Friday, December 21, 2012

ICO announces latest list of authorities for FOI monitoring

ICO news release: 21 December 2012
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced that four public authorities will be monitored for three months in the new year over concerns about the timeliness of their responses to Freedom of Information requests.

The ICO will monitor the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in Northern Ireland and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council between 1 January 2013 and 31 March 2013.

The authorities were selected as they failed to respond to 85% of FOI requests within the time limit of 20 working days or had exceeded the time limit by a significant margin on numerous occasions. Three of the authorities have been the subject of a number of complaints to the ICO over the timeliness of their responses, while the OFMDFM performance statistics for all requests received during 2011 show that only just over half were answered on time, with further delays encountered this year.

Commenting on the publication of today’s list the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, said:

“We will monitor the authorities named today for three months, and may take further action after this monitoring period has expired if we don’t see the necessary improvements in each authorities’ standard of compliance. It is particularly disappointing to see that the advances previously made by the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council – which were introduced following concerns after previous rounds of monitoring - have not been continued.

“This is not good enough and we expect these authorities to take the necessary measures to ensure that they are meeting their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. We will provide support and advice where we can, but reserve the right to take further action if they fail to step up to the mark.”

View further information on the ICO's monitoring compliance scheme
Three of the four authorities on the latest list have been monitored for delays by the ICO before. The Department of Work and Pensions and Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council were monitored by the ICO between 1 October and 31 December 2010. The Department for Education was monitored between 1 April to 30 June 2011. According to the latest statistics, several other government departments are also failing to respond to at least 85% of requests in 20 working days (see earlier post). 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Government's FOI reforms would block difficult requests

Government plans to amend the Freedom of Information Act would make it harder for requesters to obtain answers to new, complex or contentious FOI requests, according to the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The government is proposing to make it easier for public authorities to refuse time-consuming requests. At the moment, authorities can refuse requests if they estimate that the cost of finding and extracting the information exceeds certain limits. The government wants to allow them to also include the cost of considering the request and deleting exempt information.

The Campaign is particularly concerned at the proposal to allow an authority to include its 'thinking time' in the cost calculations. The Campaign's director Maurice Frankel said: "The longer an authority needs to think about a request, the greater the chance of it being able to refuse to answer on cost grounds. Requests involving unfamiliar, complex or contentious issues all of which require substantial 'thinking time' would be likely to be refused under these proposals. This would prevent the Act from dealing with difficult issues or breaking new ground."

Many kinds of requests are only time consuming because they raise new issues. Once these have been worked through, and particularly once case law is available, decisions may be easy, the Campaign says. The government's proposals might prevent this happening by permitting such requests to be refused on cost grounds without ever addressing the issues they raise.

The Campaign also says estimates based on thinking time are likely to be subjective. "They may depend on the novelty of the issues to the authority, the FOI officer's experience and judgment. They may also be easily manipulated. Authorities may deliberately estimate that they would have to consult more officials than is strictly necessary in order to boost the consideration time and increase the chances of being able to refuse the request on cost grounds" said Mr Frankel.

The government is also proposing to allow the cost of unrelated requests made by the same individual or organisation to be aggregated so that all of them can be refused if the total cost exceeds set limits, currently £600 for government departments or £450 for other authorities.

The Campaign says local newspapers, which cover a range of different issues involving the same authority, would be the first casualties of this proposal. "A single request about school exam results might be enough to reach the cost limit. Thereafter the whole newspaper - not just the individual journalist - might be barred from making any further FOI requests to the authority for the next quarter, even on different issues such as child abuse, road safety or library closures" said Mr Frankel.

The government says it wants to address the problem of requests that are time-consuming to deal with but which authorities cannot refuse because the records are easily found. It also wants to address the 'industrial' use of the Act by some requesters who make disproportionate use of the Act. The Campaign says if these are the concerns, it should specifically target these situations - not change the rules across the board in ways that will block even modest use of the Act.

The Campaign is also concerned at the government's suggestion that charges might be made for appealing to the Information Rights Tribunal. It says these would deter requesters with well-founded cases from appealing against decisions that they would be likely to win.

The Campaign welcomed the government's decision not to introduce charges for FOI requests or to introduce additional exemptions to protect cabinet papers or sensitive policy discussions.

However, the government has rejected proposals to tighten up the time limits for responding to FOI requests which it says would add to the burdens on authorities. It has also refused to require authorities to publish their statistics on compliance with FOI time limits. The Campaign says it is disappointing that even this modest proposal has been rejected.

The government's proposals, published at the end of November are contained in its response to the Justice select committee's report into the operation of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Campaign has published a commentary on the government proposals.

Monday, December 17, 2012

FOI Media Update - December 1st to 14th 2012

Your £1 million bill for jet-set BBC bosses: Corporation spent huge sum on flights to U.S. in just seven months - Mail Online - 14.12.12
The BBC spent more than £1 million on flights to America in the space of seven months this year, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Prince of Wales 'should be forced to answer freedom of information requests', court told - The Telegraph - 13.12.12
The Prince of Wales should be forced to abide by freedom of information laws so that environmentalists can ensure he is managing the Duchy of Cornwall properly, a judge has been told. The Duchy claims that it is a private entity, and is therefore exempt from the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR), under which public bodies must disclose information on activity that impacts the environment. In the latest round of an argument begun in 2008, the Upper Tribunal in London was told that the Duchy's control of assets made it a public body in all but name.

At a previous hearing, an Information Rights Tribunal ruled that the Duchy was a public body for the purposes of the EIR, but the Duchy successfully applied for a stay of proceedings while a test case is heard in the European Court of Justice. In the latest hearing Mr Justice Charles ruled that the stay of proceedings should remain in place until the ECJ makes its ruling.

Live animal exports going via previously unknown routes - The Guardian - 13.12.12
Farmers, lorry firms and shipping companies have been operating a hitherto unknown route for live export of animals as controversy over the trade through Ramsgate intensifies. Cattle from farms in England and Scotland have been transported unknown to welfare campaigners. The government's Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), responsible for ensuring proper welfare arrangements, has revealed nine consignments totalling more than a thousand cattle were sent out of the UK in this way in the first half of 2012. The figures were released to Compassion in World Farming in response to Freedom of Information requests but the AHVLA withheld information about which port or ports are used and the final destinations of animals, claiming doing so might jeopardise the health and safety of its staff.

Harrow has lost 100 police officers, claims Gareth Thomas MP - Harrow Times - 13.12.12
The Harrow West MP claims to have uncovered data, using a Freedom of Information Act request to the Metropolitan Police Service, which shows that Harrow has lost 100 police officers in two years.

M25 cameras fail to catch a single speeding driver in past year - The Huffington Post - 13.12.12
Not a single driver on the M25 has been caught or fined for speeding in the past year because the cameras don't work.  Some police authorities were reluctant to supply details in response to Freedom of Information requests. The Metropolitan Police took more than 40 days to respond and originally refused to reply for "fear of repercussions".

Bus support 'cut for second year' - BBC - 12.12.12
More than 40% of local authorities in England have cut spending on supported bus services this financial year.

£6,000 worth of VIAGRA and anti-smoking pill among items stolen from military bases - Mail Online - 11.12.12
Details of thefts from military bases were disclosed by the MoD's Defence Fraud Analysis Unit in response to FOI request.

Kirklees Council leader Mehboob Khan cleared on FOI tampering claims - The Huddersfield Daily Examiner - 11.12.12
A tribunal has found that Kirklees Council leader did not interfere with the public's right to access information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The group which doesn't know its chief executive's pay - BBC - 10.12.12
An educational organisation, United Learning, which runs 31 schools has told the Information Commissioner that it doesn't hold any information on what its chief executive, a former senior civil servant, is paid.

The £13m redundancy bill for Norfolk and Suffolk councils and police - Norwich Evening News - 10.12.12
Councils and police forces in Norfolk and Suffolk spent £13.2m making more than 1,200 workers redundant in just 12 months.

Lancashire school abuse figures are a 'concern' - Lancashire Evening Post - 10.12.12
Nearly 500 allegations of physical and sexual abuse were made against people working in Lancashire schools over the past three years. New figures, which came to light as a result of a Freedom of Information request, reveal that the county has sacked more school staff, including teachers, than anywhere else in the country as a direct result of the claims.

Funding and staff 'cut' for cancer networks - BBC - 10.12.12
Clinical networks which oversee the care of cancer, heart and stroke patients in the NHS have had their budgets and staff cut, data obtained under Freedom of Information shows.

Tory MP in battle with ministers over 'snooping bill' safeguards - Spectator - 09.12.12
A Tory MP is engaged in a fight with the Home Office on safeguards for its draft Communications Data Bill. Part of the government's justification for the bill rests on filtering arrangements. Conservative MP Dominic Raab, who is deeply concerned about the legislation, is irritated that the government is refusing to provide information on how those filtering arrangements will work in practice. He is appealing to the Information Commissioner's Office after having a Freedom of Information request refused by the Home Office.

Lockerbie bomber: Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu urged to back release - BBC - 07.12.12
The Scottish government asked Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former Irish president Mary Robinson to back its decision to release Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Emails sent to prominent figures have been published after a Freedom of Information request.

Shock RAH findings unearthed by patient - Paisley Daily Express - 07.12.12
Death rates at the Royal Alexandra Hospital double at weekends. Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information legislation show that the Monday to Friday death rate at the Paisley hospital is around two per cent - but this increases to around four per cent on Saturdays and Sundays.

Research data win exemption from FoI Act - Times Higher Education - 06.12.12
The government has agreed to introduce an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act to prevent the premature disclosure of research data. Universities UK has campaigned for an exemption because it feared that researchers could use the act to "scoop" raw experimental data from rivals and beat them to publication.

Car Thief paid £2,000 compensation after police dog bite during arrest - Telegraph - 05.12.12
A car thief has been paid £2,000 in compensation by a police force after he was bitten by one of its dogs during his arrest. The payout came to light following a Freedom of Information request regarding people who had sued Notts Police over dog bites in the past three years. In total, over £19,000 has been paid to six claimants.

Police are armed with bullets too cruel for warfare - Cambridge News - 05.12.12
A controversial type of bullet used to kill Charles de Menezes has been given to Cambridgeshire's armed police. The revelation that the constabulary has armed officers with the bullet - which was banned in warfare more than a century ago - came after a Freedom of Information request.

Liberal Democrats hit out at Haringey Borough Council for spending £40m on agency staff and consultants - Haringey Independent - 04.12.12
Opposition councillors have criticised Haringey Borough Council for spending more than £40m on agency staff and consultants. According to figures from a Freedom of Information request, the council has spent £38m on temporary agency staff and a further £1.6m on consultants since 2010.

Student suicides rise along with debt burdens - Times Higher Education - 04.12.12
The number of students taking their own lives rose by 50 per cent in four years. The statistics, released via a Freedom of Information request made by Ed Pinkney, the founder of Mental Wealth UK, a student mental health charity. According to Mr Pinkney, the figures come in the light of growing pressures on students caused by rising costs and gloomy job prospects.

London councils face questions for housing families outside the capital - The Guardian - 03.12.12
Reduction in number of affordable properties has led authorities to send families as far away as Cornwall and Newcastle. Research has revealed the scale of plans being drawn up to send families to live in temporary housing outside the capital. Eighteen of those councils responding to Freedom of Information requests anticipate having to place people outside of Greater London next year to cope with the rising numbers of homeless families.

Talking point: Hospital safety - Holyrood - 03.12.12
Around one in ten patients who are admitted to hospital suffer an adverse event - some more serious than others. Hundreds of previously hidden reports that detail some of the most serious incidents in Scotland's hospitals last year have now been published by BBC Scotland, following a Freedom of Information request.

Nearly 200 compensation claims brought against Redbridge hospital trust in two years - Ilford Recorder - 03.12.12
A Freedom of Information request by the Recorder revealed that nearly 200 compensation claims have been made against Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust in last two years.

HS2 'is likely to lower the value of up to 170,000 homes' - Independent - 02.12.12
The value of more than 40,000 homes - and possibly as many as 170,000 - could be hit by the proposed new HS2 rail line, yet ministers are proposing to compensate fewer than 2,000 owners, campaigners have warned.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Move to 20 year rule / reduction in lifespan of FOI exemptions implemented

An Order has been made implementing the reduction of the '30 year rule' to 20 years and the lifespan of some of the FOI Act's exemptions to 20 years, amendments that were made by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The changes will take effect from 1 January 2013. Two further orders making transitional arrangements to phase in the changes, as set out by Lord McNally in a written ministerial statement, have been laid before Parliament:
This is a major change and it is therefore important that it is introduced in a manageable and affordable way. A phased approach will be adopted. The point at which records are transferred to The National Archives (largely central government records) will be reduced from 2013 over a ten year transitional period, with two years worth of records being transferred to The National Archives every year until transition is complete. From 2023, when this transition is complete, we will transfer the single year’s worth of records which are caught by the ‘20 year rule’ each year. This first stage of the change will affect an estimated 3.3 million records and cost an estimated £34.7-£38.5 million over ten years.

We then intend to begin from 2015 a similar ten year transitional period for records transferred to 116 local authority places of deposit, subject to the outcome of further detailed work on costs and the impact to the local authority archive sector. Current estimates of the cost of the second phase are £5.6 million to £15 million over ten years. This will ensure that the ‘20 year rule’ is implemented in an affordable way that achieves the greatest level of transparency.

The maximum lifespan of a number of exemptions provided by the Freedom of Information Act will be reduced for all public authorities in parallel with the first transitional period. From 1 January 2014 the maximum duration of the following exemptions will reduce by one year per annum over a ten year period: sections 30 (investigations and proceedings conducted by public authorities); 32 (court records); 33 (audit functions); 35 (formulation and development of government policy); 36 (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs), except in relation to Northern Ireland and the work of Executive Committee of Northern Ireland Assembly; and 42 (legal professional privilege).

The Public Records (Transfer to the Public Record Office) (Transitional and Saving Provisions) Order 2012

The two transitional orders will come into force on 1 January 2013 subject to annulment by a resolution of either House of Parliament, i.e. they will have effect unless they are specifically rejected.

Central government FOI performance Jul-Sept 2012

The quarterly FOI statistics for central government for the period July to September 2012 (quarter 3 2012) have been published. They show that the volume of requests to monitored bodies fell slightly - 2% less the equivalent period of 2011 and 1% less than the previous quarter of 2012. The executive summary notes:
Although there has been considerable quarter-on-quarter variation, monitored bodies have received a generally increasing number of requests since 2007. This has been driven by an increase in requests to Departments of State. However, there is some evidence the increase has slowed in the last two years. The peak in Q1 2012 was due to large rises in requests to the Department of Health and the Department of Work and Pensions, regarding controversial policies being introduced. Requests to the Department of Work and Pensions remain high, but requests to the Department of Health have returned to their Q4 2011 levels. 
Monitored bodies answered 87% requests within the statutory 20 working day deadline. For central government departments the figure was 85%. Departments answering less than 85% of requests within the Act's timescales face being monitored by the ICO (see the ICO's criteria). The last round of monitoring by the ICO was April-June 2011, but it has said the next list of authorities will be announced before the end of the year.

Nine government departments answered less than 85% of requests in 20 working days, the most recent statistics show. The Wales Office had by far the worst performance. It answered only 54% in 20 working days despite receiving only 37 requests. The Department of Health has had a near perfect record on timeliness for the last 3 years. Since Q4 of 2009 it's answered at least 98% of requests in 20 working days. It managed to answer 100% of requests in 20 working days in Q1 of 2012 when it received double 1,077 requests, more than double the department receives on average. It would be interesting to know what factors, or combination of them, lie behind the Department's efficiency e.g. resources, experienced FOI team, or senior leadership.

The latest bulletin also comments that the proportion of requests granted in full has slowly reduced since the Act's introduction which it says "may reflect the changing nature of requests as the monitored bodies have made more routine information available to the public".