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Monthly Update: October 2010

Freedom of Information in the UK

Cabinet Meeting Minutes Disclosed

The 1986 Westland Cabinet minutes requested by the BBC's Martin Rosenbaum in February 2005 have been released by the the government, compiling with a recent ruling by the Information Tribunal. The minutes concerned a session in which Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine suddenly resigned during a discussion over the possible financial rescue of the struggling Westland helicopter company. He was protesting  at then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's insistence that all public pronouncements by ministers on the Westland crisis would first have to be cleared by the Cabinet Office. This is the first time Cabinet Meeting minutes have been disclosed under the UK FOI Act.

 

Government departments warned over tardy FOI answers

 

The ICO has started putting into action its tougher approach to Freedom of Information. Public authorities who have not respected the 20-day response requirment are being 'named and shamed'. 33 public bodies, including the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office and the Metropolitan Police, have been told to 'get their houses in order' over the issue by the Information Commissioner. The watchdog said the organisations under review had either failed to meet the deadline by a "significant margin" on several occasions or had been the subject of at least six complaints within a six-month period about their processes.

New FOIMAN Blog

 

A new blog on Freedom of Information has appeared on the Web. The blog, named FOI Man, is written by an anonymous FOI practitioner based in London.

The blogger's aim is to give its readers a view from within which, according to him, has up to now been largely unheard and therefore enriches the debate about FOI's effectiveness and impact on our organisations. Campaign for Freedom of Information has qualified it as 'interesting'.

Government willing to amend FOI act to make all data reusable and machine readable

 

Some Councils have been criticized for proactively publishing their spending data in formats which are not machine readable and are hard to reuse (In the Brent Council case for example, the latter released of information in password protected ZIP files to prevent the Whatdotheyknow.com website from publishing it). In response, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said an amendment to the FOI Act would enable information received under the Act to be "available to everyone and able to be exploited for social and commercial purposes". He said, "Thousands of commercial and social entrepreneurs have been frustrated by their inability to obtain and reuse datasets. I'm sorry to say that some councils spend time and money deliberately making data unusable to anyone else." The change will prioritize CSV (comma separated value) files and Excel files over PDF documents, which often prevent people from exploring the data in standard spreadsheet software.

Tony Blair's presents

A FOI request made by Lee Rotherham, campaigner against government waste, revealed that Tony Blair left office with 76 prime ministerial gifts. It took Rotherham 10 months to obtain the list and required two interventions by the Information Commissioner. Until now Tony Blair was known to have taken 22 items. In the new list, it is revealed that that he took with him three guitars, one signed and presented to him by Bono. However, he left a nativity scene given by Yasser Arafat and an Ipod given by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Under the ministerial code, gifts become the property of the government. Ex-prime ministers are allowed to keep any present they received which is worth less than £140. For items which cost more, they have to pay the market price minus £140 to be able to keep them. Both the Cabinet Office and Mr Blair's office have refused to confirm how much he paid for the items.

Police chief wants FOI fees

Sir Paul Stephenson, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has urged the Home Secretary to introduce fees for FOI requests in order to avoid court action against officers. In 2009-10 the force received 3,373 such requests, which he says takes time and personnel to process. Money is being wasted on speculative claims, argues Stephenson, with lawyers gaining large fees that would be better spent fighting crime. Maurice Frankel, chair of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the plan would help police hide from scrutiny and cost the taxpayer more money: "The intention would be to discourage people making requests. The effect would be to shield the police from many of the requests they get." The Lib Dem London Assembly policing spokesperson, Dee Doocey has also reacted to the lobbying of Stephenson: "It seems the Met is just seeking to wriggle out of being held accountable".

Local Government

It is now possible to do one click FOI requests on individual spending items on the Whatdotheyknow website. Furthermore, the requests are tagged which allows one to see on a transaction page if any requests have already been made about it.

 

FOI and Parliament

ICO criticised by MP on Google investigation

Tory MP Robert Halfon has slammed Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner for 'lily-livered' Google probe. Indeed, the ICO faces sharp criticism in Parliament over his handling of an investigation into Google's Street View Wi-Fi data harvesting operation. According to Halfon: "When its officers first investigated this outrage, they visited Google's headquarters, had a nice chat with its senior executives, went through their computers and decided to do nothing."

Cost of MPs Golden Parachutes revealed

The cost of the golden parachute payments has been disclosed by the House of Commons for the first time following a Freedom of Information request from The Daily Telegraph. According to the official figures obtained, MPs who resigned or lost their seats at the general election received more than £10.3 million in these controversial "golden parachute" payments.

 

FOI Overseas

Australia

Next month Australians will be able to make FOI requests by email and without charge as changes are made to the 28 year old law. John McMillan, the Commonwealth's first Information Commissioner - the post was only created this year - said that these changes "would transform government as departments realised old rules were gone and there was a new emphasis on pro-disclosure."

The IMF

In an open letter to the IMF's Board of Governors, a coalition of leading international economists and development specialists called for governance reforms. These include better disclosure policies to ensure greater transparency in the agency's otherwise opaque procedures. The 13 signatories suggest "a significant improvement to the limited and outdated disclosure standards of executive board decision-making with presumed predisclosure of board documents and timely disclosure of board transcripts, to allow citizens of member countries prompt access to its proceedings."

Liberia

The president of Liberia, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, signed on 8 of October the Freedom of Information Act into law. This move has made Liberia the first West African country to adopt such legislation and only the fourth of the African continent as a whole. A few days later, Ellen received the title of 'Friend of the Media', a prestigious award given bi-annually to political leaders, who contribute to a media-friendly environment during their terms in office.This FOIA now gives every resident in Liberia the right of access to information held by any public authority or private body carrying public functions; and with the exception of exempt documents no authority shall refuse to give access to document requested.

Meanwhile, in Morocco, The Secretary General of Morocco's Ministry of the Modernization of Public Service has told a newspaper that an inter-ministerial committee has been established to draft a law on access to information. The proposal is expected to be prepared mid-2011 when Morocco will host the fourth conference of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC).

Kazaghstan

ARTICLE 19 has released an analysis of the Kazakh draft law highlighting many of its positive features, including broad definition of the right to access information, good process guarantees, specific obligations of proactive disclosure, and the recognition of a right to attend public meetings. The analysis also identified the weaknesses of the draft law and recommends a number of improvements aiming to bring the draft in line with international standards. The most serious shortcomings of the law are the broad regime of exceptions and the mechanism securing the enforcement of the law. ARTICLE 19 calls on Parliament to urgently adopt the draft law, subject to its recommendations, and make it fully operational.

South Africa

The Right2Know coalition, with its more than 350 civil society member organisations, was able to mobilize a broad front of protesters against the Protection of Information Bill this month in Capetown. They marched to Parliament to make their message heard: "The Protection of Information Bill is bad for all of us. Freedom is not a gift voucher handed out by the government, redeemable for a limited time only, terms and conditions apply." The Right2Know campaign hopes that this march will make State Security Minister, Siyabonga Cwele, have a hard think about his law which is "an appaling threat to transparency."

This march comes in response to the government's support for the major thrust of the Bill reaffirmed earlier this month. Cwele urged Parliament not to buckle to pressure for the inclusion of a public interest defence that could shelter whistle blowers who violate state secrecy.

Data Protection

 

Oxford University starts first DP journal

 

Oxford University Press has launched International Data Privacy Law (IDPL), which, according to the Information world review, is the only international journal to offer specialist coverage of the law relating to data protection and privacy. The launch comes amid intense data protection and privacy concerns. Christopher Kuner, the journal's editor-in-chief says "IDPL has three main missions, namely to be global; to span the gulf between scholarship and practice; and to help solidify the position of data protection and privacy law as a central area of importance for the individual, the economy, and the development of new technologies." Bojana Bellamy, director of data privacy, Accenture expects IDPL to become "an indispensable tool for in-house lawyers and privacy officers working in this field."

ICO decisions


October 2010
 

Information Tribunal decisions


October 2010