Conservative MP, David Mowat has used the FoIA to reveal that “around 3,000″ BBC workers have avoided paying PAYE tax by billing the BBC through personal service companies,reports the Telegraph. Furthermore, 31 of these have not had tax deducted at source from their £100,000 a year salaries. 318 on salaries of £50,000 reportedly have similar arrangements.
The Telegraph writes: “The true figure could be higher as the BBC said it excluded “talent” such as high-profile presenters and reporters, as well as people working in commercial subsidiaries”.
Stephen Barclay, a Tory MP on the Public Accounts Committee, said: “This [FoIA] reply shows that there is a need for much greater transparency at the BBC because the figures do not include so many people from BBC’s talent – which covers its main presenters – and its commercial operations.
The findings follow last month’s disclosure that Ed Lester, chief executive of the Student Loans Company, was potentially allowed to avoid paying thousands of pounds in tax by being paid through a private firm in a deal approved by the Coalition.
Thousand of paedophiles, drug dealers and violent thugs caught trying to get jobs as teachers.
“Paedophiles, violent thugs and drug dealers were among more than 4,000 offenders who applied to become teachers last year despite having almost 10,000 criminal convictions between them,” reports that Daily Mail.
In 2011, the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) refused 4,098 out of 263,477 applicants for school jobs, who, between them, shared 9,493 convictions. These include 50 sex offences, 11 for arson, and two for death threats.
Separate figures showed that sex offenders and hundreds of violent criminals applied to work in nurseries last year. A CRB spokesman said: “Criminal records checks have helped to stop at least 130,000 unsuitable people from working or volunteering with children or vulnerable people”.
Spain moves towards freedom of information law amid outrage over corruption
Freedom of information in Spain has come one step nearer after newly elected government agrees to introduce bill, reports the Washington Post.
Spain is one of the few European nations without freedom of information legislation. However, the country’s cabinet has agreed to put forward legislation that will allow Spaniards to find out more about how their money is spent by government.
The goal of the new law is to make public officials at all levels much more accountable for how they spend taxpayer money. The Washington Post reports: “Under the new bill, information on subjects including senior public servants’ salaries and detailed data on government contracts and subsidies will be published online. Spaniards will also be able to file requests for other kinds of information providing it does not breach national security or personal privacy.”
Journalists should be granted greater access to sensitive personal data in cases where publication has a strong public interest under the Freedom of Information Act, a leading barrister told data protection officers today.
Robin Hopkins, a practicing barrister specialising in transparency, was speaking at the Information Commissioner’s Office Data Protection Officer Conference in Manchester attended by hundreds of staff from councils, central government, the NHS and private companies from Apple to Zurich Financial Services.
He identified a trend in decisions by information tribunals in deciding sensitive personal data should be given to reporters for publication where there was a public interest even where that same data would not be given to a member of the public.
“Journalists have a stronger hand to play at tribunal than they had even 18 months ago,” he said. Graham Smith of the Information Commissioner’s Office chaired the session and added: “The applicant blind element is starting to crack a bit and I don’t think that is entirely inappropriate.
Hopkins, from the law firm 11KBW and a blogger at panopticonblog.com, referred to the success of Ian Cobain of The Guardian in obtaining information relating to the prosecution of BNP leader Nick Griffin’s 1998 prosecution.
He pointed to the fact that Condition 10 of Schedule 3 of Section 40 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act triggers the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000.
In the order “lawful processing” of personal data includes publication by a journalist where disclosure serves a “substantial public interest” and also “in connection with” issues such as “the commission of an unlawful act”.
The Freedom of Information Act states that public bodies must treat requests in a way which is “applicant blind”. However, this clause in the Data Protection act is recognised as an exemption.
Smith also told the workshop of data protection officers that there was nothing in the law preventing them from asking about the applicant if that was helpful, for example if they are a journalist, although they could not limit the information disclosed based on the answer.
Transparency in Government means officials must stop hiding behind the Data Protection Act and publish and share more information, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude told hundreds of public sector staff today.
Maude was speaking on “the transparency agenda” at the Information Commissioner’s Office Data Protection Officer Conference in Manchester attended by hundreds of staff from councils, central government, the NHS and private companies from Apple to Zurich Financial Services.
Maude told the audience that the failure to share data was costing the UK more than £38billion in fraud, uncollected debt and error every year and that that the public sector must rid itself of the “ultra-cautious and conservative – with a small ‘c’ – culture.”
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General argued that data sharing would lead to considerable advances in medical knowledge, and drastically improve public services while reducing costs.
He said that sharing data could seem “risky, difficult and uncomfortable” but that data was “the new feedstuff” for innovative companies and that public services must support the “proper, beneficial exploitation of data”.
He added: “Opposition parties are always very keen on transparency. Governments for the first 12 months are also keen as they are exposing the mistakes of the previous administration. However, after the first year this dwindles.
“I hope no-one can accuse this government of losing its enthusiasm for transparency. Transparency is an irresistible, unstoppable force. Open government is not always comfortable but we like it.”
Later in the 30 minute speech, he said: “We must not be immobilized by the fear of taking steps forward but we must be very careful with people’s data. There is no room for complacency about our current legal structures. The Data Protection Act was introduced in a different era when the Internet was just a twinkle in people’s eyes.
“There are amazing opportunities in an open world to do great things like improving our medical knowledge and innovation which will make our public services run much better for much less taxpayers’ money.”
Tim Kelsey, executive director of transparency and open data at the Cabinet Office, spoke after Maude and called for the introduction of a “culture of a presumption of publication in public services” and for a “Trip Advisor” for public services.
The government would be making new announcements in May and June this year relating to transparency and data sharing among departments. The European Commission is negotiating new data protection regulation, which is expected to be enforced from 2016.
The Crown Prosecution Service and Met Police paid a family more than £600,000 in damages and costs after a child witness was identified to a gang. The BBC reports: “The 16-year-old boy had been promised anonymity to give evidence about a violent gang attack, but details were inadvertently passed to gang members.”The information was disclosed to the BBC after Freedom of Information request.
In a statement, the boy, his mother and her partner told BBC News they had been left with “no option” but to leave their homes, careers, families and friends “without even being able to say goodbye”.
In December 2010, the CPS revealed – following a Freedom of Information Act request by the BBC about civil claims – it had made a payment of £350,000 but refused to provide further information.
The BBC appealed to the Information Commissioner and was told by the CPS in December 2011 that the claim related to a “failed request for anonymity at a trial”. No other information was given.
It was only after a further request to senior prosecution officials that the CPS agreed to provide fuller details about the case.
BBC wins its legal battle to suppress Israel Report
Lawyer Steven Sugar, who passed away last year, made a Freedom of Information request in 2005 for disclosure of the 20,000-word Balen Report, which examined the corporation’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
His widow, Fiona Paveley, took up his appeal. Her lawyer, Michael Levey, said the family were ‘considering their options’ after the Supreme Court dismissed the latest appeal after ruling the report was ‘outside the scope’ of the FoI Act. The BBC argued it was exempt from revealing information it held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature’.
Tory MP Mike Freer, vice-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, said: ‘This is the worst of all outcomes.
‘It fuels suspicion they have got something to hide.’
A spokesman for the BBC insisted it did not have anything to hide about its Middle East coverage but had pursued the case to defend its right to protect information about its journalism.
Olympic ticket ‘secrecy’ criticised
The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) has been able to withhold information about ticket prices and has refused to share details of sales with the public due to its status as a private company. This makes it exempt from Freedom of Information requests, the London Assembly’s economy, culture and sport committee noted.
After a two-year campaign, the committee is still demanding answers to a range of questions about the 8.8 million Olympic and two million Paralympics tickets for the public. In late 2010, London 2012 suggested that out of 8.8 million Olympic tickets, 2.5 million (28%) would cost £20 or less. It has refused to provide information to prove whether cheaper tickets were spread equally across all events, or concentrated in events such as football, where supply exceeds demand.
Committee chairman Dee Doocey said: ‘Locog’s legal status should not excuse them from the transparency and openness we expect in other areas of public life.’ ‘It is completely unacceptable that an organisation that only exists because of a huge investment of public money can hide behind its status as a private company to avoid questions it does not like,” he added.
Taxi firms get EUR1m for transfers
Two taxi companies each received more than EUR1million from the Health and Safety Executive for patient and staff transport in 2010 the Daily Mirror reports. The payments were part of a total of EUR26million paid to different cab firms. Figures released by the HSE following a FoIA request show National Radio Cabs was paid EUR1.34million and the Corkbased Sun Cabs got EUR1million in 2010. Fianna Fail Health spokesman Billy Kelleher TD said the transfer of patients for treatments “is an essential part of the HSE service”. He added: “Equally, the HSE should tighten up and ensure that is no duplication of service or unnecessary trips made.”
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.
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.
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.
In the most significant FOI-related story this week, the US Justice Department has recommended that federal agencies should be able to lie to citizens about what information they hold. As the Telegraph reported on Tuesday, the proposed rule would direct government agencies denying a request on grounds of an established exemption to “respond to [it] as if the excluded records did not exist”.
A coalition of transparency campaigners said the rule would “dramatically undermine government integrity by allowing a law designed to provide public access to government to be twisted.” The joint statement by the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and OpenTheGovernment.org, warns that the move would disrupt judicial oversight of the government and undermine the principle that agencies bear the burden or proving that exceptions are properly applied.
While the rule would only apply to material already protected from FOI requests, it might prevent citizens from suing to obtain information if they did not know it existed at all. At present agencies can only say they “neither confirm nor deny” the existence of records.
The proposal follows controversy over the Obama administration’s appeal this month against a court decision compelling it to release full records of White House visitors. President Obama accepted an award for transparency in government in March this year.
Other stories this week
The Mirror reported that FOI requests by insurer Aviva showed burglaries rising by 26% last October during the week the clocks changed. The same newspaper wrote that civil service energy bills totalled £5.8 million following an FOI request by energyhelpline.com. Co-Op Motor Group, meanwhile, found through requests that the number of drivers losing their license due to poor eyesight has more than doubled in four years. The Daily Mail reports that 367 ‘suspected foreign nationals’ arrested in connection with August’s riots were referred to the UK Border Agency, while an FOI request by the Scottish Conservative Party revealed local authorities were only paying 31% of their bills to businesses and contractors within the 10 days recommended by government guidelines.
Finally, an FOI request to the Information Commissioner’s Office from Barbara Whittle, published at www.whatdotheyknow.com, asked how often the Office consults whatdotheyknow.com. It transpires that the ICO has lost all information regarding how often they consult www.whatdotheyknow.com.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) faces embarrassment today as emails released under FoIA show that it tried to “bury” an unpopular decision among others.
The watchdog Privacy International had raised concerns that Internet Eyes, a website that streamed live CCTV of shops in Stratford upon Avon for the public to monitor, was in breach of the Data Protection Act and asked the ICO to investigate.
The Telegraph reports: “The office concluded it was not and only asked Internet Eyes to sign an undertaking of good behaviour.”
Privacy International, unhappy with the decision, then used the FoIA to obtain emails and memos from the ICO in relation to the decision.
Ironically it transpired that the ICO, which promotes good information governance and transparency, sought to bury the news with the release of other decisions and amongst other news.
An enforcement official wrote: “It has occurred to us that the ICO may not wish this release to stand out from the crowd – maybe it world [sic] be better to send the letter today and publish Wednesday or Thursday this week to ‘bury’ it amongst others?”
An ICO press officer added: “Yes, we would ideally not want this to attract much publicity but as Privacy International is the complainant this is no easy task.”
The news was eventually released on the 14th June, the same day that teachers threatened to strike, the coalition was accused of an NHS U-turn and government confirmed that sex offenders could apply to be removed from the register.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International told the Telegraph: “We have criticised the Information Commissioner’s Office for many years over its failure to uphold privacy rights in the UK but this episode has cast a more sinister and disturbing light on the activities of the regulator.”
He added: “There is need for urgent reform to the way the ICO operates. It is clear that the Office is now incapable of fulfilling its statutory responsibilities and that it has become a danger both to openness and to privacy.”
The news comes on International Right to Know Day 2011, a day marked to champion transparency, privacy and government accountability.