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 October 28th, 2011 1 comment
What is in the public interest has always been something of a thorny issue, especially when it comes to its use in Freedom of Information.
Personally I say thank the Lords (because apparently it was the House of Lords which decided to put the public interest test into FoI) that we have this weapon to set about the Qualified exemptions.
At the moment I’m involved in two disputes over information at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both hinge on the public interest test.
The first involves the Cabinet Office and its refusal to reveal documents written by our ex Prime Minister Tony Blair that were sent to George Bush.
These notes are central to the Iraq inquiry, whose head Sir John Chilcot asked to make the documents public, and when this was refused said the decision was “disappointing”.
The crux of these documents is whether they confirm the belief among many people that Tony Blair gave his word to the US President that British troops would join the war, before Parliament voted on the issue.
You can see the history of this request at WhatDoTheyKnow [here], and I’ve blogged about this in the past [here]. The information has been denied me on the basis S.35 (formulation of Government policy), S.36 (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) and S.27 (international relations).
Were our troops sent to war just because Blair had “promised”? Could there be a clearer public interest? The case is now in the hands of the Information Commissioner.
At the other end of the scale some of you may have been watching #EducatingEssex, a horrific fly-on-the-wall documentary about a school in Harlow.
I watch the show goggle-eyed at the way the show profiteers from seeing children taken into care, getting involved in scrapes with the police, getting pregnant, abusing teachers.
We are at the end of the series next week and ironically we have seen precious little educating of the Essex populous.
As a journalist I have to tread incredibly carefully if I do a story that identifies a child, particularly if it is something to do with their schooling – but this programme seems to have side-swerved the regulations in exchange for children grabbing their five minutes of fame. Responsible journalism? I think not.
So I wanted to know how much the documentary company paid the school for the privilege of being allowed into the school.
Surprise, surprise, they will not tell me. You can see the full response to my questions [Passmores1]. But they have applied the S.43 (commercial interests) exemption, and yes you’ve guessed it the public interest is not to disclose the amount.
Amazing that the public interest is in knowing which of his students are pregnant at 15, which of them get taken into care, which of them run away from home – but not how much the school got paid for selling off the pupils’ private lives for the amusement of viewers.
I’ve appealed this back to the headmaster Vic Goddard – a man who on the show seems to insist in empathising with errant schoolchildren by calling them “mate”. I suspect this case will run and run.
NOTE: Apologies for being away for so long.
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 February 18th, 2010 No comments
The UK Border Agency has had its knuckles rapped by the Information Commissioner after it took almost a year to respond to a Freedom of Information question.
A request was made on the whatdotheyknow website about information relating to the decision to ban Dutch MP Geert Wilders from entering the UK.
Mr Wilders had caused controversy in that he was responsible for producing a film called Fitna, branded by many as anti-muslim.
Because of these views the British Government decided he should not be allowed into the country. Eventually he was allowed in and showed his film at the House of Lords.
More background on Mr Wilders and his film can be found [here].
The request for information was made to the UK Border Agency on February 12, 2009 and they acknowledged the request five days later. In March, July, August and September there was some communication between the parties but the question was still not answered.
Eventually in on September 30 the applicant got in touch with the Commissioner’s office and on October 30 the Commissioner communicated with the UK Borders Agency, who said “unfortunately a response to this case has not yet been issued”.
The UK Border Agency said it was in the process of answering but was trying to assess a possible S.36 (Prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) exemption to some of the information.
Finally the Information Commissioner counted out the UK Border Agency when it still had not not replied by December.
A Decision Notice was issued dated January 7, 2010 [link] and finally the UK Border Agency did reply, although it decided after all that time to exempt most of the information under S.21 (Available by another means), S.27 (International Relations), S.36 (Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs) and S.40 (Personal Information).
You can see the whole history of the request posted on whatdotheyknow [link] and for those of you interested there is a news clipping on Mr Wilders below.
Posted on November 22nd, 2009 1 comment
The Information Commissioner appears to be getting a hurry on in his bid to clear the backlog of outstanding appeals – and two of my cases have recently come through the system.
The first which was lodged against the Foreign Office was ruled on in my favour and the documents were disclosed, the second in relation to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) ended up with a Decision Notice in favour of the public authority.
In the CAA case I had asked for details of Mandatory Occurrence Report forms, which are basically accident or potential accident reports, submitted by XL airlines in the 12 months before they went out of business.
I knew the CAA would claim a S.44 (legal prohibition on disclosure) because the documents are covered by S.23 of the Civil Aviation Act. However, I thought I had found a chink in this legislation as it states it does NOT apply if “…the body corporate has ceased to exist or, whether an individual or a body corporate, cannot be found after all reasonable enquiries have been made…”
The ruling was on a relatively simple point I claimed that as XL was defunct it no longer counted as a “body corporate” and the information should be released. The CAA on the other hand said XL was still in existence in that it was in administration and the administrators had been contacted and did not want the information released.
I still feel a little cheated at this decision and cannot believe that the people who drafted the Civil Aviation Act did so with the intention of protecting companies that have in all meaningful laws ceased to exist. If you want to have a look at the ruling you can see it here. [link]
In the other case I had asked for any Foreign Office briefing notes prepared by British embassy staff that offered any insight on who they thought might win the US elections. I wanted to see the documents as I thought that it would be an interesting story if our highly-paid diplomats had called the election incorrectly.
My journalistic juices started to run when the Foreign Office refused to let me see the document claiming it was covered by a S.27 (international relations) exemption. I took the case to the Commissioner who settled the case without the need for a decision notice and I received an e-mail with the briefing notes, which I post up here.
What makes this interesting in a perverse way is that if you read the document the embassy officials can’t really be criticised. They give an intelligent, insightful and fair appraisal of the state of the election at the time and the candidates’ relative chances of success.
Because of this it makes me wonder why the Foreign Office were so reluctant to release the document as it actually paints a rather good light on the work of its embassy staff.
However, what remains unanswered is the “what if” question. What if the assessment document had been completely wrong, and painted the Foreign Office as a bunch of gin-swilling incompetents? What then? Would that strengthen the power of S.27 to save the Government’s embarrassment, or would the public interest also have been strengthened to allow disclosure.
This case has parallels with the Madeleine McCann investigation e-mails request in which S.27 was deemed to have been engaged for comments made by the UK ambassador in Portugal on the competence of the local police force investigating the child’s disappearance. There was something in those e-mails which were so damning that the exemption was allowed to stay in place. See [Maddy search e-mails to remain secret].
Those of us on the outside of the decision-making process will, I am afraid to say, not be any the wiser as to what engages S.27 and what doesn’t until one day perhaps we might catch sight of what lies inside one of those secret documents so that we can compare and contrast.
Posted on March 18th, 2009 1 comment
Sensitive e-mails concerning the hunt for missing child Madeleine McCann will remain secret for fear of offending the Portuguese authorities who were tasked with finding her.
A request for the disclosure of 13 e-mails and one letter, which were written in the two months after Madeleine went missing, was refused by the Information Commissioner.
The Foreign Office had dealt with the original request which had asked for copies of communication between the then Ambassador to Portugal John Buck and the Portuguese police. Some information was supplied immediately and another batch was released after the requester called in the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to hold an appeal.
However, a number of documents were not released by the Foreign Office and these were examined by officers from the ICO.
The documents were not released by the Foreign Office primarily on the grounds that they were covered by the Section 27 exemption (International Relations) and that the public interest test rested in favour of non-disclosure. Read the rest of this entry »