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Latest developments on Freedom of Information in Britain

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:51 pm on 25 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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Latest developments regarding Britain’s Freedom of Information Act:

  • Alistair Darling, a government minister, has expressed concerns about the use of the Freedom of Information Act to obtain civil servants’ advice to ministers and MPs’ correspondence with Ministers, suggesting he wants tighter restrictions on the FoIA over such communications. In his leaked letter to Lord Falconer he writes:

    First there is the position of MPs’ correspondence under the Act. Disclosure of letters between MPs and Ministers, even if ostensibly innocuous, will inhibit the dialogue between MPs and their constituents and MPs and Ministers. It can’t be right that a constituent’s affairs could be made public because he asked his MP to write to a Minister. And if we are to live under the constant threat of publication, this will prevent MPs from expressing their views frankly when writing to a Minister. We need urgent advice on what the position is.

    Second, I am concerned that the FOI Act, as it appears, prevents us from protecting robustly and across the board advice from officials to Ministers. Here again we should be able to guard more effectively against the incremental harm to the policy development process that must inevitably arise from the disclosure of individually innocuous submissions.

    He concludes:

    For immediate purposes, I would ask that officials, led by yours, conduct a speedy review of these aspects of the FOI.

    On MPs’ correspondence and advice to Ministers, we need to examine whether a more robust approach is possible to applying FOI exemptions and the scope for a more generic approach to guard against incremental harm from individual disclosures.

    On coordination between Departments, it would be helpful if officials could examine interdepartmental arrangements for handling FOI requests, taking in the role of the Clearing House, to ensure a consistent and rigorous approach to cross cutting requests. I expect this would entail clear instructions across Whitehall from your Department.

    Beyond that, we will need to watch Information Tribunal case law carefully and in due course consider whether change to the legislation is needed to redress an apparent imbalance between the “right to know” and the protection of private space where necessary for good governance.

  • There are reports that Lord Trefgarne may have decided to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom from Scrutiny Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill in the Lord. Without a sponsor the bill will fall. From the Press Gazette:

    Critics of a backbench bid to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act today vowed to do everything possible to stop it becoming law amid confusion over whether it has found a Tory backer in the Lords.

    The Liberal Democrats said Lord Trefgarne had agreed to sponsor David Maclean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill - a claim later confirmed by Government sources.

    Maclean, the Tory former chief whip, refused to confirm the reports but said: “He is one of a few people I am talking to about it. There is no rush.”

    Meanwhile, a Conservative Party spokeswoman insisted a sponsor had not yet been secured in the Lords.

  • Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner has stated he hadn’t received any complaints about MPs’ correspondence with their constituents being released, undermining the case being made for the bill by its proponents. From the Independent:

    Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, said he had not received any complaints from members of the public that their correspondence with an MP had been wrongly disclosed under the terms of the two-year-old legislation.

    Note that the legislation is actually 7 years old, but has only been in operation since 1st January 2005.

David Cameron and Freedom of Information

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:06 pm on 24 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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After failing to turn up and vote (which Menzies Campbell, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also failed to do) when the House of Commons voted for the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill, David Cameron has instructed Tory peers to block the bill:

David Cameron has told Conservative peers to vote against a controversial
bill introduced by one of his own backbenchers which would exempt MPs from the Freedom of Information Act.

The Tory leader said he wanted to find a way to protect MPs correspondence but that he could not support the private members’ bill, pushed through the Commons last week by former Conservative chief whip David Maclean. “If it could be amended in such a way that we are happy with, we would
consider it, but at the moment, it is no go,” Mr Cameron said.

In my view, this is the correct approach. The bill as it stands will exempt Parliament from Freedom of Information Act(FoIA) and will also exempt all correspondence between MPs and public authorities. The ostensible concern behind the bill was to protect the correspondence MPs made on behalf of their constituents with public authorities. If the bill had been written simply to protect this correspondence, then it would be a reasonable amendment to our current FoIA legislation making it absolutely clear such correspondence is not to be released.

Such correspondence should already be protected by the Data Protection Act, and sections 40 and 41 of the FoIA, but some MPs have expressed concern that this existing protection isn’t working. A bill targetted at strengthening this protection is fine, though I suspect issuing better/simpler guidance on the matter to the relevant public authorities would also be a solution.

However, I don’t understand why a bill completely exempting Parliament and the totality of MPs’ correspondence with public authorities was proposed as the means of dealing with this problem.

Finally, David Maclean has proposed to amend the bill to make publication of MPs’ expenses mandatory. Welcome as this move is, it misses the point which is that Parliament should not have a blanket exemption from the FoIA.

Gordon Brown and Freedom of Information

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:59 pm on .
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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The Telegraph reports that Gordon Brown will block the government’s attempts to water down the FoIA:

The Chancellor is ready to block plans drawn up by Lord Falconer which critics claim are designed to make it more difficult for people to obtain information from Whitehall.

I hope the Telegraph is right about this as it would be a welcome move, since Lord Falconer’s proposals would seriously weaken the FoIA.

There is also the matter of David MacLean’s Freedom of Information (Amendment Bill) that exempts Parliament from the FoIA. On this, the Telegraph reports:

Mr Brown wants to see the Private Members’ Bill, which was tabled by David Maclean, the former Conservative chief whip, rewritten to make clear that MPs will still have to publish full details of their expenses and allowances.

With David Cameron, the Conservative leader, adopting a similar position, Mr Maclean said last night that he was prepared to change his Bill to ensure that there was a statutory requirement to publish MPs’ allowances.

Whilst making the publication of MP’s expenses a statutory requirement would be a welcome move, it does not address the fundamental problem with David Maclean’s bill, which is that it would exempt Parliament from FoIA completely and thus the public would have no right to any information about Parliament’s business other than that which Parliament chooses to
release itself. Making it mandatory to publish the expenses would still leave all other information down to Parliament’s whim. And it would still exclude all MPs’ correspondence with public authorities.

The bill should either be dropped or should be amended to specifically exempt MP’s correspondence on behalf of their constituents with public authorities (the ostensible concern Maclean claimed to be addressing with his bill).

I’ll comment on David Cameron’s approach to this later.

The Freedom of Information Act and MPs’ correspondence

Posted by James Hammerton @ 12:06 am on 23 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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In my previous article on this topic, I noted that proponents of the bill claim the bill is necessary to protect MPs’ communications with, or on behalf of, their constituents from being released. This justification for the bill is set out in some detail in the Public Bill Committee’s consideration of the bill at a meeting on the 7th February 2007.

I shall respond to several points:
(more…)

Latest on the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:03 pm on 22 May, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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MPs voted for this bill last Friday and it now heads up to the House of Lords. However the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have pledged to block the bill in the Lords.

The latest version of the bill can be found here.

Proponents of the bill claim that it is necessary to protect the communications of members of the public with their MPs from publication. The problems with this argument are:

  • The bill exempts both the House of Commons and the House of Lords from the FoIA, i.e. the public will no longer have a right to know with regards to the business of Parliament. Parliament will decide for itself what information it releases.
  • The bill also exempts all correspondence between MPs and public authorities, not just the correspondence that references information about constituents.
  • Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act already exempts information where its release would violate the Data Protection Act, and releasing information about what a constituent has said to their MP would count.

I will return to the arguments put forward by the proponents of the bill later.

Update on bill to exempt parliament from the freedom of information act

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:12 pm on 26 April, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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This blog earlier reported on the private member’s bill going through Parliament, sponsored by Tory MP and former Tory chief whip David Maclean, that would exempt Parliament and all correspondence between MPs and public bodies from the provisions of the freedom of information act. Last Friday (20th April 2007), this bill was thought to have been killed offf after Lib Dem MP, Norman Baker, and a few others, spoke until its allotted time had run out.

However, due to other private member’s bills apparently not being ready to be debated, the bill is back in Parliament tomorrow (27th April 2007) and Norman Baker et al will need to try again to kill it off.

Note that Norman Baker is the Lib Dem MP who fought for MPs’ expenses to be released as public information and David Maclean is a member of the committee that fought against Baker on this matter, every step of the way.

The expenses of members of the Scottish parliament have been published routinely, under the devolved Parliament’s own FoI measures, for several years now.

British Government launches new FoI consultation

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:15 pm on 30 March, 2007.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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Regarding the British government’s plans to neuter the Freedom of Information Act revise the way the cost of processing a freedom of information request is calculated, the Register reports that the government has launched a second consultation on the matter:

The DCA has now launched a supplementary consultation, asking for views on the plans and for alternative suggestions of how it could balance openness and the need to keep costs to the public purse down.

“It is entirely right a reasonable amount of money and time is spent dealing with requests for information,” said information rights minister Baroness Catherine Ashton. “But public money is limited and it is the government’s responsibility to ensure it is not unduly diverted from supporting the delivery of frontline services.

“We would like to hear all views and ensure people have the opportunity to comment fully, so we have today published a supplementary paper on the consultation, inviting further comments,” she said.

The consultation seeks alternatives to the government’s proposals. “Do you consider that the draft regulations would succeed in dealing with the problem? If not do you have any other suggestions for dealing with disproportionately burdensome requests?” it asks.

The move was welcomed by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which had opposed the proposed changes. “This raises the strong possibility that the government will eventually decide to leave the current arrangements untouched,” said Maurice Frankel, the campaign’s director. “If it does decide to make any changes they are likely to be far more limited than the highly damaging restrictions which had been proposed.”

The deadline for submissions to the consultation is June 21st.

Freedom of information roundup — UK act to be completely gutted

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:17 pm on 27 February, 2007.
Categories accountability, freedom of information.
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I’ve been meaning to catchup on a number of freedom of information related stories, and finally I’ve got the chance:

  • Firstly, back in September, the Register reports that Privacy International published a survey showing that 70 countries have now enacted freedom of information laws, over half of which were adopted within the last 10 years:

    Almost 70 countries have now adopted freedom of information (FOI) laws, according to civil liberties group Privacy International. Over half of those have been adopted in the last 10 years, according to a survey just published.

    “The previous two years have been an exciting time for those promoting and using the right of access to information,” said the report’s author, David Banisar, in its foreword. “Countries on every continent have adopted laws. Others have amended and improved their laws. International rights and duties through the UN and other international bodies have emerged. Innovation has flourished.”

    The report found that FOI laws are used across the world to ensure that governments are open and accountable. It also found, though, specific instances where the laws have been used for very specific ends beneficial to citizens.

    In India, the report found, FOI laws are used to gather data on food vendors to find out which vendors are not providing government-subsidised food to the poor. The food distribution system has changed as a result.

    However, not all is rosy with this picture:

    The report also found some significant problems with FOI laws across the world.

    “There is much work to be done to reach truly transparent government,” said the report. “The culture of secrecy remains strong in many countries. Many of the laws are not adequate and promote access in name only. In some countries, the laws lie dormant due to a failure to implement them properly or a lack of demand. In others, the exemptions and fees are abused by governments. New laws promoting secrecy in the global war on terror have undercut access.”

    The report itself can be found here.

  • This blog reported earlier on plans to change the basis on which the cost of processing FoI requests is calculated that would hobble Britain’s FoI Act. Draft regulations implementing these changes have been published and a consultation is open on them (and has been since 14th December) until the 8th March. A debate of these draft proposals in Parliament took place recently and is covered here by UK Liberty.

    It is worth noting that the draft regulations will be introduced to Parliament via the negative resolution procedure (see page 5 of the consultation document), which means that the regulations will be enacted unless one of the Houses of Parliament votes against it — there need not be a vote in favour and if a vote isn’t called, the regulations pass.

  • There is also a private member’s bill going through Parliament, introduced by Tory Party Whip, David MacLean that would exempt both Houses of Parliament plus all correspondence between MPs and public authorities from the Freedom of Information Act’s provisions.

Between them, it seems the government and the Tory party are about to gut Britain’s Freedom of Information Act to the point of making it useless. Other articles about the government’s attacks include this from the Times and this from the First Post . UK Liberty commented on the private member’s bill here.

Personal data to be shared across govt departments

According to the BBC:

A giant database of people’s personal details could be created at Whitehall under government plans which ministers say will help improve public services.

Tony Blair is expected to unveil the proposal in Downing Street on Monday.

Strict regulations currently prevent one part of government sharing personal information it holds with another.

Ministers argue the data-sharing rules are “overzealous” but the Conservatives say relaxing them would be “an excuse for bureaucrats to snoop”.

So-called citizens’ panels will gauge public reaction to relaxing privacy procedures so people do not have to repeat personal information to different public bodies - particularly at times of stress such as a family death.

Officials think current rules are an obstacle to improving public services.

But such data-sharing is controversial. As well as criticism from the Conservatives, the information commissioner - the data watchdog - has warned Britain may be “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”.

What this means is that any information you give to e.g. the inland revenue will be on the same databases used by e.g. the department for work and pensions, or the DVLA or the passport office. Thus information you give to government bodies will be accessible by thousands of civil servants across different bodies, simply for the convenience of the government.

The government is thus demanding more and more information about you and to use it as it sees fit, at the same time is it tries to further restrict your weakly enshrined right to know about what the government is doing.

Government plans to hobble FoI act

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:07 pm on 22 October, 2006.
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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As reported here, here and here, the British government are planning to change the grounds on which freedom of information act requests can be refused.

Currently, if a request is going to cost £600 pounds or more, then the request can be refused, but this calculation does not factor in reading time, consultation time or consideration time, and the government wishes to add these factors in. Tim Worstall notes (3rd link above) that this will make it very easy for requests to be turned down:

Consultation time’ ? So, we have a committee meeting to discuss how to collate the information. There are plenty of civil servants who are on the salaried equivalent of £30 or £40 an hour. Ten of them in a meeting taking two hours: Ooops! sorry, no information for you!

This will eviscerate the Act. Which is the point, of course.

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