Tag Archive for Campaign for FOI

London councils: how good are they at FOI?

FOIMan highlights a new report from the Campaign for FOI on good practice – and whether London councils are meeting it.

The Campaign for FOI has conducted research into the way London local authorities meet their FOI obligations – and has found a mixed picture. They found that:

  • whilst some councils answered almost all requests within 20 working days in 2017-18, three quarters of them failed to meet the ICO’s expectation of 90% answered on time, and seven councils answered on time less than 70% of the time
  • some councils even ignored the ICO’s interventions
  • a third of councils did not publish FOI stats as of December 2018, and very few councils publish figures on refusals
  • four councils do not publish an email address that applicants can use to make requests, instead insisting that requests are submitted via a form, and half of councils do not publish a telephone number so that applicants can ask for advice
  • two-thirds of London councils do not have a disclosure log
  • some councils reported having no internal guidance on FOI, and only a handful published their guidance on their website
  • some council guidance contained errors such as suggesting that staff could charge applicants.

The report makes 14 recommendations including quarterly publication of statistics (which is in any case what is required now under the new s.45 code), that the ICO be clear with authorities that they could face enforcement action, that stats, internal guidance and disclosure logs be published, and that authorities be more helpful to applicants. The full report can be read via the Campaign for FOI’s website (and you may want to consider donating to the Campaign if you find the report interesting).

If you’re working for a council and struggling with FOI, you will find The Freedom of Information Officer’s Handbook addresses all of these issues. You can, of course, also get in touch for training and for help with revising FOI policies and procedures – if that’s of interest, drop me a line.

Should Scottish schools have longer to answer FOI requests?

FOIMan discusses controversy in Scotland around allowing independent schools longer to answer FOI requests.

Campaigners south of the border must look to Scotland with envious eyes. Whilst the UK Campaign for FOI has to spend most of its time fighting for the status quo in the face of repeated attempts to water the UK Act down, the Scottish Government has recently extended FOI to certain private bodies providing public services – something many have called for at UK level but never achieved. Scottish campaigners and media aren’t happy though – they’re still pushing those boundaries.

The latest cause celebre is the Scottish Government’s planned regulations to allow independent special schools and grant-maintained schools covered by the Act to have more time to answer requests. Schools, of course, are pretty unique in that they tend to close during holiday periods. At UK level, regulations were made as far back as 2005 to reflect this. They have 20 school days or 60 working days (whichever is sooner) to answer requests (and yes, I know – they have to answer requests “promptly” and that these deadlines are backstops).

In Scotland it’s different for administrative and historical reasons. Public sector schools’ FOI requests are the responsibility of their local council. For this reason, the allowances made for schools across the rest of the UK have never been made in Scotland.

Now things are different though. The new independent sector schools that have been added to the Act’s coverage will have to answer requests themselves. Following consultation, the Scottish Government wants to address their concerns by making regulations more or less identical to the ones covering schools in the rest of the UK but just for independent special schools and grant-maintained schools that have been recently added.

This is being heavily criticised by the media in Scotland who are portraying it as dangerous backsliding on FOI principles. They argue that if this change is made for one part of the public sector, then it won’t be long before others call for the same exceptions.

Whether you share the Scottish media’s concerns or not will depend on your point of view. For the record, I haven’t seen much evidence that allowing all schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland longer to answer requests has led to other parts of the public sector begging for longer (they may take longer in practice but that’s another issue). But it’s got to be a good thing that campaigners in Scotland are able to marshal such support for FOI even whilst other issues dominate the headlines.

Sources:

Scottish Government consultation on new Time for Compliance Regulations

Scottish Herald editorial on the proposed changes

Mr Gove’s Internal Review

FOIMan explains why he is worried for the future of FOI as a result of the Justice Secretary’s comments yesterday.

Ministry of JusticeNews reports over the weekend suggested that the new Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, was planning a renewed attack on FOI. Well now we know for certain.

Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Mr Gove responded to questions from MPs about the media story that he thinks “we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act.” I’ve indicated before that I thought FOI would receive more attention this Parliament, but Mr Gove’s comments are particularly concerning as they seem to indicate that he is inclined to go further than the news stories suggested.

Anyone familiar with recent FOI history will have expected that this majority Conservative government would attempt to amend the fees regulations to make it easier for requests to be refused on grounds of cost. Indeed such an intention was expressed nearly three years ago when the government responded to the Justice Select Committee’s post-legislative scrutiny of FOI. The fact that the last government failed to follow through on its intentions appears to have been the result of a rearguard action by Liberal Democrat ministers.

Furthermore, David Cameron indicated after the Supreme Court’s ruling over Prince Charles’ letters to ministers that he wanted to change the law to reinforce the ability of the government to veto FOI disclosures. With the inconvenience of a general election out of the way, it would appear that there is little to stop his Justice Secretary from pursuing this desire now.

When the news stories emerged over the weekend, I paid little attention. As I’ve suggested, these moves were always likely now that internal opposition has been removed. I’m not happy about the idea of an enhanced veto or reduced cost limits, but I had already conceded to myself that such changes were probably inevitable in the current political climate.

However, Michael Gove’s comments yesterday appeared to indicate that he wants to go further than the “two-pronged assault” predicted in the media. He said:

“It is vital that we get back to the founding principles of freedom of information. Citizens should have access to data and they should know what is done in their name and about the money that is spent in their name, but it is also vital that the conversations between Ministers and civil servants are protected in the interests of good government.”

Mr Gove appears to be making a distinction between “data” such as how much is spent by a government department, and “information” which might include correspondence between government officials. This suggests a far more draconian restriction on FOI than we had been expecting. It seems likely that the exemption protecting the formulation of government policy may come under scrutiny. At present, the exemption is subject to a public interest test, which means that on occasion – not regularly – government departments are ordered to disclose such information by the Information Commissioner or the courts. The most likely change therefore is that the exemption may be made absolute – more difficult to overturn. As the Campaign for FOI has commented, this would be bad enough and would chip away at the fundamental principles of our current FOI law. But it is hard to discount anything from Mr Gove’s comments, which appear to suggest that this “review” of FOI may be more comprehensive than many had suspected.

Mr Gove’s comments are particularly ironic bearing in mind that he made them on the same day as a speech in which he argued that:

“The rule of law is the most precious asset of any civilised society. It is the rule of law which protects the weak from the assault of the strong; which safeguards the private property on which all prosperity depends; which makes sure that when those who hold power abuse it, they can be checked; which protects family life and personal relations from coercion and aggression; which underpins the free speech on which all progress – scientific and cultural – depends; and which guarantees the essential liberty that allows us all as individuals to flourish.”

It appears now that we breathed a premature sigh of relief in 2012 when the Justice Select Committee’s report turned out to be more supportive of FOI than we had expected. The biggest threat to the UK FOI Act is here and now.

Whatever your interest in FOI, if you believe that it ought to be stronger, not weaker, consider supporting the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Over the coming months there will be other ways to express our views, but ensuring that the Campaign can bring its expert knowledge and determination to bear is a good way to start.

 

Donate to the Campaign for Freedom of Information

FOIMan renews his call to support the Campaign for FOI.

Last summer I wrote about the financial difficulties that the Campaign for FOI was experiencing and called for anyone who has benefitted from or believes in the importance of FOI in the UK to provide their support. The Campaign still needs your help, and once again I’d like to urge anyone who doesn’t already donate to the Campaign to do so. Of course, if you can help in other ways, I’m sure the Campaign would love to hear from you.

Since June this very site has featured a link in the top right hand corner so you can easily find out how to donate. If you’re an FOI Officer, a campaigner, a journalist, a media organisation, a charity, or just plain curious, you’ve almost certainly benefitted from the Campaign’s good work in the past – first of all campaigning for the Act in the first place, then pushing the Government and Parliament to strengthen the Bill, and since then raising awareness about attempts to weaken the right to know.

So do it now. Go on. You know you want to. DONATE!

Campaign for the Campaign for Freedom of Information

FOI Man calls for anyone who uses FOI, benefits from it, or is interested in transparency to support the Campaign for Freedom of Information

I’ve been a bit quiet blog-wise over the last month, for which I apologise. The reason for this is that thanks to the success of this blog, I have been lucky enough to be offered freelance training work, been invited to speak at conferences, to write for journals, and to join panels at academic events. And May has been flush with all of these opportunities. Together with the day job, this leaves little time for blogging. Things look quieter in June, so you’ll be hearing much more from me this month. I heard that groan from the back and it won’t stop me, I tell you.

But there’s another reason that I’ve been lucky enough to be offered these opportunities. Since 1984 the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI) has been campaigning for FOI – first of all calling for an FOI Act in the first place, and since 2000 keeping an eye on and calling out the Government whenever it has looked like going back on the promise of transparency that FOI made to us. Most recently the Campaign has been drawing attention to the Government’s plans to make it easier for public authorities to refuse requests.

It is at least arguable that we would never have had a Freedom of Information Act under the last government without CFOI. It is certainly the case that the Act was stronger when passed than the Labour Government had intended because of the pressure that CFOI brought to bear on parliamentarians on all sides of both Houses (for evidence of this, look no further than the memoirs of the Minister responsible for the FOI Bill, Jack Straw). Others have pointed out that the conclusion of last year’s post-legislative scrutiny might well have been more negative if it hadn’t been for CFOI Director Maurice Frankel’s forensic dismantling of arguments made by FOI’s many critics.

Dr Evan Harris, former Liberal Democrat MP and Hacked Off campaigner, has written that CFOI is now struggling for funds. As with all campaign groups and charities, the Campaign is entirely dependent on the goodwill of those who support its aims. Without donations and volunteers it would not be able to do its good work. The trouble is that when there are so many good causes, it is difficult to stand out from the crowd. But there are many of us who owe CFOI our support.

Dr Harris draws attention to the use journalists and newspapers have made of FOI in stories as diverse as MPs’ expenses and the basis of Michael Gove’s more questionable utterances. But in addition to the media, there are many of us who have benefited from CFOI’s work over the last 30 years. I wouldn’t be in the job I’m in, be writing a blog about FOI, or have the opportunities I wrote of above. Many FOI Officers and records managers owe their employment to FOI’s continued existence. Training companies and legal firms make money from FOI. Charities are able to sharpen their campaigns using information obtained through FOI. Businesses use FOI to gain valuable intelligence on public sector contracts. And that’s ignoring the wider benefit to the public of the greater transparency that FOI has brought. And it probably isn’t going too far to argue that none of this would be the case without the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

Last year I worked with fellow FOI Officers and information law experts to establish the Save FOI campaign because I believed that FOI was under threat. The truth is that one of the best ways to save FOI and to keep it strong is to ensure that the dedicated and well informed team at CFOI are able to continue their efforts for years to come. If you’ve ever made an FOI request, been interested in a news story that was based on an FOI request, or just believe that FOI is a good thing, please consider making a donation – however small or large – to the Campaign.

It is easy to do. Earlier today I set up a standing order from my bank account to the Campaign for FOI, so that they will receive a regular monthly donation from me. The Campaign’s bank account details can be found in this form, and you can use these to set up a standing order using your online banking service. Other ways to donate or support the Campaign can be found on their website.