Transparency advocates may find it bizarre that a report on open government fails to discuss the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The omission of FOIA is no accident, writes Lucas Amin, who suggests the government may try to hamstring the act while championing an alternative transparency agenda.
A bold report from the Cabinet Office suggests the UK is leading an open government revolution. Open government, its authors state, “provides an essential foundation for economic, social and political progress”, before restating the Coalition’s desire to become “the most open and accountable government in the world”. But concealed in this seemingly benign report is a threat that could yet impoverish accountability.
There is no meaningful mention of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the government’s new vision of “open government”. Instead we are enticed with the very different prospect of “open data”. FOIA and open data are different models of transparency and the distinction is easy to explain. Under FOIA, you choose what you want to see. In the open data model, the government chooses what it wants you to see. In a truly “open and accountable” government we would enjoy the benefits of both. But there are fears that the coalition government may quietly hamstring the act while using the open data fanfare to keep up transparent appearances.
FOIA is a rights-based system of transparency. Frustrated by a major decision? Don’t trust a regulator? You have a right to know. You can submit questions, ask to see meeting minutes, and request correspondence and risk assessments. But your right to information is not absolute. There are all too many grounds on which a request can be refused. In most cases however, you can overturn an “exemption” if you can argue that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm that would arise.
In contrast to FOIA, the open data initiative is a process in which the government identifies datasets that are suitable for release and publishes them online. But the release of data is at the government’s discretion. The report states: “Our default position is for data to become open where it represents value for money for taxpayers, unless there are robust legal (including Freedom of Information (FoI) Act), security, or financial complexities.”
What are these FOIA “complexities”? This is a reference to the 24 exemptions to the duty to disclose information. The exemptions cover most eventualities, including harm to an individual’s commercial interests, data protection, health and safety, as well as government business, such as policy formulation, international relations or the rule of law. The restrictions in FOIA will prevent the proactive release of genuinely important information. Meanwhile we will be inundated with anodyne data, free from “complexities”.
Worryingly, the Cabinet Office scarcely complies with FOIA rules. Ministry of Justice statistics show how it has one of the worst compliance records of any government department. Out of the total “resolvable requests”, only 28% of requests were granted in full compared to 57% of requests withheld in full (page 31). Chris Cook, the Financial Times journalist, recently wrote about how the Cabinet refuses to engage with his requests. So what trust can we place in the Cabinet Office, which pays little respect to its statutory transparency obligations, to proactively publish information that will facilitate the “economic, social and political progress” that it speaks of?
We need a rights-based system of transparency because the government is not going to land itself in hot water. Would Parliament have voluntarily disclosed information about the MPs expenses claims? Would the FCO have published memos showing it met Shell and BP six months before the UK declared war on Iraq to discuss how to get “a fair slice of the action for UK companies in a post-Saddam Iraq”? Would ministers have decided to post details about their correspondence on sensitive government policies with Prince Charles on departmental websites? These stories, which have all informed the electorate and changed the way we think about our government, would never have arisen in an open data system.
This coalition does not like embarrassing releases of information. In 2012, the attorney general used his powers to veto disclosures four times. Only three had previously occurred in the entire history of FOIA. Last year the Ministry of Justice reviewed FOIA and concluded that the Act “has been a significant enhancement of our democracy”. David Cameron told this review that FOIA “furs up” the arteries of the government. And the government’s response ignored most of the review’s key points.
Many were then surprised that the Queen’s Speech did not include a bill to amend FOIA. However, information rights blogger FOIman has observed that the government could cripple FOIA by amending the fees regulations. This would avoid the need for primary legislation and possibly even a consultation. In this context the open government report’s silence on FOIA looks ominous. A response to the Cabinet’s report by the influential Open Government Civil Society Group, a coalition of 21 NGOs, is published in its appendix. Their response calls for improvements and extensions to the Act. The group, which includes players like the Campaign for Freedom of Information and Transparency International, will hope to extract assurances on FOIA after the consultation, open to all, closes on 19 September.
Open data is a good idea but it cannot stand in for statutory right of access. A combination of both would be ideal, but signals suggest government favours substituting one for another.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) has given the MPs special dispensation to claim higher expenses to rent bigger properties and to pay for their children’s travel.
The rules were relaxed in 2011 following lobbying from MPs who can now claim thousands of pounds extra for each child they register with the expenses regulator.
Under freedom of information laws, Ipsa has disclosed that a total of 148 MPs, with 300 children between them, have formally registered their “dependants” so they can claim expenses associated with their accommodation and travel. Read more
Holly Watt, Claire Newell & Charles Young | The Daily Telegraph | 4th July 2013
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has charged nearly £100,000 for taxi rides and trips around the world, documents reveal.
The money paid for visits to nearly 20 countries, as well as trips to have his portrait painted and a short journey to tour the offices of the MPs’ expenses watchdog.
Details of the Speaker’s travel costs since the general in May 2010 were disclosed under Freedom of Information laws. Read more
Christopher Hope | The Daily Telegraph | 4th July 2013
The financial fallout due to Metropolitan Police officers ramming down doors at wrong addresses to carry out police raids has come to light for the first time.
With officers having to get tough in smashing their way through to a potential suspect’s home many thousands of times a year, red-faced coppers have had to pay out hundreds of times each year for barging into the wrong address.
Official figures indicate that the Met was deluged with roughly a thousand claims each year from 2010-2012, receiving 1,109 claims of “wrongful forced entry” in 2010/2011. However, this figure decreased over the following years to 959 in 2011/2012 and finally 931 in 2012/2013.
The findings have been disclosed by the Metropolitan Police after a Freedom of Information Request from LondonlovesBusiness.com. Read more.
Asa Bennett | London Loves Business | 29th May 2013
A Freedom of Information request by The Daily Telegraph also shows that three Ambassadors currently based in the Middle East and North Africa speak no Arabic at all.
The remaining seven have sufficient grasp of the language to be able to handle “routine everyday” matters, but would have difficulty with official business.
Concerns have been raised about the linguistic skills of British diplomats, particularly since David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary, closed the Foreign Office Language School in 2007. The last government also dropped language ability from the criteria for promotion to senior grades.
Today, the British Ambassadors in Sudan, Qatar and Algeria speak no Arabic at all. Those in Bahrain and Morocco, meanwhile, are below the lowest possible grade for Arabic, known as “A2″. Read more.
David Blair | The Telegraph | 31st May 2013
A 12-year-oldgirl was shot by police with a 50,000-volt Taser. The girl, who was brandishing two knives and threatening to harm herself, was one of more than 20 children shot by officers using the electric stun guns, figures show.
Police said the Taser was used to detain the girl and ‘prevent serious harm to both her, the public and the officers’ after she began behaving ‘aggressively’ in St Helens, Merseyside, in July 2011.
The schoolgirl was one of more than 20 children stunned with the weapons in the past three years, according to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Read more.
James Drummond | The Daily Mail | 3rd June 2013
MORE than £340,000 worth of cannabis was taken off the streets of the borough in 2012, figures have revealed.
Statistics released to the under the Freedom of Information Act also show the number of cannabis farms being discovered by police has risen by more than one-third since 2011.
In 2012, 31 cannabis cultivations worth £340,290 were found in the borough – an increase of 32 per cent from the 21 farms uncovered the year before.
In 2011, the farms police unearthed were also smaller, with their total value estimated at £139,670 — less than half 2012’s total. Read more.
Tui Benjamin | Bury Times| 31st May 2013
David Owen has accused Tony Blair and David Cameron of striking a secret deal to prevent the Chilcot Inquiry publishing key documents about the Iraq war. The former Foreign Secretary said extracts of letters between Mr Blair and President George W Bush have been held back to save the ex-Prime Minister’s reputation.
It is believed the documents may shed light on the allegation that Mr Blair had already agreed to go to war up to a year before the 2003 invasion. In a speech, Lord Owen made the astonishing claim that Mr Cameron had backed Mr Blair’s decision to block the publication of the letters in return for his ‘neutrality or tacit support’ at the next general election.
The peer also pointed the finger of blame at Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, accusing him too of blocking the publication of the documents. The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq conflict was set up four years ago but has yet to report. Read more
Tim Shipman | The Daily Mail | 31st May 2013
Homelessness is not a problem. Homelessness is many problems woven together into a human calamity and a social catastrophe: lack of housing; lack of jobs; lack of money; lack of social support; lack of mental health care; but above all, lack of compassion where it matters.
The past week has vividly illustrated the complexities of the issues. Already the eviction notices have begun to arrive for arrears on the new “bedroom tax”, as prompt as they were predictable. Freedom-of-information requests to 107 local authorities have revealed that 86,000 households in council or housing association properties have been forced to look for one-bedroom homes, of which only 33,000 have become available in the past year.
Charities are reporting vast increases in requests for help and their caseloads as squeezed incomes and benefits combined with rising living costs lead to increased debt and arrears. Caps to housing benefits arrive nationally in September to exacerbate the crisis. Read more
Ally Fogg | The Guardian | 30th May 2013
After a decade of investigations, US authorities last September decided to move “as quickly as possible” to fine HSBC on money laundering charges that the Treasury Department concluded were the most “egregious” it had ever seen, according to newly released documents.
A series of emails and letters released to Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group, paint a partial picture of the Treasury Department trying to catch up after a hard-hitting Senate report had blasted the British bank and a New York regulator had threatened to revoke the license ofanother British institution, Standard Chartered.
Bart Naylor, a policy advocate at Public Citizen, said the documents posed questions about why the Treasury Department wanted a quick resolution to the HSBC scandal. “Why all of a sudden do they want a resolution after 10 years of investigation? Was Treasury pre-empting more vigorous action by the Justice Department? These are questions that need to be answered,” he said. Read more
Dominic Rushe | The Guardian | 30th May 2013
Humaneness of badger cull to be judged on noise of dying animals
The noises made by shot badgers and comparisons with harpooned whales will be among the measures used to assess the humaneness of badger cullsin England, a government document seen by the Guardian reveals.
The paper also acknowledges that none of the shooters will have experience of killing free-running badgers and that the requirement to target the heart and lungs is untested. Anti-cull campaigners have reacted furiously to the heavily redacted document, which is marked “protect”.
“With such large-scale killing in our countryside, it is simply unacceptable that the government is continuing to be so evasive about how suffering will be measured during the pilot culls,” said Mark Jones, executive director of the Humane Society International UK, which obtained the document through the Freedom of Information Act. Read more
Damian Carrington | The Guardian | 30th May 2013
It’s not unusual to get freedom of information requests knocked back by the regulator under FoI cost of compliance rules. Public and regulatory bodies are able to reject FoI’s that would cost over £450 (18 hours work at £25 per hour) and communications staff are often quick to pounce on anything but the most tightly written FoI to try and escalate the potential costs above the limit.
However, we were very surprised to have a recent pretty simple FoI request made by our regulation reporter Natalie Holt rejected by the Financial Conduct Authority on this basis. She asked for the number of whistleblowing reports made to the FSA in both the 2011/12 and 2012/13 financial years and also the number of whistleblowing reports in 2012/13 that resulted in enforcement action.
The request was made after FCA chief executive Martin Wheatley made a big deal about the use of whistleblowing at a Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards hearing earlier this year. He went as far as floating the idea of offering large cash incentives to encourage more people to report foul play to the regulator. Read more
Paul McMillan | Money Marketing | 30th May 2013
MORE than 150 allegations of sexual abuse have been made against 81 BBC employees since the Jimmy Savile scandal engulfed the corporation last year. Half of the accused are current members of BBC staff or contributors, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed.
Of the cases involving those 40 employees, 10 remain outstanding and are currently being investigated by either the police or the BBC. The figures reveal a significant shift in the number of people coming forward in the wake of the Savile controversy.
A BBC spokesman said the organisation had been “appalled” by the allegations of harassment and abuse that had emerged since the Savile scandal broke and insisted that a series of reviews were under way to ensure that lessons could be learnt. Read more
Victoria Ward & Jennifer O’Mahoney | The Daily Telegraph | 30th May 2013
Eight formal complaints have been made about Cumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) after he spent £700 on a chauffeur-driven car. A Freedom of Information request has revealed concern over Richard Rhodes’ use of taxpayers’ money.
Details of the money he spent first appeared in a newspaper last month. Three police staff members were arrested for leaking information. The PCC’s office said it was “aware” of the complaints.
Mr Rhodes, a Conservative, has since paid back all the money and apologised. Two male police workers aged 47 and 59, have been told they will not face any criminal charges. A third, a female staff member, is on police bail until July. A man who does not work for the force remains on police bail. Read more
BBC | 29th May 2013
EDMONTON MP Andy Love has urged the government not to scrap ASBOs after plans to reform powers to tackle antisocial behaviour were announced. His call came as figures released through a Freedom of Information request by the Labour Party revealed there were 11,930 reports of antisocial behaviour in Enfield in 2012.
The reports ranged from vandalism and intimidation, to the playing of loud music and public drinking. In the Queen’s Speech earlier this month, the coalition government announced proposals to replace antisocial behaviour orders, which were brought in by the Labour government in 1998, along with criminal behaviour orders and crime prevention injunctions.
The government plans to reduce the 19 existing powers to deal with antisocial behaviour to six. And it wants to make it easier for victims to get police involved in tackling repeat offenders and giving them more of a say in what form of out-of-court sanction offenders receive as part of a new scheme called community remedy. Read more
Koos Couvée | North London Today | 29th May 2013
More than 57,000 people are on police bail in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, according to figures obtained by the BBC. In one case a person arrested three-and-a-half years ago remains on bail.
The Law Society told BBC Radio 5 live it wanted a review of police bail practices and said there should be a statutory time limit on police bail. The data was collated from 34 of the 44 police forces that responded to a Freedom of Information request. Bail in Scotland is granted by courts and not by the police.
The data, obtained by a BBC Radio 5 Live Freedom of Information request shows that at least 57,428 people are currently on bail. Of those, 3,172 have been waiting for more than six months for a decision on charges. Read more
Laura Harmes | BBC Radio 5 Live | 28th May 2013
More than 150 people were caught smuggling knives into the criminal courts of Manchester last year. Security officers at the city’s magistrates and two crown courts seized up to 20 blades a month from visitors, the M.E.N. can reveal. Another 224 people were stopped by guards while taking alcohol into the buildings.
Thousands of people a week visit the three courts and the confiscation figures highlight the task facing security staff. The M.E.N. obtained court security log details under Freedom of Information laws, with all seizures between April 2012 and March this year. Everyone entering the court building must walk through an airport-style security arch, before being checked by a guard with a metal detector.
A total of 155 knives were confiscated from people over a 12 month period – and 43 of those blades were longer than three inches. October saw the most knife seizures, with 12 from Manchester Crown Court and eight from the magistrates court. The figures for Minshull Street, Manchester’s second crown court, were not available for some of the months requested due to a change in security contractors. Read more
Pete Bainbridge | Manchester Evening News | 28th May 2013
The cash-strapped Department of Health has come under fire after it emerged that it has spent over €110,000 sending officials on an exclusive training course on negotiation techniques at one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
In response to a Freedom of Information request, the department yesterday confirmed that it has spent €111,022 sending officials to attend the Oxford Programme on Negotiation at the Said School of Business at Oxford University since 2006.
The department is sending three officials to attend the five- day course next month. The cost of sending the three to the course totals €22,282 this year and this follows a spend of €32,977 sending four officials on the course last year. Read more
Gordon Deegan | The Irish Independent | 28th May 2013
Tens of thousands of the poorest people in Britain risk being made homeless because of the bedroom tax, according to an analysis of councils’ assessments of the welfare cut.
From last month, housing benefit has been reduced to council or housingassociation tenants who ministers claim have more bedrooms than they need.
Data from 107 local authorities shows 86,000 households have been forced to look for one-bedroom homes, of which only 33,000 have become available in the past year. Read more
Randeep Ramesh | The Guardian | 27th May 2013
In Sheffield magistrates court, Mr Zahedi has just been bailed; he only speaks Farsi. He is shaking his head as if a terrible mistake has been made, not by the court, not in the charge, but that his standing in this room at all, in his glass cage, is all the result of a factual error. He blows everybody a kiss in thanks. His bail conditions are that he stay away from a particular person; they can’t curfew him because he’s homeless. Most nights he sleeps behind the police station.
His solicitor, Lucy Hogarth, explains: “It took me and the clerk to persuade the court that they couldn’t remand him in custody, because the trial isn’t going to result in a custodial sentence. But the prosecutor wanted to lock him up.”
Her next client, Mr Oates, is up for benefit fraud, but the Department for Work and Pensions hasn’t sent the paperwork for two days, during which time he’s been held in a cell. “Without me asking,” Hogarth says, “he’d probably still be in there.” Read more
Zoe Williams | The Guardian | 24th May 2013
Nearly 600 homes across Scotland have been blacklisted as being too dangerous for ambulance crews to enter without police protection. The 593 addresses have been pinpointed because of previous attacks or threats on paramedics.
The statistics were obtained by the Conservatives under Freedom of Information legislation. The Scottish government said the figure was a “small proportion” of the country’s 2.5 million homes.
NHS Lothian had the most red flagged addresses, with 162, followed by Greater Glasgow and Clyde with 147, and Fife with 68. The Scottish Ambulance Service confirmed the snapshot for May 2013, which was an increase from the same time in 2012 when 437 addresses were red flagged. Read more
BBC | 26th May 2013
Campaigners fighting on behalf of almost one million Bradford & Bingley investors have fixed their sights on the City regulator.
The Bradford and Bingley Action Group (BBAG) has lodged a Freedom of Information request with the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to see whether its predecessor – the Financial Services Authority (FSA) – withheld information from shareholders in the lead up to the bank’s collapse in 2008.
Bradford & Bingley, best known for its bowler hat logo, was heavily exposed to the troubled buy-to-let mortgage market in the lead-up to the financial crisis. The lender ran into difficulties when funding from the wholesale money markets dried up. Read more
Jamie Dunkley & Roger Aitken | The Independent | 26th May 2013
POLICE FORCES have spent nearly £40million on translators for suspects and victims unable to speak English over the past three years, an investigation by The Sunday Telegraph has established. The Metropolitan Police paid out £7.1million on interpreters and translators in a single year. The London force listed 97 languages it has paid to translate, including African dialects such as Wolof, Yoruba and Oromo.
Rural constabularies have also spent substantial sums on language services. Thames Valley Police’s bill for translators and interpreters has exceeded £1million in each of the past three years. Forces in Kent, Norfolk and Lincolnshire have at times spent more than £400,000 a year on translation.
Polish, Romanian, Mandarin and Lithuanian are among the languages which police authorities most frequently require interpreters for. The figures – obtained using the Freedom of Information Act – expose one of the hidden costs of years of high migration. Read more
Robert Watts | The Sunday Telegraph | 26th May 2013
The Commons Speaker is facing a storm of criticism after it emerged his children’s nanny lives in a taxpayer-funded apartment in the Houses of Parliament. John Bercow – who earns over £140,000 per year and has backed calls for pay rises for MPs – and his wife Sally have given their nanny the run of the housekeeper’s apartment near their own palatial rooms inside the Palace of Westminster.
The nanny’s accommodation in the Commons is entirely covered by the public purse, including the council tax and utility bills. The arrangement has been described as ‘indefensible’ by a former chairman of the Standards in Public Life committee. The Bercows, who have three young children, have separately acquired a riverside property nearby for £935,000 just four miles away.
Previously the couple said that their nanny was ‘live-in’. But according to details released after a freedom of information request, it now transpires that she lives in a separate flat consisting of one bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and a living room. Read more
Gerri Peev | The Daily Mail | 28th May 2013
SOUTH Yorkshire Police’s chief constable was keen to avoid questions about Sir Norman Bettison after the Hillsborough report, a previously secret email shows. The two men worked together at West Yorkshire Police before David Crompton left to head the South Yorkshire force.
They were in touch over Hillsborough before last year’s damning report, which revealed Mr Bettison’s role in the aftermath of the 1989 disaster. The day before the Hillsborough Independent Panel report, Mr Crompton and Mr Bettison swapped emails.
Mr Crompton, 49, told the then-West Yorkshire chief constable he did not expect a “direct focus” on him. But the HIP report, which exposed a police cover-up, did feature Sir Norman’s role – and led to calls for him to resign. And today we can reveal Mr Crompton was reluctant to answer questions over Mr Bettison, 57, after the details emerged. Read more
Jonathon Corke | The Daily Star | 28th May 2013
Just six per cent of army uniforms were made in Britain last year under manufacturing contracts worth £5million while £75million worth of production was outsourced to India, China and Eastern Europe.
Struggling defence companies in the UK have been forced to lay off staff and open factories overseas in a drive to cut costs or risk losing contracts.
Senior Tory MP Patrick Mercer – a former Army colonel and former security spokesman – claimed there was a security risk involved with making the kit abroad and said ‘every soldier should have a uniform made in Britain’. The staggering figures were released by the Ministry of Defence under a Freedom of Information Act request by Mail Online. Read more
Rob Cooper | The Daily Mail | 27th May 2013
LITTER louts drop enough rubbish at the side of Scotland’s railways and roads every year to fill 112 skips – or two Olympic-sized swimming pools. Figures released through Freedom of Information show 1,800 tonnes of refuse are collected each year, ranging from old furniture, washing machines and televisions, to food packaging, paper and cans.
The cost of the clean-up operation is about £60,000 a month. Last month, almost 4,000 hours were spent clearing litter from motorways in Glasgow and surrounding area.
Transport minister Keith Brown urged people to dispose of their rubbish responsibly. He said: “Scotland is a wonderful country and its natural beauty is a key factor in attracting tourists. Read more
Claire Gardner | The Scotsman | 25th May 2013
THEFTS of catalytic converters ripped from vehicles across Nottingham soared by over 300 per cent in 2011-2012, a Freedom of Information request by the Post has revealed. Figures in 2013 have also already overtaken total offences in 2009.
The crimes represent just under 20 per cent of all recorded metal theft offences in 2012. The data shows an increase of 256 offences over the 87 reported incidents in 2011. It is the also the highest recorded number of catalytic converter thefts over the past five years.
Police say intelligence shows that the crimes being carried out mostly by organised gangs. Catalytic converters, devices used to reduce output of toxic chemicals, are being targeted for the valuable elements they contain. Platinum and rhodium from converters can fetch hundreds of pounds on the black market. Read more
Tom Norton | The Nottingham Post | 24th May 2013
They were among hundreds of bizarre calls to firefighters in Courier Country — including a cat that got its head stuck in a TV. A freedom of information request has revealed a series of strange animal emergencies such as a Perth iguana that got stranded on a roof and a dog that trapped its head between railings in Dundee’s Whitfield area.
Some of the more distressing calls included a dog impaled on a fence in Aberargie, a dolphin that got into difficulty at Moncrieffe Island and a horse that had to be put down after falling into a well in Auchterarder.
Data was requested from all eight of Scotland’s former fire services to cover the last five years, however only three responded with results. Since 2008 there have been almost 139 calls to animal-related incidents in Tayside compared with around 670 in Strathclyde since recording mechanisms changed there in 2009. Read more
Graeme Bletcher | The Courier | 27th May 2013
The number of physical attacks by pupils on teachers in Bassetlaw has dramatically reduced in the past year, according to new figures. Data obtained through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act shows there were zero recorded incidents between 2012-13 – compared to three in 2011-12 and 13 in 2010-11.
According to Notts County Council, the recorded attacks happened at Portland and Valley in Worksop and Elizabethan and Retford Oaks over the past three years. Of the total number of physical attacks, three resulted in exclusion, six pupils were verbally reprimanded and three cases put down to special educational needs.
There were no verbal attacks recorded over the same period. Katy Williams, director of business services at Outwood Grange Academies Trust, which governs Portland and Valley, said the data was a clear indicator of Outwood’s approach to discipline. Read more
Worksop Guardian | 25th May 2013
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama is facing demands in court to reveal more about the U.S. drone program, despite his speech addressing it on Thursday and his government’s acknowledgement a day earlier that four Americans have died in drone strikes.
Civil liberties advocates, news organizations and the families of those who died have brought lawsuits in New York, Washington and Oakland, California, challenging the government’s refusal to provide information.
Now that the drone program’s existence has at last been confirmed, government lawyers on Wednesday indicated they would abandon their previous arguments, which did not confirm or deny the drone program. In the case in Oakland, they said they would give a new response to the Freedom of Information Act request filed by the First Amendment Coalition within 30 days. Read more
David Ingram | The Chicago Tribune | 23rd May 2013
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative advocacy group, has sued the Environmental Protection Agency seeking an explanation of why it has been denied waivers of fees for provision of documents while environmental groups almost always got waivers. Just more evidence EPA is becoming a law unto itself.
Christopher Horner of CEI used a Freedom of Information Act request to examine document requests over about 15 months. His own requests for waivers were denied 14 out of 15 times; requests from environmental groups were granted 75 of 82 times.
Every time Horner appealed (he didn’t say how many times that was) his request was granted. EPA’s inspector general says he will look into the accusation; the acting EPA administrator, Robert Perciasepe, says EPA’s policy is not to discriminate in waivers and anyway, documents increasingly are provided in electronic form, which incurs no fee. Read more
The Boston Herald | 26th May 2013
The oft-criticised freedom of information act (offentlighedslov) proposal received another blow yesterday when the Copenhagen City Council approved a proposal from Enhedslisten (EL) aimed at maintaining transparency at the council level.
EL’s proposal is based on a principle that citizens and the media should enjoy the highest amount of transparency possible when attempting to gain insight into council policymaking.
“The City Council must, as much as possible, work towards transparency and openness in our administration and I am really pleased with this law,” Rikke Lauritzen, an EL spokesperson, told Berlingske newspaper. Read more
The Copenhagen Post | 24th May 2013
Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns the sentence of 13 and a half months in prison that an Istanbul magistrate’s court passed yesterday on Turkish-Armenian journalist Sevan Nişanyan for posting “insulting” comments about Mohammed in his blog.
“Nisanyan’s jail sentence is a grave violation of freedom of information and sends a threatening message to fellow journalists and bloggers that is unacceptable,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It should be overturned on appeal. Suppression of comments critical of Islam has no place in a secular country such as Turkey.”
“We have often hailed the gradual weakening of Turkey’s Kemalist – secularist, nationalist and militarist – taboos but democracy will not benefit if they are replaced by a new religious censorship.” Read more
Reporters Without Borders | 24th May 2013
The Central Bank was warned about potential design and copyright problems before it issued the flawed €10 James Joyce commemorative silver coin last month.
Department of Finance officials alerted the Central Bank on at least two occasions about the possibility of difficulties with the James Joyce estate over copyright and design. The details are contained in documents obtained by RTÉ News under Freedom of Information.
The coin sold out within two days of being issued on 11 April, despite carrying on its front an error in a quotation from Joyce’s most famous work, Ulysses, alongside an image of the author that was not approved by his estate. Read more
The Irish Times | 24th May 2013
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)
Two Cumbria police staff suspended last month, after details of their chauffeur-driven police and crime commissioner’s travel expenses were leaked to the media, have been cleared of any wrongdoing and will return to work. A 47-year-old man who was arrested on 10 April on suspicion of data protection offences and misconduct in public office will face no criminal action and has had his suspension lifted.
Another staff member, a man aged 59 who was interviewed by police on a voluntary basis, will also face no criminal action and will return to work. Two other people – a 50-year-old woman who works for Cumbria constabulary and a 54-year-old man from Penrith who does not work for the force – remain under investigation by the force’s professional standards department. Their bail dates have been extended to 5 July and the constabulary is preparing files for the Crown Prosecution Service.
The investigation was launched after a whistleblower claimed that Richard Rhodes, Cumbria’s Conservative police and crime commissioner (PCC), had used taxpayers’ money to pay for chauffeur-driven vehicles – only paying the money back when details appeared in the press. Read more
Mark Smith | The Guardian | 23rd May 2013
The cost of childcare could be cut by as much as 28% if the government was to go ahead with stalled plans to raise ratios of children to staff in nurseries. Government plans are currently stalled due to a disagreement within the coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.
The new calculations released by the Department for Education under a freedom of information request said parent costs could be cut from £4 an hour to £3.49 an hour (a 12% cut) while teacher salaries could go up. Alternatively, if the extra revenue was used solely to reduce costs for parents, this could yield costs savings for parents of up to 28%.
Conservative ministers had been hoping to relax staff-child ratios by September, but Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, vetoed the plans saying he thought the proposed ratio changes would lower the quality of childcare. Conservatives are likely to use the figures to show they have been on the side of parents and choice, but are being blocked by the Liberal Democrats. Read more
Patrick Wintour | The Guardian | 23rd May 2013
Tens of thousands of endangered birds have been shot, trapped and poisoned on one of England’s largest shooting estates with the approval of the government agency responsible for protecting the species, a Guardian investigation has found.
The government has licensed an annual cull of lesser black-backed gulls on the Abbeystead estate on the Bowland Fells in Lancashire for decades, officially to stop water pollution. However, some experts believe the culling was also partly to protect grouse shooting interests.
The regulator Natural England now admits that, since a government-led bird conservation review occurred in 2001, “confusion” over the legal protection status of the species has allowed the culling to continue, despite its population crashing in recent years. Read more
Leo Hickman | The Guardian | 23rd May 2013
It is the most miserable day of the week, a return to reality from the elation of the weekend. To compound Monday’s reputation problem, new figures indicate it is also the day when people are most likely to have their mobile phone stolen – with skint thieves who have spent their funds over the weekend to blame.
Figures the Metropolitan Police released under the Freedom of Information Act this week detailed the rising number of mobile phone thefts by days of the week for the last three years in London. Monday became the most active time for muggers last year with some 17,382 thefts.
After beginning the week on Monday and Tuesday with a combined total 33,347 thefts, thieves appeared to suffer a midweek malaise last year when the numbers of thefts dropped to 29,952 combined on Wednesday and Thursday. Surprisingly it is Friday, when millions in the capital head out to the pubs, clubs and bars, that proved to be the day with least thefts last year with 14,876. Read more
Sam Masters | The Independent | 23rd May 2013
A government agency has licensed the secret destruction of the eggs and nests of buzzards to protect a pheasant shoot, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The action sets a historic precedent, being the first time such action has been licensed against any bird of prey to protect game shoots since raptors gained legal protection decades ago. Buzzards are recovering from near extinction and now number 40,000 breeding pairs, while 35m pheasants are bred each year for shoots.
It is also less than a year after the wildlife minister, Richard Benyon,abandoned related plans citing “public concerns”. Benyon, whose family estate in Berkshire runs shoots, cancelled plans to spend £375,000 on testing control measures for buzzards around pheasant shoots after a public outcry in May 2012. Read more
Damian Carrington | The Guardian | 23rd May 2013
Thousands of parents will leave their kids in creches and other childcare facilities today believing they are in secure hands and in well-regulated surroundings.
And, for the most part, they are. But as the Irish Independent revealed in a major expose last year, inspectors have found serious lapses of standards in many facilities, including Montessori schools.
The shocking litany of complaints included shouting at children and slapping, serious understaffing and youngsters being left go thirsty. We also uncovered, after a painstaking search and trawl through inspection reports obtained under Freedom of Information, damp and cold buildings and a lack of vetting of carers for possible criminal records. Read more
Eilish O’Regan | Irish Independent | 23rd May 2013
A solicitor for the families of two people killed during the Troubles made a Freedom of Information request for access to inquest records. The Public Record Office refused, saying it was not in the public interest to release the information.
That decision has been overturned by the Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín. Ms Ní Chuilín is responsible for overseeing the work of PRONI. The files held by the archive include documents from dozens of inquests into controversial killings.
The solicitor was seeking information about the deaths of Gabriel Higgins, who was shot dead by the UVF in September 1979, and Francis Toner, who was killed by members of the same paramilitary organisation in May 1982. Read more
BBC | 23rd May 2013
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea had previously dismissed three workers for making “inappropriate comments” about the DVLA, a colleague or customers on social media. The man was dismissed last year, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed.
A DVLA spokesman said it was “one of a list” of the worker’s “conduct issues”. He added: “DVLA staff cannot access any social networking sites on DVLA computers.
“Although instances of staff using social media inappropriately are extremely rare, any incidents of staff using social media at work on their personal phones are always investigated and could result in disciplinary action.” Read more
BBC | 22nd May 2013
Last month the Chancellor George Osborne boldly announced “This month, 9 out of 10 working households will be better off as a result of the changes we are making… And the average working household will be better off by over £300 a year.”
It came in a speech to Morrisons staff at the outset of a swathe of policy changes which began to be implemented last month, including the rollout of Universal Credit to replace a series of benefits, Personal Independence Payment (PIP) replacing Disability Living Allowance, a cap on the increase and total benefits working-age people are entitled to, and an increase in the income tax personal allowance.
At the time, Full Fact attempted to factcheck the 9 out of 10 figure to no avail. The Treasury neither published nor disclosed details of how the figure was arrived at. Now, one month on and one freedom of information request later, we’ve managed to get hold of the figures. Read more
Joseph O’Leary | Full Fact | 21st May 2013
Figures obtained by BBC Wales suggest a 23% increase across the country but Blaenau Gwent council received four times as many calls than in 2011. The RSPCA also received 2,200 equine complaints in 2012.
The Welsh government is considering new legislation on the issue and a consultation on abandoned horses finished last month. In response to a Freedom of Information request, 20 of the 22 local authorities in Wales revealed that in 2012 they dealt with 469 incidents – a 23% increase on the previous year.
Until March this year 165 incidents had already been reported. Some horse and pony re-homing charities say they have noticed an increase in abandoned animals too. Blaenau Gwent, which has several large areas of common land, saw the biggest increase in calls – from 34 in 2011 to 148 in 2012. Read more
Paul Heaney | BBC Wales | 22nd May 2013
A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the U.S. government had properly classified top secret more than 50 images of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden taken after his death and that the government did not need to release them.
The unanimous ruling by three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected a request for the images by a conservative nonprofit watchdog group. Judicial Watch sued for photographs and video from the May 2011 raid in which U.S. special forces killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after more than a decade of searching.
The organization’s lawsuit relied on the Freedom of Information Act, a 1966 law that guarantees public access to some government documents. In an unsigned opinion, the appeals court accepted an assertion from President Barack Obama’s administration that the images are so potent that releasing them could cause riots that would put Americans abroad at risk. Read more
The Daily Mail | 22nd May 2013
USE of the main government jet by ministers – the long-range Gulfstream IV – is to be published online for the first time in an attempt to put an end to negative publicity about its cost.
The use of the jet has dropped by more than a third since the recession began, but it still features occasionally in media reports on foot of Freedom of Information requests.
The cabinet decided yesterday that the use of the jet by ministers will be published on a monthly basis by the Department of Defence on its website. The details of the usage of the jet by the previous Fianna Fail-led government will also be put online – with the department confirming that all flights from 2008 onwards would be documented. Read more
Michael Brennan | Irish Independent | 22nd May 2013