Tag Archive for Freedom of Information

Charles’ Letters: Will Dominic Grieve?

FOIMan reflects on last week’s long-awaited publication of correspondence between the Prince of Wales and government ministers.

UK Supreme Court

UK Supreme Court

FOI stories are like buses. You wait ages, decide to walk, and then three or four drive past you. Last week I took a long-planned week’s holiday only for the new(ish) government to make significant appointments, the Court of Appeal to rule on vexatious requests, and of course for a 2005 series of FOI requests to finally achieve the disclosure they sought.

Consequently pretty much everything there is to say about Prince Charles’ letters to ministers in the Labour government back in 2004 has already been said. But I’m going to try and squeeze a few more drops of juice from the pith nonetheless.

Two points struck me. The first was the reaction to the letters. A panellist on Have I Got News For You? described them as “boring”. And that just about sums up everybody’s comments on them. Far from the skies falling in, or crowds storming Clarence House or Buckingham Palace calling for a republic, the letters confirmed what we already knew – Charles has strong views on certain subjects such as architecture and agriculture. He has expressed most if not all of those views publicly in the past, so all we now know is that he has said the same things to government ministers. Although, like many, I would prefer Royalty to keep its distance from government in anything other than a symbolic way, there’s no suggestion from this correspondence of anything improper.

Some people will argue that the Guardian’s campaign to procure this release was therefore a waste of time and money. It really isn’t. Evidence that there isn’t a problem is still valuable.

What was a waste of time and money was the government’s determined efforts to prevent release. Time and again we see these long battles to prevent disclosure of correspondence. And very often the offending missives are released and turn out not to be of the remotest interest.

Public bodies continue to battle to protect principles and conventions. This is despite the fact that their own FOI Officers, legal advisers, the Information Commissioner, the Tribunals and the courts constantly repeat that FOI exemptions are not designed to protect abstract traditions. To apply exemptions successfully you need to demonstrate that meaningful harm will be caused by the specific disclosure. Breaking conventions does not automatically cause meaningful harm – it may cause change, but that’s what FOI was meant to do.

All of this has been said before, and it leads me to my second point. The Supreme Court decision which led to this disclosure overturned the use of the ministerial veto by the then Attorney General Dominic Grieve. When Mr Grieve issued the veto, his explanation was that the letters were “particularly frank” and disclosure “could seriously undermine the Prince’s ability to fulfil his duties when he becomes King.” Now that we’ve had chance to read these letters, these statements – particularly the latter – appear ridiculous. How does this square with what we know about Mr Grieve?

Whatever your political persuasion, Dominic Grieve appears to be a sensible and rational man. He is a barrister, and especially since leaving office last year has not been shy to criticise government plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. When he gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee in 2012, he was invited to give his views on the introduction of an absolute exemption for cabinet minutes. He gave a reasoned explanation as to why that might not be a good change to make. Mr Grieve is not one of those politicians who opposes transparency on principle. He is thoughtful and considered on these matters.

An examination of s.53

FOIMan examines the offending section of FOIA

So why was his justification of the veto so hyperbolic? I think I know this. Perhaps it isn’t very insightful but I think that it illustrates something of the position in which FOI Officers often find themselves. My guess is that Mr Grieve did not feel very strongly about Prince Charles’ letters. I suspect he came under pressure from others – Clarence House? Fellow Cabinet members? The Prime Minister? FOI Officers sometimes find themselves in disagreement with senior colleagues, and ultimately have to do what they’re told. Mr Grieve of course was a senior Minister, but may have found himself in a similar position nonetheless. We all have our seniors, and we all have to choose our battles. In the circumstances, I can understand why Mr Grieve may have felt this was not a resignation issue. He may well not even have bothered arguing.

When I was an FOI Officer and found myself in this position, I had to come up with arguments to justify the use of exemptions – even though I didn’t think they were justified. My arguments in such situations were undoubtedly weak and often exercised hyperbole. If challenged (which they rarely were), they would have fallen apart spectacularly. Perhaps this is how Dominic Grieve came to advance some uncharacteristically poor arguments in his explanation of the veto. He may well not have believed in them wholeheartedly from the start. So perhaps Dominic will not grieve his veto being overturned after all.

Prince Charles’ letters and the Veto

FOIMan explains why the ruling of the Supreme Court in relation to Prince Charles’ “black spider memos” is so significant – and why FOI campaigners should be cautious in their celebrations.

logoshirtOn 1 January 2005, FOI came into force. Later that same year, the Guardian’s Rob Evans made Freedom of Information requests to government departments for correspondence with Prince Charles, the heir to the throne. Ten years later, the Supreme Court has finally ruled that those letters (or many of them at least) must be disclosed. The full story of those ten years – together with many of the key court decisions – can be read in Matt Burgess’s excellent piece on the FOI Directory site.

This ruling is important – and for me, pleasantly surprising. After the Court of Appeal considered this case last year, I gave my analysis on this blog, and it turns out I was wrong. Though not entirely. My prediction was that the Supreme Court would rule that the veto was legitimate in relation to information subject to FOI, but that the European law that underpins the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) would lead to a ruling that the veto cannot apply to environmental information. As it turns out, the Court ruled that the veto was not legitimate in either case, though there was more support from the Justices for the veto not applying to EIR (6:1 as opposed to a 5:2 ruling on the use of the veto in relation to FOI).

Huge congratulations are due to Rob Evans and the Guardian. Rob and the Guardian have been persistent in pursuing the release of the letters, even when all around (or many of us) were sceptical of their success. But I now want to consider the implications of this judgment for FOI and EIR.

Firstly, what does this mean in terms of the release of correspondence between members of the Royal Family and public bodies? One of the reasons that this case is so important is that it is now pretty much the last chance any of us will get to see what is said in correspondence like this, unless it is leaked (or relates to environmental matters – see below). This is because FOI was amended in 2010 – during the wash-up of the last government – to make the exemption covering relations with the monarch and their two nearest heirs absolute. This means that the government and other public bodies will be able to refuse all future requests for correspondence with Prince Charles under FOI. This ruling will not change that. But at the time of Rob Evans’ request, the exemption was subject to a public interest test, and that is how we have reached this point. If the correspondence is released, then that will be the last FOI disclosure of Prince Charles’ letters.

That said, the ruling is significant in terms of environmental information. Given the Prince’s known interest in environmental matters, it is likely that public bodies will hold many letters from the heir that would fall under the EIR. All the exceptions (the EIR equivalent of exemptions) under EIR are subject to a public interest test, and this judgment makes clear that Ministers cannot exercise the veto in relation to any decision to disclose information falling under EIR. So we may well see future disclosures of correspondence from Prince Charles relating to environmental issues.

But in many ways, the most important implication of this ruling has nothing to do with the Royal Family. The point of this appeal was to consider whether the Attorney General was entitled to exercise the controversial veto at section 53 of FOI. And the judgment says some pretty important things about the veto.

It says that it is not enough for government ministers to disagree with Commissioner, Tribunal and Court rulings on FOI – the use of the veto has to be justified:

“…it appears to me that there is a very strong case for saying that the accountable person cannot justify issuing a section 53 certificate simply on the ground that, having considered the issue with the benefit of the same facts and arguments as the Upper Tribunal, he has reached a different conclusion from that of the Upper Tribunal on a section 57 appeal.” para. 68 of the judgment

But it also confirms the view expressed by the Lord Chief Justice in the High Court decision on this case that the veto itself is “a constitutional aberration”. The ability of the executive to overturn the decision of a court of law:

“…would be unique in the laws of the United Kingdom and would cut across two constitutional principles which are fundamental components of the rule of law, namely that a decision of a court is binding between the parties and cannot be set aside, and that decisions and actions of the executive are reviewable by the courts, and not vice versa.” Press Summary

So the effect of this ruling is to call into question almost all use of the veto, certainly up to this point, and potentially in the future. This is a huge defeat for the government.

Without wanting to pour cold water on well-deserved celebrations, that is exactly the reason why I think we need to be cautious. Governments don’t like huge defeats. And the veto has been used by both the last two governments. David Cameron has already released a statement saying that the law will need to be amended to reinforce the veto and make its future use clear and unassailable. Speaking at 11KBW’s Information Law Conference last week, barrister Tim Pitt-Payne, who has represented the Commissioner as well as government departments in FOI cases, expressed his view that if this ruling went against the government, it was likely to reopen the question of the application of the section 35 exemption for policy formulation. When the Justice Select Committee examined FOI three years ago, it decided that section 35 didn’t need to be strengthened, as the veto provided a backstop for government if it needed to protect internal discussions.

Today’s ruling will lead to another period of reevaluation of FOI by government, and may well provoke attempts to provide more protection for government information. FOI campaigners and others will need to be vigilant.

 

 

FOIMan News

FOIMan highlights some recent developments of interest.

NEWS1

Water utilities are not subject to FOI. However, they are apparently subject to the Environmental Information Regulations according to a new Upper Tribunal decision. The long and complex decision has been reproduced on the Panopticon blog.

In the perennial debate over its cost, Tim Turner has used FOI to demonstrate that one police force complaining about the expense of answering requests from the public spends over 6 times as much on public relations staffing as it does on FOI support.

On the Data Protection front, the Alzheimer’s Society has published a guide to Accessing and Sharing Information when acting on behalf of someone with dementia.

Training and other services

Over the last year I’ve been invited to deliver in-house training for a number of clients including local authorities, schools and universities. I’ve updated my Training page if you’d like to know more, and you can also download a leaflet about my services. Get in touch for a quote if you’re thinking about ways to improve your colleagues’ awareness of FOI, data protection, local government transparency or records management.

Industrial use of FOI

FOIMan highlights the difficulty of handling FOI requests at the height of industrial disputes.

Extract from correspondence

Extract from correspondence

Those responsible for managing FOI compliance are in a difficult position at the best of times. I’m sure they wouldn’t quote Stealers Wheel to describe their situation (“clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”) but nonetheless they are stuck in the middle of two camps, each of which passionately feels it is right. On the one side there is the requester seeking transparency and accountability, for whom often any reticence to disclose is another example of establishment secrecy. On the other, there is the information holder, often more senior than the one responsible for compliance, who sees their job as being to protect the organisation from harm. They know the information and its context much better than the FOI Officer and the poor old FOI Officer therefore has to judge whether their reluctance to disclose is justified by the facts, or whether the information holder is being unnecessarily defensive. Things can be even more complicated if those responsible for answering the request are directly affected by the matter concerned.

Pity then those responsible for answering FOI requests at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As correspondence disclosed by a member of the PCS union and published over the weekend by FOI Kid (no relation) shows, they are in a very tricky place at present. PCS are taking industrial action over a recent decision to award three senior officials large pay rises, whilst other staff have seen very limited pay increases, in line with the rest of the public sector. Union officials made FOI requests to their employer in order to understand the reasons behind the pay awards. Initially told that information was not held, the ICO appears to have changed its mind at internal review.

Dealing with requests in these circumstances is never easy, and any organisation can be forgiven for making mistakes under pressure. That even the regulator’s handling of such a case appears somewhat clunky demonstrates how difficult it can be when employee relations meet FOI.

My FOI Wishlist – Part I

FOI Man considers what he would change about the FOI Act – and struggles.

Recently I was asked what my FOI wishlist was. If I could make any change to FOI what would it be?

And I struggled. Despite ten years (in one way or another) working in this area, and almost a year of blogging about it, I found myself thrashing wildly about and failing to come up with something convincing or worthwhile. I wondered why that was.

After a week or so, I think I know why I found this question so difficult. The truth is that I’m not particularly convinced of the need for massive change to the FOI Act.

When I look back through the last year’s posts, it becomes clear to me what my view on this is. The problems that do exist with FOI are all to do with attitudes to the legislation and the openness agenda. Very few are to do with the legislation itself.

On the inside of the public sector, the problems as I see them are a continued cynicism from some at the highest level, and a failure to understand the benefits that greater openness will bring. On the outside, the issue is irresponsible use of FOI – the vexatious requesters, the people who see FOI as a handy method of beating up public officials that for whatever reason they despise, the ones who fire off huge numbers of requests without any consideration of the public money that will have to be spent. These attitudes are the biggest threat to FOI.

The legislation itself is not perfect – nothing is. But it pretty much does what it says on the tin, to borrow a phrase from commercial marketing. It has freed up public sector information to a massive degree within a very short period. It’s easy to focus on the things that aren’t quite right or could be better, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we ought to remember that the majority of requests for information are fully met. When complaints are made to the Commissioner or the Tribunal, those bodies take a much more pro-openness approach than anyone dared hope before 2005. They have set a high bar and public bodies are, by and large, learning to reach it and sometimes even exceed it.

It’s worth remembering what an ambitious target the FOI Act set. Not only was it aiming to produce a massive culture change at the heart of Government, it was also asking thousands of other public bodies, right down to your local chemist, GP and school, to embrace that change. Bodies that most people hadn’t even realised WERE public bodies. The fact that most of the time people DO get information when they ask for it means that FOI is working.

The picture in the average public sector office right now is not what it was seven, or even five years, ago. Not only FOI Officers but also other public servants are casually familiar with the requirements of FOI. It is still scary for them, but it is no longer shocking.

The key, in my view, is gradual, but constant change. The current Government has so far made it very clear that it wants more transparency in the public sector. Its recent consultation paper on open government and the FOI provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Bill both make broadly sensible proposals to enhance the FOI Act, especially in relation to publication of datasets (as long as we can get better definition of what a dataset is, of course, but that’s another post). I’d encourage anyone reading this post to make sure that they respond to the consultation.

The priority for me is protecting the rights that we do have (and I say ‘we’ deliberately – many public employees have used FOI outside of work). I have to say that many of the suggestions for reform of FOI that I hear – and even some that I’ve thought about – are, when it comes down to it, about restricting these rights. Whether it’s charging for requests, placing a limit on requests, or whatever it is, they’re all about cutting down on FOI requests. We have to question our motives for wanting to restrict a right this hardly won.

In my view, this Government should focus on making very clear that it supports FOI, and specifically the right to make FOI requests. It should lead from the front and keep publishing more information. It should firmly refuse any suggestions from senior public officials or politicians to water down FOI. In the meantime, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Ministry of Justice should find better ways to provide support to public bodies in meeting their obligations – the ICO can’t always rise above the fray. And they should do more to encourage responsible use of these rights by those making FOI requests.

We need to keep progress going, but let’s not lose the chance to continue winning over influential critics. Resist more restrictions certainly – backwards is not the right direction. But we need to be careful not to destroy a growing acceptance and even, possibly, nascent enthusiasm to find new more transparent ways of working by only noticing the weaknesses and pushing too hard.

In a forthcoming post, I will talk about the ‘tweaks’ that I think could be made to the FOI Act without damaging the rights we have.