The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, joined a panel of experts to discuss the ‘future of transparency’ at City University London last night. The panel discussed FoI requests, the value of openness, and what happens when the need for transparency meets obstacles such as privatisation or national security.
Joining the Information Commissioner were human rights activist Helen Darbishire, investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, barrister Robin Hopkins and director of Request Inititative, Brendan Montague. The event was chaired by Linda Lewis, course director of City’s Political Journalism MA.
Christopher Graham made his position clear on whether FoI should apply to private companies carrying out public sector work. He said: “Private companies are increasingly taking on public functions. What seems to be so perverse is that there’s all this talk of transparency, but private companies are outside of FoI. We’ve got to find a way of FoI following the public pound. If you’ve got a socking great government contract that is to deliver a service that would have been applicable under FoI, how can you say this doesn’t apply?”
On the importance of transparency, Duncan Campbell said: “The society we live in is built on a fundamental system of checks and balances. There are competing centres of power – judiciary, executive, legislative, press – don’t trust any of them entirely. In order to make the public service function of these centres of power work, you need scrutiny and transparency. It’s the lifeblood of the multi-headed organism that is 21st century democracy.”
Discussion soon moved on to attitudes towards transparency. Brendan Montague said: “There isn’t a conspiracy of secrecy but there is a culture of secrecy in our country. Recently I was speaking to journalists in Norway who can access cabinet ministers’ emails online. Why couldn’t that be the case here?”
Robin Hopkins said that the biggest thing we could fix for FoI requests is the time frames and speed of turnaround. Brendan Montague pointed out that FoI only has power in the way it is used, and that it is the public who bring it to life. He said: “It’s only through our participation as citizens that we increase the power of FoI. It should be an offence to our mind that this information is not being published. We read about political corruption and think ‘of course’, we read that information is being kept private and think ‘of course’. We need to change that in ourselves. We need to get quite cross about this.”
Christopher Graham ended the night with a comment that one way to improve transparency would be to stop cuts to the Information Commissioner’s Office. He said: “Stop cutting the ICO budget. Over the past three years the very modest grant in aid has been cut and cut and cut.”
Dan Douglas | City Journalism | 23rd May 2013
Original article here
See a Storify of Tweets from the panel discussion, curated by Jess Denham (Interactive Journalism MA)
‘Absolute secrecy’ law for royals criticised by Information Commissioner
Plans by the Scottish government to keep any communication between ministers and the royal family secret are in direct conflict with the public interest, MSPs are to hear.
Scotland’s Information Commissioner has described proposed reforms to freedom of information law as setting a “worrying precedent”.
Rosemary Agnew is due to give evidence to Holyrood’s Finance Committee.
It is looking at changes to the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Bill.
Raymond Buchanan| BBC | September 12th 2012
Climate change minister gave adviser ‘preferential access
Mr Barker held a meeting with an energy firm that was a commercial client of Miriam Maes while she was working at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, internal emails show.
The emails, released under the Freedom of Information Act to the Guardian, detail contacts between the minister and Ms Maes, who worked with Mrs Barker before the Conservatives came to power.
Labour suggested that she had been able to use her position at the department to get “preferential access” for her clients and likened the situation to the one that forced Liam Fox to quit the Cabinet last year.
James Kirkup| The Telegraph | September 12th 2012
COLUMN by Henry Smith MP: Proposed bill would save the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds
Yesterday in Parliament I introduced a Bill called NHS Audit Requirements (Foreign National). Last year’s figures showed that whilst the under the European Health Insurance Card Scheme alone, the UK paid out £1.7 billion for the treatment of British nationals abroad, we only claimed back £125 million from qualifying countries.
Freedom of Information Act requests have shown that most NHS trusts at best only cursorily audit the treatment of foreign nationals not entitled to automatic free healthcare and GP practices do not record this information at all, despite in many other countries access to primary care having a nominal charge for all patients, including British visitors. This is the case in countries like France and Germany where an entry fee for primary care is required or in Spain where proof of insurance is needed.
Crawley Observer| September 12th 2012
Banned in London: The ‘hidden’ rules which forbid you from walking dogs or standing with a friend
Dog-walking, handing out leaflets and drinking alcohol in public have been banned in more than 400 different zones across London, new research claims.
A libertarian group says people are unwittingly at risk of fines for the innocuous activities if they accidentally stray into the specified areas, which are often unmarked and in parks or open spaces.
The Manifesto Club has now drawn up a map showing the 435 zones where police and local authority staff can prosecute. Certain areas in parks have long been designated free from dogs because of health risk from fouling or risk of attacks.
But under the Dog Control Order Regulations 2006, councils have also been allowed to set up dog exclusion zones, within which local authority officials can issue penalties of £80 to anyone who lets a pet off its lead or allows it into a restricted area.
A Freedom of Information request issued by the organisation has revealed there are now 219 of these zones in London, with a total of 56 fines handed out in 2011-12.
Benedict Moore-Bridger| The Standard | September 12th 2012
Climate scientists will call on a British judge to disclose the identity of the seed funder to Lord Lawson’s climate sceptic think tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the Guardian reports today.
Professor James Hansen, adjunct professor at the Columbia University Earth Institute and one of the first scientists to warn of catastrophic climate change, is supporting a Freedom of Information request, saying the public interest will be served by ending the secrecy around the financing of Lord Lawson’s London based charity.
Scientists professor John Abraham and professor Stephen Lewandowsky have also supported the request that the Charity Commission publish the name on a bank statement, next to £50,000 handed to the GWPF by an anonymous donor, at an Information Rights Tribunal on Friday, January 27, 2012.
Professor Naomi Oreskes, the author of the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming which documents how US think tanks were funded by the oil industry to smear climate science, and Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics and author of Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change are also supporting the request.
The tribunal hearing is taking place following an appeal by Brendan Montague, the director of the Request Initiative, of the Information Commissioner’s Office decision not to force the Charity Commission to release the name of the donor.
Mr Montague has to persuade the judge it would be “fair” under the Data Protection Act to publish the donor’s name against his wishes because the public has a legitimate interest in having the information. The donor contributed £50,000 out of a total of £500,000 raised by Lord Lawson in the first year of the foundation’s existence.
Research conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has shown that the GWPF has been the country’s most effective climate sceptic think tank in terms of public relations, while Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change has questioned the scientific information published by the GWPF.
Mr Montague said:
“Lord Lawson’s charity is lobbying government for changes in climate and energy policy that would affect the lives of millions of people. This case is motivated by the belief that the public has a right to know who is funding this work.
“Request Initiative has been established because there is a serious lack of accountability in public life. We are asking the judge in this case to recognise the overriding public interest in transparency around climate change above the privacy of one single wealthy individual. We know this is a difficult legal balancing act but hope the judge will come down on the side of the public.”
The Global Warming Policy Foundation was founded by Lord Lawson in November 2009 ahead of the Copenhagan conference on climate change. He appeared before parliament to accuse the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia of not being transparent about its climate change science.
The foundation has received £500,000 in funding from secret donors. A photocopy of a bank statement showing the name of the seed donor was sent by Lord Lawson to the Charity Commission to prove he had the cash to run the charity. The commission has refused to release the name or the bank statement.
Lord Lawson has worked closely with the oil industry since serving as energy minister under Margaret Thatcher. He has previously been president of the British Institute of Energy Economics, which fosters links between the oil industry, government and academia and has been sponsored by BP and Shell. A Mike Smith from BP was chairman of the BIEE in 2003 during Lawson’s last year as president.
Lawson has also been chairman of, and a shareholder in, Central Europe Trust Ltd, a consultancy business dealing in assets in Eastern Europe which has boasted BP Amoco and Shell as major clients, on a salary of £76,000 per annum. Lawson no longer has a financial stake.
The Justice Select Committee will review the Freedom of Information Act later this year and is likely to recommend changes to the current legislation. This may improve the Act but some public bodies are expected to call for new exemptions and cost-based restrictions.
The committee is currently calling for submissions for evidence until the the 3rd February and the Campaign for Freedom of Information is holding a briefing meeting for those who are considering submitting on January 18 at 2pm.
Requesters’ experiences are essential to the review process, and are being sought after. The Ministry of Justice says there is currently “limited evidence” about requesters’ views.
Lord McNally and the Deputy Prime Minister pledged to begin the process of post-legislative assessment of the Freedom of Information Act last December. As part of this process, a parliamentary select committee has been set up and is likely to recommend changes to the law concerning the Freedom of Information Act.
Government has already submitted its assessment of how the Act has worked in practice, including how it is used and its impact on public authorities. This memorandum specified some areas of concern in increasing request volumes, the cost to public authorities; and the level of protection given to cabinet papers.
Public authorities concerned about the cost of dealing with FOI requests pile on the pressure and could lead to increased restrictions.
An upcoming Information Commissioner ruling is expected to expand FoIA’s scope to text messages and private emails, The Guardian reports.
The newspaper says that it has been a widespread practice in government for sensitive communications to be conducted from private email accounts or text messages and to conduct those exchanges in “a less unbuttoned way”.
One of the sources quoted said: “It looks as if they are going to say Post-it notes are disclosable. There is going to be material on the budget, Libyan strategy, everything.”
But even if private emails become subject to freedom of information requests, a number of FoIA exemptions could deter full disclosure.
Governmental communication may well fall into the section 35 exemption relating to the formulation of government policy or the 36 exemption about prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs. When those exemptions are claimed, the ICO has to apply the public interest test of disclosure.
Guardian’s Patrick Wintour said although the ICO refused to discuss the report, it confirmed its publication is imminent.
FoIA improves local accountability
A report about FoIA’s impact on local government conducted by the Constitution Unit of the University of London, concluded that the act has increased transparency but only as an “add-on” to existing mechanisms. The document entitled ‘Town Hall Transparency? The Impact of The Freedom of Information Act 2000 on Local Government in England’ stressed that “local government was already very open” but nevertheless, FoIA had increased accountability. You can find the full report here.
200 shootings by US-hired private firms in Iraq
A spate of field reports from private security contractors operating in Iraq under US orders reveal details of nearly 200 shootings between 2007 and 2009. The Independent reports more than 4,000 pages were published yesterday by US website Gawker after submitting FoIA requests.
The Information Tribunal ruled last month that freedom of information laws were applied in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is a decision that could have wide consequences for information rights in the UK.
In June the Court of Appeal ruled that documents from a public inquiry could be withheld from citizens under section 32 of the Freedom of Information Act even once the inquiry was finished.
But the premier Information tribunal has found this violates EU law after Lord Justice Ward referred his own ruling downwards to decide whether it would go against the 1998 Human Rights Act, which European rights to be enforced in the UK.
This new ruling in Kennedy v IC and Charity Commission  EWCA Civ 367 could call other FoIA exemptions into question, according to the Tribunal’s report.
The First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) was ordered to consider whether courts had an obligation to interpret the FoIA so that it was consistent with EU law, a process known as ‘reading down’.
Times journalist Dominic Kennedy, seeking documents related to the Charity Commission’s 2007 into George Gallaway’s ‘Mariam Appeal’, had been rebuffed under section 32 of the FoIA. The exemption allows public bodies to block requests for any document held or created “by a person conducting an inquiry or arbitration, for the purposes of the inquiry or arbitration”.
In his appeal Kennedy argued that this only applied while the inquiry was ongoing.
Lord Justice Ward reluctantly upheld the Tribunal’s previous ruling, which said the wording allowed such information to be blocked up to the thirty year limit allowed under FOIA section 63.
But a last-minute submission from Kennedy forced the court to consider its ruling in the light of new EU case law – causing Lord Justice Ward to refer his initial judgment to the Tribunal.
At stake was Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives the right “to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authorities.”
For Ward, this was an ideal test case for whether Article 10 should affect FoIA exemptions – a question he said it was in the public interest to settle.
Because section 32 is an absolute exemption, it does not consider the content of documents, the harmlessness of their disclosure or any public interest in their contents. The Court of Appeal’s ruling would mean any information used as part of an inquiry would fall under the exemption regardless of these factors.
Philip Coppel QC, representing Kennedy, said the Court of Appeals’ interpretation would not only restrict Kennedy’s Article 10 rights but destroy them.
Tribunal judge John Angel concluded that “there is no justification for…interfering with Mr Kennedy’s Article 10 rights in the circumstances of this case.”
Angel cited a European case, Bergens Tidente v Norway, in which the EU Court of Human Rights recognized press and other media as having a special function as ‘public watchdogs’. Judges in that case recommended courts exercise “careful scrutiny of the proportionality of the measures” taken by authorities where they might discourage press inquiry into subjects of public interest.
According to his report, the Information Commissioner says that Article 10 rights enforced in this way could apply to other ‘absolute exemptions’ outlined in the FOIA. Request Initiative is watching for further the developments.
The Index On Censorship’s “Is Transparency Bad For Science?” debate was timely arriving in the wake of the second release of emails hacked from the University of East Anglia, writes Sophia Ignatidou.
Imperial College yesterday hosted a panel comprising philosopher Baroness O’Neill, Wellcome Trust’s director Sir Mark Walport, journalist and campaigner George Monbiot, Professor David Colquhoun and chaired by the Guardian’s Jo Glanville. The panellists discussed transparency, public’s right to know, scientists’ responsibilities and Freedom of Information Act’s efficiency and limitations.
Baroness Onora O’Neill commented on transparency’s ambiguous meaning: “Transparency is a form of quasi communication, not necessarily a form of communication. I think what matters for science and what matters for democracy is communication not quasi communication.”
She also appeared wary of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, concerned that once it becomes law it will mandate public authorities to proactively release datasets in a reusable format. “It’s important to allow competent others to check and challenge data,” she said, making it clear there should be a clarification of who is to receive the information. She argued that time of disclosure is another serious matter to be taken into consideration, as datasets should be released when they are “completed and checked”.
Monbiot took an opposing view in the issue of competence. He said: “That actually shouldn’t be what FOI is about. And if you heard a civil servant say that or someone working for the Ministry of Defence or the Treasury say that, you would say this is an outrageous intrusion of our freedom and our right to know.”
Throughout the debate he stressed one should not separate scientists from the rest of the civil servants: “If that’s the rule for one branch of government employees then it should be the same rule elsewhere. You can’t start making exemptions as to what branch of the civil service or government employees should be subject to FOI.”
He said the scientific community was utterly unprepared to deal with the media “onslaught” that followed Climategate but was still much more transparent “than many other sectors”.
The media and the public get suspicious when barriers like paywalls are constructed. He also blamed part of this suspicion to the research councils: “Another problem is the research councils – the heads and the boards of the research councils are absolutely packed with corporate representatives.”
Sir Mark Walport, representing the Wellcome Trust, joined the common request for openness but argued that “transparency has limits”. Raw data can sometimes be useful for the public but if misinterpreted they can have the opposite result. That’s why he called for the implementation of certain rules that decide what information published and how information should be presented.
Professor David Colquhoun was the one to turn the discussion to health issues, referring to the fact that the majority of the results of clinical trials are never published. He said an extension of the Freedom of Information Act is needed, much more so now that more private providers are going to collaborate with the NHS and the universities.
Cameron’s Big Society in lack of support
David Cameron’s Big Society plan which urges workers to contribute financially to charities doesn’t seem to move lots of his peers. According to the Daily Mirror, a FoIA request revealed just four MPs have signed up to his drive. This year, the overall number of people involved in payroll-giving schemes is down at 4,000 from last year’s 720,000.
Osama Bin Laden heir uses FoIA in bid to access visa-related data
Osama Bin Laden’s son used a FoIA request in an effort to access the full documents of his visa refusal according to recently published extracts of former Immigration Minister Phil Woolas’ s dairy. The extracts were published in the Mail On Sunday and reflect his anger with the way the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is “crippling the immigration system”.
Fianna Fail TDs lobbied for appointment of six judges
FoIA request procedures revealed that six judges were appointed to the bench after representations by Fianna Fail Teachta Dálas on their behalf. The Sunday Times reports that judges’ appointments in Ireland are subject to political influence, a condition that creates an “unhealthy lack of transparency” in the judiciary.
Public sector workers’ union income comes under scrutiny
The Sunday Telegraph has reported that more than £68 million of public money is spent on trade union jobs. But trade unions claim this practice actually saves money, since union representatives help to resolve worker disputes without going to court. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said: “Workers and employers need unions more now than ever before”. Cabinet Minister Francis Maude, said that a consultation to reduce the time civil servants can spend on union work and end the employment of full-time union officials is already under way.
Scottish council indebted to private companies for millions of pounds
The Daily Express and the Herald report Scotland’s South Ayrshire Council has amassed an unjustifiable debt of £400 million to private companies in charge of building five new schools. As the data exposed under the FoIA legislation reveal, the local authority will have to pay more than £1 million a month for the next 30 years to pay back the deficit.
GPs’ patient lists full of discrepancies
London GPs have lost track of the number of people registered, a FoIA submitted by The Politics Show on BBC One, reveals. The information collected shows the total registered in the capital to be approximately nine million while the actual population is 7.75.
Most surgical operations in Wales’ hospitals are likely to be cancelled
Figures released under freedom of information show that the number of operations cancelled in some of Wales’ largest hospitals are more than those carried out with the number of cancellations rising from 25,802 to 26,312 during the last year. As the Western Mail reports, the lack of ward capacity is more often than not the reason of the cancellations.
Revenue officer sacked after posing as an accountant
The Sunday Times reports a female executive officer in Revenue was forced to resign after it was revealed she was charging almost £400 to process tax returns and make unwarranted refunds to her clients, while posing as an accountant. FoIA requests indicate she was caught after a tip-off from a member of the public in October 2008.
Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalised in January 2009, is eligible for environmental information requests, said the Irish Commissioner for Environmental Information, Emily O’Reilly.
Although the bank had refused requests in the past on the basis that it is not a public body, the Commissioner believes otherwise. According to her, a company in which all the shares are directly held by a Minister of the Government, should be considered a public authority.
As the Irish Times reported, O’Reilly’s decision might mean the bank will be obliged to reveal environmental information on issues such as mileage and travel expenses.
The revelations followed a request for information by Dublin-based journalist Gavin Sheridan under the environmental law.
In the UK under the FoIA and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) 2004 and their Scottish equivalents, a company that belongs solely to a Minister of the Crown, is indeed to be considered a public authority.
Sheffield Council one of the worst to aid the homeless
Just 312 of the 2,375 appeals by homeless or people threatened with homelessness to Sheffield Council’s refusals to provide the accommodation were successful, a FoIA request revealed. The figures that refer to the period between 2006 and 2011, also indicate that only 6,161 of the 19,742 applications for housing were approved, a proportion that is much lower than the national average of 42 per cent, as the Star reports.
The Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice, less likely to comply with FoIA requests
A list with the quarterly FoIA statistics for central government, referring to the period between April and June 2011, shows the Cabinet Office is the worst to meet the 20 working day deadline for requests and during that period only 48 per cent out of the 349 requests were answered. The percents for the MoD and MoJ are 76 and 75 respectively, with the Department of Health being the best public body to reply FoIA requests with a 99 per cent out of the 417 applications receiving an answer.
London murder victims data released
The full list of over 800 London murder victims during the last five years has been published as a result of an FoIA request. The list is available on Metropolitan Police’s website and Guardian’s datablog.
The Metropolitan Police appears to have lost Lord Stevens’ diary, containing crucial information for the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into the illegal practices at Murdoch’s News International, the Telegraph and the Independent report.
According to the newspapers, the disappearance of the former Met Commissioner’s diary was revealed after a FoIA request by Ian Hurst, a core participant in the inquiry.
Hurst, a former British Army intelligence officer who used to handle IRA informers in Northern Ireland, has sued the News of the World claiming the company hired private detectives to hack into his computer and access information relating to his communication with a senior informer.
More precisely, Hurst believes Alex Marunchak, a former editor of the NOTW’s Ireland edition, had ordered the hacking of his email communication. The FoIA request filed was related to any possible meetings between two former Commissioners, Lord Stevens and Sir Ian Blair with Mr Marunchak, from to 2000 to 2011.
Although there were no recorded meetings between the NOTW editor and Sir Ian, Lord Steven’s appointments diary was nowhere to be found.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is currently investigating the missing diaries and confirms they cover the period 2000 to 2005 when Lord Stevens was head of the Met.
The Independent reports this is the first time the ICO has had to deal with such an important disappearance of publicly archived information.
Downing Street refuses Guardian’s request about Andy Coulson
The Guardian’s FoIA request to Downing Street about former News of the World editor and Conservative director of communications Andy Coulson has been refused. The request asked why Coulson was allowed to bypass standard background security checks when he was hired but Downing Street have claimed there is “no recorded information” related to the decision.
The newspaper also reports that No 10 has repeatedly refused to answer directly questions about Coulson’s role in security, military and diplomatic matters during his work in the government. The paper has appealed for an internal review of its FoIA request which is currently under way.
Dozens of pregnant soldiers leave warzones
A total of 64 female UK troops have left Afghanistan’s warzone due to pregnancy since 2003 according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act. The Sun reports that even though there is no specific misconduct charge related to pregnancy, Ministry of Defence officials do not approve of sexual relations between UK troops.