Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Private member's bill would identify FOI requesters

The identity of people making FOI requests would be made public if a new private member's bill succeeds. The Freedom of Information (Identity of Applicants) Bill, which will have serious implications for the privacy of individual requesters, is being introduced by Karl McCartney, the Conservative MP for Lincoln, who came 8th in the ballot for bills. 

The bill was due to have its first reading in the House of Commons today (19 June 2013), but Mr McCartney was not present. An article by the Campaign for Freedom of Information discusses its implications:
Once requests have been answered, there may be no objection to identifying the requesting organisations such as media bodies, campaign groups, professional bodies or companies.

Identifying individual requesters is a different matter. Many people use the FOI Act to obtain information about matters which directly affect them. The information they seek may not be personal, but their interest in it is. Someone who asks a social services department about the support provided to people with a particular condition living in particular circumstances may be describing their own situation. Publishing their names will suggest this to others. Where the inference is correct, the disclosure would be highly intrusive. As the law stands, it would also breach the Data Protection Act (DPA). There should be no question of identifying requesters seeking information about issues they face such as mental illness, child abuse, domestic violence, sexual orientation or learning disability.

Someone who believes they have been wrongly suspected of committing an offence may seek information from the police about the incident. Publishing their names may publicly identify them as a suspect.

A request may be prompted by suspicion that an authority or other body has behaved improperly. Naming the requester may reveal them as a potential whistleblower, exposing them to possible reprisals.

When someone asks for information about the spending, conduct or truthfulness of a minister or council leader, the first thing the politician may want to know is who is asking. If that person is an employee or someone dependent on the authority for a service, naming them may leave them vulnerable. Some FOI officers refuse to circulate the requester's name to others within their organisation, partly for these reasons.

The FOI Act is meant to be 'applicant blind'. Authorities are required to consider whether information can be made public - not whether information should be released to the person making the request. So the identity of the requester is normally irrelevant to the disclosure decision (though an exception may be made for potentially vexatious requests). The applicant blind principle ensures that authorities are not tempted to disclose information to those who are sympathetic to them, while placing obstacles in the way of critics.
Full article here.