Category Archives: Freedom of Information

Open by Design, Closed by Default?

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) have published their new access to information strategy. Something strikes me about their “Goal #2”:

Goal #2: Providing excellent customer service to individuals making requests to us and lead by example in fulfilling our own statutory functions

The thing strikes me is that, bizarrely, they seem to have misunderstood the goal they’ve set themselves (I nearly referred to it as their “own goal”, which has a bit of a ring about it). They say

We have a varied range of individuals who request an independent review from us and a diverse range of public authorities within our jurisdiction from large central government departments to very small parish councils.

What they don’t say is “we are a public authority, subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and have to comply with its timescales, and promote observance of it by example”.

And, unfortunately, there is much evidence recently of a failure to do this.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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ICO still breaching law it’s meant to oversee

A month ago I pointed out some rather concerning  failings by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in its own compliance with Freedom of Information (FOI) law. At the time, the ICO press office told me

We acknowledge that we have fallen short of expectations in these instances but can confirm that the responses to both requests will be issued soon

It’s with some incredulity, therefore, that I see that one of the requests has still not been responded to, despite a further twenty working days having elapsed, and despite the (even greater) incredulity of the requester:

You have missed your own deadline, months after you should have answered this request. Your inability to answer a simple FOI promptly would be a disgrace if you were a local council. The fact that you are the FOI regulator makes your handling of my request a scandal.

I am utterly powerless here – I cannot complain to the regulator about your contempt for FOI because you are supposed to be the organisation I would complain to. Do you have no shame at all? No self respect?

What am I supposed to do now?

The other request I highlighted at the time has had a response, albeit one that was cursory, to say the best, and which is now the subject of a request for internal review.

My own request for the ICO’s compliance figures is now the subject of a formal complaint (with a request for a decision notice under section 50 of the FOI Act), although I am told that there will be, er, a delay in getting to it.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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ICO breaching the law it’s meant to oversee

This may be complete coincidence, but on the WhatDoTheyKnow website, there are two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, on similar themes, which requesters have made to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), to which – at the time of writing – the ICO appears simply to be failing to respond, way beyond the statutory timescale of 20 working days.

Both requests are about procurement of external consultants. In the first, the requester asked

Please disclose all current agreements for provision of legal services by outside bodies such as barristers chambers, law firms etc. This should include the rates of pay agreed.

The request was made on the 19th February and more than three months on, has simply had no response (other than an automated acknowledgment).

In the second the (different) requester asked

how many times the Information Commissioner’s Office has engaged consultants, companies or other specialists to deliver services to the ICO without putting the work out to tender or otherwise advertising the opportunity externally

That request was made on the 26th February and, barring some holding responses, which seem to have dried up, it has had no substantive response.

The failure to respond is concerning, and the failure to communicate inexplicable. One wonders where the reluctance comes from.

My own recent experience of making FOI requests to them indicates a less-than-ideal level of compliance with the laws the ICO is meant to regulate. However, when, some time ago, I asked the ICO for compliance figures, they refused to disclose them, saying they would be published soon. Yet approximately six months on they still haven’t done so (which is not in compliance with the best-practice requirements of the section 45 FOI Code of Practice).

I offered the ICO an invitation to comment on this blogpost, and in response a spokesperson said: “We aim to resolve 95% of information requests within the statutory deadline, unless we have sought an extension. We acknowledge that we have fallen short of expectations in these instances but can confirm that the responses to both requests will be issued soon.” No comment was made on the wider point about compliance, and publication of compliance statistics. (I would also make the observation that it’s rather surprising ICO only aims to respond to 95% of requests within the statutory deadline – surely they would (and should) aim to respond to 100% within the timeframe mandated by the law?)

I’ve previously expressed concern about the ICO’s unwillingness to take enforcement action against recalcitrant, if not contemptuous, public authorities for poor FOI compliance. Elizabeth Denham has recently (and unsuccessfully) called for an extension of FOI law, saying

Part of my job is to make sure that the legislation my office regulates fulfils its objectives and remains relevant. When it does not, I will speak out

Will she also speak out about the fact that her office is not itself complying with the legislation it regulates?

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog, unless they indicate otherwise) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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ICO – no GDPR fines in the immediate pipeline

FOI request reveals ICO has served no “notices of intent” to serve fines under GDPR. A new piece by me on the Mishcon de Reya website.

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There’s nothing like transparency…

…and this is nothing like transparency

Those of us with long memories will remember that, back in 2007, in those innocent days when no one quite knew what the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) really meant, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), disclosed some of its internal advice (“Lines to Take” or “LTTs”) to its own staff about how to respond to questions and enquiries from members of the public about FOIA. My memory (I hope others might confirm) is that ICO resisted this disclosure for some time. Now, the advice documents reside on the “FOIWiki” pages (where they need, in my opinion, a disclaimer to the effect that some of the them at least are old, and perhaps out-of-date).

Since 2007 a number of further FOIA requests have been made for more recent LTTs – for instance, in 2013, I made a request, and had disclosed to me, a number of LTTs on data protection matters.

It is, therefore, with some astonishment, that I note that a recent FOIA request to ICO for up-to-date LTTs – encompassing recent changes to data protection law – has been refused, on the basis that, apparently, disclosure would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of  deliberation, and would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs. This is problematic, and concerning, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the exemptions claimed, which are at section 36 of FOIA, are the statute’s howitzers – they get brought into play when all else fails, and have the effect of flattening everything around them. For this reason, the public authority invoking them must have the “reasonable opinion” of its “qualified person” that disclosure would, or would be likely to, cause the harm claimed. For the ICO, the “qualified person” is the Information Commissioner (Elizabeth Denham) herself. Yet there is no evidence that she has indeed provided this opinion. For that reason, the refusal notice falls – as a matter of law – at the first hurdle.

Secondly, even if Ms Denham had provided her reasonable opinion, the response fails to say why the exemptions are engaged – it merely asserts that they are, in breach of section 17(1)(c) of FOIA.

Thirdly, it posits frankly bizarre public interest points purportedly militating against disclosure, such as that the LTTs “exist as part of the process by which we create guidance, not as guidance by themselves”, and “that ICO  staff should have a safe space to provide colleagues with advice for them to respond to challenges posed to us in a changing data protection landscape”, and – most bizarre of all – “following a disclosure of  such notes in the past, attempts have been made to utilise similar documents to undermine our regulatory procedures” (heaven forfend someone might cite a regulator’s own documents to advance their case).

There has been such an enormous amount of nonsense spoken about the new data protection regime, and I have praised ICO for confronting some of the myths which have been propagated by the ignorant or the venal. There continues to be great uncertainty and ignorance, and disclosing these LTTs could go a long way towards combatting these. In ICO’s defence, it does identify this as a public interest factor militating in favour of disclosure:

disclosure may help improve knowledge regarding the EIR, FOIA or  the new data protection legislation on which the public desire information as evidenced by our increase in calls and enquiry handling

And as far as I’m concerned, that should be the end of the matter. Whether the requester (a certain “Alan Shearer”) chooses to challenge the refusal is another question.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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(Data)setting an example

Is the ICO failing to comply with its own obligations under FOI law?

Some UK regulators are subject to the laws or rules they themselves oversee and enforce. Thus, for example, the Advertising Standards Authority should avoid advertising its services in contravention of its own code of advertising practice, the Environment Agency should avoid using a waste carrier who is not authorised to carry waste, and the Information Commissioner (ICO) – as a public authority under Schedule 1 of the same – should not breach the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). However, I think I can point to numerous examples (I estimate there are 57 on its own website at the time of writing this) where the last has done precisely this, possibly unknowingly, or – if knowingly – with no contrition whatsoever.

In 2012 sections 11 and 19 of FOIA were amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (POFA). POFA inserted into FOIA what are colloquially known as the “dataset provisions”. For our purposes here, what these say is that

Under its publication scheme a public authority should publish datasets that have been requested [under FOIA], and any updated versions it holds, unless it is satisfied that it is not appropriate to do so.

In short – and I take the wording above from ICO’s own guidance – if someone asks ICO for a dataset under FOIA, ICO must disclose it, put it on its website, and regularly update it (unless it is “not appropriate” to do so).

“Dataset” has a specific, and rather complex, meaning under POFA, and FOIA. However, the ICO’s own guidance nicely summarises the definition:

A dataset is a collection of factual information in electronic form to do with the services and functions of the authority that is neither the product of analysis or interpretation, nor an official statistic and has not been materially altered.

So, raw or basic data in a spreadsheet, relating to an authority’s functions, would constitute a dataset, and, if disclosed under FOIA, would trigger the authority’s general obligation to publish it on its website and regularly update it.

Yet, if one consults the ICO’s own disclosure log (its website page listing FOI responses it has made “that might be of wider public interest”), one sees multiple examples of disclosures of datasets under FOI (in fact, one can even filter the results to separate dataset disclosures from others – which is how I got my figure of 57 mentioned above) yet it appears that none of these has ever been updated, in line with section 19(2A)(a)(ii) of FOIA.

Some of the disclosures on there are of datasets which are indeed of public interest. Examples are: information on how many FOI etc requests ICO itself receives, and how timeously it handles them; information on the numbers and types of databreach reports ICO receives, and from which sectors; information on how many monetary penalties have been paid/recovered.

It’s important to note that these 57 disclosures are only those which ICO has chosen, because they are “of wider public interest”, to publish on its website. There may well be – no doubt are – others.

But if these dataset disclosures are, as declared, of wider public interest, I cannot see that ICO could readily claim that its reason for not updating them is because it is “not appropriate” to do so.

It may be that ICO feels, as some people have suggested, that the changes to FOIA wrought by POFA might not have met any pressing public demand for amended dataset-access provisions, and, therefore, compliance with the law is all a bit pointless. But there would be two problems with this, were it the case. Firstly, ICO is uniquely placed to comment on and lobby for changes to the law – if it thinks the dataset provisions are not worth being law, then why does it not say so? Secondly, as the statutory regulator for FOIA, and a public authority itself subject to FOIA, it is simply not open to it to disregard the law, even were it to think the law was not worth regarding.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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FOI needs a strong regulator

Slightly more than twenty working days ago I made a request to a government department under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Following the structure of section 1(1) of the same, I asked

Please confirm whether you hold [X information] regarding [Y]

If you hold this information, please disclose it.

There are relatively mundane reasons why I am keen to know the first point, and, following on from that, to have the information if it exists.

On the twentieth working day (give or take a bank holiday or two) I received a reply to the first point, but total silence on the second:

I can confirm that [government department] does hold [X information] regarding the [Y].

Although this is rather a bizarre approach to an FOI request (FOIA is after all, primarily about access to information, not just knowledge that it exists) I have no reason to think that the failure to note the second point of my very short request was anything other than an innocent mistake.

Accordingly, I pointed the mistake out to the government department, asking them to send the information by return. (I had to do this by email, because no phone number is given on the correspondence or on the relevant (sparse) website (query whether the service is accessible, therefore, to people who may have difficulties in communicating in writing.)) However, not only did I not get the information by return, I got a template reply, and a new reference number, indicating that my follow-up email is being treated as a wholly new request. I would not be surprised for it to take another twenty working days to get a substantive reply (if I’m wrong, I will update this post accordingly).

So what to do? Well, I could complain to the government department, or ask for an internal review, but that would likely take at least another twenty working days to get a response. I could complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office, but, anecdotally, I understand they are taking some months to allocate and deal with complaint, and the only likely outcome would be a declaration that the government department had failed to comply with its section 10 and section 17 FOIA obligations, and giving them another period of days to comply. I can’t make an application for judicial review because a) the idea is completely ridiculous (have you seen my bank balance?) and b) in March the High Court rather peremptorily dismissed an argument that JR should be available for FOIA cases of urgency (on the grounds that the right of appeal under the statutory scheme was sufficient.

And FOIA delays are not isolated incidents; the BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum has written recently, following up his and others’ research, about the apparent contempt with which some public authorities treat FOIA and the Information Commissioner. Yet the latter appears unwilling, despite having the powers to do so, to act. As the Campaign for Freedom of Information recently noted, her recent draft regulatory action policy effectively ignored the fact that she is responsible for FOIA regulation, as well as for data protection and eprivacy.

Data protection and privacy are certainly hot topics (try counting the number of arriviste consultants who’ve sprung up over the last year to get an idea of how hot) but freedom of information laws are a legislative expression of another fundamental human right. I don’t think it’s the case that as a society we just don’t care about FOI (look back to the MPs’ expenses scandal to see how important and high-profile it can be) so why is it that there appears to be no effective mechanism to enforce our rights in a timely way against a recalcitrant public authority?

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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FOIA’s not the only route

News emerges of a potential judicial review attempt to force disclosure of government Brexit papers not under FOI but under common law and human rights to information

More than three years ago the Supreme Court handed down judgment in a long-running piece of litigation under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). Journalist Dominic Kennedy had attempted to get disclosure from the Charity Commission of information relating to inquiries into George Galloway’s “Mariam Appeal”. The Commission said, in effect, that the absolute exemption to disclosure at section 32(2) of FOIA was the end of the story, while Kennedy argued that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights imposed a positive obligation of disclosure on public authorities, particularly when the requester was a “public watchdog” like the press, and that s32(2) should be read down accordingly to require disclosure in the circumstances (I paraphrase). In his leading opinion Lord Mance gave this stirring introduction:

Information is the key to sound decision-making, to accountability and development; it underpins democracy and assists in combatting poverty, oppression, corruption, prejudice and inefficiency. Administrators, judges, arbitrators, and persons conducting inquiries and investigations depend upon it; likewise the press, NGOs and individuals concerned to report on issues of public interest. Unwillingness to disclose information may arise through habits of secrecy or reasons of self-protection. But information can be genuinely private, confidential or sensitive, and these interests merit respect in their own right and, in the case of those who depend on information to fulfil their functions, because this may not otherwise be forthcoming. These competing considerations, and the balance between them, lie behind the issues on this appeal.

What was most interesting about the judgment in Kennedy, and, again, I disrespectfully heavily paraphrase, was that the Supreme Court basically said (as it has been wont to do in recent years) – “why harp on about your rights at European law, don’t you realise that our dear old domestic friend the common law gives you similar rights?”

the route by which [Mr Kennedy] may, after an appropriate balancing exercise, be entitled to disclosure, is not under or by virtue of some process of remodelling of section 32, but is under the Charities Act construed in the light of common law principles and/or in the light of article 10 of the Human Rights Convention, if and so far as that article may be engaged

This greatly excited those in the information rights field at the time, but since then, there has been little of prominence to advance the proposition that FOIA rights are not the only route [Ed. there’s a great/awful pun in there somewhere] but it did get a positive airing in R (Privacy International) v HMRC [2014] EWHC 1475 (Admin) (on which see Panopticon post here).

Yesterday (12 October) barrister Jolyon Maugham announced that his Good Law Project was seeking donors towards a judicial review application if the government refused to publish information and reports comparing the predicted economic harm of Brexit with the predicted economic benefits of alternative free trade agreements. Keen followers of information rights litigation will note that Tim Pitt-Payne  and Robin Hopkins are instructed: the potential respondents should quake in their boots.

Well worth watching this, and well worth – in my opinion – donating towards the cause.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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FOI enforcement – if not now, when?

Recent ICO decision notices show the Home Office and MoJ repeatedly simply failing to respond to FOI requests. Surely the time has come for ICO action?

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recently stated to me that they were not monitoring the Home Office’s and Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) compliance with the statutory timescales required by section 10 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)

This was despite the fact that they’d published decision notices about delays by those two government bodies which reported that “The delay in responding to this request will be logged as part of ongoing monitoring of the MoJ’s compliance with the FOIA”. This was not formal monitoring, I was told; rather, it was informal monitoring. Ah. Gotcha.

So what does trigger formal monitoring? Interestingly, the ICO’s own position on this has recently changed, and got a bit stricter. It’s generally meant to be initiated in the following circumstances:

our analysis of complaints received by the ICO suggests that we have received in the region of 4 to 8 or more complaints citing delays within a specific authority within a six month period

(for those authorities which publish data on timeliness) – it appears that less than 90% of requests are receiving a response within the appropriate timescales. [this used to be 85%]

Evidence of a possible problem in the media, other external sources or internal business intelligence.

Despite the apparent increase in robustness of approach, the ICO do not appear to be monitoring any public authorities at the moment. The last monitoring took place between May and July 2016 when Trafford Council were in their sights. Although they are not mentioned in the relevant report, an ICO news item from July last year says that the Metropolitan Police, who have been monitored off and on for a period of years without any real outward signs of improvement, were also still being monitored.

But if they aren’t monitoring the compliance of any authorities at the moment, but particularly the Home Office and the MoJ, one is led to wonder why, when one notes the pattern in recent ICO decision notices involving those two authorities. Because, in 16 out of the last 25 decision notices involving the Home Office, and 6 out of the last 25 involving the MoJ, the ICO has formally issued decision notices finding that the authorities had failed to comply with the FOI request in question, by the time the decision notice was issued.

At this point, it might be helpful to explain the kind of chronology and process that would lead up to the issuing of such decision notices. First, a request must be made, and there will have been a failure by the authority to reply within twenty working days. Then, the requester will normally (before the ICO will consider the case) have had to ask for an internal review by the authority of its handling of the request. Then, the requester will have complained to the ICO. Then, the ICO will have normally made informal enquiries of the authority, effectively “geeing” them up to provide a response. Then, as still no response will have been sent, the ICO will have moved to issuing a formal decision notice. At any point in this process the authority could (and should) still respond to the original request, but no – in all of these cases (again – 16 of the last 25 Home Office decisions, 6 of the last 25 MoJ ones) the authorities have still not responded many months after the original request. Not only does this show apparent contempt for the law, but also for the regulator.

So why does the ICO not do more? I know many FOI officers (and their public authority employers) who work their socks off to make sure they respond to requests in a timely manner. In the absence of formal monitoring of (let alone enforcement action against) those authorities who seem to ignore their legal duties much of the time, those FOI officers would be forgiven for asking why they bother: it is to their credit that bother they still do.

Elizabeth Denham became Information Commissioner in July last year, bringing with her an impressive track record and making strong statements about enforcing better FOI compliance. Her first few months, with GDPR and Brexit to deal with, will not have been easy, and she could be forgiven for not having had the time to focus on FOI, but the pressing question now surely is “if not now, when?”

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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MPs have rights too

The Guardian reports on MPs’ concerns that IPSA’s proactive commitment to transparency is putting them at risk. Could those MPs use the Data Protection Act to stop IPSA publishing?

Anyone who has worked in the fields of Freedom of Information (FOI) and transparency will have come across colleagues or third parties who fear that one will simply disclose information, including personal information, into the public domain, without any thought. The reality is very different: FOI and transparency  professionals need to be expert not only in FOI law, but also other laws, such as breach of confidence, and, especially, the law of data protection: the FOI Act’s most cited exemption is at section 40(2), which provides an absolute exemption to disclosure where to do so would contravene someone’s rights under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).

With this in mind, and at least on the face of things, I have some sympathies with MPs concerned at proactive disclosure of details of mileage claims by IPSA (the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority). (Although the law requires candidates for parliamentary seats to declare their home address, as UKIP’s Paul Nuttall has recently been reminded, candidates can ask that the addresses not be made public.) The Guardian reports that the SNP’s Angus Robertson has ordered colleagues to stop submitting claims, because

data now required to make a claim for mileage, including the locations of journeys travelled to and from on a daily basis, was now being publicised [by IPSA]

Robertson says

Ipsa have been aware for some time that they are inadvertently confirming the home locations of parliamentarians, which runs contrary to basic security advice

Although IPSA appear to dispute that what is being published could locate specific properties, it is important to note that the expenses information being published is the personal data of the MPs involved. Therefore, any processing of it by IPSA must be in accordance with their obligations under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). The first data protection principle (in Schedule One of the DPA) requires that processing must be fair and lawful: if Robertson and others are right that there is a risk of disclosure of their home addresses (maybe by combining the IPSA data with other publicly available data), there is a strong argument that the processing is not fair.

So what can MPs do? Well, in addition to refusing to submit claims (which is rather cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face), the DPA offers a possible option. Section 10 allows a data subject to serve a notice in writing requiring a data controller to cease a specified act of processing, on the grounds that the processing is causing unwarranted substantial distress. Upon receipt of such a notice the data controller has twenty one days to respond, either by ceasing the processing, or stating why it considers the notice unjustified. At that point the data subject can ask a court to rule on whether the notice was justified, and order such steps as are appropriate.

Were an MP or MPs to serve such a notice, it might be difficult for IPSA to dispute the potential for substantial distress to be caused – if MPs reasonably fear that disclosure of their home addresses could occur (and it seems to me to be quite possible that they could – a location frequently travelled from at the start of a day, and to at the end of the day is quite likely to be a place of residence) then, given the horrendous murder of Jo Cox last year, and general ongoing security threats, I don’t think it would be surprising for such distress to be caused. And if the distress caused is real and substantial, could IPSA say it was warranted? I very much doubt it – the publication of this information is not necessary for the performance of IPSA’s core functions.

IPSA say that they have “consulted police” and feel that there is not a risk, although the Guardian suggests that both the Met and “senior security sources” have expressed concerns.

MPs’ expenses of course play an important part in the history of FOI in the UK, and some of the abuses of the system which were revealed when the requested information was leaked to the Telegraph were egregious (although it’s always worth remembering that were it not for the leak, a lot of the more gory details would probably not have emerged). But threats to MPs are real and serious, and one wonders why IPSA, even if it thinks the risk of identification of home addresses is low or even non-existent would not want to review the practice. A section 10 notice would, though, force the issue.

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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