In the most significant FOI-related story this week, the US Justice Department has recommended that federal agencies should be able to lie to citizens about what information they hold. As the Telegraph reported on Tuesday, the proposed rule would direct government agencies denying a request on grounds of an established exemption to “respond to [it] as if the excluded records did not exist”.
A coalition of transparency campaigners said the rule would “dramatically undermine government integrity by allowing a law designed to provide public access to government to be twisted.” The joint statement by the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and OpenTheGovernment.org, warns that the move would disrupt judicial oversight of the government and undermine the principle that agencies bear the burden or proving that exceptions are properly applied.
While the rule would only apply to material already protected from FOI requests, it might prevent citizens from suing to obtain information if they did not know it existed at all. At present agencies can only say they “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of records.
The proposal follows controversy over the Obama administration’s appeal this month against a court decision compelling it to release full records of White House visitors. President Obama accepted an award for transparency in government in March this year.
Other stories this week
The Mirror reported that FOI requests by insurer Aviva showed burglaries rising by 26% last October during the week the clocks changed. The same newspaper wrote that civil service energy bills totalled £5.8 million following an FOI request by energyhelpline.com. Co-Op Motor Group, meanwhile, found through requests that the number of drivers losing their license due to poor eyesight has more than doubled in four years. The Daily Mail reports that 367 ‘suspected foreign nationals’ arrested in connection with August’s riots were referred to the UK Border Agency, while an FOI request by the Scottish Conservative Party revealed local authorities were only paying 31% of their bills to businesses and contractors within the 10 days recommended by government guidelines.
Finally, an FOI request to the Information Commissioner’s Office from Barbara Whittle, published at www.whatdotheyknow.com, asked how often the Office consults whatdotheyknow.com. It transpires that the ICO has lost all information regarding how often they consult www.whatdotheyknow.com.