Tag Archives: freedom of information

What on earth are South Tyneside Council trying to hide?

South Tyneside standards committee review 2005

Having acted on information sent to our tip-offs box, our Twitter followers may recall Scrapbook’s frustration at South Tyneside Council’s approach to accountability last week. While other local authorities have published their councillors’ statutory register of interests online for years, South Tyneside appear to be stuck in some form of transparency timewarp redolent of T. Dan Smith-era Newcastle.

With no register published online, our freedom of information request for this most basic of democratic information was kept in a dusty filing cabinet for 15 months. The reply, when it finally came, was that we should make a 550-mile round trip to view information on elected officials:

We soon discovered that such a response breached the guidance set by the Information Commissioner:

Over the weekend, however, we were informed that the council were actually breaking the law by keeping the register a secret. Thanks to transparency champion (cough) Eric Pickles, Section 29 of the Localism Act 2011 stipulates that the register must be published online:

(5) The monitoring officer of a relevant authority other than a parish council must secure—

(a) that a copy of the authority’s register is available for inspection at a place in the authority’s area at all reasonable hours, and

(b) that the register is published on the authority’s website.

It turns out that the council leader himself, Iain Malcolm, was present at the meeting which decided not to publish the register in order to protect the “individual privacy of members”.

The Streisand Effect – not to mention legally mandated transparency — my soon be paying a visit to Tyneside.

Information Commission: Eric Pickles to blame for increase in FOI requests

The government aren’t happy to hear that the number of Freedom of Information requests is increasing year on year; so much so that they’re planning to introduce a range of tariffs to restrict Freedom of Information requests. But at least there’s someone to blame: Eric Pickles.

The government’s “transparency agenda” is leading to the rise in pesky FOI requests, claims Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith. The Law Society Gazette quotes Smith explaining that Eric Pickles’ plan for local government to declare all expenses over £500 was just too tempting:

“Ironically, one cause [of the increase] was the government’s transparency agenda: the requirement to publish all items of spending over £500 ‘just puts things out there that cause people to ask questions’, he said.”

Smith also hinted at future plans to toughen up restrictions on Freedom of Information requests to discourage people from making “vexatious” FOI requests which seek to embarrass the government.

Another own goal from Pickles.

None of our business? Tories plan assault on FOI requests

The Conservatives are planning to restrict Freedom of Information requests. Despite an existing framework for charging costlier requests, a report by Newsnight reveals the Conservatives are considering introducing a “range of tarrifs” for access to documents by journalists, campaigners and members of the public.

After Michael Gove was caught using a secret email account with the pseudonym “Mrs Blurt” to discuss Whitehall business, civil servants have proposed that no personal email accounts should to be used for official matters — unless an official is copied in. Ministers are now looking to respond by charging.

In keeping with David Cameron’s previous claims that “We want to be the most open and transparent government in the world.”, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, whose brief encompasses FOI, gushed about data rights in October 2010:

“Tony Blair bizarrely revealed that his biggest regret in office was introducing the Freedom of Information Act. If I ever sit down to write my own memoirs, freeing up government information will not number amongst my regrets. In fact, I very much hope that it will be one of my very proudest achievements.”

With personal email accounts off limits, perhaps ministers could stockpile correspondence in their garages.

Civil servants wants to clamp down on embarrassing FOI requests

In a move preparing the ground for an assault on the public’s information rightsa survey conducted by the Ministry of Justice has revealed significant opposition to Freedom of Information legislation from Whitehall civil servants. Apparently Sir Humphrey doesn’t thinks plebians should pay money to access information “like expenses, crime statistics and so on”.

Could transparency be going the same way as much-publicised claims of being the “greenest government ever”? Compare and contrast moves against FOI with this from cabinet office minister Francis Maude, in October 2010:

“Tony Blair bizarrely revealed that his biggest regret in office was introducing the Freedom of Information Act. If I ever sit down to write my own memoirs, freeing up government information will not number amongst my regrets. In fact, I very much hope that it will be one of my very proudest achievements.”

 And again in The Guardian in November 2010:

“The UK government is now the world’s most open administration, but our ambition stretches far further. We are starting to transform the access British people have to the information that matters to them. It may lead to difficult questions – but more importantly it will lead to better decisions and better government.”

If it weren’t for freedom of information, we would still be paying for Douglas Hogg’s moat to be cleaned.

Tribunal orders Prince Charles to answer FOI requests

Prince Charles has lost a three-year legal battle against an environmental activist, with judges ruling the Duchy of Cornwall is a “public authority” which must answer requests under freedom of information legislation. The case could open the floodgates for scrutiny of the Prince’s £700m property empire.

With an absolute exemption from the Freedom of Information Act (which was tightened significantly in January), the Royal website thumbs its nose at journalists and campaigners:

“The Royal Household is not a public authority within the meaning of the FOI Acts, and is therefore exempt from their provisions.”

But yesterday’s landmark ruling states that Charles’ estate is subject to another area of FOI law: the Environmental Information Regulations.

As regular readers may have guessed, Scrapbook is amongst several individuals and organisations to have now sent a request asking for the details of mysterious consultation process in which ministers have been forced to seek the self-styled “political dissident” permission to pass twelve bills since 2005.

Having read the guidance, you can request information from the Duchy yourself by sending an email to london@duchyofcornwall.org.

Report reveals Home Office takes up to three years to answer FOI requests

Results of an internal investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office have revealed that several government departments are failing on their legal transparency obligations, with one freedom of information request to the Home Office delayed by 1,241 days – more than three years.

The investigation, details of which have been obtained by Scrapbook, was triggered as a result of high levels of complaints to the ICO about failures to answer FOI requests within the required timeframe. The shocking findings showed:

  • The MoD failed to answer 35% of requests within the time limit, and had outstanding requests almost two years overdue.
  • The Scotland Office had requests more than 200 days over the time limit.
  • The Metropolitan Police had outstanding obligations up to 205 days overdue.

These failings are at odds with the coalition’s repeated pledge to be the most transparent government ever. Writing in the Guardian last November, Francis Maude claimed:

“The UK government is now the world’s most open administration, but our ambition stretches far further. We are starting to transform the access British people have to the information that matters to them. It may lead to difficult questions – but more importantly it will lead to better decisions and better government.”

Maude should start this mission with his own staff. At the time the Cabinet Office minister put pen to paper, his own department was also under investigation as one of the worst offenders, failing to answer almost a quarter of requests within the required twenty days.

When it comes to transparency, perhaps Maude can learn something from his Cabinet Office colleague’s bin-related antics in St James’ Park.

Information Commission’s “FOI via Twitter” scheme doesn’t work

It was with some amusement in July that Scrapbook reported a pronouncement from the Information Commissioner that Freedom of Information requests can be submitted by Twitter. The edict means that every public authority using the service is now obligated to monitor their accounts for statutory requests under the 2000 Act.

Not seeming the most pragmatic interpretation of the law, we decided to road test this by submitting a request to the 10 Downing Street Twitter account:

 

It should come as no surprise that we did not receive a reply within the required 20 days. So we followed the rules and requested an internal review. This was also met with silence and the matter is now with the ICO in the form of a complaint.

Generating countless stories, we love FOI here at Scrapbook. But onerous requirements on public authorities (which add nothing to real information rights) will only bolster attempts to water-down legislation — as MPs attempted when they voted to exempt their expenses from scrutiny in 2007.

Apparent ignorance as to such practicalities is surprising, however, given the extensive thought the ICO has given to social media.

The Commission’s official policy document on how to use Twitter runs to a mere eighteen pages.

FOI requests can be submitted via Twitter, says Commissioner

Has the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham been spending too much time with Steve Hilton? In an utterly foolhardy move, the regulator of Freedom of Information legislation has decided that requests for data held by public bodies can be sent via Twitter.

Under the Commissioner’s interpretation of the 2000 Act, Downing Street are, bizarrely enough, obligated to honour this request about cat food from our editor:

Scrapbook doesn’t imagine it will be long before the provisions in this warning are invoked:

“If they do not [use the Act responsibly], the authority could consider using the exemptions for vexatious and repeated requests in section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act”.

Robin Hood Airport is not classified as a public body under the Act.

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