Freedom of Information in the UK
Latest FOI requests statistics
The latest quarterly FOI statistics covering January-March 2010 have been published by the Ministry of Justice. The number of requests in this quarter is up nine per cent on 2009's comparable quarter. Slightly more requests are being answered on time, but fewer are being answered in full. Statistics for the cases taken to the First Tier (Information Rights) Tribunal have also been released.
Transparency Board created
Located within the Cabinet Office, the new Transparency Board, chaired by Frances Maude has been tasked with setting open data standards across the whole public sector, ensuring that all Whitehall departments meet the new tight deadlines set for releasing key public datasets, and listening to the public's ideas for open data.
It held its first meeting on 24 June - you can see the data-sharing principles they discussed, and the papers from the meeting.
Coins government data released
In a signal of the new government's intent for transparency, COINS data was released in accessible form on 4 June, as part of what David Cameron says are efforts to end the "cloak of secrecy" around government. The Combined Online Information System includes what departments were authorised to spend, what they actually spent and what they are forecast to spend in future.
The BBC's Martin Rosenbaum asked for the database last year but was refused. He has asked his blog readers to help go through the data now accessible. The government has warned that as the database contains millions of rows of data, accessing the files will demand "some degree of technical competence" and they expect expert organisations to make most use of the details initially.
You can see the other newly-released latest datasets on the home page of data.gov.uk.
New Academy schools under FOI-spotlight
Education unions opposed to the government's plans to let schools become academies independent of council control, have used FOI requests to find the number of schools who have expressed an interest in the scheme.
Lord Hill, the Schools Minister, said: "I am delighted that so many schools have expressed an interest, and that over 900 outstanding schools are interested in becoming academies." While Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the number of schools expressing an interest represented a "tiny percentage" of the 21,000 state schools in England. "The vast majority are extremely wary of cutting themselves free from their local community of schools and from the in depth support and advice provided by their local authority," she said.
Meanwhile, Lord Lucas on 3 June asked new Justice Minister Lord McNally about whether academies will be subject to FOI - McNally said the government was "currently considering how best to give effect to this aim, one option for which is making further bodies subject to the Act." On 30 June however, Lucas proposed an amendment to the Academies Bill (which enacts the policy) which would add academies to Schedule 1 of the FOI Act. Schools minister Lord Hill said in response, "Having thought about this, and having come newly into the department, I think that he [Lucas] makes a very good point in his new clause. I can see no reason in principle why academy proprietors, in relation to their function of running academies under academy arrangements, should not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act in the same way as all other state-funded schools are."
ICO orders release of ContactPoint audit
In early 2008, Deloitte carried out an independent audit of ContactPoint, the database system that was due to include the names, addresses and contact details of all 11 million under-18 year olds in England. It was envisioned to provide social workers, police and hospitals with common access to contact details on children, their guardians and other professionals who might be working with a potential vulnerable child.
The previous government published a summary of Deloitte's report but refused FOI requests for the full report. The Information Commissioner has now ordered publication following a long-running battle by children's rights campaigners who thought security breaches would leave children more, rather than less, vulnerable. They now say the report confirms their fears, as the study found the security processes used by IT departments at local authorities "pose a significant risk to ContactPoint and its assets", as they do not reach a "recognised standard". It states there could be "information leakage" if electronic and printed copies of material from ContactPoint are not disposed of properly.
Freedom of Information and Local Government
Councillors accuse council of excessive secrecy
Wolverhampton council has been criticised for refusing to answer 20 per cent of its FOI requests. These figures were revealed via an FOI request placed by the Express & Star. The council refused to answer what questions they had previously refused to answer.
Councillor Milkinder Jaspal, Labour's Heath Town representative said the Council's FOI performance was "nonsense and it is very disappointing." Paul Uppal, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, suggested the council re-structuring the way it collates information if that would allow more information to be released. Councillor Joan Stevenson, cabinet member for organisation, people and performance, said: "Many of the requests we receive are complex and require a considerable amount of officers time gathering, collating and checking the data. We have put more resources into answering FOI requests and improving our performance in this area is a priority."
More from FOI Friday
David Higgerson continues his round up of the best FOI-news stories from the week - you can see a good round-up of local government, police and NHS stories here. Topics include the Herald Express in Devon getting new detail on spending on consultants, the costs of fuel for Hillingdon Council going down this year, and prison escapes and smuggling.
Freedom of Information and Parliament
ICO rules on WhatDoTheyKnow vs. The House of Commons
The ICO has ruled that the House has to comply with a freedom of information request submitted through whatdotheyknow.com, even though it means that its response will be automatically published on that website.
In July 2008, Francis Irving from WhatDoTheyKnow asked for documents on the possible deployment of electronic petitioning systems in Parliament. The Commons said it could provide the material, but not through WDTK. They argued the automatic publication of their reply via the site would breach its copyright (Brent Council have run similar arguments against WDTK too).
The Commissioner considers "that, for the purposes of section 8(1)(b), the email address that was generated from the website and used for sending the request constitutes 'an address for correspondence' and that by making his request from this address, the implication was that the House should provide its response to it… The Commissioner does not believe that issues relating to how an email address is connected to a publishing mechanism are relevant in terms of considering whether a valid address has been stated for correspondence." [Decision Notice FS50276715]
FOIs beat PQs
Martin Rosenbaum has written about the disparity between Parliamentary Questions and FOI requests - the latter being more effective, to the dismay of some MPs.
Labour MP Tom Watson asked a PQ about how much Arts Council England paid Lothar Gotz for his role in the redecoration of its head office in 2008. H e was told the information was commercially sensitive.
"This prompted Mr Watson to tweet: "Why should this parliamentary answer be commercially sensitive? ...If it was FOI'd I bet it would be answered." It turns out that Mr Watson is right. Under freedom of information, the BBC posed the same question to Arts Council England. Yesterday we were informed that the sum of money in question is £13,500."
Freedom of Information abroad
Following the Huffington Post in April, media attention towards India's FOI Act continues, with Akash Kapur from the New York Times describing the Act as having the ' potential to transform governance in India'.
A major study into the use of India's Right To Information Act was completed last year by the RTI Assessment & Analysis Group (RaaG) and the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI). Many other studies have also emerged from NGOs, government and academics on India's Act, seen as a breakthrough for the developing world. Alasdair Roberts, one of the Constitution Unit's honorary associates based at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, has written an overview evaluation of these studies, which you can read here.
Peter Timmins, an Australian FOI expert, has turned his attention to Iceland. It's parliament has recently voted to urge the government to make Iceland a world-leader in terms of freedom of information and expression, and to amend the current law to make it conform with the Council of Europe convention and the Aarhus treaty on environmental information. Ideas include reducing or eliminating absolute exemptions, including more public bodies and creating a standardised request form.
Parliamentarians affirmed: "The legislative initiative outlined here is intended to make Iceland an attractive environment for the registration and operation of international press organisations, new media start-ups, human rights groups and internet data centres. It promises to strengthen our democracy through the power of transparency and to promote the nation's international standing and economy. It also proposes to draw attention to these changes through the creation of Iceland's first internationally visible prize: the Icelandic Prize for Freedom of Expression."
Isle of Man
Chief Minister Tony Brown has confirmed that the Council of Ministers last month approved a draft Freedom of Information Bill, with public consultation beginning on 6 July lasting for eight weeks.
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Canadian citizens have no 'constitution right' to access information. The ruling relates to the case of an an internal police report, which the court has ruled can potentially be suppressed without violating constitutional guarantees to free expression and informed public debate.
However, the Court also recognized the importance of information in a democracy and recognized a right to obtain suppressed information that is necessary to a full public debate of an important issue. Thus opinion is divided on what this means for freedom of information for Canadians.
Paul Schabas, a lawyer representing the Canadian Newspaper Association and other media organizations says "Canada, in the 1980s . . . was a trailblazer in access to information laws. Now we are behind. We are out of step."
However, the Globe and Mail reports lawyers have welcomed the ruling as a long-awaited recognition of the role that access to information plays in a democracy.
Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Rosalie Abella said the ability to obtain government documents might be constitutionally protected in certain cases, if those seeking access can show suppressing the information would prevent "meaningful commentary" on public issues. But countervailing considerations could also work against releasing information, they said.The court's 7-0 decision had been on hold for 18 months, though in the end, the decision was only 15 pages long.
Scottish Health service wins case withholding cancer statistics
The longest Freedom of Information case in Scotland's history has ended in defeat for the Scottish Green Party, which made the request concerning the incidence of leukaemia amongst children. In 2005, Michael Collie, a researcher for the then Scottish Green MSP Chris Ballance, wanted to find out whether those who lived along the Solway coast were adversely at risk from plutonium washing on the sea front from an offshore nuclear plant.
The Scottish Health Service initially refused the request on the grounds that it breahced the Data Protection Act and could enable patients to be identified. Mr Collie launched Scotland's first ever FOI appeal which, despite Scottish Information Commissioner Kevin Dunion concluding the information could be released, as well as the Scottish Course of Sessions upholding Mr Dunion's conclusion in an appeal, was ultimately defeated by the House of Lords in July 2008. As a result Mr Dunion conducted a second investigation, concluded he agreed with the House of Lords, and ruled that the information as requested should not be released.
He did, however, order the health service to provide aggregated statistics for the whole Dumfries and Galloway Health Board area. Mr Balance argues this will not show the very local effects that he suspects. "Confusion over the definition of personal data is likely to remain for some time," said Mr Dunion.
The European Commission has told the UK government to improve data protection in order to comply with the EU's Data Protection Directive. This is the second stage of the EC infringement process taken against countries which are failing to follow European law. The next step would be the Commission referring the UK to the Court of Justice.
Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said: "EU rules require that the work of data protection authorities must not be unbalanced by the slightest hint of legal ambiguity. I will enforce this vigorously. I urge the UK to change its rules swiftly so that the data protection authority is able to perform its duties with absolute clarity about the rules."
The Commission's main problem with the UK is with the powers of the Information Commissioner - its 'inadequate' powers to check other countries' data protection practises and its inability to perform random checks on people or data processing organisations. The Commission is also unhappy with court powers to refuse the right for people to have information about themselves corrected or deleted.
A spokesperson for the ICO said they look forward to discussing the Commission's detailed concerns with the Ministry of Justice and providing input into the UK Government's response. Last month the ICO reached the unhappy milestone of receiving the 1000 th report of a personal data breach.