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Archives for April 2011

The blog's moving

Martin Rosenbaum | 17:05 UK time, Thursday, 21 April 2011

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This blog is moving and acquiring a new format.

The change is part of some broader developments for BBC blogging, which were indicated last month by Steve Herrmann, editor of the BBC News website.

Blogs like mine are being brought within the same software platform used for the news website generally. Among other benefits, it will make it easier to publish a range of material together in one place, and it should also result in a better experience for those reading on mobile devices.

So as from today you can find my reporting and analysis at a new home here.

Various practical consequences will follow:

If you have been using an RSS feed for Open Secrets, you will need to change that to the new page. The new RSS feed may not be available immediately, but I hope it will be within the next few days.

If you link to the main page for Open Secrets from your website, you will need to change that to the new address (although individual entries from the old blog will remain available at their old URLs).

Finally, the title "Open Secrets" will disappear, sadly fading away into the mists of ancient cyberspace. But I hope you will follow me to the new location.

Immigration: The Treasury view (but not the Business Department's)

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Martin Rosenbaum | 14:19 UK time, Thursday, 14 April 2011

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David Cameron's speech today about immigration is mainly attracting headlines for his remarks about its social impact.

David Cameron

But he also spends some time discussing the potential economic consequences of reducing immigration. He concludes that through measures such as prioritising the admission of skilled workers with a job offer in the UK and raising the skill levels demanded, the government's cutbacks on immigration won't damage the UK economy.

The economic implications of different forms of migration is a complex topic, disputed by for example a free-market think tank arguing against immigration controls and a pressure group campaigning for tighter restrictions. And it's considered within the Home Office Impact Assessment for the current government policy.

If you're interested in this topic, you might like to see the Treasury's viewpoint. Under freedom of information I have obtained a copy of the Treasury's submission [5.51MB PDF] last year to the Migration Advisory Committee, a government advisory body which was examining the potential results of limits to economic migration into the UK.

The Treasury's analysis is of course subject to many caveats and uncertainties, but its broad argument is that cutting immigration of skilled workers would reduce the UK economy's potential for growth. It also states that migrants tend to make a positive contribution long-term to the UK's fiscal position.

In other words, this document shows the Treasury's unease about the economic impact of immigration curbs. Some of this is referred to in the detailed and extensive report which the Migration Advisory Committee produced. The Treasury's interest in policy is clearly primarily financial rather than social. This departmental angle is also shared by the Business Department.

Mr Cameron's speech today has been strongly attacked as "very unwise" by his cabinet colleague but party political rival, the Business Secretary Vince Cable. Mr Cable is concerned that stronger immigration controls could harm British companies and universities.

I also wanted to see the memorandum which his department, BIS, had sent to the MAC to help inform its investigation into limits on economic migration. However, while the Treasury sent me its submission (after I appealed against its initial refusal), the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has refused to disclose the one it made.

BIS argued that releasing it would be against the public interest. It told me:

"We believe that if this information were to be made public, frankness and policy development would inevitably be inhibited and ministers would be prevented from taking decisions based on the fullest understanding of the issues involved."

Government departments often coordinate their responses to FOI requests. I was surprised by the discrepancy in this case, because it is unusual for one to reveal and another to keep secret a similar document.

Commissioner attacks Cabinet Office FOI delays

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Martin Rosenbaum | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 12 April 2011

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The department which is heading the drive towards government openness is condemned today by the Information Commissioner for not having "a clear and credible plan" to speed up its unacceptably slow handling of freedom of information requests.

Chris Graham

The Information Commissioner Chris Graham is announcing today that he is targeting action on three public authorities because of their particularly bad record of FOI delays. One of these is the Cabinet Office. The other two are the Ministry of Defence and Birmingham Council.

Mr Graham says he is now considering what regulatory action to take against them, due to their persistent failure to reduce the excessive time taken to respond. He is especially concerned about the existence of long overdue FOI applications. This could lead to him issuing enforcement notices, which would legally require specified measures to improve their performance.

This is particularly embarrassing for the Cabinet Office and its minister Francis Maude, given their central role in promoting transparency in the public sector. The Cabinet Office is also responsible for answering freedom of information requests to the prime minister's office at 10 Downing Street.

These three authorities have been on a list of 33 public bodies that the Information Commissioner's Office has been intensively monitoring for months because of serious doubts over their FOI operations. Mr Graham says he is now satisfied that most of the list "have managed to overcome their problems".

Apart from the three now selected for tougher regulatory measures, there are four other exceptions. In a lesser sanction they are being asked to sign undertakings to improve further. These are Hammersmith & Fulham, Islington, Westminster and Wolverhampton Councils.

Mr Graham is now publishing a new list of 18 other bodies from across the public sector which will be monitored closely because of concerns about their delays in handling requests. These include the Department for Education, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and Nottingham Council, the one English council which said it would defy the government's request to publish detailed spending data.

This announcement is the next step in Mr Graham's campaign to speed up the freedom of information system, which he feels able to do following his success in reducing the enormous backlog of complaints his own organisation was grappling with. He says:

"Responding promptly to FOI requests is key to delivering citizens' rights. Too many public authorities are taking too long to decide either way whether to release information or to refuse requests."

The Cabinet Office maintains it is tackling its difficulties. A spokesperson says:

"While this is a long-standing issue for the department, the number of FOIs has also increased by over a third in just over 12 months. We take the Information Commissioner's comments seriously and we have already taken steps to improve our performance."

Birmingham Council says that it is committed to compliance with FOI and it accepts it needs to deal with overdue applications. But it also insists that a sense of perspective is needed, arguing that there are considerable cost implications stemming from a small number of complex requests at a time when the council has to make substantial savings.

Finally, to comment anecdotally from our own experience, I am not surprised that the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence are two of the authorities focused on in this way.

Although at one point last year I felt that the Cabinet Office was getting prompter and more efficient, it appears to have declined again. One request that I sent to it last December has been subject to four extensions of the time limit and remains unanswered. As for the MoD, in the first two to three years of freedom of information its FOI operation was comparatively well organised and reliable to deal with, but its systems do seem to have deteriorated badly in the more recent period.

Data Protection Register: Is it over-protected?

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Martin Rosenbaum | 10:58 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

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The British state has lots of databases full of information about everything from cars to companies. The government proclaims it is going to open up such databases, making them publicly accessible as much as possible, in ways which would allow others to reuse the valuable information they contain. Naturally the Information Commissioner, Chris Graham, is to have an important role in this process.

One of these publicly owned databases is the Data Protection Register, which contains details of companies and public bodies who process the personal information of individuals, what kind of material they hold, and for what purposes (as in this example).

You can search it by certain selected fields such as name, postcode and organisational category. But you can't obtain more than 100 entries in response to one search. And, more importantly, you can't consult the register online in browsable form, nor can it be downloaded. In short, as a way of providing data, this isn't very useful.

And as it happens the official responsible for the Data Protection Register is actually the Information Commissioner himself.

I have to say that I have found the cumbersome nature of searching the database, rather than being able to browse it, very inconvenient. Perhaps those who have better web-scraping skills than I do might manage to get more out of the current setup.

It seems that I'm not the only person to be frustrated by this. Last year someone else made a freedom of information request to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), asking for a copy of the register "in any usable format".

The ICO dismissed the FOI application, stating that there is no legal requirement "that the register is provided as a usable database".

After an equally unsuccessful internal review of this rejection, the applicant took advantage of his right to complain to the person who decides whether FOI requests have been correctly handled by public bodies - the Information Commissioner.

Last week the ICO issued its ruling - and it turns out that the ICO agrees with the ICO's arguments that the ICO dealt with the case in accordance with the law. The judgment maintains that the information is reasonably accessible to the requester by other means, ie by searching the database one step at a time.

This is not an entirely comfortable position for the Information Commissioner to be in. Whatever the technical legal situation, it is clearly a long way from the spirit of the transparency rhetoric that has emanated from the government and from Mr Graham himself.

And in fact the ICO has recently been running a consultation exercise on the possibility of making the entire register available to be downloaded in a reusable format. The closing date for responses is this coming Friday.

I expect that in due course the Data Protection Register will become much more usefully accessible than it is at the moment. Just like other public authorities, the Information Commissioner's Office itself is being forced to change its processes by the drive towards openness.

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