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Archives for March 2010

Coins request rejected by Treasury

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:58 UK time, Monday, 29 March 2010


For several months I have been trying to get access to the Treasury's Coins database - the Combined Online Information System - which contains a detailed analysis of state expenditure.

The Treasury I'm not the only one who would like to see this information. For a start there's George Osborne, who may or may not soon be in a position to give effect to his wish.

And as well, there's the data campaigner Julian Todd who's been using whatdotheyknow, the Open Knowledge Foundation which also aims to open up state data, and the excellent Guardian datablog, which last week reported "hints" that the government was about to make Coins accessible to the public.

Well, if they are opening it up, they're not doing so to me. Last September the Treasury rejected my freedom-of-information request for the contents of the database. Now they have just dismissed [1.63MB PDF] my appeal against that decision.

Amongst other reasons the Treasury maintains that this is necessary to protect intellectual property rights and commercial confidentiality, that already published data is more meaningful, and that some of the material is protected by specific exemptions.

It also argues that the Treasury's work would be disrupted by "misinterpretation of the 23 million lines of raw and unvalidated data" and by "a high volume of follow-up requests and enquiries".

However it did send me a schema of field headers, which is already available here. I am now taking the case to the information commissioner.

Departments differ on free tap water

Martin Rosenbaum | 09:08 UK time, Friday, 26 March 2010


Next month, pubs and licensed clubs in England and Wales will have to make free tap water available to their drinking customers.

This requirement is being imposed by the Home Office on 6 April in a new code of practice on alcohol retailing - despite the fact that another government department described it as a "disproportionate" act of excessive regulation which will provide "more meat & drink to the Daily Mail". (One can only assume that the Daily Mail does not survive on a diet of free tap water).

Pub interior

The differences of opinion between government departments have been revealed by a freedom-of-information request from the BBC.

The new Home Office measure is backed by the Department of Health, but it was opposed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The DoH says it backs the idea "as this allows customers to moderate their alcohol intake, should they so choose". But after the Home Office ran a consultative exercise on the code last year, the DCMS objected to the inclusion of the free-tap-water proposal, partly on the basis that it "veers into the health objective territory and is therefore inappropriate for the code".

The DCMS wanted this requirement deleted, arguing as follows:

"DELETE: not proportionate - we need to see evidence that this is necessary, especially given that refusal could lead to loss of licence etc. Do publicans really often refuse to provide water to customers who have purchase [sic] and consumed any kind of drink or food? There are also laws to stop the sale of alcohols to drunks and purchase on behalf of them etc, so this measure, in effect, is unnecessary and veers into the health objective territory and is therefore in appropriate for the code. Finally, it would be unworkable for licensed public land as well. There are hundreds of public spaces that have been licensed, in over 150 licensing authorities including village squares, parks farmers markets etc."

Defra also objected to the suggestion that free tap water must be provided where it is available. It saw the issue as a matter of proportionality in regulation, arguing:

"If for no other reason, 'where it is available' makes this condition entirely disproportionate. And is there really a problem here? Do pubs in practice refuse free tap water? Do people really end up drunk because free tap water was refused (presuming that paid-for tap water was available?). This all sounds implausible - more meat & drink to the Daily Mail."

However, the Home Office has pressed ahead despite the objections from DCMS and Defra. The BBC obtained this material through an FOI request to the Department of Health, which originally turned it down but then conceded after an appeal from my colleague, Julia Ross, who argued that disclosure was in the public interest.

I'm writing this up not because it is shocking or even surprising. It's perfectly reasonable for government departments to have different viewpoints, even if this is normally hidden from public view under the guise of "collective responsibility". Nor is it strange that the DoH prioritises health factors and the Home Office focuses on crime reduction, while other departments with other responsibilities emphasize the interests of the catering and entertainment industries.

But it is interesting that the DoH - eventually - agreed that this could be revealed to the public without excessive damage to the future candour of policy discussions.

And it's also very interesting for the extra light it sheds on how the inter-departmental consultative and decision-making process operates. The Home Office document states (paragraph 3.5) that the tap water proposal was unpopular with some retailers, but naturally doesn't reveal that concerns also extended to officials in DCMS and Defra.

And for those analysts of the British machinery of government who like to regard individual departments as clients, captured by the interests it is their job to rule over, they may be pleased to see this one apparent example of their theory in practice.

(Apologies, by the way, for light blogging recently, which is connected to my other responsibilities at the BBC as the general election approaches.)

Update 1530: In response to Guy Freeman (comment 3), here are the actual documents: letter and appendix.

Public openness v personal privacy

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:36 UK time, Monday, 8 March 2010


In 2009 New York's schools employed two people called David Cameron. One of them was paid $38,698, the other made $67,406.

David CameronI know this because it's publicly available information. The David Camerons are just two of the 1.5 million public employees in New York state - from school bus drivers to secretaries - whose salary details are accessible in searchable databases obtained via FOI and posted online by the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a free enterprise lobby group.

The state of Idaho doesn't seem to employ anyone called David Cameron, but it has lots of staff with the surname Cameron - from a custodian (caretaker) paid $8.46 an hour to a research engineer on $40.36 an hour. Again their pay rates, along with those of Idaho's public employees with other names, were obtained from public authorities and can be found at the website of a local organisation, Our Idaho.

Similar sites have caused controversy in some parts of the US, but their existence illustrates how strikingly different cultural attitudes to personal privacy can be found in different countries. To many people in Britain it would be an unjustified intrusion into the personal circumstances of ordinary rank-and-file public sector workers.

The availability of this data for all state employees of whatever status certainly goes well beyond the proposals announced on Friday by David Cameron (the leader of the Conservative Party, not one of the New York school pair).

As part of a drive towards greater openness in local government, he wants councils to have to reveal the name, post and remuneration of all staff earning over £58,500 annually. Labour's policy is to introduce this requirement just for those paid over £150,000.

Where to draw the line between personal privacy and transparency in public finances can be a difficult matter. And there are other countries which go much further than even the US does.

In Norway, people's tax payments are publicly available - not only for public employees, but everyone. So if for example you go to the search facility set up by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, you can find out that there are six Norwegian taxpayers named David Cameron and you can discover their annual income, tax paid and wealth.

A Norwegian journalist once told me that it's accepted in Norway you have a right to know what your neighbours are paying in tax, so that you can check they're contributing their fair share towards public funds.

However, this is a level of openness in public finances and parallel intrusion into private finances which is way beyond anything David Cameron or any other British politician is likely to suggest (and I wonder what Lord Ashcroft would make of it?).

Civil servants divided over FOI response

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:46 UK time, Friday, 5 March 2010


New revelations under freedom of information demonstrate the widely varying approaches that different civil servants have towards openness and releasing documents.

A range of official attitudes is illustrated in papers disclosed recently by the Cabinet Office to Professor Alasdair Roberts, an international authority on FOI based at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

In 2005 Prof Roberts had asked the government for details of FOI applications referred to the Cabinet Office by the "clearing house" at what was then the Department for Constitutional Affairs - these would be particularly difficult, complex or sensitive cases.

His first request was answered in early 2005 by the Histories, Openness and Records Unit (HORU) of the Cabinet Office, which provided material he wanted. But when he then made another application for later data, things got more difficult.

Some officials outside HORU weren't happy about answering Prof Roberts, because his request was a "meta-request" - a request about the handling of other FOI requests.

The HORU official who initially provided him with information later wrote a memo adopting a rather confessional tone:

Internal memo

DCA is the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has become the Ministry of Justice. TSol refers to the Treasury Solicitor's Department, the government's lawyers.

While some other parts of Whitehall wanted to reject meta-requests under section 36 of the FOI Act following a "public interest balancing test" (PIBT), in June 2005 HORU still appeared willing to respond positively to Prof Roberts and another requester who wanted details of HORU cases.

HORU e-mail

But according to a HORU briefing note, 10 Downing St had a different viewpoint.

HORU briefing note

In due course it was decided not to release the requested material. But this left some officials struggling with how to justify to Prof Roberts that giving him the information he wanted would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.

HORU e-mail

Nevertheless the plan to keep the material secret was confirmed and presented for ministerial approval.

HORU submission

All this has now been revealed thanks to a further FOI request from Prof Roberts about the treatment of his meta-request - in other words, what could be called a meta-meta-request. The Cabinet Office at first refused to disclose this material but then did so after a ruling from the Information Commissioner, which followed an earlier ICO decision that he should also be given the case information he was seeking.

Prof Roberts says:

"For several years, officials in central government denied that the central clearance process caused unnecessary delay, or did anything other that assure consistent responses to FOI requests. Here is a case in which top-level coordination produced substantial delays. The documents suggest that the process also gave No 10 the opportunity to push for non-disclosure even though the officials immediately responsible could not see a risk of harm."

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