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Archives for June 2010

Home Office error reveals how FOI request handled

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:45 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010


The Home Office postponed an FOI release of research on drugs policy because it wanted "to avoid a focus on the gaps in the evidence base" on the effect of its strategy.

Officials also advised ministers that their decision on disclosure had to take into account the risk that the information could be used to criticise government policy.

Home Office civil servants have inadvertently revealed this to the BBC in a separate freedom-of-information response in which they left in material clearly intended for deletion.

The delayed disclosure involved the Drugs Value for Money Review, an analysis carried out in 2007 into the effectiveness of government spending on combating drug use. This was requested under freedom of information in early 2008 by Transform, a group which campaigns for drugs to be legalised under a system of regulation.

The report was eventually released [5.11MB PDF] in January this year, but until then the Home Office had been maintaining that publication was against the public interest. At first it refused completely, then it agreed in principle but argued that it wanted to wait until a related National Audit Office report was also ready.

The material accidentally sent to the BBC [204.79Kb PDF] includes a submission prepared for ministers in November 2009 on the handling of the Transform FOI request. This states [70.33Kb PDF]:

Transform's website is currently comparing the costs and benefits of current drug prohibitionist policy and drug control compared to legal regulation. They are likely to pick up areas of the report which highlight the difficulty in assessing VfM and that evaluation of programmes and initiatives are patchy. Withholding release of the report until the publication of the more detailed and current NAO study will help to avoid a focus on the gaps in the evidence base and evaluation of VfM identified by the earlier analysis.

And naturally when the report was published Transform did indeed pick up on what it saw as the gaps in evidence-based evaluation of Home Office drugs strategy. The National Audit Office study was issued in March, and it turned out that it too criticised the lack of an evaluative framework.

The civil service submission to ministers, which was copied to the permanent secretary David Normington, also suggested that the decision on whether to disclose the report should take into account the risk this would help Transform criticise government policy. It said [53.51Kb PDF]:

The release of the report entails the risk of Transform, or other supporters of legalisation, using information from the report to criticise the Government's drug policy, or to support their call for legalisation of drugs and the introduction of a regulated system of supply. These risks should be considered in reaching a decision on whether to release the report

The FOI application was made by Danny Kushlick from Transform, who told me: "Writing that down is fairly dumb. Sending it to you is even sillier."

He added:

"This revelation is outrageous. It would appear to show civil servants, from the permanent secretary down, breaking the spirit of the law, with the support of ministers. It shows the government withholding information for fear of being punished in the press. This fear meant that information was kept from the eyes of both the public and indeed parliament during the period that it was developing policy. The result is bad policy."

A Home Office spokesperson commented:

"We take our obligations under the Freedom of Information Act very seriously. In this case, the report was originally exempted because it would have been likely to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.
"The Freedom of Information Act is applicant blind. Regardless of who the applicant is, all requests for information are assessed and answered in the same manner.
"It is the duty of Government to properly explain its policies and so we identify at an early stage subjects likely to be of wider public interest. This means we can answer any additional questions from the public or the media in a considered, accurate and timely way.
"Similarly, FOI requests from the media or pressure groups will often attract significant wider attention, more so than requests from members of the public for example, and so they are flagged as well. This ensures the department can properly and promptly answer any follow-up questions when the information appears on the website."

"Embarrassing" e-mails

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:25 UK time, Monday, 21 June 2010


People who make freedom-of-information applications are sometimes accused of going on fishing expeditions, submitting generalised queries in the vague hope of coming across some scandal.

FishingOf course, in one sense, any FOI request is a fishing expedition in that requesters never know in advance what they will actually get. But it has to be said that some seem less precisely motivated than others.

Yesterday, the Information Commissioner's Office published a ruling [89Kb PDF] on a somewhat unusual FOI application sent to the Department for Transport. The requester had had what might have seemed like the bright idea of asking the the department for copies of all e-mails in the folders of ministers or their personal secretaries which contained the word "embarrassing".

Whoever the requester was, he or she clearly takes a dim view of standards of literacy in the modern civil service, as the request was extended to include various wrong spellings of the crucial term: "please try one r, two esses; two rs, one s and one r and one s".

The DfT originally dismissed the application as vexatious. But they changed their mind once the requester complained to the Commissioner. The department then gave him copies of four such e-mails. Since, as far I am aware, none of these e-mails has since been given wider circulation, possibly they did not contain anything embarrassing apart from the word in question.

But the DfT still refused to disclose another e-mail, which recorded a communication from an MP on a constituency matter, on the basis that it would be against the public interest. The complainant argued:

If someone has described a matter as embarrassing, the public interest lies for us to see what they consider to be embarrassing and make our own decision as to whether or not they agree.

However, the Commissioner was "not wholly persuaded by this point", according to the decision notice. Nor was he that impressed by the requester's apparent overall strategy:

the Commissioner is not convinced that this request would enable what a public authority considers to be embarrassing to be found. He has particular doubts that a request for any emails in the email accounts of (admittedly senior) individuals within a government department which contain the word 'embarrassing' would, in itself, necessarily uncover matters that were, or were considered, embarrassing to that public authority.

And thus he backed the DfT's argument that releasing the outstanding e-mail would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views. So civil servants may now consider it safe to use the word "embarrassing" freely in their e-mails, however they want to spell it.

FOI finds out what MP couldn't

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Martin Rosenbaum | 11:38 UK time, Tuesday, 15 June 2010


Freedom of information requests, which anyone can submit, can obtain more information than Parliamentary questions from MPs.

This has just been illustrated by the issue of how much Arts Council England paid the artist Lothar Gotz for his role in the redecoration of its head office in 2008.

House of CommonsWhen the Labour MP Tom Watson put down a Parliamentary question to find this out, he was told [9.6Kb PDF] "this information is commercially sensitive".

This prompted Mr Watson to tweet: "Why should this parliamentary answer be commercially sensitive? ...If it was FOI'd I bet it would be answered."

It turns out that Mr Watson is right. Under freedom of information, the BBC posed the same question to Arts Council England. Yesterday we were informed [29.3Kb PDF] that the sum of money in question is £13,500.

A similar FOI application was also made by Richard Taylor via What Do They Know. However, he altered the wording so as to reduce the risk of the request being rejected on grounds of commercial confidence (whereas the BBC request kept Mr Watson's wording).

As a result Mr Taylor has now discovered that the total sum spent on the redecoration was £116,232, although he was not given the specific amount paid to Lothar Gotz.

Mr Taylor argues that, despite the Cabinet Office guidance on answering similar FOI and Parliamentary questions, this is a further example of previous instances where "What Do They Know beats Parliamentary questions". However, Mr Watson says it is a "scandal" which he will be raising with Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons.

Of course, MPs have the same rights as other citizens to make FOI requests. So is it an advance for democracy when their access to information is no greater than that of the rest of the public? Or is this just a tale of a government department which was trying to obstruct an MP who had what might be an awkward question?

Victory for What Do They Know website

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Martin Rosenbaum | 16:28 UK time, Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Comments (19)

A new decision this week by the Information Commissioner's Office represents a significant victory for the FOI requesters' website in its battles with the few public authorities that object to its mode of operation - in this case, the House of Commons.

Screenshot whatdotheyknow siteThe ICO has ruled [58.61KB PDF] that the House has to comply with a freedom of information request submitted through What Do They Know, even though it means that its response will be automatically published on that website.

The request, submitted in July 2008 by Francis Irving, was for documents on the possible deployment of electronic petitioning systems in Parliament.

The Commons told Mr Irving that it could send him material directly by e-mail, but it would not respond through the What Do They Know system because the automatic web publication of its reply would breach Parliamentary copyright.

After an internal review of its refusal, the Commons later offered [2.52MB PDF] to supply information through What Do They Know if the website publishers agreed to sign a licence for reproduction of Parliamentary documents.

This included the requirement "not to reproduce material for the purposes of disparaging either House or bringing it into disrepute". However, mySociety, the publishers of What Do They Know, refused to accept the principle of the licence or its detailed provisions.

Last November Mr Irving, who works on What Do They Know, complained to the Information Commissioner about the House of Commons' refusal to comply with his FOI application in the manner he requested.

On Monday the ICO instructed the House to send the information through What Do They Know within 35 days, unless it decides to appeal.

The House of Commons is not the only public authority which is uneasy about What Do They Know. Brent Council also refuses to respond to requests through the website on the grounds that it would breach copyright. It is the subject of similar complaints to the ICO.

Coins data now published: Please help us analyse it

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Martin Rosenbaum | 09:40 UK time, Friday, 4 June 2010


This morning, the Treasury has released a tranche of data from its Coins (Combined Online Information System) database, which contains details of public spending across Whitehall.

CoinsThis represents a reversal of the policy adopted by the Labour government, which in the past few months turned down freedom-of-information requests from myself and others for access to this large dataset.

The Coins database became a symbolic target for open-government campaigners, and as shadow chancellor before the election George Osborne promised to release it as part of the Conservatives' transparency agenda.

Labour Treasury ministers had maintained that it would not be in the public interest to disclose this information. They argued [1.64Mb PDF] that potential misinterpretation of 23 million lines of raw and unvalidated data and a high volume of follow-up enquiries would be too disruptive to the Treasury's work.

Another factor Labour quoted was the "impenetrability of the information to a lay user". The new coalition government has tried to combat this by giving special advance access to the data to the Open Knowledge Foundation which runs the Where Does My Money Go? website, so they can help present the data in more easily intelligible formats.

There's a lot of information there (and some background here), and it's not easy to work out its significance. So please explore it yourself; my colleagues and I would be very grateful to know if you spot something you think is interesting or come up with good ways to analyse it. Please use the form at the bottom of this page. Thanks.

Update 1045: I wrote above that the Treasury has released a lot of data and that it's initially hard to assess its significance; it turns out that both are serious understatements.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has compiled a very useful browsable and searchable version, with its own "user's guide" to Coins.

Update 1130: This morning, I have also received a freedom-of-information response [570Kb PDF] from the Treasury which makes clear there are limits to the coalition government's open-data policy.

The Treasury is refusing to provide access to the current contents of the Coins database. The information it has provided today is historical data for 2008/9 and 2009/10, although the figures for the latter year are not yet complete. It is planning to issue previous years' data back to 2005/6 within the next fortnight.

However, the Treasury has told me today that it will not release data for current and future years, because this relates to the formulation of government policy, and some of it - for example, that relating to government trading funds - is also commercially sensitive. It argues that the material is exempt under the Freedom of Information Act because the balance of the public interest is against publication. It says that Coins data for 2010/11 will not be issued until June next year.

Last year George Osborne attacked Gordon Brown for not giving him access to Coins data. He was clearly referring to current data rather than historical information. In an interview with the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson, he said: "We will publish all this information, we will make it available to future oppositions".

Should you know if your neighbour has a gun?

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Martin Rosenbaum | 15:52 UK time, Thursday, 3 June 2010


Does the coalition government's agenda for increasing public access to state data have any relevance to gun ownership and the shootings in Cumbria?

Some in the USA might think so. As I've noted previously (on the subject of public-sector pay), there's a different set of cultural attitudes that allows public access to information in the US which many Britons would traditionally have regarded as a serious breach of privacy.

Some American local newspapers have taken to obtaining and publishing lists of residents with various gun permits, which in numerous US states is publicly available information. Here's a list of people in parts of Ohio who are allowed to carry concealed handguns.

The publication of such material has been far from uncontroversial. A newspaper in Virginia was forced to remove a database it had published of residents with concealed-carry permits. Arguments on both sides have featured in the US press.

On the one hand, a policy of openness could result in useful warnings, enabling a concerned member of the public to report concerns that a particular individual on a published list is not - or is no longer - suitable to be a gun owner (whether this could have made any difference in the case of Derrick Bird is not yet clear). On the other, it could clearly assist criminals who want to steal guns.

The UK government has stated that it won't rush to new legislation in the wake of the killings. But it would be a big shift in British attitudes for it to conclude it should apply its policy of openness to lists of gun owners.

Sir Thomas Legg's pay

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Martin Rosenbaum | 14:30 UK time, Wednesday, 2 June 2010


Given that high pay in the public sector has been in the news over the past few days, as has the issue of MPs' expenses, how much was paid to the man who was given the task of auditing MPs' claims?

Sir Thomas LeggThe BBC has discovered through a freedom of information request to the House of Commons that Sir Thomas Legg was paid £163,125 for his work on his review of MPs' individual claims.

Since he started the job in May 2009 and finished in February 2010, this was for considerably less than a year's work. In comparison, an MP's salary in 2009/10 was £64,766.

So Sir Thomas was paid at a rate at least well over double (probably treble or more) that of the MPs whose thriftiness with public money he was employed to assess.

(Incidentally, on the position of David Laws, Sir Thomas concluded that Mr Laws had no issues on his expenses, presumably on the basis of the information that Mr Laws had supplied.)

Sir Thomas declined to comment.

Data on salaries and sentences

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:39 UK time, Tuesday, 1 June 2010


David Cameron yesterday announced more details of his plans to make much more state data publicly available.

David CameronI've discussed some of these topics before, such as the Treasury's Coins database on public spending and public sector salaries.

It will be interesting to see the effect of the measure to publish salaries of most senior civil servants earning over £58,200 a year. My guess is that it will result in much more upward pressure on pay than disclosing all salaries. Doubtless, many officials will be surprised and annoyed to discover how much less they are paid than some colleagues, without becoming equally surprised and just as pleased at how much more they are paid than certain others.

Mr Cameron says that in the brief period since he became prime minister, he's noticed how much information is kept private for ministers and officials alone. And I have to say that I do often find puzzling the discrepancies between material which is openly available and similar data which is not released.

Take the performance of judges, for example. If you're interested in which English and Welsh judges are passing sentences later overturned as unduly lenient, there's a detailed spreadsheet here [24KB PDF]. This information has been voluntarily issued by the government for several years. But what if you want equivalent comprehensive data about sentencing which is overturned on appeal as too harsh? Here the situation is completely different.

In 2008 the BBC asked the Ministry of Justice for this material as an FOI request and was turned down. That refusal was recently upheld by the Information Commissioner [64KB PDF].

The commissioner dismissed the MoJ's first argument that it did not "hold" the requested information because it would have to run a new report to extract the data from its database. But he accepted the ministry's other argument, that even if it did "hold" the information, it was exempt from disclosure as consisting of court records which are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

So although the information on lenient sentences has been willingly published, the government can't be forced under FOI to publish the same material on severe sentences.

There's plenty for Mr Cameron to turn his mind to in the field of opening up data.

File 61 is missing

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:34 UK time, Tuesday, 1 June 2010


Effective records management is vital to the delivery of the department's services in an orderly, efficient, and accountable manner

So says the Department for Transport in its records management policy [16.5Kb PDF], adding:

we will therefore create and manage records efficiently, make them accessible where possible, protect and store them securely, and dispose of them safely at the right time

An aerial view of the new Stratford International train station, July 2005The BBC recently sent a freedom-of-information request to the department for documents relating to Stratford International station, the "international station" in east London which cost over £200m but doesn't actually have any international trains stopping at it.

Last week, BBC London reported on how documents already obtained under FOI shed further light on Eurostar's resistance to stopping there.

DfT missing fileThis later request was for selected Department for Transport files on the station. And the DfT has now sent us some material. Unfortunately, one file on the topic has gone missing and so can't be supplied.

This is the DfT's File 61 on Stratford International - the file concerned with "Records Management and FOI Issues".

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