Posted on June 24th, 2010 1 comment
Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi is the man some people think was responsible for carrying out the bomb attack on Pan Am 103 that crashed into Lockerbie killing a total of 270 people.
His conviction and his subsequent release on compassionate grounds has been the subject of a great deal of controversy.
Some people say he was innocent of the crime and should never have been imprisoned some say the least he deserved was to die in jail.
When he was diagnosed as being terminally ill with prostate cancer a decision was made to allow him to go back to his Libyan homeland for the last few days of his life. This took place in August last year.
The nub of the issue in his release was that he was only expected to live for a further three months and allowing him home was the humane thing to do.
Ten months later he is still alive and MSP George Foulkes wants to see the monthly medical reports on Al-Megrahi’s condition that are logged with East Renfrewshire Council.
Clearly the information is covered by the Data Protection Act and as medical data would also be considered to be ‘sensitive’.
Mr Foulkes said there was a clear public interest in the matter becoming public knowledge but because the data was subject to schedule 3 there were only two possible ways the information could be released.
Firstly if Mr Al-Megrahi gave his explicit consent to the information being released. He was contacted and didn’t give permission.
The second exception was if the information had already been made public by the deliberate actions of the data subject.
The Commissioner made checks to see how much of the medical data about Al-Megrahi he himself had made public and found media reports with generic information that his condition was getting better or worse. But there was no specific information in the reports.
So, the reports will remain secret. However, I’d be interested to know if people think making the same application after Mr Al-Megrahi dies might be successful.
Mr Foulkes is reported as saying: “Foulkes said: “I am very disappointed that the freedom of information laws within Scotland don’t allow the public access to this information.
“It is clear that Megrahi, through his lawyer, has vetoed it. This is matter of not just national interest but also international interest. There are relatives of Americans who died who are concerned about it.”
The decision [link] has caused some controversy in Scotland. In February, Bill Aitken, justice spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: “It is almost bizarre to suggest that the biggest mass murderer in Scottish history should be just like any other client. He is not. The public have a right to know what is going on.”
Posted on June 17th, 2010 No comments
I suppose there is a certain irony involved in the fact that the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) should manage to get in trouble itself over the tardy way it responds to Freedom of Information requests.
Those of you who look at WhatDoTheyKnow will be unsurprised at the organisations downfall as they have been increasingly on the receiving end of on-line complaints from requestors.
Now the Information Commissioner has taken action and issued an Enforcement Notice against the organisation.
Basically the IPCC has to get its ship in order by the end of September or risk being in Contempt of Court. Some people might say that although the IPCC is undoubtedly bad there are other contenders for the crown of Public Authority That Shows the Most Contempt for FoI award. Your suggestions please. Is this an example of the Information Commissioner’s much heralded ‘get tough’ approach?
The Commissioner had a total of nine complaints about the IPCC on his desk when he took action and the IPCC admitted it was dealing with 72 requests – of which 69 were out of time.
One enterprising applicant got so annoyed they asked the IPCC for details of its communication with the Information Commissioner’s office and uncovered an illuminating letter which you can see [IPCC letter]. The main points within it are:
- The IPCC claims FoI requests levels have risen 40% – although other data shows the levels of requests in 2009 (234) at less than half the level they were in 2005 (572),
- They receive an average of 21 FoI requests every month,
- It still has one request dating back to May 15, 2009,
- The IPCC informed the Commissioner that September was the time by which it hopes to have everything up and running smoothly again,
- Three new staff have been recruited – two temps and one permanent – bringing the total in the team to four,
- Staff have a target of dealing with two FoI requests and three subject access requests every week,
- At the moment the team attempts to deal with one request from the backlog and one fresh request although the Commissioner has told them to deal with the backlog separately rather than get them all mixed together.
In the Commissioner’s press release on the issue Graham Smith, Deputy Commissioner, said: “I am concerned that the IPCC has denied people access to information by repeatedly failing to respond to requests in line with the Act.
“The FOIA gives individuals important rights to access information held by public authorities and despite the current strain on resources all public authorities must remember their responsibilities under the Act.
“This Enforcement Notice serves as a strong signal to all public authorities that failure to respond is unacceptable. I am pleased that the IPCC reported the difficulties it was facing to us and hope that it will treat this notice with the urgency it requires by putting in place the necessary steps to answer all FOI requests in compliance with the Act.”
Posted on June 16th, 2010 No comments
The merits or otherwise of torture is not really a topic I thought I would be discussing in detail on this blog, but the fact that I am just goes to show the true wonder of FoI.
Now some say that torture is a pointless exercise and I have to confess that if you strapped me to a chair and came at my sweetbreads with a set of jump leads I’d tell you everything including next week’s Lottery numbers.
So the practical usefulness of torture has often been debated alongside the moral argument as to whether it is something civilised society can ever justify.
Enter stage left a FoI question to the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) asking them for information about a plot to hijack planes and fly them into Canary Wharf.
The question followed a statement from President George W. Bush in September 2006 when he said that ‘questioning’ of terrorist suspects in secret detention facilities had averted an assault on Canary Wharf.
As somebody who thinks torture is a bad thing but also has friends and a relative working in Canary Wharf this causes me something of a moral dilemma.
What is needed is a little of the smoke to be blown away to see if there is any truth behind the alleged plot to fly a plane into the capital’s iconic business tower block.
The question to the MPS asked ‘how a plot… was foiled using information from the programme to detain suspected terrorists in undisclosed locations outside the US’.
Initially the MPS refused to confirm or deny it held such information relying on a total of six exemptions. Eventually this seemed to boil down to just three; S.23 (Security Bodies), S.24 (National Security) and S.27 (International Relations).
The Commissioner rejected the NCND position of the MPS and said it should state if it had the information or not. The MPS took this decision to the Tribunal.
At the Tribunal evidence was produced for the first time by an officer referred to as Det Chief Supt W who convinced the panel that if the MPS held the information it would have come through one of the intelligence agencies listed in S.23.
My reading of the decision and it appears something of a technical victory for the MPS is that the appeal was allowed on the basis that the question asked about “information from the programme to detain suspected terrorists….” This information must have come from a security body and so to confirm or deny would be a breach of S.23.
However, the way I read the decision leaves the door open for a simpler question just asking if the MPS holds such information, but doesn’t inquire as to where the information originated. I’d be interested in your thoughts.
Two other points worth mentioning from this decision are the stick the Commissioner takes for taking so long to reach an initial decision on the appeal. The Tribunal does not say exactly how long this was but states: “the requestor might be forgiven for having forgotten that he had made the request”.
Secondly the Tribunal makes an interesting comment on the general topic of this case and its wider significance saying: “We have remarked already on the wide ambit of s.23. It is not hard to understand why it is broadly drafted.
“In this particular case, however, we are concerned as to its effect. The interrogation of detainees in offshore facilities, the methods allegedly used, the use of information thereby obtained and the possible collaboration of the U.K. government in these activities are still matters of vigorous and anxious debate in this country.
“Whether the CIA passed to UK intelligence the information referred to by President Bush may be a question of considerable importance in such a debate. In the rather unusual circumstances of this case (where a head of state has publicly announced the source of terrorist intelligence), it is hard to see that any significant damage could be caused by confirmation or denial.
“The extreme rarity of such announcements might be seen as a robust defence to the dangers of creating precedents.”
The Tribunal was also critical of the MPS for not bringing forward the crucial evidence of how the link was made to the security services until the Tribunal stage. Had it been done earlier it would possibly have saved everybody time and money.
The Tribunal’s ruling can be seen [here].
Posted on June 11th, 2010 No comments
In 2008 at a farm somewhere in Somerset a GM modified strain of rapeseed was accidentally sown by a farmer alongside a normal strain of the plant.
The concern was that the GM variety – or the Frankenstein food as we journalists enjoy calling it – had been modified so that it was resistant to weed killers.
Why scientists would want to develop a plant that can’t be controlled with weed killers is beyond me, it’s a little like deliberately developing a strain of disease that can’t be killed with medicine, and we call that germ warfare!
Anyhow news of this “accidental spillage” as it is called leaked out and somebody asked DEFRA for the grid reference of where it had happened.
Now on the face of it this didn’t seem an unreasonable request to me. If the food chain is being put at risk by cross pollination with a freaky science strain of plant which can’t be killed by a good dose of RoundUp I think we should be told.
The request for the location was made to the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) under the Environmental Information Regulations.
But it was rejected on the basis that disclosure would be a breach of the farmer’s rights under the Data Protection Act and therefore under Section 13(1) of the EIRs.
DEFRA had revealed the incident took place in the parliamentary constituency of Somerset and Frome, which covers 900 square miles.
The Commissioner said that he was minded to rule it should be further refined to the outbound section of the postcode (the first half), which covers an area of about 18 square kilometres.
But this potential compromise agreement was not enough for the applicant who wanted the full grid reference, which it was said can be more detailed than a full postcode and which could easily lead to the identity of the farmer.
The Commissioner was told the farmer thought he was carrying out trials on what he believed to be conventional rapeseed and was later told the seed was contaminated with a GM version.
He was asked by DEFRA if he was prepared to be identified and unsurprisingly he said he’d rather not as it could affect the price of his farm and his reputation.
So unless this case goes on to the Tribunal we shall never know where this incident took place as the Commissioner ruled the grid reference should not be disclosed [FER0260420]. But if I were a journalist in Somerset I’d be on the lookout for any weird botanical happenings down in the land of the scrumpy drinkers – and I’d like to know if cider sales are falling in Wilmslow.
Posted on June 10th, 2010 2 comments
When WhatDoTheyKnow first appeared I have to admit that I was a little bit sceptical of the idea. I was wrong.
Now I think it is a brilliant, easy way of asking questions. The idea of having the answers, and the questions, available for the whole world to view on-line is a masterstroke that intersects perfectly with the Freedom of Information Act’s principles of transparency and accountability.
But not everybody is a fan. The fact that the data is automatically splashed up on the web for anybody to look at does seem to make some authorities nervous.
I have deliberately used my account at WhatDoTheyKnow on occasions because it has been my perception that if the public authority knows it’s response to me will be on display to the rest of the world it might just take a little extra care.
But there is a reluctance from some public authorities to engage with requests on WhatDoTheyKnow, which shows a somewhat prehistoric attitude towards the fundamental principle of openness which the Act was supposed to promote.
A few examples:
The House of Commons: Martin Rosenbaum’s excellent Open Secrets blog has recently covered this case in which a request was made for details of an electronic voting system. The House of Commons refused to release the information to the WhatDoTheyKnow e-mail site as they said the publication on the web would be a breach of copyright. The Information Commissioner has ruled against the House of Commons [decision notice] and the response can now be seen [here].
Southampton University: Here the University bizarrely started to password protect its FoI answers that were posted on the site, yet the password was also posted! A few people, me included, sent in FoI requests to get a rationale for this decision. But that only seems to have made things worse. The most recent exchange [link] has the Uni holding an internal review after the person who made the request called them “brusque and snide” in its reply. Most amusingly we then have the University looking up the Oxford English Dictionary definition of those words. Snide = insinuating, sneering and slyly derogatory. But curiously the issue doesn’t seem to have moved on any and I’m still perplexed as to what the University’s position is, although it definitely isn’t slyly derogatory.
Salford University: Many thanks to the person who pointed me into the path of this tower of learning. When you view its pages on the site [link] you will see that it is almost a default position to make somebody vexatious just because they are on the site. One of the most recent requests on WhatDoTheyKnow to the University asked a quite reasonable question asking why this was the case. Yes, you’ve guessed it them made the requester vexatious and refused to answer it. Intrigued by this approve I am left with no option but to make a similar request on papyrus and send it by Pony Express. I’ll let you know how I get on.
NOTE: This week I was very kindly invited to be a guest at the ACPO/ACPOS Freedom of Information Conference in the Midlands. Some of the delegates said some nice things about this blog. Sometimes it can seem a lonely, pointless exercise writing it in glorious isolation. But those kind comments have re-invigorated me, and in the words of Shawshank Redemption I shall “Get Busy Blogging”.