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Which exemptions succeed?

Martin Rosenbaum | 12:17 UK time, Friday, 13 July 2007

Which reasons used by public authorities to keep information secret are most likely to be approved by the Information Commissioner?

We've been examining the Commissioner's decisions to see how often he approves the use of the various exemptions laid down in the Freedom of Information Act.

The following table gives the percentage of occasions on which the Commissioner has, after receiving a complaint, approved the use of the exemption in question by a public authority to withhold information in response to an FOI request. (The numbers in brackets indicate the section of the FOI Act which specifies that exemption).

Security services (23) 100%
Legal privilege (42) 88%
Court records (32) 83%
International relations (27) 79%
Other prohibitions (44) 74%
Personal information (40) 70%
Investigations (30) 69%
Health and safety (38) 64%
Law enforcement (31) 63%
Economy (29) 63%
Provided in confidence (41) 60%
Effective conduct of public affairs (36) 57%
Otherwise accessible (21) 53%
National security (24) 50%
Formulation of government policy (35) 31%
Commercial interests (43) 28%
Intended for future publication (22) 25%
Audit functions (33) 8%

Some caveats need to be noted: This only involves cases where a formal Decision Notice has been issued by the Commissioner; in some cases he approves the use of one exemption while rejecting another, so it's not a guide to the overall outcome of cases; in some cases the use of an exemption is partially approved - this has been scored as 0.5 of an approval for the purpose of calculating the percentages; it takes no account of the Commissioner sometimes being overruled by the Tribunal; it doesn't cover cases under the Environmental Information Regulations; it doesn't include decisions from the last few days; for some exemptions (eg national security, audit functions, court records, the economy, security services, future publication) there are under 10 cases and this makes it difficult to read much into the percentage scores.

For these reasons this is a fairly crude exercise. However it does suggest some broad, tentative conclusions - that the Commissioner is more easily persuaded that it is right to exempt information from disclosure to protect legal privilege and international relations than to protect commercial interests and the formulation of government policy.

This may reflect the Commissioner's attitudes - or it may reflect the sort of issues where public authorities seek to use an exemption when it is not justified by the circumstances.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 05:01 AM on 15 Jul 2007,
  • Wayne Lanier, PhD wrote:

This is a genuinely sorry record. I calculated the average chance of a positive response at 59.9% with the last two reasons excepted. This is a stunningly high figure of denial of freedom of information, more in line with a growing dictatorship than a healthy democracy. I removed from the average "Intended for future publication" and "Audit Functions" because these are totally bogus reasons to deny freedom of information at all. In my own view, the 100% denial for "security" promises a full-blown repressive dictatorship in the near future. A moment of historical research quickly shows that most repressive governments, NAZI Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet-dominated eastern Europe, most Islamic countries, the worst sleezebag dictatorships of Asia, and many "republics" of Latin and South America use "security" as the excuse for everything from simple secrecy to "disappearing undesirables" to Concentration Camps and final solutions or "ethnic cleansing" [such a gentle phrase]. Democracy is risky business and not for the cowardly or faint of heart who prefer security to freedoms. The first step is the simple and persuasive statement: "We have to suspend this freedom for your security - trust us." The next thing you know, folks, they'll be quartering troops in your houses..! We all face the same grasping hand of the dictator and advocates of secret government.

  • 2.
  • At 10:23 AM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Janice Sorrell wrote:

Interesting stats on the IC upholding exemptions on FOI. Perhaps a useful comparison would be with the number of FOI requests which are fully disclosed to the applicant first time round?

  • 3.
  • At 11:06 AM on 01 Aug 2007,
  • Owen Thomas wrote:

I think perhaps Dr Lanier may have missed the point a little. His calculation of a 'positive response' does not indicate that only 59.9% of FOI requests are granted, merely that 59.9% of those cases referred to the Commisioner find in favour of the requestor.
The good Doctor has made a reactionary and statistically unsupportable leap from (very rough) ICO statistics to Thought Police / NewSpeak / Fourth Reich.
Must try harder...

  • 4.
  • At 01:02 PM on 08 Aug 2007,
  • Christian Schmidt wrote:

> for some exemptions there are under ten cases

Perhaps the table could be update, and the total added as well as the proportion? This would make the information much more revealing...



  • 5.
  • At 01:07 PM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • Michael John S wrote:

I have to agree with Owen: Dr Lanier's post is extremely naiive, especially coming from someone with a PhD! A highly unscientific leap from a rather unscientific survey!

That aside, rather than being a 'denial of FOI' as he puts it, perhaps the fact that the IC only finds in favour of approx 60% of complaints indicates that, quite often, the public authority concerned made the right decision to begin with when deciding not to disclose information.

Christian (#4) -

Thanks for the suggestion. Numbers of cases for each exemption were as follows:

Security services (23) - 4 decisions
Legal privilege (42) - 56
Court records (32) - 6
International relations (27) - 12
Other prohibitions (44) - 27
Personal information (40) - 101
Investigations (30) - 24
Health and safety (38) - 21
Law enforcement (31) - 36
Economy (29) - 4
Provided in confidence (41) - 48
Effective public affairs (36) - 35
Otherwise accessible (21) - 20
National security (24) - 2
Formulation of govt policy (35) 21
Commercial interests (43) - 34
Intended for future publicn (22) - 8
Audit functions (33) - 6

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