Tag Archive for SaveFOI

FOI Commission Reports

FOIMan welcomes the publication of the FOI Commission’s long-awaited report and the Government’s promise not to make legal changes to the Act.

Cabinet Office

Cabinet Office

So the FOI Commission has finally reported. Many were pleasantly surprised to find that its report was well balanced and not the all out attack on FOI that had been predicted.

What’s more, the Government’s initial response suggested that the threat to FOI was over. The Cabinet Minister told the Press that “no legal changes” would be made, which would appear to rule out changes to exemptions, the appeal process and some of the other less welcome recommendations of the Commission.

It’s not clear though whether the threat has gone away completely. The Cabinet Minister, Matt Hancock’s statement in Parliament omitted the “no legal changes” phrase. Even if we do accept his quote at face value, it is not clear whether this reluctance to legislate extends to secondary legislation such as would be needed to amend the cost limit and the factors relevant in its calculation. One of the Commission’s proposals was to remove the First Tier Tribunal from the current appeal process. Mr Hancock’s press statement would again appear to rule this out in the short term. However, a recent consultation on Tribunal fees left open the possibility of charging for access to the Tribunal. Whilst the Commission gave short shrift to universities hoping to be removed from the Act’s coverage, the Department of Business and Innovation has apparently commented that a proposal along these lines in the recent Higher Education Green Paper “wasn’t related to govt review…responses on all proposals are being assessed”. So BIS is making clear that this is still on the table which may give HE critics of FOI hope.

Despite these notes of caution, that the Commission’s report and more importantly, the Government’s response, have turned out more positively than any of us hoped a few months ago is cause for celebration. It is also a victory for the hard work and resilience of Maurice Frankel’s Campaign for FOI which put together a formidable campaign. The fact that tabloid newspapers, Conservative MPs, former Ministers and even a former Head of the Civil Service, were prepared to speak out alongside the usual suspects was a major step forward. And we now have two thorough examinations of FOI – one by a Parliamentary Select Committee, and one by a government Commission – which have concluded that FOI works well. Perhaps it will now be a while before a government proposes another scrutiny of the Act. Let’s hope so.

This isn’t the end though. The Government has promised to make changes to the s45 Code of Practice, and to do more to encourage proactive publication of data. The Commission made some positive noises about extension of the Act, and many would like to now press the government to move in that direction. And there will be implications too of the General Data Protection Regulation – in particular in respect of how requests involving personal data should be handled. So even though the danger to FOI may be much reduced, there are still many developments to watch out for in the coming months and years.

If you’d like to hear more about the FOI Commission, and in particular what it tells us about how the UK Act has evolved, and where it is going, I’ll be speaking about this at Understanding Modern Government’s FOI course on 17 March. A day before that, you can also join me for a special one-off webinar on the Commission and the future of FOI for Act Now Training. Please do join me for one or both of these events.

Evidence to the FOI Commission

FOIMan publishes his evidence to the FOI Commission.

Friday was the deadline for submissions in response to the FOI Commission’s call for evidence. If Twitter last week was any indication, then vast numbers contributed. However, it wasn’t just the volume of contributions that impressed. My hope is that the Commission is equally affected by the tremendous effort and scholarship that was on display.

Perhaps less impressive is my own contribution – the call for evidence happened at my busiest time, which I’m afraid limited what I was able to contribute. However, in the interests of transparency you can read it here.

In summary, my submission argues:

1. No new protection is required for internal deliberations.

2. Similarly no new protection is required for collective Cabinet discussion…

3. …or for assessment of risks, come to that.

4. In principle, I’m against the veto – but if the veto for a handful of cases is the price of preserving openness more generally, I can accept that price.

5. One of my biggest concerns would be any watering down of the existing enforcement and appeal mechanisms under FOI. Not only do I believe that it will slow down and possibly reverse moves towards transparency more generally, but I also think it would be like sending FOI Officers and others responsible for encouraging compliance out to bat with a bail.

6. As previously argued here, I believe that any burden that FOI places on public authorities needs to be considered in comparison to other expenditure, and needs to acknowledge its benefits. In particular I would be concerned if a standard charge was introduced for FOI requests due to its impact on accountability and accessibility.

We’ll have to wait and see what the Commission has to say about our evidence when it reports – possibly as soon as next month.

PR Costs – the responses

FOIMan brings you the responses from government departments to his recent FOI request on public relations.

A comparison of communications v FOI spending in a selection of departments

A comparison of communications v FOI spending in a selection of departments

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the outcome of my FOI requests to central government departments on their expenditure on public relations activities. At the time I promised to publish the actual responses so that you can see for yourself the answers received.

So here are all the responses received to date in one handy document. As will be noted, some departments were very helpful – others considerably less so.

Notably the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Wales Office were prompt in responding and provided straightforward answers to these questions. Several others were less quick but provided thorough and helpful responses.

The Treasury seemed to think that there was an exemption for information not held in one place. DWP don’t seem to be able to track their expenditure efficiently enough to provide a figure within 24 hours of staff time. Some have still to answer – and in some cases haven’t even acknowledged the original request.

The chart above compares communications and FOI expenditure for a selection of departments. I’ve intentionally left off the Ministry of Defence as their £80 million on communications (versus £641,000 on FOI) distorts the chart beyond all usefulness.

As some have suggested, I will of course be using my findings in my response to the FOI Commission’s consultation, and feel free to do so if you are responding.

How to Save FOI

FOIMan suggests ways to respond to the government’s recent announcements in relation to FOI. 

Save FOI

How can you help to #saveFOI?

In the last couple of weeks it has become increasingly clear that the Freedom of Information Act is under threat. First there was the announcement of the Freedom of Information Commission, which appears to be a vehicle for identifying ways to limit FOI rather than extend it. Then on Friday we discovered that the Ministry of Justice is consulting on the introduction of fees for Tribunal appeals.

What can you do?

If you’re a supporter of FOI, you may be feeling pretty bruised by these announcements. And many will be thinking about what action they can take. So here are some suggestions:

  • first and foremost, consider supporting the Campaign for Freedom of Information; their Director, Maurice Frankel, has been fighting for FOI for 30 years, and it is largely through his persistence and knowledge of the way Westminster works that we have an FOI Act in the first place – and that previous attempts to weaken it have failed. To keep going, the Campaign needs donations – details of how to contribute can be found on their website.
  • last time FOI was under threat, a group of us blogged. The power of social media is often exaggerated. But firstly it was a way to get our frustration off our chests. Secondly, once it was out there, it was read – mostly by fellow geeks, but occasionally by journalists who were inspired to write something more erudite in their newspapers and online offerings (for example, one of my favourites, here) – most of which had a substantially larger audience. If you have a blog, write about your views on FOI developments and let everyone know – perhaps via Twitter…
  • …talking of which, we also Tweeted. We used the hashtag #saveFOI and launched a Twitter feed @saveFOI from which we live tweeted the Justice Select Committee hearings held as part of the post-legislative scrutiny. It kept people informed. Use the hashtag #saveFOI now if you Tweet about anything to do with the FOI Commission or Tribunal consultation.
  • we responded to consultations. The Justice Committee asked for views on FOI as a precursor to their oral hearings. Many of those who were critical of FOI and wanted charges to be brought in responded. But so also did many others who argued cogently in defence of FOI. The Committee’s final report quoted these responses. This time there is a consultation on Tribunal charges, and there will have to be a consultation if the FOI Commission recommends changes to the fees regulations and the government is minded to make them. Make sure you respond – consultations have made a difference before, and may well do so again.
  • talk about how you’ve used FOI. If you’re a campaigner or a journalist or anyone else that has used FOI to assist them, make sure you spread the word about how helpful FOI has been. People need to hear about its value as well as the costs they will hear about from others.
  • talk about how you made FOI work in your organisation. It’s one thing hearing from users of the Act how useful they have found it. It can be even more powerful for practitioners – FOI Officers – to talk positively about the rights that keep them gainfully employed. Tell people in your organisation and publicly – if possible – about why you think FOI is a good thing, and how managed well, it is possible to balance the right to know with good government.
  • use your strengths. If you’re a journalist or work in the media, please do write and broadcast about these developments – use your influence. If you’re a graphic designer or open data guru, use publicly available statistics to create whizzy infographics. Look at what RightsInfo have achieved. Make sure you publish them with a Creative Commons licence allowing others – and especially the media and the Campaign for FOI – to re-use them and get them to a wider audience. Whatever your skill, knowledge or position is, use it to defend FOI if you recognise its importance.

The point is – do what you can. Save FOI is a badge and anyone can wear it if they want to retain the right to know.

 

 

Safe space under threat?

An FOIMan info-graphic.

Chart showing ICO decisions on s35 by Cabinet Office

Last week an FOI Commission was set up by the government, and one of its aims is to consider “whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development…”. The section 35 exemption described in the last Exemption Index post can only be used by central government and it is designed for exactly that purpose. The Commission may find the image above helpful in reaching a judgment.

Incidentally, the three decisions that were overturned were refusals to disclose:

  • the number of times the “Reducing Regulation Committee” has met;
  • minutes of Cabinet Meetings relating to the 2003 invasion of Iraq;
  • and information relating to the takeover of Rowntree’s in 1988.

Civil servants who fear their advice to Ministers on important current issues will be disclosed are overestimating the power of FOI…

Update (27 July 2015)

The post above was a bit of an experiment, prepared in a hurry. It was only afterwards that I realised that the figures here are just the tip of the iceberg.

If you look at the Ministry of Justice’s annual reports on government FOI performance, you can see how many FOI requests were received by the Cabinet Office over a comparable period (it would be difficult to directly correlate the two sets of statistics, but for these purposes the five year period 2010-2014 should be close enough). You can also see how many times the Cabinet Office applied the section 35 exemption over this period:

Year |Requests received|s.35 used

2010    1176                     75

2011    1679                     115

2012    1607                     103

2013    1759                     79

2014    1660                     111

Total    7881                     483

In other words, the use of the exemption for policy development and formulation, protecting the safe space which the government believes to be under threat, went unchallenged 93% of the time. The three cases that the Commissioner overturned represent approximately 0.6% of the use of s.35 by the Cabinet Office. (Taking into account the partially overturned cases, it rises to 1.5%).

I should also say that the reason I selected the Cabinet Office was that they use this exemption more than any other government department.