Posted on September 8th, 2010 1 comment
A former Labour minister has taken a public swipe at the appointment of Christopher Graham as Information Commissioner.
Labour MP Denis MacShane was speaking in the House of Commons as part of a debate on the possible extension of the Freedom of Information Act.
In it he questioned the political independence of Mr Graham who has been an active member of the Liberal Party.
Mr MacShane said: “We also need to look at the UK Information Commissioner. That distinguished gentleman spent the early part of his life serving as a Liberal Democrat councillor, and he has twice stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate for Parliament.
“I wonder whether the Information Commissioner should be so connected, in such a direct political way, with one of the parties now in government.”
Some might say he has become a little detached after leaving Government in that he proposes that the Freedom of Information Act should also be applied to newspapers – I presume his tongue firmly was in his cheek at the time.
He was speaking as part of a motion brought by Liberal Democrat Tom Brake to extend the scope and power of the Freedom of Information Act.
Mr Brake wants to see the Act extended to more organisations, public authorities given less time to consider the public interest test, the ditching of the ministerial veto and make it easier to prosecute authorities for the offence of altering a record.
A full transcript of the exchange can be found here.
Mr McShane also mentioned that the “blog rats” who spread rumours about William Hague being gay had somehow used the Freedom of Information Act to circulate their story – if anybody knows anything about this I’d like to know how, please get in touch.
The video clip has got nothing to do with FoI but I just like it and it might make you smile. If you enjoy it there are a whole load more of his clips on the BBc website.
Posted on April 19th, 2010 1 comment
Last year the Information Commissioner issued a Decision Notice which sent ripples of worry through the Human Resources departments in public authorities.
It ruled that a council employee, who had applied for two internal vacancies, had the right to see various details of the other candidates as long as their identities were kept secret.
The Information Commissioner said in that Decision Notice: “Some of the information about applicants’ experience and qualifications could be provided in an anonymised form, without breaching their rights under the Data Protection Act.”
Why am I regurgitating the details of an old Decision Notice I hear you ask?
Well I thought this ruling was interesting and was just waiting for a real life situation to come along that would be a good test.
So what could be more appropriate than the appointment of the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham? What did the interview panel think of the candidates? What sort of qualifications and background did the unsuccessful would-be Commissioners have?
I sent in my question on WhatDoTheyKnow [link] and surprise, surprise the Ministry of Justice refused me claiming the information was covered by S.40 (personal information). I appealed and made it clear I didn’t want any names or anything that would identify any of the applicants.
Quick as a flash – well quick when you consider how long you normally wait for a MoJ appeal – they came back upholding the appeal.
So what do I do now? I have to say the temptation to lodge an appeal with the Information Commissioner will be too great to resist.
If I do surely it means the information has to be sent to the Information Commissioner so he can examine it and then make a ruling on whether the notes do in fact identify anybody. Of course if he were to side with the MoJ it would make the Leicester City Council decision look suspect.
Once again it appears to show one of the unwritten laws of FoI, in that there is one application of the rules for hard-pressed, doing their best lower tier public authorities and a whole different set of standards for those that breath the giddy atmosphere of Government.
Posted on March 19th, 2010 No comments
Since Christopher Graham took over the hot seat at the Information Commissioner’s Office there has appeared to outsiders to be a somewhat unseemly haste to get down the number of outstanding FoI appeals.
We all know that the geological timeframe it was taking to get Decision Notices out of the ICO was causing frustration on all sides and was one of the things Mr Graham said he would aim to improve.
Well nobody can complain that he hasn’t been a man of his word. The number of Decision Notices issued has increased, yet the grumbling from both applicants and respondents has not gone away.
Why? Because some people feel that there has been a clear trade off between quality and quantity, and while the number of Decision Notices issued has clearly increased the quality of those decisions has been on the decline.
It is a very difficult thing to prove. But I have made an effort to have a look at the trees rather than the wood by getting some figures from the ICO’s office about the number of Decision Notices it has dealt with.
What is clear from the figures is that Mr Graham’s vow to get to grips with the backlog of complaints has been followed through. When he took over in June 2009 the FoI caseload stood at 1,508 and by February this year that had been reduced to 1,057.
This is in some ways explained by a huge increase in the number of Decision Notices issued. In the 2008/09 financial year there were a total of 295 DNs. In the first eleven months of this financial year – Mr Graham started in the third month of the financial year – there have already been 538, and November 2009 saw a record number of 102 DNs issued.
Some might say that part of this increase was due to the crystallisation of the BBC’s derogation, where the High Court’s ruling effectively pulled the rug from under a great number of appeals.
But what is probably more significant is the movement away from issuing DNs and an increasing reliance on informal resolution. The comparable figures for disputes resolved informally is 1,490 in 2008/09 rising to 2,038 in the first 11 months of this financial year.
So we have a situation where with still a month to go this year we have had an extra 243 DNs issued and an additional 548 resolved informally.
Critics suggest that the increasing reliance on informal resolution is short-sighted as the system needs fully reasoned DNs so that people can use these as guidance for the future. Others state that some of the informal resolutions have been the complete opposite of DNs that have already been posted and as such ought to have been made public.
But how can we assess if this undoubted increase in quantity has been matched by a reduction in quality? Not an easy task, but one way might be to look at the number of appeals lodged at the Tribunal, where one party clearly believes the Information Commissioner has made an error in assessing the case.
The number of appeals lodged at the Tribunal has increased from 87 last year to 145 in the first eleven months of this year.
So we have a situation where the number of DN’s has increased 82% and the number going to Tribunal has increased by 67%. This would seem to suggest that there has not been a disproportionate drop in the quality of the DNs.
However, I think we need more time to get a clearer picture of the situation and my own feelings are that the quality of DNs is falling. What really annoys me is that, if this is true, it is such a short-term approach to the problem. Because what will happen is that more people will appeal and more resources in the ICO’s office will be taken up defending poor decisions leaving fewer people to deal with complaints and the whole vicious spiral will start up all over again.
But for now Mr Graham must be feeling quite pleased with himself. So much so that perhaps he might get a bonus at the end of the year. I wonder if getting the caseload down was one of his targets? Perhaps that’s a question I should be asking.
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 November 9th, 2009 No comments
The new Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has had to turn down a plush trip to the Last Night of the Proms after finding himself in an embarrassing conflict of interests.
In July this year Graham responded to an invitation from the BBC’s Vice-Chairman Chitra Bharucha to free tickets at the BBC showpiece at the Royal Albert Hall for himself and a guest. He e-mailed the BBC to say he would be “delighted” to accept the “kind invitation”.
It appears that new to the job Graham didn’t realise just how at loggerheads the BBC and the Information Commissioners office were.
Ten days later he e-mailed his contact at the Beeb to say: “I am very sorry to have to cancel for the Last Night. I do apologise and thanks to Chitra for the kind invitation.
“One month into the job, I realise that there is quite a bit of unfinished business between the Information Commissioner and the BBC.
“Under the circumstances, I don’t think I should be accepting invitations of this kind. What a shame!”
The initial invite had been in a private box at the concert with ten others starting at 7.30 with drinks served in the interval.
The exchange of e-mails was released by the Information Commissioner’s Office following a Freedom of Information request to WhatDoTheyKnow.com [link].
You can read the full redacted transcript here. CG and BBC e-mails
It will be interesting to know if the BBC will be inviting Graham, a former BBC employee, next year. Because of course the picture looks a lot rosier for both organisations now.
The decision of the High Court to prop up the BBC derogation means the BBC is happy that it can cling on to its financial secrets.
But the verdict can’t be too disheartening for Graham either – he was not responsible for the previous line on the derogation – but now he can immediately clear-up dozens of troublesome appeals that were adding the Commissioner’s embarrassing backlog.
Break out the bubbly.
During Richard Thomas’ tenure at the Information Commissioner’s Office there was a strict policy of making sure all gifts were pooled and then distributed among staff via a raffle.
I wonder if any of the £18k case workers the Commissioner is advertising for will be hob-nobbing with the great and the good at next year’s Proms?
Posted on March 9th, 2009 No comments
Christopher Graham, 59, the head of the Advertising Standards Agency, is set to be the next Information Commissioner later this year. FoI News gives you ten things you might not have known about Mr Graham.
1. In December 1971 he became Britain’s youngest city councillor when he was elected for the Liberal Party in St Michael’s ward, in Liverpool.
2. He was a one-time wanna-be MP and while a councillor he stood for, but lost, two parliamentary elections.
3. A history graduate, he joined the BBC as a trainee journalist in 1973.
4. He was a TV current affairs producer, deputy editor of The Money Programme and managing editor of BBC News programmes.
5. He rose to become the Corporation’s secretary, head of internal complaints unit, working closely with Lord Birt.
6. While director general of the ASA he banned a poster advertisement which featured a naked Sophie Dahl promoting Opium perfume. He said it was sexually suggestive and likely to cause “serious or widespread offence”.
7.Under his watch the ASA has had a number of run-ins with the budget airline Ryanair. In 2008 he referred the matter to the Office of Fair Trading saying:’It is very disappointing, but absolutely necessary, that we have had to take this course of action. The ASA has given Ryanair every opportunity to put its house in order and ensure that its advertising adheres to the codes. Instead, they have continued to mislead consumers and denigrate competitors.”
8. Ryanair didn’t take the criticism lying down calling the ASA an “out of touch, clueless…irrelevant quango”.
- 9. Speaking of his proposed move away from the ASA he said: “Director general of the ASA is one of the best jobs in the world, but I’ve been doing it since April 2000. It’s time for somebody else to take things forward to the next level. Meanwhile, the information commissioner is so much at the centre of debates on information security, privacy, better government and the right to know that I am keen to take on this new challenge.”
10. As Information Commissioner he is expected to be paid a salary of around of £140,000.