily closed their doors to new admissions 1055 times in 2010, resulting in at least 927 women needing to be transferred to other maternity units.

Fifth of patients left in learning disability hospitals for five years – Community Care 19/07/11
Nearly one in five people in learning disability hospitals such as Winterbourne View have been there for more than five years. Information gathered under the Freedom of Information Act from 32 primary care trusts, covering 247 patients, showed 18% had been in hospitals for five years or more and 3% had been resident for more than 10.

The Arbroath Schools review: the scandal of the public opinion surveys – For Argyll 18/07/11
Angus Council consulted the public on merging two schools into one new school through two surveys. An FOI request was issued for a breakdown of the survey results. The data released showed both of these surveys to have been profoundly manipulated. In the first survey it emerged that 399 (57.4%) of the responses had come from the same IP address, effectively the same computer and most likely the same individual.

Call for councils to remove £1bn in pension funds from tobacco firms – The Guardian 17/07/11
Doctors have claimed that councils are profiting from deaths through smoking by investing tens of millions of pounds of their pension funds in tobacco firms. They have spoken out after freedom of information requests by a health campaigner in the south-west of England revealed that seven local authorities in that region have made investments of £103.8m.