Posted on December 11th, 2009 No comments
Somebody once said (and apologies to whoever dreamed up the analogy) that the use of the Government’s Freedom of Information veto was a little like losing one’s virginity.
They reasoned that the first time was a big deal preceded by a “will they, won’t they” debate.
But after they take the plunge every subsequent application of the veto is increasingly less significant than the first – under you end up spraying your vetos around like confetti.
Jack Straw has gone from virgin to slapper in the space of a year.
We watched him apparently agonise over the Iraq cabinet minutes for months as the case dragged through the Commissioner and then the Tribunal.
Eventually he issued his veto with a commentary that indicated this was an important decision, and a power that would only be used in special circumstances, blah, blah, blah.
Now what happens! He slaps out his veto before the case even gets to the Tribunal – to follow my slutty analogy, it’s the equivalent of not even waiting to get a room.
And what is the subject matter in question upon which the whole fabric of Government depends – some obscure minutes about the subject of devolution (which has now happened if you hadn’t noticed) that are 12 years old already.
No wonder the Information Commissioner Office was moved to issue a statement saying the Christopher Graham was: “concerned that the government may routinely use the veto whenever he orders the disclosure of the minutes of Cabinet proceedings, irrespective of the subject matter or age of the information.”
What would a visitor from outer space make of the Government’s application of its own Freedom of Information Act? On the day the Act helped to reveal a back bench MP spent £2 on a hamburger maker, that same legislation was used to deny us access to the decision making process behind one of the most momentous constitutional changes the country has seen.
They say you get the Government you deserve?
For those who would like a more erudite treaty on the Government’s veto I suggest you visit Martin Rosenbaum’s excellent blog [link] on the topic.
Those of you who fancy a bit of 80s nostalgia click below for Madonna’s take on events – I should warn people it ends with her writhing curiously around on the floor.
Posted on December 8th, 2009 1 comment
When Boris Johnson appeared in EastEnders I realised the clash of two public authorities was too good an opportunity to miss.
The BBC, forever hiding behind its “artistic and journalistic derogation” has never given out any info on its most famous soap.
Despite the theatrical nature of the new London mayor “BoJo” cannot avail himself of the same get out clause, so I was hoping to use City Hall as my entrance ticket into the murky world of EastEnders.
I basically asked for everything City Hall held on Boris’ appearance on the show and I received (15 days late) a very complete record of e-mails that bounced around between the two organisations.
But what I didn’t get were two e-mails that related to how much the fabulously wealthy Eton-educated Boris got paid for his brief appearance.
The e-mails from the Beeb say that everybody who appears on the show has to be paid and Boris’ team seem happy with that and agree the cash should be donated to charity.
At that point one would think there was nothing controversial about the matter – but City Hall refuse to release the charity or the amount claiming S.43 (commercial interests).
City Hall says in its response: “The two e-mails covered by the request constitute commercially sensitive information.
“The detail and naming of the charity involved in way of receiving the appearance fee for the Mayor’s appearance in EastEnders would be likely to be detrimental to the charity itself as information within the e-mails is not factually correct.”
It goes on: “In this case disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental impact on the reputation of the charity in receipt of funds apportioned from the Mayors appearance fee from appearing on EastEnders due to the inaccuracy of some of the facts contained within the e-mails.
“The degree of prejudice to be suffered is likely to be far-reaching to a third party given in particular it is a charity and less likely to have the resource available to cope with the adverse publicity, therefore having a great impact on their commercial interests.”
What is amazing about this decision is the fact that disclosure appears to have been blocked based on the fact there are errors in the e-mails – which is no excuse for non-disclosure. My understanding is they should be released with adequate commentary explaining what in them is wrong.
Also I wonder what charity he decided his fee should go to? (Any suggestions please mail them in). But why be so coy about where the money was directed to? And surely there is a public interest in knowing where he wanted the fee to go to, considering his cameo in EastEnders only came about by virtue of his public office.
You won’t be surprised to know that I’m in the process of appealing it – and I also hope they refuse again and make an issue out of it.
For those that missed Boris lock horns with Peggy at the bar of the Queen Vic I’ve added the clip from YouTube.
UPDATE: I managed to unearth a story from the e-mails that were sent through.
UPDATE: 4.2.10: My appeal to the GLA was successful. On review they accepted that S.43 was not applicable as here we were talking about a charity and not a commercial organisation. Boris’ fee from the Beeb was £362 and he passed it straight on to Friends of Classics, a charity devoted to keeping Latin and Greek ‘flourishing in our schools’.
Posted on December 6th, 2009 No comments
The following article which I reproduce from the Economist makes interesting reading………
STRETCHING the law on the disclosure of public documents has been a competitive sport among civil servants ever since the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act was passed in 2000. It requires public bodies to reveal information on request, but provides 23 get-outs, designed to protect secrets that ought to stay under wraps because they threaten national security, personal privacy and so on. The rules are often interpreted in a creative way.
Now The Economist has discovered a contender for the most inventive interpretation to date. After thinking about it for nearly two years and trying out various exemptions, the Home Office has refused to release a confidential assessment of its anti-drugs strategy requested by Transform, a pressure group. The reason is that next March the National Audit Office (NAO), a public-spending watchdog, is due to publish a report of its own on local efforts to combat drugs. The Home Office says that to have two reports about drugs out at the same time might confuse the public, and for this reason it is going to keep its report under wraps.
This is believed to be the first time that a public body has openly refused to release information in order to manage the news better. The department argues that releasing its internal analysis now “risks misinterpretation of the findings of the [NAO] report”, because its own analysis is from 2007 and predates the NAO’s findings. The argument uses section 36 of the FOI act, which provides a broad exemption for information that could “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.
The information commissioner, who polices the FOI act, declined to comment because the case was still open. But his predecessor, Richard Thomas, who stepped down in June, questioned the novel defence. “Certainly my office was always quite sceptical of anything which said publishing information is going to confuse the public. If that’s the case, normally you need to put out some extra material alongside it to provide adequate explanation. It’s not a reason for withholding something.”
Sir Alan Beith, the chairman of the parliamentary Justice Committee, which oversees the FOI act, was sharply critical of the Home Office’s excuse. “That’s really scraping the barrel. On those grounds you would have to ban the various hospital reports that are coming out at the moment [see previous story] because the public are confused about that too. It’s not an argument for censorship, it’s an argument for an even more open and clear debate.” The Home Office was making “a quite ridiculous attempt to hide from freedom of information,” he said.
The legality of the decision is also in doubt, after the department admitted that its refusal to release the document had not been approved by a minister, as is required by law. A Home Office spokeswoman called it an “administrative error”. Retrospective ministerial authorisation was being sought as The Economist went to press.
Legally or not, the Home Office will be able to hang on to its report for now because the FOI act takes so long to enforce. The commissioner’s office is said to be ready to order the release of the report now. If it does, the Home Office has 28 days to launch an appeal, which could take a year. In the meantime, drugs policy will continue to be shaped—or not—by research that the public paid for but may not see.
Posted on December 2nd, 2009 1 comment
Is it just me that is feeling nervous about the wobbly new reign of Commissioner Christopher Graham?
What cannot be denied is the speed of Decision Notices has increased, although many would say the collapse of the BBC case and a decline in the decisions’ general intellectual rigour has contributed to this acceleration.
But what worries me more – although many may say it is an inconsequential matter – is Mr Graham’s decision to give himself yet another title.
According to the BBC’s Open Secrets [link] blog Martin Rosenbaum reveals the Information Commissioner wants to be known as Chief Executive as well.
Why? What possible benefit will be derived by anybody in that he now will have TWO titles?
What does it do for morale of the staff who have to plough through a mountain of complaints on £20k/£30k per year when the £140,000 boss seems preoccupied in self-glorification?
You might have thought that if he so craved the Chief Executive moniker to go with the grandiose Information Commissioner title he could have had the decency to wait until he had got his ship on a steady course.
Posted on December 2nd, 2009 No comments
It would appear that local authorities are in danger of losing a revenue stream thanks to the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR).
The local searches conducted normally when a person moves house, to check on any planning issues relating to their prospective home, used to be a little money spinner for councils.
Now however, it would appear that the Information Commissioner has decided this material is covered by EIRs and that if a person makes a personal request for the data it should be free of charge.
In the Liverpool case the complaint was made by a company that gets hold of the information on a commercial basis.
The council rejected the company’s request to be allowed the information for free and the row was eventually settled by the Commissioner.
In his ruling he sides with the company and states that although he does not have the power to order it he suggest that the council refund the applicant’s £9.48.
However, it would seem that many local authorities are not entirely happy at the prospect of having to do land searches for free – under a 20-day deadline – for any Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to roll up at their offices.
A quick trawl of the internet has found a number of councils claiming they are seeking further advice on the Commissioner’s ruling and have taken the matter to the Local Government Association for consideration.