Tag Archive for Eric Pickles

FOI Man at Large: the DPO Conference

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to attend the Information Commissioner’s Data Protection Officers Conference in Manchester. Don’t be misled by the name though – there was plenty to entertain us FOI obsessives.

From the keynote speech from Lord McNally, the Lib Dem Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice, through to the Commissioner’s closing remarks, this was a conference that aimed to fully integrate the Commissioner’s Data Protection and FOI duties. So what was there that caught the eye on FOI?

It was clear from Lord McNally that support – and opposition – for FOI and openness issues is cross-party within the Coalition. He spoke of his surprise at finding himself on the same side as Francis Maude and Eric Pickles in meetings.

In questions, it became clear however that there was some dispute within Government over whether FOI should be extended to the private sector when it provides public services. Some in Government are sceptical as they argue that this would deter companies from bidding for Government contracts. From the tone of the Minister’s response it appeared that there is some fierce debate going on in Government on this very issue. Interestingly, Graham Smith of the ICO later argued that the private sector was effectively covered under the existing Act, as FOI continues to cover services provided on behalf of public bodies.

Lord McNally stated that the changes to the Information Commissioner’s role proposed in the Protection of Freedoms Bill were designed to strengthen the independence of the Commissioner. The Commissioner himself welcomed them later in the day, though he did suggest that if the Commissioner is only to serve one term, that term ought to be longer.

The Orders bringing ACPO and UCAS under FOI will be laid at some point from October this year. My guess, based on nothing in particular (other than neatness), would be that the aim would be for the order to come into force on 1 January 2012, but perhaps it will take effect instantly. I know that ACPO have some excellent people helping them prepare for this, and I’m sure it’s the same picture at UCAS.

Lord McNally also spoke about the changes to the 30 year rule for Public Records. He explained that the long lead in time is because the move to a 20 year rule is an expensive exercise.

Post-legislative scrutiny of FOI is seen by the Minister as an important step after 6 years of the Act. The fact that issues will be aired in a public forum will help in developing proposals to amend the Act further.

We also heard from Katie Davis of the Cabinet Office. It was clear from Katie’s presentation, as from the Minister’s speech, that the Government really does attach great importance to opening up public data. The Government’s aim is to be the most open and accountable government in the world. She explained that the Government’s Transparency Board, chaired by Francis Maude, was challenging assumptions across Whitehall. Its membership is certainly impressive – as well as ministers, it includes luminaries such as Professor Nigel Shadbolt (whose Southampton University home launched their open data repository this week) and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of a little thing called the world wide web). It was good in questions to hear her comment that Local Government is leading the way on transparency.

A question mark still remains over the impact of open data initiatives on the general right of access under FOI. Senior figures within the Information Commissioner’s Office remain as sceptical as many of us FOI Officers as to whether bulk disclosures will lead to reduced numbers of FOI requests.

Graham Smith, Director of FOI at the ICO, struck a cautious note. He commented that FOI was certainly embedded in the public sector; everyone knows they have to comply, but whether they want to is very much another matter. There is a culture of compliance rather than openness at present, in his view. The Government’s transparency agenda is very much welcomed by the ICO. Graham spoke of a lack of political direction on openness in the past which has contributed to lack of progress in changing the culture.

An interesting point raised by Graham was the fact that our FOI legislation was very much designed with paper record-keeping systems in mind. Now that much of the work of Government is carried out electronically, does that affect the effectiveness of the Act? Finally, he observed that the private sector appeared to be ‘waking up’ to FOI. Not just in terms of using it, but in realising the implications of FOI for their dealings with the public sector.

Later in the day, there was the message that public sector bodies shouldn’t be afraid to apply the provisions for vexatious and repetitious requests where necessary. Similarly aggregation of requests when estimating costs. The ICO will be supportive when looking at these cases where it is clear that requesters are making significant numbers of requests or are harassing authorities. It was clear that this attitude was coloured in part by the ICO’s own experience with some requesters! Public bodies should also be careful to protect personal details of their employees – in many cases, these details will still be protected by the Data Protection Act and section 40 ought to be utilised.

The Commissioner raised a laugh at the end of the day when, following his best impression of the former Prime Minister expressing his regret over FOI, he exclaimed, “Tony, it wasn’t about you!”. He reminded FOI Officers that we should be on the side of Dr Samuel Johnson – a famous exponent of openness – and not that of Cardinal Richelieu, who believed that secrecy was the first requirement of Government.

Right Old Pickles – Charging for FOI

Like many with an interest in FOI, I’ve been following the story over the last week of Hampshire County Council and their decision to lobby for a charge to be brought in for FOI requests. Last month I blogged about a similar call from the Metropolitan Police and commented that it was a debate worth having.

HCC claimed that FOI cost them £346,000 during 2009/10, much of which was spent responding to requests from journalists. “Why should taxpayers pay for newspapers to benefit?” asked Councillor Colin Davidovitz.

Last week, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, made it quite clear that he disagreed with such proposals. He is quoted as saying “If councillors and council officers are to be held to account, the press and public need access to the information that will enable them to do it… Greater local accountability is essential to accompany the greater powers and freedoms that the new government is giving to local government.”

Despite my previous post on the subject, I remain sceptical about charging for FOI requests. Apart from anything else, the figures bandied around when discussing this subject are notoriously unreliable. Hampshire were quite open about their calculations in reaching the quoted figure (for which they deserve credit), but they don’t really stand up to scrutiny. It appears that it assumes that every request received during 2009/10 cost the maximum £450 to comply with, and then adds an extra sum on top of that. Of course, many requests are relatively easy to answer, and don’t cost anywhere near that.

Another reason for my scepticism is that cost is a very easy way to attack any public service, and in this case you can’t help but feel that inconvenience (political and otherwise) might be a major motivator. Especially as whenever these stories are brought up, it is always journalists who are given as the prime example. I’ve always tended to feel that it is a good thing if journalists use the Act – they are most likely to do something useful with what they are given, and get it out to a wider public.

(Mind you, I sympathise with one of my readers who suggests that journalists should have to publish a log of requests they’ve made that they never write about – it’s very frustrating when you’ve spent a long time preparing material and then it remains unused in a hack’s inbox.  This especially happens of course when the material shows the authority in a good light).

Another reason for being cautious about the figures quoted for the ‘cost’ of FOI is that they rarely take into account the savings that undoubtedly result from FOI. In my experience requests do from time-to-time highlight expenditure that is unnecessary. It’s impossible to know, but I’m sure that the fear of FOI (especially post MP’s expenses) prevents abuse of finances and focusses the minds of those in charge of spending in many situations. We can’t provide hard figures for all of these savings, but I suspect they are significant, and they’re usually completely ignored by those citing ‘the cost of FOI’.

So I find myself on the same side as Mr Pickles on this (not a position I gladly take up, I have to say). That said, I still think there’s a need for an open debate about the resource taken up by FOI and how it can best be balanced against the impending cuts that all public services are facing.

Mr Pickles suggests that councils can cut down on FOI requests by publishing more data. Like many FOI Officers and other public officials, I’m sceptical about this. Many requests are for very specific information that would be unlikely to appear in generic datasets. Experience shows that the more information you publish, the more requests you receive for information drilling down even further. There are even websites now that encourage and facilitate this. So, publishing more data is unlikely to reduce the cost of FOI significantly (though it’s undoubtedly a good thing to do). Followers of my Twitter account (@foimanuk) may also have noticed that I’m rather sceptical about the Government’s ‘Transparency’ agenda (in that it appears to consist of announcements about not-very-much-at-all).

Even the Campaign for FOI is not entirely against charging for FOI requests. Maurice Frankel of CFOI is quoted in Portsmouth’s The News as saying “We have no real objection to straightforward commercial requests carrying a charge.” Mind you, this goes completely against current government policy, which is to encourage the disclosure to and re-use of data by business, so there probably isn’t much scope there for reform.

A straightforward charge for FOI requests is probably too blunt an instrument to use to manage their flow, and is unlikely to be implemented in the current political climate. But there is still a need for everyone with an interest in FOI to debate the options on how we can better do this. Should we charge for certain types of request? Should the fees regulations be adjusted to cover more activities? Politicians developing FOI policy need to consider the impact on public authorities as well as the desire (which most of us share) to deliver greater openness.