The impotence of FOI

Tony Blair has been criticised by MPs for refusing to co-operate with their parliamentary inquiry into the ineffectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act.

In his autobiography, Blair described the legislation (which he introduced) as "antithetical to sensible government" and admitted that he was "not at all sure that the act has really achieved its goal of greater transparency".

A prime example of the ineffectiveness of Freedom of Information law in the UK and its inability to establish anything like a transparent and accountable society was the Information Commissioner's decision not to act in the News of the World phone hacking scandal. The Commissioner showed a complete lack of integrity when he refused to investigate the matter fully - even when he had the opportunity (and the evidence) to reveal the true extent of the News of the World's corrupt journalistic practices.

ICO accused of burying bad news

The freedom of information watchdog has been accused of trying to “bury” the announcement of an enforcement decision that it hoped would go unnoticed by the press.

A string of emails obtained and published by Privacy International, the pressure group, show senior officials at the Information Commissioner’s Office planned the release of the news for a day it would not attract attention.

Britain exempts monarchy from FOI law

Welcome to the open society:

What happens in the palace stays in the palace.

A law that took effect yesterday makes Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, and Prince William exempt from freedom of information laws, meaning many details of their activities won’t be public for decades.

Transparency and the state

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop…I quake at the imbecility of it.” So Tony Blair berates himself in his memoirs for passing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which came into force in 2005. The realities of power transformed him from an advocate of official openness into a despairing critic.

Mr Blair’s jaded attitude seems not yet to have infected the coalition government, which is planning to let a little more light into the tenebrous corridors of Whitehall. In opposition, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, promised to promote transparency. It is a cause that Mr Clegg’s Liberal Democrats have long championed, arguing that it will improve the workings of government, while the Tories see informed citizens and an open state as essential conditions of their plans to devolve power.

Wikileaks and FoI - an American perspective

Here's a useful insight into the Wikileaks saga from Maher Arar, a Human rights advocate:

Let me state at the outset that governments have indeed legitimate reasons to keep some information confidential and out of public reach. But it is also important to mention that this should be the exception rather than the norm. Unfortunately since 9/11, Western governments have become more secretive and less transparent especially when it comes to foreign policy and national security.

Have you tried recently to get information from your government through the Freedom of Information Act? Good luck!

When the so called National Security label is attached to these documents you will mostly end up receiving heavily redacted documents 3-5 years later. I have experienced this first hand with both the Canadian and the U.S. governments while fighting to obtain information about what happened to me. So it is in this context that people should understand the emergence of web-based media like WikiLeaks willing to publish information from whistle-blowers.

Wikileaks publishes information that FoI laws cannot reach

The recent furore surrounding the Wikileaks release of US diplomatic communications  serves to highlight the shortcomings of our freedom of information laws. 

Does FoI really lead to a more open society with more transparent and accountable government? Not on the evidence so far (MPs' expenses, political interference by the royal family, what governments are doing behind our backs and in our names). 

Or are formal FoI laws just an extension of the state - providing scraps of information to present the illusion of openness while ensuring the most important information stays secret and citizens remain in the dark? 

A thought-provoking article from the American news service The Inwell (part of the College Media Network) is presented below - it's a valuable insight into the key issues surrounding Wikileaks and Julian Assange. 

Recession? What recession? Senior officials at the House of Commons awarded bonuses totalling £250,000

While bankers face "stringent" caps on their bonuses by European regulators, officials at the Houses of Parliament have quietly been awarded some tasty little festive perks.

Malcolm Jack, the Clerk of the House, has signed off bonuses worth nearly £250,000 for his 56 top members of staff.

A Freedom of Information request reveals that, on the recommendation of the mysterious "Senior Pay Panel", two individuals will receive £9,375, while 11 have been awarded £6,375.

Christmas brings generous bonuses at the House of Commons (The Telegraph, 12 December 2010)

Government proposes blanket ban on release of information about royal family

The Queen is at the centre of a Government row over proposed moves that would give the public sweeping rights to demand secret information.

The Liberal Democrats have been incensed by Conservatives’ attempts to restrict a new ‘right to data’ law so that it excludes the Royal Family.

The new open access law, which was secured by the Lib Dems as part of the Coalition agreement, would extend the freedom of information rules, which have unearthed scandals such as last year’s furore over MPs’ expenses.

But after lobbying from Buckingham Palace – which is worried that it would lead to a rash of fresh revelations – the Justice Ministry has proposed a blanket ban on the release of details about the Royals.

FSA spends up to £270,000 a year on Xmas parties

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) has spent over £600,000 on Christmas parties since the beginning of the credit crunch.

Britain’s financial regulator, which is the coalition government plans to break up, was forced to reveal details of its lavish festive celebrations under the Freedom of Information Act provoking fury from consumer groups and politicians. 

The FSA has spent some £1.2 million on Christmas parties since 2004.

News digest

Here's some recent FoI stories that you might have missed:
  • NYC Set To Release Controversial Teacher Effectiveness Rankings - Huffington Post, 20 October 2010
    The New York City Department of Education is set to release individual rankings of 12,000 teachers. But the city's United Federation of Teachers is fighting back and plans to go to court to ensure the controversial documents, based on students' test scores, aren't released.

  • Information revolution opens door to secrets - Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2010
    Australians will be able to make freedom-of-information requests by e-mail and without charge from next month under changes set to revolutionise the 28-year-old law.

  • Police pay £78k bonus to officers - The Scotsman, 18 October 2010
    Performance-related payments of more than £78,000 were paid out to 17 senior officers in Lothian and Borders Police over the last year. A freedom of Information request showed that the 17 officers, including superintendents, detective superintendents, the assistant chief constable and the deputy chief constable, were paid £78,640 between them.

  • MoD papers reveal catalogue of nuclear safety failures - The Herald, 17 October 2010
    Potentially catastrophic lapses in nuclear weapons safety at the Clyde naval base have been exposed by secret Ministry of Defence reports released after a three-year freedom of information battle. The ministry released a series of reports on the eve of an appeal to the UK Information Tribunal that threatened to expose multiple breaches of freedom of information law.

  • Boy aged 3 who thinks he's a girl treated for identity disorder - Daily Mirror, 18 October 2010
    A boy of three who believes he is a girl has become the youngest child in Britain to be treated for the rare condition Gender Identity Disorder. Sufferers feel that they are in the body of the wrong sex. And the unnamed nursery schoolboy is currently being seen by experts with 20 other boys and three girls aged under 10, a Freedom of Information Request by the Mirror has found.
  • FSA loses 20 laptops in just three years - Citywire, 18 October 2010
    City watchdog, the Financial Services Authority (FSA), has lost 41 laptops and Blackberries containing secure document and emails, in the past three years. However, the scale of losses at the FSA is dwarfed by the Ministry of Defence, where 220 laptops were lost and 120 stolen in the past two years. And less than half of the lost MoD laptops were not encrypted, according to a Freedom of Information request. 

  • Federal Agents Urged to 'Friend' People on Social Networks - Fox News, 14 October 2010
    A privacy watchdog has uncovered a government memo that encourages federal agents to befriend people on a variety of social networks, to take advantage of their readiness to share -- and to spy on them. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Digg have not commented on the report, which details the official government program to spy via social networking. Other websites the government is spying on include Craigslist and Wikipedia, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which filed the FOIA request.

  • Met chief privately urges Theresa May to protect police from civilian lawsuits - Daily Telegraph, 10 October 2010
    Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson claims that money is being wasted fighting speculative law suits by civilians alleging brutality or wrongful arrest. He also urged the Home Secretary to load higher costs onto officers and other staff suing police forces at employment tribunals over claims of discrimination or unfair treatment. He added that members of the public should be charged a fee for making Freedom of Information requests, which he said were burdening police forces with unmanageable levels of paperwork.

  • Campaigners offered free guide on Freedom of Information Act
    The NCVO has launched a guide on using the Freedom of Information Act as a campaigning tool. The guide cites five case studies from organisations that have successfully used the Act to further their cause and features the findings of a survey of 45 campaigning charities. These organisations were polled on their experiences of using the Act, how familiar they were with it, what benefits it could bring and the challenges involved in using it.

    The guide can be downloaded for free at the following URL:

  • Leeds Council: We spied in bins for five years - Daily Express, 5 October 2010
    A secret five-year study of rubbish bins and refuse habits was carried out by spies for one of Britain’s largest councils. Leeds City Council had hoped to keep taxpayers unaware of its clandestine checks until forced to admit what was going on under the Freedom of Information Act.

  • Report finds little FOIA improvement under Obama - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 1 October 2010
    Despite pledges to bring a new level of transparency to the federal government, the Obama administration has not shown a marked change in how agencies handle Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a report released by the public interest group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

  • Supreme Court To Decide Whether Corporations Have Privacy Rights - Huffington Post, 29 September 2010
    The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case early next year that will impact whether corporations are able to prevent the government from publicly releasing documents that could expose their corporate misconduct. At the heart of the matter is whether or not a personal privacy exemption contained in a freedom of information law extends the same rights to corporations as it does to people.

  • Royal officials 'spent £96,000 on cleaning chandeliers' - Daily Telegraph, 27 September 2010
    Royal officials spent more than £1.5m of public money on cosmetic improvements such as cleaning chandeliers and refurbishing a staff canteen. A report in the Daily Mail said The Queen’s officials spent £96,000 on cleaning chandeliers and £14,000 on a curtain to protect wine bottles in the Buckingham Palace cellars. Refurbishing a staff canteen and games room cost £808,000 while turning a private cinema into a state function room was £458,000, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

  • Queen's Bid For Poverty Grant Slammed - Sky News, 24 September 2010
    The Queen has been criticised after a freedom of information request revealed she tried to use an anti-poverty grant to heat her palaces. A senior Royal aide wrote to the Government in 2004 asking whether Her Majesty would be eligible for a handout from a £60m energy-saving fund. He complained that the cost of keeping the Queen and her staff warm had doubled to £1m a year, and the £15m Government grant to maintain her palaces was inadequate. But the request to replace four combined heat and power (CHP) units at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle was turned down, according to documents obtained by The Independent under the the Freedom of Information Act.

    See also: Queen tried to use state poverty fund to heat Buckingham Palace - The Independent, 24 September 2010

How to save money in a recession

Here's an interesting suggestion for cutting back on inefficiencies - by merging four information bodies into one super-regulator. It's a bit different for Scotland, since there's separate legislation for FoI, but it could work for the rest of the UK.

Spending Review? Why not axe the Information Commissioner? writes Amberhawk Training

Culture of secrecy alive and kicking - FoI fails us again

An appeal seeking the release of Prince Charles's correspondence with ministers, so that the extent of his behind-the-scenes lobbying may be publicly assessed, has been adjourned until next year.

Examination of the documents by a freedom of information appeal tribunal has been "deferred" for reasons the panel said it could "not go into".

The delay came at the end of a day's cross-examination of Rodney Brazier, professor of constitutional law at Manchester University, who said that the "obligation of confidence [on the government] is very wide indeed". Perhaps, he added, the tribunal would say it was too wide.

The Guardian is seeking the release of letters written by Prince Charles during an eight-month period between September 2004 and April 2005 involving the departments responsible for business, the environment, health, schools, culture, Northern Ireland and the Cabinet Office. The Guardian argues they should be released so the public can see how much Prince Charles seeks to influence government policy.

Tony Blair on Freedom of Information

In Tony Blair's latest book he regards the Freedom of Information Act as of no use to anyone but journalists who use it as a weapon to beat the government:
"Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders, you idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate ... Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him?"

Scottish Information Commissioner caves in to Scottish Government as case is "settled"

The Scottish Information Commissioner has agreed to settle a case with the Scottish Government, withdrawing an information notice he had served on Scottish ministers in respect of an application he was considering.

But this climbdown by the Commissioner has been portrayed in a different light by The Herald newspaper - as a victory for FoI.

It raises a serious question - how many other cases have been quietly "settled" by the Commissioner and his staff?

Possible extension of FoI in Scotland

The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on a possible extension of the coverage of Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) to specified bodies.

This follows on from the Scottish Ministers' decision to consult with certain bodies on the extension of FOISA.

This consultation, and all other Scottish Government consultation exercises, can be viewed online on the consultation web pages of the Scottish Government website at

Consultation commenced on 28 July 2010 and will run for 14 weeks. Responses should be received by 02 November 2010.

A schedule list together with copies of the responses to the discussion paper is available to view here.

£11m: Yorkshire's toll of 180,000 repaired potholes

More than 180,000 potholes have been repaired this year across the Yorkshire region as councils battled with the prolonged winter cold snap.

So far this year authorities have filled in or patched up in excess of 35,000 more holes than in the whole of the previous year.

One authority, North Yorkshire County Council, says it needs in excess of £25m to repair "accelerated damage" to the roads, including potholes and other problems – a figure that could yet rise. It has warned it will struggle to complete repairs before the onset of winter.

Earlier this year it opted to impose a controversial "snow levy" on council taxpayers to help pay for repairs.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request, the authority says it has redirected resources and amalgamated funds and received Government money to meet the huge bill.

Yorkshire Post (1 September 2010)