Posted on December 12th, 2012 1 comment
Help. I’m surfacing from a self-imposed blogging curfew in an attempt to see if anybody out there in the cyberworld can offer me any words or advice or assistance in relation to an Information Tribunal I have become embroiled in.
The public authority in the case is the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). It would appear its purpose is to collate all data from the NHS and is responsible for publications on almost everything statistics-based that comes out of the NHS.
Since FoI came in I’ve had limited success getting information from them and finally we seem set to lock horns in an Information Tribunal next week (December 18).
The crux of the issue is can they refuse me the information I seek by applying a S.21 (information reasonably accessible by other means) exemption saying that I can have the data if I pay for it – the price they have quoted me is £1,550.
As I said the issue has a long history and initially in the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice [FS50420295] the data was refused me on the basis that it wasn’t held by the HSCIC. After my notice of appeal to the Tribunal Notice of Appeal (IR 2012)] the Information Commissioner backed down and said he agreed it was held but that it was now exempt under S.21.
The HSCIC does state on its publication scheme that if you want a tailor-made report then it will cost and they publish a summary of these fees – but can £1,550 really mean that it is “reasonably accessible”.
In my skeleton argument to the Tribunal I have tried to compare the HSCIC with other organisations (The Office of National Statistics, The Ministry of Justice, The Department of Work and Pensions) that hold huge databases but don’t charge people under FoI if they want to “cut and slice” it in a particular way that hasn’t been done before.
My concern is that if my appeal fails it opens up a trap-door in FoI that other organisations will be able to exploit to avoid having to answer questions that they feel will put them to too much work.
I’m up against two barristers – the Information Commissioner and the HSCIC will have one – so any e-mailed advice or assistance in the case would be much appreciated.
Posted on January 18th, 2012 1 comment
If I were to describe my love for the Freedom of Information Act, it would be the love you might have for a cruel, but intoxicating mistress (not that I have one I hasten to add).
At times everything goes swimmingly and you can’t believe your luck that the prize nincompoop Tony Blair and his pals agreed to bring it in. FoI and I are the best of pals, sharing picnics in summer meadows.
But at other times it seems to conspire against you, sometimes standing in your way, or more normally working you up into a rage with an erratic series of minor inconveniences. At these moments FoI deletes you as a friend from her Facebook page.
I’m going through one of those rough sessions, and it is not the Act itself that is annoying me but the inconsistency in the way it is used. I shall try to explain.
Every year I send off a FoI request to all the police forces asking how many of their officers were suspended on full pay at the start of the year. It is a straightforward question, which when I compile all the results, makes a reasonable story in the papers, normally with “Gardening Leave Bobbies Costing Taxpayers £millions” somewhere in the headline or intro.
But each year one force always kicks up rough, normally because a senior officer is suspended and they don’t want to tell me.
Clearly I will appeal this case all the way. Last year I ducked out of a similar fight with a police force when I asked how many officers had been off for the entire year with stress. On that occasion I thought the health element in the question would trump my inquiry. In this situation I think I have the public interest on my side.
If I ever had the misfortune to be burgled what profession do you think the criminals would assume I have? My guess would be some sort of failed chef as we seem to have every celebrity cook book published in the last 15 years. Despite having thousands of recipes from top chefs on our bookshelves and dotted around the kitchen I’m afraid the peak of my culinary powers is still tuna pasta bake (although it is nice).
Trying to mix business with pleasure I occasionally do a trawl of celebrity restaurants by asking for the food inspection reports carried out by local councils on their establishments. This can sometimes yield a good story when rat dropping are found, or the pate has gone off.
My latest request was for details of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s eateries in the south-west. I asked for the actual reports and all I got was a link to the Scores on the Doors website. It means I will have to appeal it, wasting more time and money. In the computer age we now live in I find it surprising that these reports are not routinely posted on-line, so as well as seeing a restaurants score, we can see the rationale for the decision.
This is what I asked for:
Please could you provide me with a copy of all food safety reports concerning the establishments listed below which were conducted on or after 1.1.09.
River Cottage Axminster Canteen and Deli, Trinity Street, Axminster
River Cottage, Parm Farm, Trinity Hill Road, Axminster, EX13 8TB.
And this is what I got back…..
Dear Mr Davis,
Thank you for your request for information. Please find the response to your query below.
This information is made publicly available via the National Food Hygiene Rating Scheme website http://ratings.food.gov.uk/
This site has been designed to give the public information about whether premises comply with food hygiene requirements without disclosing any detail which could be commercially compromising or sensitive.
I trust this information is helpful to you.
If you are not satisfied with the way we have responded to your request, please fill in our online complaint form at www.eastdevon.gov.uk/making_a_complaint or write to the Monitoring Officer, EDDC, Knowle, Sidmouth, EX10 8HL.
Another appeal I fear.
Posted on January 17th, 2012 No comments
You can’t fail to have noticed that the issue of maritime safety has shot up the news agenda recently.
The apparently cack-handed way the ship was driven into the rocks and its subsequent sinking give a whole new meaning to the term “European bail-out”. Women, children and nationals from countries without a AAA rating abandon ship first.
But the subject brings me back to an interesting squabble I’ve managed to get myself into with the Department of Transport.
At the back end of last year I asked the following question: “Please could you provide me with a copy of all the SAFA Ramp Inspection Reports you hold dated from 1.1.10 to the present date where any Class 3 (major influence on safety) action has been recorded.”
For those of you not familiar with the plane inspection regime my understanding is that official can swoop on aircraft at any time and then fill in a form about its airworthiness.
As you can see from my question I just want the ones where there has been a Class 3 finding on the basis that if the experts say it has a problem which is a major influence on safety, that is in the public interest.
But my request has been turned down. See the letter here. plane…………. The Department of Transport relied on S.27 (International Relations) and S.30 and S.31. All of which as we know are subject to the public interest test. Yet it is thought that the knowledge of which planes have major safety defects is best kept from us.
This would be an interesting enough case on its own if it were not for the fact that I believe the Department of Transport then took aim at their own feet and fired off a volley of shots.
While trawling the internet I found a spreadsheet that had been provided to an MP that gave details of all inspections that had been carried out by an agency of the Department of Transport on ships.
I then asked a follow up question saying could I have all the detailed report sheets on those ships which when inspected were deemed the most dangerous, and were banned from setting sail until the defects were corrected.
On this occasion there were no fears that the reports might adversely affect our relationships with foreign nations or that it would bring the whole inspection regime collapsing around our ears. Here are two of the reports I was provided with of ships that were too dangerous to be allowed to leave port in October last year.
By the incredible power of the internet you can even now see where both ships are. When I last looked Adinath One was near Malta and Ocean Bridge was somehwere off the coast of West Africa. But the main thing, I suppose is that they are both on the sea rather than under it.
Anyhow, I’m looking forward to seeing how the Department of Transport can justify treating plane safety one way and ship safety completely differently. I’ll keep you posted.
Posted on January 16th, 2012 6 comments
Today I’m asking for help as I seem to have come up against something of an FoI brick wall.
Some of you may know that one of my recent pet projects concerns a show called #Educating Essex which was broadcast on Channel 4.
My problem with the show is at a time when print journalists (and I include myself in that dwindling tribe) are pilloried every day for our lack of ethics, sensitivity and soul those people producing fly-on-the-wall documentaries are, on occasions, getting away with much more.
The school is questions, Passmores in Harlow, Essex, have received an FoI request from me and an appeal has now gone to the Information Commissioner.
But I also complained about the exploitative nature of the show to Ofcom, who responded to my concerns to say that I need not worry myself. Here is its e-mail to me. Ofcom response.
I then thought it would be worth e-mailing an FoI to Ofcom to see if that would unearth something worthwhile. Can I please see all the corresspondence you hold that relates to investigations/queries/letters/e-mails between yourselves and the producers of #EducatingEssex, or yourselves and the school, in relation to the producers ensuring that the programme makers ensured that it did not breach the Ofcom Broadcasting guidelines?”
Unfortunately the response I received says that it cannot disclose anything to me as it is all covered by S.44 (prohibition on disclosure) by virtue of S.393(1) of the Communications Act. Ofcom Response to FOI
My question is, does anybody know how I might be able to rephrase my query with Ofcom to extract any information from them about the show?
S.44 is an exemption that I have managed to avoid in the past and such a sweeping use of it would surely make Ofcom virtually un-FoIable. Help.
Posted on January 12th, 2012 2 comments
The news that a NHS hospital is staring down the barrels of a massive £375,000 fine for ‘losing’ hard drives containing patients details has prompted a good deal of comment, and I’m sure will provoke a whole lot more.
The BBC report the story [here] saying the Trust will be challenging the level of the fine.
Experts in the field have been saying that it was only a matter of time before the Information Commissioner flexed his new powers and gave an organisation a good financial thrashing.
Some people are concerned that these fines, if they are eventually levied, shouldn’t be too onerous because they will take money away from patient care.
It is an argument, but not one that I agree with. Why not?
Firstly, organisations for too long have relegated DP and Information Governance concerns to the bottom of the pile, the responsibility of those “beardy people” in the computer basement. We know it’s much more important than that, and should be as integral to the good running of a hospital as making sure they have clean scalpels.
Secondly people are concerned that the money disappears from the public sector. It doesn’t, in fact it just gets recycled around via the Consolidation Fund back into the public purse, albeit the institution that is paying may suffer some short-term financial hardship.
Here is where my proposed amendment to the Act comes in. If the driver behind these fines is to make sure that hospitals and other organisations abide by good practice the fines should be levied on the executives NOT the organisation.
I say this from bitter experience of having the misfortune to deal with too many FoI officers who were shunted into the job and then given no support from their organisation.
When I started asking FoI questions and then appealing nonsense responses I would sometimes get a call from a beleaguered officer pleading with me not to drop my case. They were desperate for me to appeal to the ICO so that their executives would feel the commissioner’s hot breath on their necks.
I’m not saying this took place with my requests to this hospital trust, but there are organisations still out there that seem to have nothing but contempt for FoI and DP. What they need, and what those organisations’ FoI officers need is a nice big fine to land on the chief executive’s desk.
The BBC story quotes Duncan Selbie, the chief executive of the Brighton and Sussex University Hospital Trust as saying: “As soon as we were alerted to this, we informed the police and with their help we recovered all the hard drives.
“We are confident that there is a very low risk of any of the data from them having passed into the public domain.”
Some might say that Mr Selbie, who was paid £200,000 last year to run the Trust, would say that.
Here is my new policy. As well as fining the organisation the Information Commissioner should be able to rule that nobody working in the DP or FoI sections of that organisation is allowed to earn less than one-fifth of the Chief Executive. That, I think, would concentrate minds.
Posted on January 11th, 2012 2 comments
There has been some chatter in FoI circles on the internet recently about the Royal Mail and their rather imaginative use of the S.43(2) commercial interests exemption.
Here I should declare an interest in that the Royal Mail and me have history.
They obviously feel that as a commercial organisation battling every day to deliver post in competition against other companies that FoI is something of an inconvenience.
But as my mum would say “There’s no point moaning about it”, however, Royal Mail continues to sit in the corner sulking hoping that FoI will go away. I believe the current expression is “Man Up”, and it is time either the chiefs at the Royal Mail, or those in charge of FoI take my mum’s advice and just get on with it.
I’ve written a host of stories on the Royal Mail since FoI came in, almost all of them bad, and almost all of them prised out of the organisation grudgingly.
My catalogue of Royal Mail stories includes how many letters they shred every year because they don’t deliver them, how much they raise from auctioning off items they fail to deliver, how much compensation they pay to customers and how many postmen are fired for stealing.
So recently when trawling through some Parliamentary documents on the web I found a letter from the Royal Mail detailing how many criminal investigations it sets in train every year.
I thought I’d ask them how many had been started in previous years to see if there was a trend and perhaps it might make another story.
Well, imagine how unsurprised I was to get a reply from the Royal Mail saying the information was exempt from disclosure under S.43(2) of the Act. Their letter to me is here.Davis – DTUP-8NWESG The best bit was their rationale for the decision which was:
“ We believe the requested information, if disclosed, would be likely to be misconstrued and taken out of context resulting in unfair damage to the reputation of our employees and public perception of Royal Mail.”
Misconstrued! When has that ever been an exemption? I’m sure there are hundreds of people out there who would like to have denied me information on the basis that I might ‘misconstrue’ it, but it’s not allowed.
What about Freedom of Expression? Should the Royal Mail be in charge of some despotic Government’s Department of Information? What about all the people they employ in their press office? What are they being paid for?
Well I’ve already fired off my appeal and I’ve enclosed a copy of the letter that the Royal Mail disclosed to Parliament, which you can see below, which reveals the very information that has been denied me.
I’ll keep you posted.
Posted on January 10th, 2012 No comments
This year my wife and son managed to secure tickets for Wimbledon. We acquired them through the draw that was held at our local Sussex tennis club, and as luck would have it they were for the Women’s Final.
On the day of the match I was left at home watching the contest on television while those two travelled up to SW19 to enjoy the contest.
I should say here that although we “won” the tickets what we actually won was the right to buy them for roughly £100 each – no half price reduction for kids at the All England Club.
So when I watched the match and saw the cameras cut to the Royal Box to see the nation’s esteemed deputy leader hob-knobbing in the front row with his wife I saw a chance to recoup some of my outlay.
What about FoIing the Cabinet Office to see the communications chain between Mr Clegg and Wimbledon? So I sent off a FoI request to those lovely people at the Cabinet Office.
My first reply was that they held no information and that everything is published in the hospitality register. I appealed the decision and was told effectively, that was it, go away.
I appealed to the Information Commissioner saying I wasn’t that interested in the actual hospitality – as I know what it was because I saw him – what I really want is the communication chain behind the invite.
A little later a letter arrives from the Cabinet Office saying they have now managed to find some communication. I attach it here. Cabinet Office letter
But to my surprise this relates to the Prime Minister and his wife saying thanks for the invite but they won’t be able to make it.
So I’ve told the Information Commissioner I’m not dropping the appeal on the basis of what I’ve been sent so far and I’ve sent off the picture below, just to prove I wasn’t dreaming it.
Some of you might think I’m making a fuss over this, and you are entitled to your view. However, if Mr and Mrs Clegg are going to accept tickets for Wimbledon that the hoi polloi have to pay hundreds of pounds for they can expect a bit of scrutiny.
And what do the Cabinet Office take us for? Idiots? Are we supposed to believe that Clegg and his wife didn’t have anything to do that Saturday and thought they would just turn up and see if they could talk their way in? I’ll keep you posted on developments.
Posted on January 9th, 2012 No comments
One really positive thing about the Freedom of Information Act is how it has made organisations proactively release information.
I waste many an hour clicking down blind alleys on the internet in the hope of turning up an information gem.
One such organisation that publishes a lot of its material as a matter of course on the web is the National Health Service Litigation Authority (NHSLA).
This organisation has the unenviable job of paying out for medical negligence claims that occur within the NHS. It pays for these claims by billing NHS organisations, mainly hospital trusts, a premium for cover, and then it administers any payouts.
Therefore the NHSLA has a database that contains how much each Trust pays for cover as well as how much has been paid out in claims for that particular organisation.
All of this information is on openly available websites that anybody with an internet connection can click on to. Here are the most recently available figures. NHSLAFactsheet5201011.
From my local newspaper days it seems a crying shame that so few reporters have latched on to this organisation as the data can be used to provide some illuminating articles about the level of care provided by their local hospital.
I used the data this week for a story that appeared in the Sunday Express.
Posted on December 1st, 2011 No comments
You may well be away that the BBC has found itself at the centre of a sexism row involving its nominations for Sports Personality of the Year.
All the ten candidates are men and it has been disclosed that for some obscure reason people from “respectable” pornography magazines just as Nuts and Zoo were tasked with picking the nominees.
The BBC has said it will look again at how the process should be managed, but isn’t going to change anything for this year.
So, with that in mind I have decided to right a wrong. I will now announce to a fanfare of applause the FoI News Freedom of Information Officer of the Year Award 2011, otherwise known as the “Poison Chalice” award.
The award, which consists of no cash and no actual prize (so don’t bother to see if it is declared on any gift register) goes to Rachael Ward of the BBC.
“Why her?” I hear you cry. I’m sure she probably will not thank me for this, but it is awarded for displaying courage under fire from superiors. I’ll try to explain more fully.
After a considerable wrangle I eventually wrote a story based upon the fact that the BBC gave a set of Wimbledon men’s final tickets to multi-millionaire Bernie Ecclestone.
Having taken some time to extract this from the Beeb I suspected something might be amiss and sent off the dreaded “meta-request” – a request about a request – or the request of last resort.
When the response came back not only did it give a full account of how the details of Bernie’s tickets were released but also how FoI officer Ward stood firm in front of pressure from her superiors.
Her boss Dominic Coles e-mailed her saying: “Rather than naming Bernie Ecclestone specifically, can we not say two tickets were offered for use by Formula One Management?”
She could have crumbled under the pressure of the six-figure pay packet, but she didn’t. She held on to the principles of FoI, buttressed by the law itself and sent me out Bernie’s name – much to Bernie’s initial annoyance.
The “cover-up that wasn’t” story appeared in the Mail on Sunday. For those of you interested the full BBC disclosure can be seen here. [RFI20111231 ].
Posted on March 26th, 2009 No comments
Do you twitter? Because FoI News tweets.
Yes, if you are a twitterer then search for FoI News (you need a space between the words), make us a friend and you will get an automatic tweet whenever the blog is updated.
I believe that is what young people commonly refer to as “cool”.