The Constitution Unit


Monthly Update: May 2010

Freedom of Information in the UK

Transparency 'at the heart' of new government

David Cameron has written to each of his ministers on his plans and hopes for transparent government.

As well as codifying previous manifesto promises (publishing government spending and contracts, crime data and salaries of civil servants), Cameron has ordered departments to publish data in an open-source format so it can be reused by third parties. Further, he wrote, " To oversee the implementation of our transparency commitments, a Public Sector Transparency Board will be established in the Cabinet Office, which will be chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office Francis Maude."

Francis Maude has also made a statement on transparency and trust: "Transparency is at the heart of the Government's programme, which is why the Cabinet Office, at the heart of government is taking the lead. All departments will open up their data in the weeks ahead. We are pulling back the curtains to let light into the corridors of power. By being open and accountable we can start to win back people's trust. Openness will not be comfortable for us in government; but it will enable the public to hold our feet to the fire. This way lies better government. Transparency is key to our efficiency drive, and will enable the public to help us to deliver better value for money in public spending." However, Michael White of the Guardian is not convinced.

Extension of FOI?

Included in Section 10 of the new government's coalition agreement is a promise to extent "the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency," as promised by both parties in the run-up to the election. However, the MoJ's recent consultation on extending the Act found significant stumbling blocks that resulted in only a few more organisations being covered. Reasons for not extending further - regulatory burden, reducing competitiveness, the problems of defining 'functions of a public nature' - have not gone away, and further consultation, if desired by the new government, could take considerable time.

MOJ release 2009 FOI Report

The latest report from the Ministry of Justice detailing implementation statistics on Freedom of Information requests to central government have shown continuing trends in recent years. Most notable were an increase in the number of 'resolvable requests', and interestingly, an increase in the number that were withheld, and a decrease in the number that were disclosed.

The number of 'resolvable requests'- the total number of requests minus those that have an outstanding charge, those that were directed at the wrong government department, and those that were responded with a request for clarification - totalled 30,124, an increase of 16% on the previous year.

Interestingly, there has been a consistent rise since 2006 in the percentage of resolvable requests that have been withheld.

The BBC's Martin Rosenbaum has argued there are discrepancies in the data. He also outlines the problems that may arise as Labour-government documents are requested under the new administration:

"Government departments rejected 267 applications under section 36 of the FOI Act, which requires "the reasonable opinion of a qualified person" that releasing the material would damage the effective conduct of public affairs. In the case of a government department, the "qualified person" is a minister. But given the constitutional convention that most ministers do not see papers from a previous administration of a different party, and many requests made now will still be for documents from Labour's time in office, it could be time-consuming for the two ministers who are generally allowed access to such papers - the government law officers. So the new Attorney General Dominic Grieve and Solicitor General Edward Garnier may now be putting aside time in their diaries to come to reasonable opinions on whether a variety of freedom of information requests would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs."

'Cash for Royal Access' story reignites debate over privacy for Royals

Following the revelations regarding Sarah Ferguson's indiscretions about her providing access to her former husband, debate over the extent to which the Royals should be subject to Freedom of Information has heightened. The fact that the News of the World failed to notify the Duchess in advance of the publication, coupled with the dubious reputation garnered from the type of 'entrapment journalism' that the 'Fake Sheikh' approach has gained in recent years.

The question of transparency with regards to the Royal Family has caused some writers, notably Heather Brooke (of MP's expenses fame) to point out the larger issues surrounding the exemptions of the Royal Family from the FoI remit. One of the laws rushed through the previous parliament granted an absolute ban on communications involving the royal household. Off the back of the decision of the Information Commissioner to allow correspondence between the Palace and the government regarding subsidies for upkeep to be released to The Independent, the development of this area of disclosure will be interesting to watch.

33 crimes committed against students in Manchester each day

Over 2000 crimes against students were committed within a 2-month period, an FOI request from a Manchester student newspaper reveals.

The figures from this request also reveal some inconsistencies within Greater Manchester Police's (GMP) data-keeping practices. Superintendent John Graves, speaking on the authority's ability to analyse crimes in the area, said that the GMP was able to "identify university students by their age and occupation". This claim contradicted the response from the FoI officer which stated that the age of a victim was not logged.

Sea monsters?

Despite an interest in sea monsters dating back to the 19th century, the Royal Navy has confirmed that neither they, nor the Ministry of Defence overall, holds a database on any sightings of strange marine mammals.

In response to an official Freedom of Information request from a marine biologist enquiring as to whether the MoD held records on "abnormally large or dangerous sea monsters", the official reply confirmed that there was in fact no "central repository of information" devoted to such sightings.

This follows the decision by MoD in December of last year to shut down its UFO hotline service which had been operational for over 50 years citing that there was "no defence benefit". It is expected to save some £44,000 a year.

The Royal Navy does not want to deter monster-spotters from reporting such findings though. In the official reply it is said that people are encouraged to do so and that "these are forwarded to the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton".

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FOI and Parliament

New ministers are finding out for the first time what it is like to be on the other side of the FOI system, as the first requests hit the new government. The Spectator reports that one of the first tasks for the new Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith was reviewing his own FOI requests.

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FOI abroad

Ban Ki Moon, World Press Freedom Day and the 40 Enemies of Press Freedom…  

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's Message for 2010 called for world-wide press freedom and that he would "welcome the global trend towards new laws which recognize the universal right to publicly held information". His message, timed to coincide with World Press Freedom day on 3 May, emphasised the barriers imposed by some Governments such as high taxes, intimidation, detention and death.

World Press Freedom day was celebrated all over the world, was used to highlight abuse of human rights in some countries. In Iran, Amnesty International and Article 19 used the day to call on Iranian authorities to release journalists and bloggers who had been detained as prisoners. In Malaysia, increased pressure was put on the government to put through a reclassification of documents so that they no longer came under the Official Secrets Act. Freedom of Information came under scrutiny in Algeria and Cameroon, and a decision in Ireland to exclude the National Management Asset Agency, which deals with commercial information, from the FOI remit came under fire.

Reporteurs Sans Frontieres released a list, entitled the 40 Enemies of Press Freedom. The list contains those that are described as not being able to "stand the press, treat it as an enemy, and directly attack journalists". The list includes the Israeli Defence Force, the executive and security forces in the Palestinian Authority, Kim Jong-Il, Ali Khameini and many others.

For a fuller list of World Press Freedom day events please click here.

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Data Protection

Google appeared to have "illegally tapped into private networks"

While compiling archives for its Street View service, Google has revealed that they may have inadvertently collected private web information from wireless networks. Pressed by European officials over the matter, Google apologised and said that it intended to delete the information in discussion with regulators.

In Germany however, Ilse Aigner, German minister for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection, said that "it appears that Google has illegally tapped into private networks in violation of German law. This is alarming and further evidence that privacy law is a foreign concept to Google".

Google spokesperson in Germany, Kay Obereck, said that the company was in contact with data protection officials in Germany and the rest of Europe to address their concerns.

DNA databases of millions of newborn babies kept without consent

A Freedom of Information act request has revealed that 4 million blood samples taken from a heel-prick, a standard procedure used regularly to check for serious conditions, are being retained by hospitals, in some cases for over 20 years.

Going against Government guidelines which advise hospitals to destroy the DNA after 5 years, this information has been accessed by police, medical researchers, coroners and private medical companies.

Shami Chakrabati, Director of civil rights group Liberty, said "I'm horrified that anyone would breach my trust, keep my child's sample for years on end and use it for all sorts of extraneous purposes".

A spokesman for the Department of Health has said "there are strict safeguards in place that protect the sample once it is taken. Parents are well informed about newborn screening and the sample storage. They receive a number of information packs during pregnancy and afterbirth."


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ICO decisions this month

For May 2010 decisions, click here

Information Tribunal decisions this month

To search for May 2010 decisions, click here

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