The Constitution Unit


Monthly Update: August 2010

Freedom of Information in the UK

DCLG books open to armchair auditors

Department for Communities and Local Government has announced their ambition to "lead the charge for transparency" after being the first government department to put all spending on goods and service over £500 online.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles hailed the move as a signal of new era in central government transparency: "Greater openness in spending is the best way to root out waste, spot duplication and increase value for money. That is why I have been asking councils to 'show me the money' so local taxpayers can see where their hard earned cash is going".

Proactive disclosure of spending data is hoped to encourage 'an army of armchair auditors' to create innovative ways to use information in favour of public interest. However, the Independent warns: "By deriding 'a culture of excess' in the department, Mr Pickles risks breeding petty-mindedness and paranoia which could come back to haunt him."

Westland FOI case to be settled in Info Tribunal

BBC's Martin Rosenbaum's request for the minutes of cabinet meeting which ended in resignation of Michael Heseltine in 1986 is to be settled in Information Tribunal in September.

Mr Rosenbaum's initial request in 2005 has been followed by a debate on the grounds of release and whether disclosure of cabinet minutes would lead in 'chilling effect', where ministers would be more cautious on what they say and civil servants on what they write in official documents. According to the current 30-year rule and if Tribunal decides in favour retaining secrecy, papers would be disclosed in 2016.

MoD documents: Churchill ordered a UFO cover up

Recently declassified Ministry of Defence documents reveal that Sir Winston Churchill ordered a covering up of a close encounter between an RAF aircraft and an UFO during the Second World War.

According to the documents, Churchill stated: "This event should be immediately classified since it would create mass panic amongst the general population and destroy one's belief in the church".

Churchill's views on UFOs were included in a total of 18 MoD files which were made available online by the National Archives.

The BBC's FOI requests

The Guardian has published every FOI request made to BBC since the installment of FOIA in 2005. During this time span the company had received total number of 3,701 FOI requests covering information "held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature". The total cost of handling these requests from 2005 to September 2009 was approximately £3m.

Complete data sets of FOI requests can be downloaded from the Guardian Data Blog website.

Network Rail to be opened up to FOI

The case for placing Network Rail in the remit of FOI has been strengthened by accusations of misbehaviour by senior staff. The Financial Times reports Philip Hammond, transport secretary, wants FOI to apply to Network Rail, in the wake of allegations in Private Eye over of irresponsible spending.

Requesters can share their motives on WhatDoTheyKnow

MySociety.org have enables users to add a photograph and some information on what they've been searching to their WhatDoTheyKnow user profile. Developers of the website hope this will lead to mutual understanding between requeters and eventually to more collaborative research.

Freedom of Information and Local Government

Council will charge for FOI requests

Following last month's report on Cheshire West and Chester's desire's desire to charge of FOI requests, the Council Executive has voted unanimously to implement the plan.Council leader Mike Jones writes in a press release, "We are all in favour of openness and transparency but some of the questions are vexacious, ridiculous. Sometimes even anonymous (Justin Time)... and in no way reflect the admirable spirit of the Act. What concerns us greatly is that these FOI queries sometimes request copious detail, requiring a considerable amount of staff time to research - all of which is costing the Council taxpayer money, much of it unnecessary in these times of financial stringency. "

How they are going to do this is not clear at this stage: "Council legal, finance and solutions staff will be putting together the final details of a charging policy for FOI requests in accordance with the conditions laid down in the Act," writes Jones. FOI journalist David Higgerson, in response, outlines five ways councils could reduce the burden of FOI with the tools they already have. He also questions how charging fees is legal:

"Here's the bad news for Cllr Jones. Councils can't just charge for FOI requests. If it costs less than £450 in staff time to collate the information, then you can't refuse to provide it on grounds of costs. Nor can you charge for that time. How do I know this? Because I asked the ICO this question:

So I understand that the guidance says that so long as an FOI request does not exceed £450/£600, it should be released for free, with the only costs being those of contacting the person involved and/or reproduction fees, but not staff time?

To which I got this reply: That's right. Most authorities are not able to apply standard charges for requests and staff time taken to find the information should not be charged.

[…] Anyone for an FOI on what the solutions team actually does, or how much research Cllr Jones did before getting onto his PR high horse? "

Meanwhile, one member of the public has suggested FOI charges to help cut the budget deficit. Thousands of suggestions have been received by the Treasury from civil servants and ordinary members of the public to pull Britain out of the red. 'Suggester' argues that "FOI was never designed to cater for lazy journalists" and pointed out one particular request made to 400 public authorities, which took each FOI officer one hour to respond, cost the public sector £10,000.

Local Data Panel on FOIA s43 and local data

Some local authorities have been unsure about the new regulations concerning the release of data on payments for goods and services over £500. Of particular interest has been data with "commercial confidentiality", and whether its release would threaten commercial position of a third party and thus should be covered by exemptions in FOIA's section 43.

David Evans, Senior Information Policy Officer at the ICO has stated that local authority has to be able to provide strong evidence why the disclosure of information would threaten the commercial position of the third party and that it cannot merely speculate about this. An outstanding case of the commercial relationship between Derry City Council and Ryanair has been mentioned as an example of Tribunal case on the subject.

Freedom of Information and Parliament

Commons witholds resettlement information

An ICO appeal is expected after a regional press lobby correspondent was refused information on resettlement grants awarded to former MPs.

Mr Joe Watts of Nottingham Post put in a FOI request to the Commons Authorities to find out which politicians had drawn the funds they were entitled to - but has been refused details as according to authorities, this would breach data protection rules. Mr Watts writes in his blog: "It looks like Lobbydog will be forced to go to the Information Commissioner to get a few facts that should be in the public domain".

Power co uses FOI to reveal opponents

A power company in Wales has been criticised for asking the Welsh Assembly for the correspondence from campaigners fighting to save a local reservoir. Critics say the power company will use the information to take opponents to court.

Western Power Distribution was given permission to drain Llanishen Reservoir by the Environment Agency and is pushing ahead with its plans despite repeated planning refusals of its proposal to build 300 homes on land adjoining the lake.

WPD asked for asked for copies of correspondence passing between the Assembly Government, including both officers and AMs, and all 'third parties' relating to the reservoi . It listed the Environment Agency, Cardiff council, MPs, members of the Reservoir Action Group (RAG) and 'any residents of Cardiff'. They however specifically asked for their own correspondence with the Assembly to not be included in the request.

The information released from the Assembly includes a letter from an eleven-year-old girl who wrote to Environment Minister Jane Davidson to stop the draining as she 'loves sailing on the reservoir'. Cardiff North AM Jonathan Morgan, a fierce opponent of the drainage who had three of his letters released, branded the company "juvenile". He added, "I do think it is ironic that a company that is so secretive when it comes to its only dealings with the media is willing to use a piece of legislation to gain information."

FOIs reveal abuse by MPs of IPSA staff

The Independent, Metro, Guardian and others have reported the information released by IPSA to an FOI request, detailing harassment of its staff by MPs.

Denis MacShane MP has come forward to reveal that he is the MP in one of the ten incidents described in the information, as bullying an IPSA volunteer to the brink of tears. He says he returned the following day with chocolates to apologise for his behaviour. He questioned why IPSA was 'keeping secret' files on MPs. Commentators have noted that it is routine for any organisation to keep files on the wellbeing of its staff, and that IPSA has responded appropriately to this FOI request.

The Independent reports an IPSA staff member recorded a meeting with an MP who repeatedly likened the new expenses system to an "abortion", a comment the official found "deeply inappropriate and offensive". The MP is then claimed to have said the scheme "will make the only people who want to be MPs rich people and losers". Another member arrived at the Ipsa office "purely to criticise in an aggressive fashion", before warning: "I am going to attack you at every step." Last month, Benedict Brogan writing in the Daily Telegraph described "MPs, in a bizarre reversal of how politics is usually conducted, crowded into the public gallery of a committee room to jeer and heckle the civil servants who run IPSA. For a disgraceful moment, and under the very eyes of the Speaker, the rulers became the mob."

Earlier this Month, Labour MP Tom Harris wrote in the Daily Mail voicing the anger of many MPs with the new expenses system: "Since its very first day in operation it has served as an obstacle to MPs trying to do their jobs on behalf of their constituents. Not only is IPSA's preferred (and mandatory) system for filing claims time-consuming and complicated, IPSA is costing the public three times more than the system it replaced."

Only last month, Conservative MP Adam Afriyie, tabled a bill to reform IPSA by reducing its budget.

Freedom of Information abroad

Republic of Ireland

Republic of Ireland is suffering from a dangerous democratic deficit in the area of government openness, according to the Irish Times which cites a discussion paper by Dr Nat O'Connor published in late July.

The article argues that proactive opening of public sector information in openly accessible and reusable format has further benefits than a mere government transparency: "Costs, as O'Connor points out, are almost certainly outweighed by economic advantages. And if all the talk about a technology- driven smart economy means anything, where better to lead the project than by opening up the processes of our democracy to scrutiny and analysis by all?"

New FOI laws in Malaysia, Liberia and Kazakhstan

The Federal state of Selangor becomes the first Malaysian state to introduce a freedom of information legislation after creating The Selangor Freedom of Information Enactment. This has been warmly greeted several NGOs, including the Centre for Independent Journalism, which recently has added to calls for the federal overnment to introduce FOI act arguing that it would be one of the best tools to keep corruption at bay.

The House of Representatives of Liberia unanimously voted to pass the Liberia Freedom of Information Law on July 22, making Liberia the latest African nation to adapt FOI legislation. The law is expected to be signed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf by the end of August. The passage of the law has come about after intense lobbying of local NGOs and FOI campaigners.

In Kazakhstan, academics, government representatives and NGOs took part in public hearings to discuss a new bill on improving the state of FOI in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan does not currently have FOI legislation, and the proposed law establishes methods and procedures for acquiring and disseminating public information, while also stipulating the rights and obligations by which users of the information must abide.

The bill, developed as part of a UN Development Program initiative, would strengthen Kazakhstan's position in the views of international freedom of press and information watchdogs, who have criticised country for the lack of a free press and access to public information.


South Africa

The introduction of the new Protection of Information Bill keeps causing controversy in the Rainbow Nation. Nicholas Dawes, the editor-in-chief of South African newspaper Mail & Guardian, has called the bill a grotesque law which "would close down plural voices that enrich democracy but sometimes discomfit those in power".

The Law is being criticised to allow state officials to classify practically anything that goes inside the government in a fashion that is usually reserved for military secrets. To read more about the state of FOI in SA, read this month's Country Special


British Columbian government's Freedom of Information Act consultation process ended in several recommendations to improve the Act and to 'restore the integrity of the original legislation'.

It is believed that the government bodies far too often abuse the Act - which was hailed as groundbreaking when it was adopted in 1992 - to delay the release of information and deter the public from making requests.

Criticism made during the consultation processes noted that a public bodies used to have 30 calendar days to release the records, but that had changed to 30 business days, extending the deadline by two weeks. Public bodies also have a 30-day extension which they can use whenever they want and they can withhold information if they are planning to publish it within 60 days.



Whistleblowing site WikiLeaks continues to be under much international scrutiny after the controversial disclosure of Afghanistan warlogs.

"These [FOI legislations] are useless and do not work. They are created as an illusion and are not relevant. And they'll say something must not be published and then you'll be given an excuse that it poses threats to national security", argued Daniel Schmitt, a member of WikiLeaks website, when speaking after the revelation of classified Afghanistan war logs in July.

Mr Schmitt argues that leaking sensitive material to the public is not merely entertainment but an important part of making sure that people get the real information in order to fight government corruption and maladministration.

However, Reporters sans Frontières, an international organisation campaigning for freedom of the press, has deemed the revelation of Afghanistan war logs incredibly irresponsible. RSF states that WikiLeaks has played in the past an important role by making available information with public interest but the recent disclosure of the identity of hundreds of people who collaborated with the coalition in Afghanistan is highly dangerous.

Spokespersons of RSF, Jean-Francois Julliard and Clothilde Le Coz end their open letter to Mr Julian Assange: "Wikileaks must provide a more detailed explanation of its actions and must not repeat the same mistake. This will mean a new departure and new methods".


Data Protection

FOI watchdog asks DWP for explanation on the use of credit info

The Information Commissioner has asked The Department for Work and Pensions to explain its plans to use credit agencies in order to track down benefit cheats. DWP's plan is based on regional trial with housing benefits in nine areas, which saved £17 million.

According to ICO, the Data Protection Act "is not a barrier to sensible information sharing and some sharing already takes place with credit reference agencies", but ICO still has a reason to believe that the latest proposals by DWP may go further and therefore the plans need to be analysed.

Police defends caller database

North Yorkshire Police has defended its policy to log personal information of innocent callers on a computer database. The vast majority of those more than 180,000 people who have reported information - including their date of birth and ethnicity - have not committed any crime.

While privacy campaigners have questioned the need for compiling such a database, the police have said it has been working to government recommendations and that callers were not compelled to give the information.

New Zealand - Ombudsman wants texts and emails stored for potential access

The Office of the Ombudsman is pushing for telecommunication companies to store text messages for up to a year in order to fully implement Official Information Act. Under the OIA, citizens have the right to ask for any MP's, minister's or government official's texts or emails, and the Ombudsman argues requests for this kind of information are increasing. Currently, telecommunications companies have no obligation to store messages or emails, though if they do, the average storage time is about a month.

The Police Association - the union of NZ police officers - is also calling for all private texts to be stored for potential use in criminal investigations. The whole scheme has raised questions of personal privacy and privacy experts have advised people to be aware of the fact that their private messages could be stored and requested under the OIA or the Privacy Act.


ICO decisions this month

August 2010

Information Tribunal decisions this month

August 2010