NHS reform risk report veto is sign of freedom of information downgrade, says watchdog
Blocking the publication of a report into the risks of NHS reforms is a sign that ministers want to downgrade freedom of information laws, a watchdog has warned.
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham launched a scathing criticism of the decision to exercise the Government’s veto in a report on the case to Parliament.
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley deployed it to block an Information Tribunal ruling that he should meet Labour demands to disclose the document.
Joe Churcher | The Independent | 15th May 2012
Private firms face FoI for government contracts
The Commons public accounts committee says companies doing business with central government should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and should have their performance and contracts examined by the government’s spending watchdogs.
In its report on the Work Programme on Tuesday, the committee recommended that the Cabinet Office Efficiency Reform Group (ERG) should extend its work to ensure that taxpayers get better value from companies that depend on central government deals for most of their income.
Jane Duhman | The Guardian | 15th MAy 2012
Anonymous takes down ICO web site
Hacktivist collective Anonymous has taken down the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) web site.
The distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack is thought to be directed by a group on Twitter calling itself the “Anon Ateam” in protest against what it believes is corruption within the Leveson inquiry.
A spokesperson for the ICO, a pubic body that deals with independent advice and guidance about data protection and freedom of information, confirmed that access to the web site had been “disrupted over the past few days”.
Lee Bell | The Inquirer | 15th May 2012
Civil servants caught looking at private files in personal data breaches
Almost 1,000 DWP staff were disciplined in a 10-month period for unlawfully or inappropriately accessing social security records, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information laws.
Meanwhile, over the past year there were at least 13 cases per month of unlawful access to medical records reported to the Department of Health (DoH).
Andrew Hough | The Telegraph | 14th May 2012
The climate sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation is a “highly connected political lobbying machine” and the Charity Commission should therefore disclose the name of its seed funder, a barrister told the Information Rights Tribunal according to a report in The Times on Saturday.
The Guardian, the Brisbane Times as well as the blogs DeSmogBlog and Climate Progress also reported Friday’s Information Tribunal hearing where Brendan Montague, the director of Request Initiative, asked judge Alison McKenna to disclose the name of the seed funder of Lord Lawson’s climate sceptic charity.
Robin Hopkins, representing Brendan Montague, was quoted in the Times on Saturday describing the GWPF as a “highly connected political lobbying machine” and arguing that the identity of the donor that made the launch of the foundation possible could not be “of greater relevance or greater impact”.
Mr Montague has appealed the Information Commissioner’s decision to withhold the name of the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s seed funder. The Guardian published two letters on the day of the tribunal signed by scientists and experts supporting Mr Montague’s request, having reported on the tribunal hearing the previous Monday.
The editors in chief of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Lancet signed an open letter stating: “Although Lawson and his Global Warming Policy Foundation have been discredited and attacked by numerous scientists and senior politicians, his thinktank continues to receive significant coverage, wrongfully distorting the public and policy debate over climate change.” The second letter was written by Dr Robin Russell Jones, the chair of Planetary SOS.
The Brisbane Times quoted Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Australia’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, who said: “The public should know who is funding climate denial so they can properly judge the information put out by organisations like the Global Warming Policy Foundation.”
Joe Romm’s US based Climate Progress hosted a guest blog post by leading climate scientist James Hansen who warned: “Public doubt about the science is not an accident. People profiting from business-as-usual fossil fuel use are waging a campaign to discredit the science. Their campaign is effective because the profiteers have learned how to manipulate democracies for their advantage.”
The Canadian DeSmogBlog highlighted GWPF’s scale of influence, using one statement found on the thinktank’s website: “The key to the success of the GWPF is the trust and credibility that we have earned in the eyes of a growing number of policy makers, journalists and the interested public.”
The Freedom of Information request was made by Mr Montague in a personal capacity in mid-2010 before the launch of the Request Initiative, a not-for-profit community interest company which makes requests on behalf of charities, NGOs and those acting in the public interest.
He said: “A thorough understanding of the act and extensive research allowed me to keep the legal fees extremely reasonable and I am therefore able to cover them personally. Request was established with the aim of making transparency laws in the UK accessible to charities of all sizes and budgets despite the legal complexity of using the tribunals.”
Criminals intimidate victims via social media
Convicted criminals, including murderers have taunted victims and their families over social networks, sometimes even from behind bars, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express report. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that 143 Facebook profiles used for intimidation have been removed between July 2009 and June 2010. Another 199 were removed between July 2010 and June last year.
Cabinet Office official attacks lobbying reform campaigners
In the run-up to the publication of the Government’s controversial consultation paper on lobbying regulation, the Cabinet Office rejected an FoIA request to disclose details of its contacts with the lobbying industry, The Independent reports. Eirian Walsh-Atkins, head of constitutional policy at the Cabinet Office and in charge of drawing up plans to regulate lobbying posted on Friday a message on Twitter saying she hoped a group fighting for better regulation of the industry “would die”. The Times later reported the Cabinet Office apologized for her remarks and stated she will remain employed in another role while an investigation continues.
THERE IS “enormous public interest” in naming the climate sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation’s seed donor and “a pressing need to scrutinise” any links he has with the oil and coal industry, an information tribunal judge heard today (Friday, January 27, 2012).
Brendan Montague, the co-founder and director of the Request Initiative, asked the tribunal to reveal the name of the wealthy public figure who gave £50,000 to launch Lord Lawson’s think tank, an increasingly influential charity which attacks climate science and has called for changes to climate policies.
Mr Montague’s initial Freedom of Information request was refused by the Charity Commission in 2010 and that decision was upheld by the Information Commissioner on the grounds that it would be “unfair” to release personal data without permission from the funder.
However, Mr Montague took the case to the Information Tribunal arguing there is a “legitimate public interest” in releasing the name because the cash has financed Lord Lawson’s charity while it has been calling for huge changes in government policy. The donor handed over at least £50,000 out of a total of £500,000 raised by Lord Lawson in the first year of the foundation’s existence.
The public interest argument has been supported by professor James Hansen, adjunct professor at the Columbia University Earth Institute and one of the first influential voices to warn of catastrophic climate change. Hansen has been joined by professors John Abraham and Stephen Lewandowsky in his calls for transparency on the GWPF’s funders.
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 Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change, are also supporting the request.
Dr Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the British Medical Journal; Dr Richard Horton, editor in chief of the Lancet; Hugh Montgomery, professor of intensive care medicine; Anthony Costello, professor of international child health; Rachel Stancliffe, director of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare; Dr Robin Stott, co-chair of the Climate and Health Council and Maya Tickell-Painter, director of the Medsin Healthy Planet Campaign, have publicly supported the Freedom of Information request, although this does not form part of the hearing.
Mr Hopkins told the judge:
“There is enormous public interest in transparency as to who that individual is. There is a pressing need to scrutinise whether or not that person has any ‘significant interest’ in the energy industry. It appears that the Charity Commission makes no attempt to address that issue – it is left entirely in the hands of the GWPF itself.
“Further, it is important that the public knows which high-profile figure has this degree of influence within GWPF. Parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee has expressed this public interest and has pressed for transparency on the issue of GWPF’s donors. It has been stonewalled.”
Professor Hansen, whose testimony before the United States Congress in 1988 focused international attention on climate change, writes in his witness statement:
“Climate change is a moral issue of unprecedented scope, a matter of intergenerational injustice, as today’s adults obtain benefits of fossil fuel use, while consequences are felt mainly by young people and future generations…
“The fossil fuel kingpins are separated from the foot soldiers who serve as their public mouthpieces, separated by multiple layers of people, and even by corporations…the public has the right to know who is supporting the foot soldiers for business-as-usual and to learn about the web of support for the propaganda machine that serves to keep the public addicted to fossil fuels and destroys the future of their children.”
Professor John Abraham, associate professor of engineering with expertise in thermal-fluid sciences at the University of St Thomas in Australia, said:
“The GWPF has been engaged in significant obfuscation with respect to the reality of climate change and they have been engaged in unwarranted criticisms of well-respected scientists…
“It is a charade institution meant to suggest that scientists are still debating the cause of climate change. With it now apparent that the scientist-advisors of the GWPF are anything but scientists, it is clear that this organization is tailored to promote mistruths and half-truths. Consequently, the release of information regarding the funding of GWPF is in the public’s interest.”
Professor Stephen Lewandowsky, a Winthrop professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia, said:
“The GWPF has engaged in on-going obfuscation of the reality of climate change and they have been purveying unwarranted criticisms of well-respected scientists. I believe that the GPWF is an outfit dedicated to mislead the public into thinking that climate scientists are still debating the cause of climate change— when in fact the peer-reviewed literature abounds with evidence that those fundamentals were resolved long ago.”
Professor Naomi Oreskes, professor of history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego and adjunct professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said:
“The Global Warming Policy Foundation is the latest incarnation of a climate sceptic think tank that conforms to the model first devised by public relations firms working on behalf of the tobacco industry… The website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation publishes many of the claims devised and propagated by the earlier climate change deniers.
“The Global Warming Policy Foundation is practicing climate denial and effectively creating doubt about whether climate change is being caused by carbon dioxide emissions while actively campaigning for changes in government policy relating to the regulation of carbon dioxide. In doing so, it is clearly acting in the interests of the fossil fuel industry and against the general public interest.”
Professor Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt [correct] University, Canberra, said:
“The reluctance of governments around the world to act with the alacrity and seriousness warranted by the scientific warnings has in substantial measure been due to the campaign to discredit climate science by a network of well funded think tanks and related organisations.
“The Global Warming Policy Foundation advances the same arguments put forward by ‘sceptic’ organisations in the United States, and has links to some of them…when assessing the claims of the GWPF the public has a right to know who is funding it.
“Given the enormous states, the conflicting claims, and the shadowy but now well documented history of financing of sceptic organisations by politically motivated corporations and individuals connected to the fossil-fuel industries, the principle of transparency is of utmost importance, and I urge the Information Rights Tribunal to instruct the Charity Commission to make public the funding sources of the GWPF.”
Tribunal judge Alison McKenna is expected to reach a decision within four weeks. She will either decide the name must be disclosed in which case she will produce a substitute decision notice which the Information Commissioner’s Office will then communicate to the Charity Commission. It is possible the judge could ask for the name to be released within 35 days of the decision notice. If the judge rules against publishing the donor’s name, the case may be appealed to the Upper Tribunal on legal grounds.
The Global Warming Policy Foundation was founded in November 2009 ahead of the Copenhagan conference on climate change. The foundation has received £500,000 in funding from individuals and family trusts. Lord Lawson has refused to reveal the name of any of his funders.
Lord Lawson gave evidence before the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons in March 2010 where he accused the University of East Anglia of failing to be transparent about climate science.
“We are absolutely clean. I would be very happy to see the names of all our donors published, I can assure you, it would be very, very good.
“But if they wish to remain anonymous, for whatever reason, maybe they have other family members who take a different view and they do not want to have a row within the family, maybe they do not want a whole lot of other people asking them for money…”
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 set up the charity. The commission has refused to release the name or the bank statement. The commission does not hold information about any of the other funders.
Research conducted by the Reuters Institute of the Study of Journalism has shown that the GWPF has been the country’s most effective climate sceptic organisation, while Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change has argued that information published by the charity is inaccurate.
Lord Lawson served as energy minister under Margaret Thatcher. He was later 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 is chairman of Central Europe Trust Co Ltd, a consultancy business dealing in assets in Eastern Europe for which he has earned £76,000 a year. The company, in which Lawson was previously a shareholder, boasts that BP Amoco and Shell have been major clients. The company suffered losses and Lawson no longer has a financial stake.
Lorenzo, the software system designed to connect the patient records of 30 million people across England, has failed to live up to its promises, The Times reports. According to the National Audit Office, the software system has suffered from 3,128 defects.
The computer screen has indicated that some patients are dead when, in fact, they are very much alive. Doctors refuse to touch virtual records, preferring their pen-and-paper notes.
The health service is refusing a request under the Freedom of Information Act to provide details of the debacle, claiming that disclosure might damage the US manufacturer’s share price.
The software is produced by the US group Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and was introduced back in June at the University Hospital of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.
Morecambe Bay has claimed that false death reports were “purely a cosmetic screen presentation issue”. There had been a problem, it added, “where patients were being shown as deceased on screen when clearly they were not. We established the issue was as a result of the upgrade not completing 100 per cent correctly”.
But the hospital’s refusal to disclose information requested under FoIA raises suspicion over the true nature of events.
CSC’s Lorenzo system was described by Richard Bacon MP, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, who has tracked failings in NHS IT, as the “one of the most egregious mistakes” of the NHS IT saga. “I hadn’t heard of the term ‘vapour ware’ at the time but that’s what it was,” he said. “It hadn’t been written. It was just an idea in somebody’s head.”
Because of delays in developing Lorenzo, CSC has developed 81 such systems to trusts whose software was in urgent need of replacing. While the Department of Health considers them substandard under the aims of its national IT programme, it has said that it does not expect all of them to be replaced.
The Department of Health refused to provide specific information about Lorenzo. The department said: “In relation to the class action, if this information has an impact on the current case, it is likely to be reflected in the CSC share price.”
Controversial new school banding system designed to raise performance shows best and worst in Wales
Nearly a third of Wales’ 22 local authorities have no school in the Welsh Government’s top cluster, while some councils lay claim to as many as 85% in the bottom two bands. Blaenau Gwent and Pembrokeshire – both the subject of recent damning reports into standards – recorded a large proportion of schools in Bands Four and Five. The banding process is designed to help local authorities support their schools more effectively, with high-performing secondaries expected to share best practice.
Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews warned failing schools that they would be held accountable by the public: “You cannot un-invent the Freedom of Information Act – parents and pupils have a right to know what is best in Wales and how their schools measure up.”
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 British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) has won a landmark case against Newcastle University at the Information Tribunal, The Independent reports.
After a legal battle that began in 2008, the tribunal ruled that the public interest in revealing the information BUAV had requested under FoIA, outweighed any potential danger to scientists’ safety or the university’s commercial interests.
BUAV had originally requested information about highly invasive brain experiments on macaques which involved implanting electrodes into the animals’ brains to record activity while they were forced repeatedly to undergo various tasks.
The campaign group also raised the fact that according to the UK legislation, animals should not be used where non-animal methods can give the desired information and believes Newcastle University could replace the macaques with human volunteer studies using non-invasive imaging machines such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
The University has already spent £230,000 opposing the requests and is expected to resort to the Court of Appeal, arguing the licences are exempt under the Animal Scientific Procedures Act.
The tribunal’s decision will have an impact on research transparency at all British universities and it follows calls from Sir Paul Nurse for the FoI Act to be reviewed in order to protect scientific research.
But Michelle Thew, Chief Executive of the BUAV has responded to Sir Paul Nurse’s comments with a letter to The Independent saying:
“You highlight the fact that the Freedom of Information Act applies to universities, not just central and local government. And so it should – universities are publicly funded and engage in important and sometimes controversial research, which may influence public policy.”
City of London refuses to open up to FoIA
The City of London will remain the only local authority in the UK not accountable to public scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act, as its talks with Occupy London have hit a dead end. The Guardian reports City has rejected Occupy’s calls for more transparency in order to leave St Paul’s and instead, it is restarting eviction proceedings.
Householders can wait up to a decade in allotments’ waiting lists
FoIA requests logged by the University of Leicester to 216 councils across England have revealed householders applying for an allotment may end up waiting for over a decade. The Telegraph and The Daily Mail also report 32 of the councils providing information had closed their waiting lists altogether.
An all-party parliamentary group, chaired by Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie is asking for full disclosure of intelligence documents possibly implicating British officials in secret renditions of UK residents to Guantánamo Bay and other notorious jails.
The Guardian reports that an Information Tribunal is currently examining whether or not those documents should be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, as lawyers for the Foreign Office claim.
The newspaper also mentions that Tyrie’s parliamentary group is opposing the refusal of the FCO with the support of the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham.
The team asks for the release of documents relating to three cases: The rendition and ill-treatment of UK resident and Guantánamo detainee Binyam Mohamed, the FCO’s request to former US state department legal adviser John Bellinger to claim Washington opposed the disclosure of CIA information about Mohamed that was passed on to MI5 and MI6, and finally communications between Britain’s intelligence and CIA about Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, who were also held in Guantánamo Bay.
Ian Cobain, a journalist for the Guardian, told the tribunal that a pattern of allegation and denial followed by later acknowledgement that the allegations may have had substance after all “has been repeated several times over the last six years”. The case continues.
Doctor trainees’ rotas might ignore EU directive
FoIA replies relating to junior doctors’ rotas in NHS trusts had been brought into question by Bob Greatorex, the head of workforce planning and professional standards, it emerged today. The Telegraph reports 57 of the 77 trusts questioned replied to British Medical Journal Careers’ requests and although the data show all comply with the EU directive of a 48-hour limit, Mr Greatorex doubted its accuracy saying many trainees work extra hours not recorded under the system.
Scottish Executive’s secretary communications flooded with personal data instead of governmental issues
Sir Peter Housden seems more preoccupied with mundane hobbies, films and shopping than governmental issues, judging by his weekly updates to thousands of his staff. An FoIA request filed from The Telegraph, revealed that the Scottish Executive’s permanent secretary even received a complaint from a civil servant that he was not saying enough about his actual job.
Scottish First Minister criticised for ‘culture of secrecy’
Alex Salmond was brought under pressure last night for refusing to disclose information about any legal advice received pertaining to independent Scotland’s statutes in Europe, the Scotsman reports today. Following an FoIA request, the First Minister said according to the Ministerial Code of Conduct such advice is confidential, but a spokesman for the Scottish Labour party complained Mr Salmond was adopting a “culture or secrecy”. “The only thing stopping him from doing it may be that the Scottish Government hasn’t taken legal advice, or that it fatally undermines his case,” he said.
Carmarthenshire council spends £100,000 on private eyes
A freedom of information request to Carmarthenshire council revealed it has spent £100,000 on private detectives over the past three years, This is South Wales reports.
A hundred thousand people have signed a petition calling on the Cabinet Office to release documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act showing the advice to Margaret Thatcher at the time of the Hillsborough disaster.
Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, has ruled that the government must release papers presented to the then prime minister and minutes from cabinet meetings about the tragedy.
However, the Cabinet Office has now lodged an appeal with the Information Tribunal, which blocks the release of the documents in the short term, on the basis that a new inquiry has been launched.
The BBC made the original request in 2009 – on the 20th anniversary of the deadly stadium crush that killed 96 Liverpool FC fans. When it was refused they complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Following the BBC’s request a new independent panel was set up to re-open investigations into the Hillsborough tragedy.
The cabinet has argued that is in the public interest to let the public inquiry take its course and has promised that all documents will be disclosed after the publication of the report next spring.
Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s freedom of information specialist, has said: “I have now looked more carefully at the terms of reference for this panel, and it is far from clear that it will actually promote the release of all the documents we asked for under FOI.
“Its planned programme of disclosures will exclude ‘information indicating the views of ministers, where release would prejudice the convention of cabinet collective responsibility’.”
However, Phil Scraton, lead investigator on the panel, told the Guardian: “The important aspect of full disclosure is that the families are the first to receive material from the panel and that it then goes more broadly into the public domain.”
As the petition now has over 100,000 signatories the issue will now be debated in parliament under the rules of the governments new e-petition scheme.